Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The language of obfuscation


During his torturous reign as president, George W. Bush said, "We do not torture."

By "we" he meant the U.S. government, its people (you and me), its public (CIA, FBI, military, police, etc.) and private (Blackwater, which changed its name to Xe Services LLC to obscure its past performance, etc.) contractors and private citizens working on behalf of our country. The literal meaning of "do" is to execute, so, in this context, Bush was saying we do not execute torture, a subtlety/double entendre one suspects he missed.

Did he mean what he said? Did he say what he meant? An argument could be made in the spirit of Bill Clinton's famous line, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," that, depending on a torturous definition of the word "torture," that Bush was—within the limits of his knowledge, intelligence (both personal and governmental), and according to the information that he had received from everything he meant by "we"—telling the truth to the best of his abilities and understanding of how "we" conduct both enhanced and unenhanced interrogations according to international and American law as interpreted by his legal advisors Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Steven Bradbury and Donald Rumsfeld, among others. But this would be a cowardly, fragile argument of intentional obfuscation complicated by Bush's torturous, often bewildering command of the English language.

However, it is a longstanding tradition in the United States to use language to obscure uncomfortable, torturous realities. In fact, we do torture. And we have always denied it. George W. Bush presumably knew this when he denied it or he was an even more incompetent president than I think he was, and he was among the very worst.

Some of the best use of the language of obfuscation to cover the reality of the United States' doing torture occurred under the administration of Ronald Reagan, who ironically enough was known as the Great Communicator to some. During Reagan's private and unauthorized wars in Central America during the 1980s, "we" (mostly through the CIA) financed, trained and protected those who executed horrific acts of torture. And we participated. My favorite bit of the language of obfuscation from this era of America's involvement in torture is included in a 2004 CIA inspector general's report just released last month that reveals that "because of political sensitivities," CIA officers were forbidden from using the word "interrogation" in training programs about how to conduct interrogations. The phase "human resources exploitation" (HRE) was substituted.

Because of "political sensitivities" we don't interrogate, we exploit human resources. Because of "political sensitivities" we exploit language and torture credibility.


In 2005, then CIA Director Porter Goss said, "We do debriefings because debriefings are the nature of our business—to get information, and we do all of that, and we do it in a way that does not involve torture because torture is counterproductive."

Goss neglected to mention that it is also illegal and morally indefensible. Interrogation becomes human resources exploitation becomes debriefings, according to the language of obfuscation of the day. When asked if waterboarding would come under the heading of torture, Goss replied, "I don't know," despite the fact that it was deemed both torture and illegal by the American military in Vietnam in the 1960s and in the Philippine War at the beginning of the 20th century.

When the director of the CIA doesn't know whether or not waterboarding is torture, then the simple, declarative statement "I don't know" is turned into the language of obfuscation. The term waterboarding itself is a euphemism for several older descriptions of the practice, including water torture.

Ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, a modern master of malevolence and obfuscation in both language and action, supports the use of waterboarding. Cheney says it is not torture and that its use is a "no-brainer," a colloquialism indicating the subject requires little or no thought, a transparently sly form of the language of obfuscation, though it is probably true that Cheney devoted little thought to the issue.

Torture is despicable, malevolent, cowardly and morally repugnant except to the morally deficient. It is also illegal and those who are responsible for its past execution need to be held accountable in the present so that the future is governed by both morality and law that everyone can count on and live with, regardless of political sensitivities or connections.

So it is disturbing and disheartening to hear President Obama use the language of obfuscation in saying he thinks we should be looking forward, not backward, in regard to investigating and bringing to justice those responsible for torturing fellow human beings. I think we should be looking both forward and backward in the matter of torture. If the past is not held accountable, neither will be the future, and in the future Obama will not be able to say, "We do not do torture."

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