An Inescapable History

Dismantling the “New Paradigm”

NEW YORK — The recent parade of current and former Bush administration officials through Congress has offered each ignoble public servant a peculiar swan song. I have had the privilege of watching this parade at close range—well, within close range of the live feed on my computer screen—as part of my work this summer. There was the smug David Addington, Dick Cheney’s former legal counsel, current chief of staff, and chief architect of the “New Paradigm” that has framed the country’s current approach to counter-terrorism. By his side sat the unctuous John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer whose cherubic grin belies a grim view of human nature. C-Span viewers this summer also have been treated to testimony by former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, and current Attorney General Michael Mukasey. They all appear to be cut from the same cloth. They may seem evasive. They may feign poor memories, inspired by the tactic’s success in the case of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. They may even invoke executive privilege. Yet beneath the veneer of forgetfulness and caution, they seek to entrench the same fundamental belief in the American psyche. They want Americans to believe that an effective response to the tragedy of September 11, 2001, required that the Bush administration flout or at least redefine the law in order to stop another attack. The journalist Jane Mayer deems this argument the “New Paradigm” in her new book The Dark Side. The premise is simple: to stop terrorism, the U.S. government needs to be able to use all the means at its disposal. Vice President Cheney famously announced five days after the attacks, “We have to work the dark side, if you will. Spend time in the shadows of the intelligence world…” Under the New Paradigm, wiretapping Americans without a warrant and abusing detainees until they confessed to something became not only permissible but necessary. Indeed, ruthless, seemingly irrational enemies only responded to force, so force was what they deserved. Historical precedents, such as the successful “rapport-building” interrogations of Nazi war criminals or other countries’ experiences countering terrorism, proved irrelevant in such a new world. Taken at face value, there is something appealing about the concept of wiping the slate clean and starting anew, eliminating the historical record much like the government of Oceania does in George Orwell’s 1984. Yet the empirical facts fail to corroborate this view of the post-9/11 world. Mayer writes that in the case of two of the administration’s highest-profile detainees, Abu Zubayda and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, traditional FBI “rapport-building” interrogations produced favorable results, while CIA coercion provided scant intelligence. In al-Libi’s case, the intelligence he did provide under duress proved tragically false. During the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Egyptian officials, backed by the CIA, pressed al-Libi to link Al Qaeda to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. When al-Libi insisted that he “knew nothing,” he found himself locked in a tiny cage for over 80 hours and then beaten for 15 minutes. Suddenly, he found reason to link Iraq to Al Qaeda, a lie that provided the central plank in the Bush administration’s case for war. But what of times when “enhanced” interrogation did work? Perhaps the most striking example—the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whose coercive treatment produced a litany of confessions—will provide a cautionary tale. Over the course of his interrogation, Mohammed boasted of plans to assassinate President Bill Clinton, President Jimmy Carter, and Pope John Paul II, among others. CIA cables back to Washington warned that “the detainee has been known to withhold information or deliberately mislead.” Never mind that by treating Mohammed so poorly, U.S. officials ceded precious moral ground; on a practical level, his maltreatment at the hands of the United States sent the intelligence community in pursuit of false leads and diminished the potential for justice for the horrible crimes alleged in his case. In the parallel military commission trial of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, the judge already has banned some “coercive” evidence, which means that Mohammed's confessions may not be allowed, either. In a way, the New Paradigm turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy. It legitimized al-Libi’s torture. The intelligence gleaned from his torture helped legitimize the Iraq War. The Iraq War promised to turn disaffected youths into a new generation of extremists. Meanwhile, the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the CIA’s “black sites” hampered our ability to stem atrocities in countries like Sudan, Burma, and Zimbabwe. Therefore, what changed the world most after September 11, 2001, as Louise Richardson argues in the immensely useful book What Terrorists Want, was the U.S. response. Undoubtedly, the attack represented the largest-scale terrorist strike by a sub-state group in history and the bloodiest such attack on American soil. In its aftermath, the immediate uncertainty created understandable panic. Was this the first of a wave of attacks, or was this an isolated event? Was Al Qaeda mustering the strength for an even larger-scale attack, or had it used all of the weapons in its arsenal? Yet a sense of history might have tempered U.S. response to the attacks in a way that would have improved our security in the long run. On September 13, 2001, a former top British counter-terrorism officer offered U.S. officials a warning, according to Mayer. At lunch with Tyler Drumheller, at the time the Chief of the CIA’s Clandestine Operations in Europe, the official said, “You need to learn from our history.” He cited the failure of British efforts to suppress the Irish Republican Army with coercive tactics. “We decided to turn the terrorists’ tactics back on them. For a time, it worked. It stopped the immediate attacks. But watch out, it’s dangerous. It makes you the bad guys. And when it gets to court—and in your society, just like ours, it will—every one of these guys will get off.” We acted too soon to learn from their history, but we still have time to learn from our own. —Joanna Naples-Mitchell '10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Kirkland House. She was going to write her summer postcard about the man who tried to sell her a pirated DVD on the subway, but then she watched Ashcroft testify a few weeks ago and changed her mind.