Alfred W. McCoy

I've witnessed a coup attempt before — and history bodes poorly for America's future

As an eyewitness, I can recall the events of January 6th in Washington as if they were yesterday. The crowds of angry loyalists storming the building while overwhelmed security guards gave way. The slavishly loyal vice-president who would, the president hoped, restore him to power. The crush of media that seemed confused, almost overwhelmed, by the crowd's fury. The waiter who announced that the bar had run out of drinks and would soon be closing…

Hold it! My old memory's playing tricks on me again. That wasn't the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. That was the Manila Hotel in the Philippines in July 1986. Still, the two events had enough similarities that perhaps I could be forgiven for mixing them up.

I've studied quite a number of coups in my day, yet the one I actually witnessed at the Manila Hotel remains my favorite, not just because the drinks kept coming, but for all it taught me about the damage a coup d'état, particularly a political coup, can do to any democracy. In February 1986, a million Filipinos thronged the streets of Manila to force dictator Ferdinand Marcos into exile. After long years of his corruption and callous indifference to the nation's suffering, the crowds cheered their approval when Marcos finally flew off to Hawaii and his opponent in the recent presidential election restored democracy.

But Marcos had his hard-core loyalists. One Sunday afternoon, four months after his flight, they massed in a Manila park to call for the restoration of their beloved president. After speakers had whipped the crowd of 5,000 into a frenzy with — and yes, this should indeed sound familiar in 2021 — claims about a stolen election, thousands of ordinary Filipinos pushed past security guards and stormed into the nearby Manila Hotel, a storied symbol of their country's history. Tipped off by one of the Filipino colonels plotting that coup, I was standing in the hotel's entryway at 5:00 p.m. as the mob, fury written on their faces, surged past me.

For the next 24 hours, that hotel's marbled lobby became the stage for an instructive political drama. From my table at the adjoining bar, I watched as armed warlords, ousted Marcos cronies, and several hundred disgruntled soldiers paraded through the lobby on their way to the luxury suites where the coup commanders had checked themselves in. Following in their wake were spies from every nation — Australian secret intelligence, American defense intelligence, and their Asian and European counterparts — themselves huddled in groups, whispering mysteriously, trying (just like me) to make sense of the bizarre spectacle unfolding around them.

Later that same evening, Marcos's former vice-president, the ever-loyal Arturo Tolentino, appeared at the head of the stairs flanked by a security detail to announce the formation of a "legitimate" new government authorized by Marcos who had reportedly called long-distance from Honolulu. As the vice president proclaimed himself acting president and read off the names of those to be in his cabinet, Filipino journalists huddling nearby scribbled notes. They were furiously trying to figure out whether there was a real coalition forming that could topple the country's democracy. It was, however, just the usual suspects — Marcos cronies, leaders largely without followers.

By midnight, the party was pretty much over. Our waiter, after struggling for hours to maintain that famed hotel's standard of five-star service, apologized to our table of foreign correspondents because the bar had been drunk dry and was closing. Sometime before dawn, the hotel turned off the air conditioning, transforming those executive suites into saunas and, in the process, flushing out the coup plotters, their hangers-on, and most of the soldiers.

All day long, on the city's brassy talk-radio stations and in the coffee shops where insiders gathered to swap scuttlebutt, Marcos's loyalists were roasted, even mocked. The troops that had rallied to his side were sentenced to 30 push-ups on the parade ground — a source of more mirth. For spies and correspondents alike, the whole thing seemed like a one-day wonder, barely worth writing home about.

But it wasn't. Not by a long shot. A coterie of colonels deep inside the Defense Ministry, my source among them, had observed that comedic coup attempt all too carefully and concluded that it had actually been a near-miss.

A year later, I found myself standing in the middle of an eight-lane highway outside the city's main military cantonment, Camp Aguinaldo, ducking bullets from rebel soldiers who had seized the base and watching as government Marines and dive bombers attacked. This time, however, those colonels had launched a genuine coup attempt. No drinks. No waiters. No wisecracks. Just a day of bombs and bullets that crushed the plotters, leaving the country's military headquarters a smoking ruin.

Two years later, the same coup colonels were back again for another attempt, leading 3,000 rebel troops in a multipronged attack on a capital that trembled on the brink of surrender. As a cavalcade of rebel armor drove relentlessly toward the presidential palace with nothing in their way, American President George H.W. Bush took a call aboard Air Force One over the Atlantic about a desperate request from his Philippine counterpart and ordered a pair of U.S. Air Force jet fighters to make a low pass over the rebel tanks and trucks. They got the message: turn back or be bombed into extinction. And so Philippine democracy was allowed to survive for another 30 years.

Message from the Manila Hotel

The message for democracy offered from the Manila Hotel was clear — so clear, in fact, that it helps explain the meaning of tangled events in Washington more than 30 years later. Whether it's a poor country like the Philippines or a superpower like the United States, democracy is a surprisingly fragile construct. Its worst enemy is often an ousted ex-president, angry over his humiliation and perfectly willing to destroy the constitutional order to regain power.

No matter how angry such an ex-president might be, however, his urge for a political coup can't succeed without the help of raw force, whether from a mob, a disgruntled military, or some combination of the two. The Manila Hotel coup teaches us one other fundamental thing: that coups need not be carefully planned. Most start with a handful of conspirators plotting some symbolic attack meant to shake the constitutional order, while hoping to somehow stall the security services for a few critical hours — just long enough for events to cascade spontaneously into a desired government collapse.

Whether in Manila or Washington, coup plotting usually starts right at the top. Just after the news networks announced that he had lost the election last November, Donald Trump launched a media blitz with spurious claims of "fraud on the American public," firing off 300 tweets in the next two weeks loaded with false charges of irregularities and sparking loud, long protests by his loyalists at vote-counting centers in Michigan and Arizona.

When that response got little traction and Biden's majority kept climbing, Trump began exploring three alternate routes, any of which might have led to a constitutional coup — manipulating the Justice Department to delegitimize the election, rigging the ratification of electoral votes in Congress, and the paramilitary (or military) option. At a White House meeting on December 18th, Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security advisor, urged the president to "invoke martial law as part of his efforts to overturn the election" and accused his staff of "abandoning the president," sparking "screaming matches" in the Oval Office.

By January 3rd, rumors and reports of Trump's military option were circulating so credibly around Washington that all 10 living former defense secretaries — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Mark Esper, among them — published a joint appeal to the armed forces to remain neutral in the ongoing dispute over the election's integrity. Reminding the troops that "peaceful transfers of power… are hallmarks of our democracy," they added that "efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes" would be "dangerous, unlawful, and unconstitutional." They warned the troops that any "military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be… potentially facing criminal penalties." In conclusion, they suggested to Trump's secretary of defense and senior staff "in the strongest terms" that "they must…refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election."

To legitimate his claims of fraud, according to the New York Times, the president also tried — on nine separate occasions in December and January — to force the Justice Department to take actions that would "undermine an election result." In response, a mid-ranking Trump loyalist at Justice, a nonentity named Jeffrey Clark, began pressuring his boss, the attorney-general, to write Georgia officials claiming they had found "significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election." But at a three-hour White House meeting on January 3rd, Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen balked at this evidence-free accusation. Trump promptly suggested that he could be replaced by that mid-ranking loyalist who could then send the fraud letter to Georgia. The president's own top appointees at Justice, along with the White House counsel, immediately threatened to resign en masse, forcing Trump to give up on such an intervention at the state level.

Next, he shifted his constitutional maneuvering to Congress where, on January 6th, his doggedly loyal vice president, Mike Pence, would be presiding over the ratification of results from the Electoral College. In this dubious gambit, Trump was inspired by a bizarre constitutional theory advanced by former Chapman University law professor John Eastman — that the "Constitution assigns the power to the Vice President as the ultimate arbiter."

In this scenario, Pence would unilaterally set aside electoral votes from seven states with "ongoing disputes" and announce that Trump had won a majority of the remaining electors — making him once again president. But the maneuver had no basis in law, so Pence, after scrambling desperately and unsuccessfully for a legal justification of some sort, eventually refused to play along.

A Political Coup

With the constitutional option closed, Trump opted for a political coup, rolling the dice with raw physical force, much as Marcos had done at the Manila Hotel. The first step was to form a crowd with some paramilitary muscle to stiffen the assault to come. On December 19th, Trump called on his hard-core followers to assemble in Washington, ready for violence, tweeting: "Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!"

Almost immediately, the Internet's right-wing chat boards lit up and indeed their paramilitaries, the Proud Boys and Three Percenters militia, turned up in Washington on the appointed day, ready to rumble. After President Trump roused the crowd at a rally near the White House with rhetoric about a stolen election, a mob of some 10,000 marched on the Capitol Building.

Starting at about 1:00 p.m., the sheer size of the crowd and strategic moves by the paramilitaries in their ranks broke through the undermanned lines of the Capitol Police, breaching the building's first-floor windows at about 2:10 p.m. and allowing protesters to start pouring in. Once the rioters had accomplished the unimaginable and seized the Capitol, they were fresh out of plans, reduced to marching through the corridors hunting legislators and trashing offices.

At 2:24 p.m., President Trump tweeted: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country." On the far-right social media site Parler, his supporters began messaging the crowd to get the vice president and force him to stop the election results. The mob rampaged through the marbled halls shouting "Hang Mike Pence." Hunkered down inside the Capitol, Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) tweeted: "This is a coup attempt."

At 2:52 p.m., Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-Virginia), a former CIA agent, tweeted from inside the barricaded House chamber: "This is what we see in failing countries. This is what leads to the death of democracy."

At 3:30 p.m., a small squad of military police arrived at the Capitol, woefully inadequate reinforcements for the overwhelmed Capitol Police. Ten minutes later, the D.C. Council announced that the Defense Department had denied the mayor's request to mobilize the local National Guard. While the crowd fumbled and fulminated, some serious people were evidently slowing the military's response for just the few critical hours needed for events to cascade into something, anything, that could shake the constitutional order and slow the ratification of Joe Biden's election.

In nearby Maryland, Republican Governor Larry Hogan had immediately mobilized his state's National Guard for the short drive to the Capitol while frantically phoning Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, who repeatedly refused him permission to send in the troops. Inside the Pentagon, Lieutenant General Charles Flynn, the brother of the same Michael Flynn who had been pushing Trump to declare martial law, was participating in what CNN called those "key January 6th phone calls" that refused permission for the Guard's mobilization.

Following a phone call from the mayor of Washington and its police chief pleading for help, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy "ran down the hall" of the Pentagon to get authorization for the Guard's mobilization. After a crucial delay of 90 minutes, he finally called the Maryland governor, outside the regular chain of command, to authorize the Maryland Guard's dispatch. Those would indeed be the first troops to arrive at the Capitol and would play a critical role in restoring order.

At about 4:30 p.m., Trump finally tweeted: "These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home in love & peace."

Ten minutes later, at 4:40 p.m., hundreds of riot personnel from the D.C. police, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security arrived, along with the Maryland Guard, to reinforce the Capitol Police. Within an hour, the protesters had been pushed out of the building and the Capitol was declared secure.

Just five days later, Dr. Fiona Hill, a senior Russia expert on the National Security Council under Trump, reviewed these events and concluded that President Trump had staged a coup "in slow motion… to keep himself in power."

History's Lessons

Beyond all the critical details of who did what and when, there were deeper historical forces at play, suggesting that Donald Trump's urge for a political coup that would return him to power may be far from over. For the past 100 years, empires in decline have been roiled by coup attempts that sometimes have overturned constitutional orders. As their military reverses accumulate, their privileged economic position erodes, and social tensions mount, a succession of societies in the grip of a traumatic loss of global power have suffered coups, successful or not, including Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, the Soviet Union, and now the United States.

Britain's plot was a bit fantastical. Amid the painful, protracted dissolution of their empire, Conservative leaders plotted with top generals in 1968 to oust leftist Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson by capturing Heathrow airport, seizing the BBC and Buckingham Palace, and putting Lord Mountbatten in power as acting prime minister. Britain's parliamentary tradition simply proved too strong, however, and key principals in the plot quickly backed out.

In April 1974, while Portugal was fighting and losing three bitter anticolonial wars in Africa, a Lisbon radio station played the country's entry in that year's Eurovision Song Contest ("After the Farewell") just minutes before midnight on an evening that had been agreed upon. It was the signal to the military and their supporters to overthrow the entrenched conservative government of that moment, a success which became known as the "Carnation Revolution."

However, the parallels between January 6th and the fall of France's Fourth Republic in the late 1950s are perhaps the most telling. After liberating Paris from Nazi occupation in August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle headed an interim government for 18 months. He then quit in a dispute with the left, launching him into a decade of political intrigue against the new Fourth Republic, whose liberal constitution he despised.

By the mid-1950s, France was reeling from its recent defeat in Indochina, while the struggle against Muslim revolutionaries in its Algerian colony in North Africa turned ever more brutal, marked as it was by scandals over the widespread French use of torture. Amid that crisis of empire, an anti-elite, anti-intellectual, antisemitic politician named Pierre Poujade launched a populist movement that sent 56 members to parliament in 1956, including Jean-Marie Le Pen, later founder of the far-right National Front.

Meanwhile, a cabal of politicians and military commanders plotted a coup to return General de Gaulle to power, thinking he alone could save Algeria for France. After an army junta seized control of Algiers, the capital of that colony, in May 1958, paratroopers stationed there were sent to capture the French island of Corsica and to prepare to seize Paris should the legislature fail to install de Gaulle as prime minister.

As the country trembled on the brink of a coup, de Gaulle made his dramatic entry into Paris where he accepted the National Assembly's offer to form a government, conditional upon the approval of a presidential-style constitution for a Fifth Republic. But when de Gaulle subsequently accepted the inevitability of Algeria's independence, four top generals launched an abortive coup against him and then formed what they called the Secret Army Organization, or OAS. It would carry out terror attacks over the next four years, with 12,000 victims, while staging three unsuccessful assassination attempts against de Gaulle before its militants were killed or captured.

The Coup of 2024?

Just as the Filipino colonels spent five years launching a succession of escalating coups and those French generals spent four years trying to overthrow their government, so Trump's Republicans are working with ferocious determination in the run-up to the 2022 and 2024 elections to ensure that their next constitutional coup succeeds. Indeed, if you look back on events over the past year through the prism of such historical precedents, you can see all the components for a future political coup falling into place.

No matter how improbable, discredited, or bizarre those election fraud claims are, Republican loyalists persist in endless ballot audits in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Texas. Their purpose is not really to find more votes for Trump in the 2020 election, but to maintain at least the present level of rage among the one-third of all Americans and more than half of all Republicans who believe that Joe Biden's presidency is fraudulent.

Since the 2020 election coincided with the new census, Republicans have been working, reports Vox news, to "gerrymander themselves into control of the House of Representatives." Simultaneously, Republican legislators in 19 states have passed 33 laws making it more difficult for certain of their residents to vote. Driven by the white nationalist "replacement theory" that immigrants and people of color are diluting the pool of "real American" voters, Trump and his Republican loyalists are fighting for "ballot integrity" on the principle that all non-white votes are inherently illegitimate. As Trump put it on the stump in 2016:

"I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning because you're going to have people flowing across the border, you're going to have illegal immigrants coming in… and they're going to be able to vote and once that all happens you can forget it. You're not going to have one Republican vote."

In case all that electoral manipulation fails and Trump needs more muscle for a future political coup, right-wing fighters like the Proud Boys are still rumbling away at rallies in Oregon, California, and elsewhere across America. Just as the Philippine government made military rebels do a risible 30 push-ups for the capital crime of armed rebellion, so federal courts have generally been handing out the most modest of penalties to rioters who attempted nothing less than the overthrow of U.S. constitutional democracy last January 6th.

Among the 600 rioters arrested as of August, dozens have been allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanors and only three had been sentenced to jail time, leaving most cases languishing in pretrial motions. Already Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz have rallied to their defense, writing the U.S. attorney general to complain about an "unequal administration of justice" with "harsher treatment" for Capitol defendants than those arrested in Black Lives Matter protests.

So, in 2024, as the continuing erosion of America's global power creates a crisis of confidence among ordinary Americans, expect Donald Trump to be back, not as the slightly outrageous candidate of 2016 or even as the former president eager to occupy the White House again, but as a militant demagogue with thundering racialist rhetoric, backed by a revanchist Republican Party ready, with absolute moral certainty, to bar voters from the polls, toss ballots out, and litigate any loss until hell freezes over.

And if all that fails, the muscle will be ready for another violent march on Washington. Be prepared, the America we know is worsening by the month.

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author most recently of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His latest book (to be published in November by Dispatch Books) is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.

Joe Biden faces the return of a recurring nightmare

Many of us have had a recurring nightmare. You know the one. In a fog between sleeping and waking, you're trying desperately to escape from something awful, some looming threat, but you feel paralyzed. Then, with great relief, you suddenly wake up, covered in sweat. The next night, or the next week, though, that same dream returns.

For politicians of Joe Biden's generation that recurring nightmare was Saigon, 1975. Communist tanks ripping through the streets as friendly forces flee. Thousands of terrified Vietnamese allies pounding at the U.S. Embassy's gates. Helicopters plucking Americans and Vietnamese from rooftops and disgorging them on Navy ships. Sailors on those ships, now filled with refugees, shoving those million-dollar helicopters into the sea. The greatest power on Earth sent into the most dismal of defeats.

Back then, everyone in official Washington tried to avoid that nightmare. The White House had already negotiated a peace treaty with the North Vietnamese in 1973 to provide a "decent interval" between Washington's withdrawal and the fall of the South Vietnamese capital. As defeat loomed in April 1975, Congress refused to fund any more fighting. A first-term senator then, Biden himself said, "The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese." Yet it happened anyway. Within weeks, Saigon fell and some 135,000 Vietnamese fled, producing scenes of desperation seared into the conscience of a generation.

Now, as president, by ordering a five-month withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by this September 11th, Biden seems eager to avoid the return of an Afghan version of that very nightmare. Yet that "decent interval" between America's retreat and the Taliban's future triumph could well prove indecently short.

The Taliban's fighters have already captured much of the countryside, reducing control of the American-backed Afghan government in Kabul, the capital, to less than a third of all rural districts. Since February, those guerrillas have threatened the country's major provincial capitals — Kandahar, Kunduz, Helmand, and Baghlan — drawing the noose ever tighter around those key government bastions. In many provinces, as the New York Times reported recently, the police presence has already collapsed and the Afghan army seems close behind.

If such trends continue, the Taliban will soon be primed for an attack on Kabul, where U.S. airpower would prove nearly useless in street-to-street fighting. Unless the Afghan government were to surrender or somehow persuade the Taliban to share power, the fight for Kabul, whenever it finally occurs, could prove to be far bloodier than the fall of Saigon — a twenty-first-century nightmare of mass flight, devastating destruction, and horrific casualties.

With America's nearly 20-year pacification effort there poised at the brink of defeat, isn't it time to ask the question that everyone in official Washington seeks to avoid: How and why did Washington lose its longest war?

First, we need to get rid of the simplistic answer, left over from the Vietnam War, that the U.S. somehow didn't try hard enough. In South Vietnam, a 10-year war, 58,000 American dead, 254,000 South Vietnamese combat deaths, millions of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian civilian deaths, and a trillion dollars in expenditures seem sufficient in the "we tried" category. Similarly, in Afghanistan, almost 20 years of fighting, 2,442 American war dead, 69,000 Afghan troop losses, and costs of more than $2.2 trillion should spare Washington from any charges of cutting and running.

The answer to that critical question lies instead at the juncture of global strategy and gritty local realities on the ground in the opium fields of Afghanistan. During the first two decades of what would actually be a 40-year involvement with that country, a precise alignment of the global and the local gave the U.S. two great victories — first, over the Soviet Union in 1989; then, over the Taliban, which governed much of the country in 2001.

During the nearly 20 years of U.S. occupation that followed, however, Washington mismanaged global, regional, and local politics in ways that doomed its pacification effort to certain defeat. As the countryside slipped out of its control and Taliban guerrillas multiplied after 2004, Washington tried everything — a trillion-dollar aid program, a 100,000 troop "surge," a multi-billion-dollar drug war — but none of it worked. Even now, in the midst of a retreat in defeat, official Washington has no clear idea why it ultimately lost this 40-year conflict.

Secret War (Drug War)

Just four years after the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon driving Soviet-made tanks and trucks, Washington decided to even the score by giving Moscow its own Vietnam in Afghanistan. When the Red Army occupied Kabul in December 1979, President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, crafted a grand strategy for a CIA covert war that would inflict a humiliating defeat on the Soviet Union.

Building upon an old U.S. alliance with Pakistan, the CIA worked through that country's Inter Service Intelligence agency (ISI) to deliver millions, then billions of dollars in arms to Afghanistan's anti-Soviet guerrillas, known as the mujahideen, whose Islamic faith made them formidable fighters. As a master of geopolitics, Brzezinski forged a near-perfect strategic alignment among the U.S., Pakistan, and China for a surrogate conflict against the Soviets. Locked into a bitter rivalry with its neighbor India that erupted in periodic border wars, Pakistan was desperate to please Washington, particularly since, ominously enough, India had only recently tested its first nuclear bomb.

Throughout the long years of the Cold War, Washington was Pakistan's main ally, providing ample military aid and tilting its diplomacy to favor that country over India. To shelter beneath the U.S. nuclear umbrella, the Pakistanis were, in turn, willing to risk Moscow's ire by serving as the springboard for the CIA's secret war on the Red Army in Afghanistan.

Beneath that grand strategy, there was a grittier reality taking shape on the ground in that country. While the mujahideen commanders welcomed the CIA's arms shipments, they also needed funds to sustain their fighters and soon turned to poppy growing and opium trafficking for that. As Washington's secret war entered its sixth year, a New York Times correspondent travelling through southern Afghanistan discovered a proliferation of poppy fields that was transforming that arid terrain into the world's main source of illicit narcotics. "We must grow and sell opium to fight our holy war against the Russian nonbelievers," one rebel leader told the reporter.

In fact, caravans carrying CIA arms into Afghanistan often returned to Pakistan loaded with opium — sometimes, reported the New York Times, "with the assent of Pakistani or American intelligence officers who supported the resistance." During the decade of the CIA's secret war there, Afghanistan's annual opium harvest soared from a modest 100 tons to a massive 2,000 tons. To process the raw opium into heroin, illicit laboratories opened in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands that, by 1984, supplied a staggering 60% of the U.S. market and 80% of the European one. Inside Pakistan, the number of heroin addicts surged from almost none at all in 1979 to nearly 1.5 million by 1985.

By 1988, there were an estimated 100 to 200 heroin refineries in the area around the Khyber Pass inside Pakistan operating under the purview of the ISI. Further south, an Islamist warlord named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the CIA's favored Afghan "asset," controlled several heroin refineries that processed much of the opium harvest from the country's southern provinces. In May 1990, as that secret war was ending, the Washington Post reported that American officials had failed to investigate drug dealing by Hekmatyar and his protectors in Pakistan's ISI largely "because U.S. narcotics policy in Afghanistan has been subordinated to the war against Soviet influence there."

Charles Cogan, director of the CIA's Afghan operation, later spoke frankly about the Agency's priorities. "We didn't really have the resources or the time to devote to an investigation of the drug trade," he told an interviewer. "I don't think that we need to apologize for this… There was fallout in term of drugs, yes. But the main objective was accomplished. The Soviets left Afghanistan."

There was also another kind of real fallout from that secret war, though Cogan didn't mention it. While it was hosting the CIA's covert operation, Pakistan played upon Washington's dependence and its absorption in its Cold War battle against the Soviets to develop ample fissionable material by 1987 for its own nuclear bomb and, a decade later, to carry out a successful nuclear test that stunned India and sent strategic shockwaves across South Asia.

Simultaneously, Pakistan was also turning Afghanistan into a virtual client state. For three years following the Soviet retreat in 1989, the CIA and Pakistan's ISI continued to collaborate in backing a bid by Hekmatyar to capture Kabul, providing him with enough firepower to shell the capital and slaughter some 50,000 of its residents. When that failed, from the millions of Afghan refugees inside their borders, the Pakistanis alone formed a new force that came to be called the Taliban — sound familiar? — and armed them to seize Kabul successfully in 1996.

The Invasion of Afghanistan

In the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, when Washington decided to invade Afghanistan, the same alignment of global strategy and gritty local realities assured it another stunning victory, this time over the Taliban who then ruled most of the country. Although its nuclear arms now lessened its dependence on Washington, Pakistan was still willing to serve as a springboard for the CIA's mobilization of Afghan regional warlords who, in combination with massive U.S. bombing, soon swept the Taliban out of power.

Although American air power readily smashed its armed forces — seemingly, then, beyond repair — that theocratic regime's real weakness lay in its gross mismanagement of the country's opium harvest. After taking power in 1996, the Taliban had first doubled the country's opium crop to an unprecedented 4,600 tons, sustaining the economy while providing 75% of the world's heroin. Four years later, however, the regime's ruling mullahs used their formidable coercive powers to make a bid for international recognition at the U.N. by slashing the country's opium harvest to a mere 185 tons. That decision would plunge millions of farmers into misery and, in the process, reduce the regime to a hollow shell that shattered with the first American bombs.

While the U.S. bombing campaign raged through October 2001, the CIA shipped $70 million in bundled bills into Afghanistan to mobilize its old coalition of tribal warlords for the fight against the Taliban. President George W. Bush would later celebrate that expenditure as one of history's biggest "bargains."

Almost from the start of what became a 20-year American occupation, however, the once-perfect alignment of global and local factors started to break apart for Washington. Even as the Taliban retreated in chaos and consternation, those bargain-basement warlords captured the countryside and promptly presided over a revived opium harvest that climbed to 3,600 tons by 2003, or an extraordinary 62% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). Four years later, the drug harvest would reach a staggering 8,200 tons — generating 53% of the country's GDP, 93% of the world's illicit heroin, and, above all, ample funds for a revival of… yes, you guessed it, the Taliban's guerrilla army.

Stunned by the realization that its client regime in Kabul was losing control of the countryside to the once-again opium-funded Taliban, the Bush White House launched a $7-billion drug war that soon sank into a cesspool of corruption and complex tribal politics. By 2009, the Taliban guerrillas were expanding so rapidly that the new Obama administration opted for a "surge" of 100,000 U.S. troops there.

By attacking the guerrillas but failing to eradicate the opium harvest that funded their deployment every spring, Obama's surge soon suffered a defeat foretold. Amid a rapid drawdown of those troops to meet the surge's use-by date of December 2014 (as Obama had promised), the Taliban launched the first of its annual fighting-season offensives that slowly wrested control of significant parts of the countryside from the Afghan military and police.

By 2017, the opium harvest had climbed to a new record of 9,000 tons, providing about 60% of the funding for the Taliban's relentless advance. Recognizing the centrality of the drug trade in sustaining the insurgency, the U.S. command dispatched F-22 fighters and B-52 bombers to attack the Taliban's labs in the country's heroin heartland. In effect, it was deploying billion-dollar aircraft to destroy what turned out to be 10 mud huts, depriving the Taliban of just $2,800 in tax revenues. To anyone paying attention, the absurd asymmetry of that operation revealed that the U.S. military was being decisively outmaneuvered and defeated by the grittiest of local Afghan realities.

At the same time, the geopolitical side of the Afghan equation was turning decisively against the American war effort. With Pakistan moving ever closer to China as a counterweight to its rival India and U.S.-China relations becoming hostile, Washington grew increasingly irritated with Islamabad. At a summit meeting in late 2017, President Trump and India's Prime Minister Modi joined with their Australian and Japanese counterparts to form "the Quad" (known more formally as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), an incipient alliance aimed at checking China's expansion that soon gained substance through joint naval maneuvers in the Indian Ocean.

Within weeks of that meeting, Trump would trash Washington's 60-year alliance with Pakistan with a single New Year's Day tweet claiming that country had repaid years of generous U.S. aid with "nothing but lies & deceit." Almost immediately, Washington announced suspension of its military aid to Pakistan until Islamabad took "decisive action" against the Taliban and its militant allies.

With Washington's delicate alignment of global and local forces now fatally misaligned, both Trump's capitulation at peace talks with the Taliban in 2020 and Biden's coming retreat in defeat were preordained. Without access to landlocked Afghanistan from Pakistan, U.S. surveillance drones and fighter-bombers now potentially face a 2,400-mile flight from the nearest bases in the Persian Gulf — too far for effective use of airpower to shape events on the ground (though America's commanders are already searching desperately for air bases in countries far nearer to Afghanistan to use).

Lessons of Defeat

Unlike a simple victory, this defeat offers layers of meaning for those with the patience to plumb its lessons. During a government investigation of what went wrong back in 2015, Douglas Lute, an Army general who directed Afghan war policy for the Bush and Obama administrations, observed: "We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn't know what we were doing." With American troops now shaking the dust of Afghanistan's arid soil off their boots, future U.S. military operations in that part of the globe are likely to shift offshore as the Navy joins the rest of the Quad's flotilla in a bid to check China's advance in the Indian Ocean.

Beyond the closed circles of official Washington, this dismal outcome has more disturbing lessons. The many Afghans who believed in America's democratic promises will join a growing line of abandoned allies, stretching back to the Vietnam era and including, more recently, Kurds, Iraqis, and Somalis, among others. Once the full costs of Washington's withdrawal from Afghanistan become apparent, the debacle may, not surprisingly, discourage potential future allies from trusting Washington's word or judgment.

Much as the fall of Saigon made the American people wary of such interventions for more than a decade, so a possible catastrophe in Kabul will likely (one might even say, hopefully) produce a long-term aversion in this country to such future interventions. Just as Saigon, 1975, became the nightmare Americans wished to avoid for at least a decade, so Kabul, 2022, could become an unsettling recurrence that only deepens an American crisis of confidence at home.

When the Red Army's last tanks finally crossed the Friendship Bridge and left Afghanistan in February 1989, that defeat helped precipitate the complete collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its empire within a mere three years. The impact of the coming U.S. retreat in Afghanistan will undoubtedly be far less dramatic. Still, it will be deeply significant. Such a retreat after so many years, with the enemy if not at the gates, then closing in on them, is a clear sign that imperial Washington has reached the very limits of what even the most powerful military on earth can do.

Or put another way, there should be no mistake after those nearly 20 years in Afghanistan. Victory is no longer in the American bloodstream (a lesson that Vietnam somehow did not bring home), though drugs are. The loss of the ultimate drug war was a special kind of imperial disaster, giving withdrawal more than one meaning in 2021. So, it won't be surprising if the departure from that country under such conditions is a signal to allies and enemies alike that Washington hasn't a hope of ordering the world as it wishes anymore and that its once-formidable global hegemony is truly waning.

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author most recently of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His latest book (to be published in October by Dispatch Books) is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.

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The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb

Ask not for whom the bomb ticks, Mr. and Ms. America. Right now, across Los Angeles, timers on dozens of toxic nerve-gas canisters are set to detonate in just hours and send some two million Americans to their deaths in writhing agony.

But take hope. We have one chance, just one, to avert this atrocity and save the lives of millions. Agent Jack Bauer of the Counter Terrorist Unit has his hunting knife poised over the eye of a trembling traitor who may know the identity of those who set these bombs. As a clock ticks menacingly and the camera focuses on knife point poised to plunge into eyeball, the traitor breaks and identifies the Muslim terrorists, giving Agent Bauer the lead he needs to crack this case wide open.

As happens with mind-numbing regularity every week on Fox Television's hit show 24, torture has once again worked to save us all from the terror of a ticking bomb, affirming for millions of loyal viewers that torture is a necessary weapon in George Bush's war on terror. "Major success from limited, surgical torture is a fable, a fiction. . . . As we slide down the slippery slope to torture in general, we should also realize that there is a chasm at the bottom called extrajudicial execution." Just days before the fifth anniversary of 9/11, President Bush himself appeared live from the East Room before an audience of handpicked 9/11 families for a dramatic announcement that mimed, with eerie precision, the ticking-bomb logic of 24, which is wildly popular among Washington's neoconservatives. With clipped, secret-agent diction reminiscent of the show's Emmy Award-winning star, Kiefer Sutherland, Bush said he was transferring fourteen top Al Qaeda captives, including the alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, from long-secret CIA prisons to Guantanamo Bay. At once both repudiating and legitimating past abuses, Bush denied that he had ever authorized "torture." Simultaneously, he defended the CIA's effort to coerce "vital information" from these "dangerous" captives with what the President called an "alternative set of procedures"--a euphemism transparent to any viewer of 24.

In defense of the CIA's past and future use of this "alternative set of procedures," Bush told his national television audience a thrilling tale of covert action derring-do almost plucked from the pages of a script for 24. After "they risked their lives to capture some of the most brutal terrorists on Earth," courageous American agents "worked day and night" to track down "a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden" named Abu Zubaydah. But once in custody, he was "defiant and evasive." Knowing that "captured terrorists have . . . intelligence that cannot be found any other place," the CIA, with White House approval, applied that "alternative set of procedures" and thereby extracted timely information that "helped in the planning . . . of the operation that captured Khalid Sheik Mohammed." Then, "KSM was questioned by the CIA using these procedures," producing intelligence that stopped a succession of lethal ticking bombs.

The mind-boggling catalogue of these plots, the President told us, included "Al Qaeda's efforts to produce anthrax," a terror assault on U.S. Marines in Djibouti with "an explosive-laden water tanker," "a planned attack on the U.S. consulate in Karachi using car bombs," "a plot to hijack passenger planes and fly them into Heathrow," and "planned attacks on buildings in the United States" with bombs planted "to prevent the people trapped above from escaping out the windows."

Of course, the President could not, he said with a knowing wink to his audience, describe "the specific methods used in these CIA interrogations" because "it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning." Although these "procedures were tough," they had proved vital, the President assured us, in extracting "information about terrorist plans we could not get anywhere else" and thus prevented Al Qaeda from "launching another attack against the American homeland." If Congress and the Supreme Court would simply set aside their constitutional qualms about these "tough" methods, Bush concluded, then the "brave men and women" who work in this CIA program can continue "to obtain information that will save innocent lives."

As in so many of these ticking-bomb tales, Bush's supposed successes crumble on closer examination. Just four days later, The New York Times reported that the FBI claimed it got the key information from Abu Zubaydah with its noncoercive methods and that other agencies already had much of his supposedly "vital" intelligence.

Like President Bush, influential pro-pain pundits have long cited the ticking-bomb scenario to defend torture as a necessary evil in the war on terror. Indeed, in this most pragmatic of modern societies, we are witnessing a rare triumph of academic philosophy in the realm of national security.

More than thirty years ago, the philosopher Michael Walzer, writing about the ancient problem of "dirty hands" for an obscure academic journal, Philosophy and Public Affairs, speculated about the morality of a politician "asked to authorize the torture of a captured rebel leader who knows the locality of a number of bombs hidden in apartment buildings around the city, set to go off within the next twenty-four hours." Even though he believes torture is "wrong, indeed abominable," this moral politician orders the man tortured, "convinced that he must do so for the sake of the people who might otherwise die in the explosions."

In all likelihood, Walzer's writing would have remained unnoticed on page 167 of an unread journal if not for the tireless efforts of an academic acolyte, Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School. In newspaper op-eds and television appearances since 9/11, Dershowitz has transformed this fragmentary philosophical rumination into a full-blown case for torture by recounting a similar scenario which, often set in Times Square, "involves a captured terrorist who refuses to divulge information about the imminent use of weapons of mass destruction, such as a nuclear, chemical, or biological device, that are capable of killing and injuring thousands of civilians."

From this hypothetical, Professor Dershowitz segues to the realm of reality: "If torture is, in fact, being used and/or would, in fact, be used in an actual ticking bomb terrorist case, would it be normatively better or worse to have such torture regulated by some kind of warrant?" Such a warrant, he tells us, would authorize interrogators to shove steel needles under Arab fingernails. Dershowitz assumes that his putative torture warrants "would reduce the incidence of abuses," since high officials, operating on the record, would never authorize "methods of the kind shown in the Abu Ghraib photographs."

With torture now a key weapon in the war on terror, the time has come to interrogate the logic of the ticking time bomb with a six-point critique. For this scenario embodies our deepest fears and makes most of us quietly--unwittingly--complicit in the Bush Administration's recourse to torture.

Number one: In the real world, the probability that a terrorist might be captured after concealing a ticking nuclear bomb in Times Square and that his captors would somehow recognize his significance is phenomenally slender. The scenario assumes a highly improbable array of variables that runs something like this:

--First, FBI or CIA agents apprehend a terrorist at the precise moment between timer's first tick and bomb's burst.

--Second, the interrogators somehow have sufficiently detailed foreknowledge of the plot to know they must interrogate this very person and do it right now.

--Third, these same officers, for some unexplained reason, are missing just a few critical details that only this captive can divulge.

--Fourth, the biggest leap of all, these officers with just one shot to get the information that only this captive can divulge are best advised to try torture, as if beating him is the way to assure his wholehearted cooperation.

Take the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, who sat in a Minneapolis cell in the weeks before 9/11 under desultory investigation as a possible "suicide hijacker" because the FBI did not have precise foreknowledge of Al Qaeda's plot or his possible role. In pressing for a search warrant before 9/11, the bureau's Minneapolis field supervisor even warned Washington he was "trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center." But FBI headquarters in Washington replied there was no evidence Moussaoui was a terrorist--providing us with yet another reminder of how difficult it is to grasp the significance of even such stunningly accurate insight or intelligence in the absence of foreknowledge.

"After the event," Roberta Wohlstetter wrote in her classic study of that other great U.S. intelligence failure, Pearl Harbor, "a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has occurred. But before the event, it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings."

Number two: This scenario still rests on the critical, utterly unexamined assumption that torture can get useful intelligence quickly from this or any hardened terrorist.

Advocates of the ticking bomb often cite the brutal torture of Abdul Hakim Murad in Manila in 1995, which they say stopped a plot to blow up a dozen trans-Pacific aircraft and kill 4,000 innocent passengers. Except, of course, for the simple fact that Murad's torture did nothing of the sort. As The Washington Post has reported, Manila police got all their important information from Murad in the first few minutes when they seized his laptop with the entire bomb plot. All the supposed details gained from the sixty-seven days of incessant beatings, spiced by techniques like cigarettes to the genitals, were, as one Filipino officer testified in a New York court, fabrications fed to Murad by Philippine police.

Even if the terrorist begins to talk under torture, interrogators have a hard time figuring out whether he is telling the truth or not. Testing has found that professional interrogators perform within the 45 to 60 percent range in separating truth from lies--little better than flipping a coin. Thus, as intelligence data moves through three basic stages--acquisition, analysis, and action--the chances that good intelligence will be ignored are high.

After fifty years of fighting enemies, communist and terrorist, with torture, we now have sufficient evidence to conclude that torture of the few yields little useful information. As the ancient Roman jurist Ulpian noted 1,800 years ago, when tortured the strong will resist and the weak will say anything to end the pain.

History is replete with examples of the strong who resisted even the most savage tortures. After the July 20, 1944, bomb plot against Hitler, the Gestapo subjected Fabian von Schlabrendorff to four weeks of torture by metal spikes and beatings so severe he suffered a heart attack. But with a stoicism typical of these conspirators, he broke his silence only to give the Gestapo a few scraps of vague information when he feared involuntarily blurting out serious intelligence.

Then there are the weak. Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a senior Al Qaeda leader, under torture told his captors that Iraq trained Al Qaeda in chemical and biological weapons. This raises the possibility that he, like Murad, had been tortured into giving fabricated intelligence. Colin Powell relied on this false information in his now-disavowed speech to the United Nations before the Iraq War.

As Yale legal historian John Langbein puts it, "History's most important lesson is that it has not been possible to make coercion compatible with truth."

Proponents of torture present a false choice between tortured intelligence and no intelligence at all. There is, in fact, a well-established American alternative to torture that we might call empathetic interrogation. U.S. Marines first used this technique during World War II to extract accurate intelligence from fanatical Japanese captives on Saipan and Tinian within forty-eight hours of landing, and the FBI has practiced it with great success in the decades since. After the East Africa bombings of U.S. embassies, the bureau employed this method to gain some of our best intelligence on Al Qaeda and win U.S. court convictions of all of the accused.

One of the bureau agents who worked on that case, Dan Coleman, has since been appalled by the CIA's coercive methods after 9/11. "Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to anyone who's been deprived of his clothes?" Coleman asked. "He's going to be ashamed and humiliated and cold. He'll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There's no value in it." By contrast, FBI reliance on due process and empathy proved effective in terror cases by building rapport with detainees.

Bush's example of Zubaydah actually supports Coleman's point. FBI agents say they were getting more out of him before the CIA came in with gloves off.

"Brutalization doesn't work," Coleman concluded from his years in FBI counterterrorism. "We know that. Besides, you lose your soul."

Number three: Once we agree to torture the one terrorist with his hypothetical ticking bomb, then we admit a possibility, even an imperative, for torturing hundreds who might have ticking bombs or thousands who just might have some knowledge about those bombs. "You can't know whether a person knows where the bomb is," explains Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole, "or even if they're telling the truth. Because of this, you end up going down a slippery slope and sanctioning torture in general."

Most of those rounded up by military sweeps in Iraq and Afghanistan for imprisonment at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo had nothing to do with terrorism. A recent analysis of the Pentagon listing of Guantanamo's 517 detainees reveals that 86 percent were arrested not by U.S. forces but by Northern Alliance and Pakistani warlords eager to collect a $5,000 bounty for every "terrorist" captured.

Ironically, though, torture of the many can produce results, albeit at a surprisingly high political price.

The CIA tortured tens of thousands in Vietnam and the French tortured hundreds of thousands in Algeria. During the Battle of Algiers in 1957, French soldiers arrested 30 percent to 40 percent of all males in the city's Casbah and subjected most of these to what one French officer called "beatings, electric shocks, and, in particular, water torture, which was always the most dangerous technique for the prisoner." Though many resisted to the point of death, mass torture gained sufficient intelligence to break the rebel underground. The CIA's Phoenix program no doubt damaged the Viet Cong's communist infrastructure by torture-interrogation of countless South Vietnamese civilians.

So the choices are clear. Major success from limited, surgical torture is a fable, a fiction. But mass torture of thousands of suspects, some guilty, most innocent, can produce some useful intelligence.

Number four: Useful intelligence perhaps, but at what cost? The price of torture is unacceptably high because it disgraces and then undermines the country that countenances it. For the French in Algeria, for the Americans in Vietnam, and now for the Americans in Iraq, the costs have been astronomical and have outweighed any gains gathered by torture.

Official sources are nearly unanimous that the yield from the massive Phoenix program, with more than forty prisons across South Vietnam systematically torturing thousands of suspected communists, was surprisingly low. One Pentagon contract study found that, in 1970-71, only 3 percent of the Viet Cong "killed, captured, or rallied were full or probationary Party members above the district level." Not surprisingly, such a brutal pacification effort failed either to crush the Viet Cong or win the support of Vietnamese villagers, contributing to the ultimate U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War.

Similarly, the French army won the Battle of Algiers but soon lost the war for Algeria, in part because their systematic torture delegitimated the larger war effort in the eyes of most Algerians and many French. "You might say that the Battle of Algiers was won through the use of torture," observed British journalist Sir Alistair Horne, "but that the war, the Algerian war, was lost."

Even the comparatively limited torture at Abu Ghraib has done incalculable damage to America's international prestige.

In short, the intelligence gains are soon overwhelmed by political costs as friends and enemies recoil in revulsion at such calculated savagery.

Indeed, the U.S. Army's current field manual, FM: Intelligence Interrogation 34-52, contains an implicit warning about these high political costs: "Revelation of use of torture by U.S. personnel," it warns, "will bring discredit upon the U.S. and its armed forces while undermining domestic and international support for the war effort."

Number five: These dismal conclusions lead to a last, uncomfortable question: If torture produces limited gains at such high political cost, why does any rational American leader condone interrogation practices "tantamount to torture"?

One answer to this question seems to lie with a prescient CIA Cold War observation about Soviet leaders in times of stress. "When feelings of insecurity develop within those holding power," reads an agency analysis of Kremlin leadership applicable to the post-9/11 White House, "they become increasingly suspicious and put great pressures upon the secret police to obtain arrests and confessions. At such times, police officials are inclined to condone anything which produces a speedy 'confession,' and brutality may become widespread." In sum, the powerful often turn to torture in times of crisis, not because it works but because it salves their fears and insecurities with the psychic balm of empowerment.

As we slide down the slippery slope to torture in general, we should also realize that there is a chasm at the bottom called extrajudicial execution. With the agency's multinational gulag full of dozens, even hundreds, of detainees of dwindling utility, CIA agents, active and retired, have been vocal in their complaints about the costs and inconvenience of limitless, even lifetime, incarceration for these tortured terrorists. The ideal solution to this conundrum from an agency perspective is pump and dump, as in Vietnam--pump the terrorists for information, and then dump the bodies. After all, the systematic French torture of thousands from the Casbah of Algiers in 1957 also entailed more than 3,000 "summary executions" as "an inseparable part" of this campaign, largely, as one French general put it, to ensure that "the machine of justice" not be "clogged with cases." For similar reasons, the CIA's Phoenix program produced, by the agency's own count, over 20,000 extrajudicial killings.

Number six: The use of torture to stop ticking bombs leads ultimately to a cruel choice--either legalize this brutality, a la Dershowitz and Bush, or accept that the logical corollary to state-sanctioned torture is state-sponsored murder, a la Vietnam.

How Torture Became Mainstream

Just before Christmas last, President Bush and Senator John McCain appeared in the Oval Office to announce an historic ban on torture by any U.S. agency, anywhere in the world. Looking straight into the cameras, the president declared with a steely gaze that this landmark legislation would make it "clear to the world that this government does not torture."

This meeting was the culmination of a tangled legislative battle that had started six months before when Senator John McCain introduced an amendment to the must-pass Defense Appropriation Bill, calling for an absolute ban on "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment. The White House fought back hard, sending Vice President Cheney to Capitol Hill for a wrecking effort so sustained, so determined that a Washington Post editorial branded him "The Vice President for Torture." At first, Cheney demanded that the amendment be dropped. The senator refused. Next, Cheney insisted on an exemption for the CIA. The senator stood his ground. Then, in a startling rebuke to the White House, the Senate passed the amendment last October by a 90-9 margin, a victory celebrated by Amnesty International and other rights groups. With the White House still threatening a veto, the appropriation gridlocked in an eyeball-to-eyeball standoff.

Then came that dramatic December 15th handshake between Bush and McCain, a veritable media mirage that concealed furious back-room maneuvering by the White House to undercut the amendment. A coalition of rights groups, including Amnesty International, had resisted the executive's effort to punch loopholes in the torture ban but, in the end, the White House prevailed. With the help of key senate conservatives, the Bush administration succeeded in twisting what began as an unequivocal ban on torture into a legitimization of three controversial legal doctrines that the administration had originally used to justify torture right after 9/11.

In an apparent compromise gesture, McCain himself inserted the first major loophole: a legal defense for accused CIA interrogators that echoes the administration's notorious August 2002 torture memo allowing any agents criminally charged to claim that they "did not know that the practices were unlawful."

Next, the administration effectively neutralized the McCain ban with Senator Lindsey Graham's amendment stipulating that Guantanamo Bay detainees cannot invoke U.S. law to challenge their imprisonment. Complaining that detainees were filing trivial lawsuits over the quality of their food, Graham's amendment thereby attempted to nullify the Supreme Court decision in Rasul v. Bush that had allowed detainees to pursue habeas corpus appeals in U.S. courts. In sum, McCain's original amendment banned torture, but Graham's later amendment , as finally approved by the Senate, removed any means for enforcement. For a mess of bipartisan pottage, Congress thus bartered away this nation's constitutional birthright of habeas corpus, a foundational legal protection born, ironically, of the British Parliament's long struggle to ban royal torture writs by the infamous Court of Star Chamber.

For the final loophole, on December 30 President Bush issued a "signing statement" insisting that his powers as commander-in-chief and head of the "unitary executive branch" still allowed him to do whatever is necessary to defend America--the same key controversial doctrine the administration had first used to allow torture. Instead of marking closure to the Abu Ghraib scandal, the McCain torture ban has thus sparked a renewed campaign by human-rights advocates to end the use of torture in Washington's War on Terror--an effort that may well prove to be a long, uphill battle.

Only days after Bush signed the legislation containing the McCain amendment, the White House used a portion of the new law, now called the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, to quash any judicial oversight of its actions. On January 3 the Justice Department notified federal judges that it would seek the immediate dismissal of all 160 habeas corpus cases filed by Guantanamo detainees. One week later, the U.S. Solicitor General, citing this law, told the Supreme Court it no longer had jurisdiction over Guantanamo and asked the justices to dismiss the potential landmark "unlawful combatant" case, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. In late March, when the court began to hear oral arguments in this critical test case of U.S. military tribunals, several justices appeared to reject the solicitor general's argument after vigorously questioning him.

In retrospect, McCain's proposed torture ban seems another victim of the Bush administration's unrelenting drive to win unchecked wartime powers. In response to continuing controversy over Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the White House has thus initiated what seems an historic shift in US interrogation policy--from the highly secretive tortures by the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War to an open, even defiant use of coercive interrogation as an official weapon in the arsenal of American power during the "war on terror." Until 9/11, the United States government had successfully protected its intelligence community from censure by outsourcing torture to foreign allies and using subtle psychological techniques that elude ready detection--in striking contrast to the crude physical methods once favored by dictators around the world.

Even now, the continuing use of these psychological techniques has complicated efforts to prohibit torture. Right after Congress approved McCain's torture ban, Attorney General Gonzales parsed the word "severe" to insist the new law adds only "clarification" to the existing definition of torture as "intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain," echoing Justice Department subordinates who were arguing anonymously that the ban would still allow "water boarding"--the harshest of the agency's enhanced psychological techniques. When future investigators try to judge the slippery signs of psychological torture, whether by the military or CIA, each of the Attorney General's words--"intentional," "severe," and "mental"--will open yet another loophole.

Indeed, these psychological techniques are so elusive that they remain, even today, invisible in plain sight. After CBS broadcast those notorious photos from Abu Ghraib prison in the April 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed them as unrepresentative acts "by a small number of U.S. military," whom the conservative New York Times columnist William Safire branded "creeps."

If, however, we read these prison photos carefully, they reveal CIA torture techniques that have metastasized like an undetected cancer inside the U.S. intelligence community over the past half-century. That iconic photo of a hooded Iraqi with fake electrical wires hanging from his arms shows, not the sadism of a few "creeps," but the telltale signs of sophisticated torture. The prisoner is hooded for sensory deprivation. His arms are extended for self-inflicted pain. These are the key components of the CIA's psychological paradigm, first developed during the Cold War and then disseminated within the U.S. intelligence community and among allied agencies around the world.

Indeed, over the past 40 years, psychological torture, as practiced by US intelligence community, has proven destructive, elusive, and adaptable. Although seemingly less brutal than physical methods, this "no touch" torture is highly destructive of the human psyche, leaving searing psychological scars experts consider more crippling than physical pain. And the lack of visible physical evidence eludes detection, greatly complicating attempts at investigation, prosecution, or prohibition.

Moreover, each extended application of this psychological method has produced innovation--an adaptability evident today in the war on terror. Under the command of General Geoffrey Miller, Guantanamo became an ad hoc behavioral laboratory for innovative interrogation techniques that, in sum, perfected the CIA's psychological paradigm. Moving beyond the agency's original, generic attack on sensory receptors universal to all humans, Guantanamo's interrogators intensified the psychological assault by exploiting Arab cultural sensitivities to sexuality, gender identity and fear of dogs. Miller also formed teams of military psychologists to probe each detainee's phobias. Significantly, after repeated visits to Guantanamo in 2002-2004, the International Committee of the Red Cross described these practices as "an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture."

With his new Guantanamo methods codified in a top-secret manual, General Miller exported these techniques with a personal visit in September 2003 to Iraq, where the U.S. commander, General Ricardo Sanchez, incorporated them into his orders for aggressive interrogation at Abu Ghraib. Beyond Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the administration has also built a global network for torture at a half-dozen "black sites" worldwide that used these techniques and even more extreme methods, including one particularly cruel CIA technique called "water boarding."

Outside its own black sites, the CIA, continuing a tactic used against Al-Qaeda suspects since the 1990s, engaged in "extraordinary rendition"--that is, the practice of sending detainees to nations notorious for torture, including Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Uzbekistan. Knitting this far-flung prison network together, the agency shuttled detainees around the globe in a fleet of some two dozen jets operated by thinly veiled front companies responsible for some 2,600 rendition-related flights since 2001. Despite a formal ban on rendition in the U.N. Convention Against Torture, the United States has persisted in a practice which is, in fact, illegal. "Renditions," as Amnesty International explains in its recent report Below the Radar, "involve multiple layers of human rights violations. Most victims...were arrested and detained illegally in the first place; some were abducted; others were denied access to any due process."

The United States is at a fateful crossroads, both in its relations with the international community and in the relationship between its own executive and judicial branches. In its aggressive defense of presidential prerogatives over "unlawful combatants," exemplified by its handling of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the hundreds of habeas corpus cases in federal courts, the Bush White House seeks to exempt its actions from any judicial oversight. And just last February, the actions of our executive branch have earned an unprecedented rebuke from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who called for the closure of Guantanamo.

In the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the White House has defended torture as a presidential prerogative and blocked reform efforts. By contrast, a loose coalition of civil-liberties lawyers and human rights groups has mobilized to stop the abuse. In June 2004 the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case, Rasul v. Bush, that Guantanamo detainees were, in fact, on territory leased to the United States and thus deserved access to U.S. courts. Leading U.S. law firms responded by filing 160 habeas corpus cases for 300 detainees.

Since 9/11, the White House and its media allies have shaped the debate over detainees as a false choice between tortured intelligence and no intelligence at all. Yet there are, in fact, alternatives to torture such as an approach we might call empathetic interrogation--first used by the U.S. Marine Corps to extract accurate intelligence from Japanese prisoners during World War II and practiced by the FBI with great success in the decades since. After the East Africa bombings of U.S. embassies in 1998, for example, the FBI employed this method to gain some of our best intelligence on Al Qaeda and won convictions of all the accused in U.S. courts.

For the human rights community, the first steps to reform are surprisingly simple: call upon our legislators to heed Kofi Anan's call for closure of Guantanamo and transfer the detainees to the US courts for trial. More ambitiously, the human rights community can press Congress to amend the Detainee Treatment Act 2005, banning torture without reservations, loopholes, or qualifications. Yet even if we close Guantanmo and prohibit abuse by U.S. authorities, the CIA can still elude the force of this prohibition, as it has done so often over the past 40 years, by outsourcing torture to foreign allies like Morocco, Egypt, or Uzbekistan. For real reform, Congress must close the ultimate loophole: the rendition of detainees to foreign security services that torture systematically and savagely.


Happy Holidays!