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The torture and indefinite detention of prisoners—at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and unnamed “black

by Nicholas Lemann
Issue of 2007-01-29
Posted 2007-01-22

It’s a good thing that you’re unlikely to be approached by a small, inquisitive child who wants an explanation of the trial of Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s former chief of staff, because what would you say? The trial has the air of a proxy prosecution of the Bush Administration, but its outcome won’t have any effect on the White House. Libby’s legal tormentor, Patrick Fitzgerald, a special prosecutor from Chicago, has a reputation as a tormentor of the Washington press corps. (He put one prominent reporter in jail and threatened to lock up another.) Yet, given that we think of the press and the White House as opposing forces, it’s difficult to wrap our minds around the notion of them being in the dock together.

What’s ultimately behind Libby’s trial is the Administration’s obsession with finding hard evidence for what it already believes. President Bush is often said to have misled the country into war in Iraq. But it’s equally true—and more illuminating of how the White House thinks and works—that the Administration misled itself into war. Since it was convinced that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons, the absence of proof showed only that the wrong people (the C.I.A. and the United Nations) had been looking in the wrong places. So, during the run-up to the war, the search had to be conducted with a little more creativity.

In that spirit, the White House dispatched former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger, in February of 2002, to find proof that the country had shipped yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Wilson not only came up empty-handed; he said so publicly, in a Times Op-Ed piece that he published five months later. The Administration then went on another search for evidence—the kind that could be used to discredit Wilson—and began disseminating it, off the record, to a few trusted reporters. That led to the unlawful exposure of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as a C.I.A. agent. And that, in turn, brought the appointment of a special prosecutor, and another over-the-top search for evidence, this time against the Administration. Libby’s trial is the result.

The drama of incriminating evidence—the smoking gun, the damning memo, the DNA match, the latent fingerprint, the surprise confession—pervades American culture these days. It’s the lifeblood of popular television shows (surely there’s a “CSI: Baghdad” in the works), books, movies, and Web sites. The Bush version is particularly potent, though, both in its emotional content and in its effects. It begins with a certainty that a situation is intolerable and a frustration that most people don’t see it that way. The next move is to bend the rules—to play rough, in the manner of a cop show—so that the truth comes out. All that remains is to present the shocking evidence to the world, and give the villains the punishment they deserve.

The problem with the Bush Administration is not that it is uninterested in hard facts. The problem is the way in which the Administration goes about marshalling those facts. Its working hypotheses can’t be falsified, because anything that contradicts them must be dismissed. Back in the fall of 2002, the United Nations ordered Iraq to produce a report on its weapons programs. When it did, the Administration immediately rejected the report’s claims: the fact that Saddam claimed not to have W.M.D.s, when we knew that he did, was itself an insupportable offense. (Hence the grim police-precinct refrain among Bush and his Cabinet members: “We gave him a final chance to come clean.”) Accordingly, the Administration gathered its own shards of evidence, from people less intellectually honest than Joseph Wilson, and, in the month preceding the invasion, had Colin Powell present its alternative reality to the United Nations. (“What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”) It’s as if a prosecutor had donned black robes in the hope of being mistaken for a judge.

The urge to replay this drama is deeply ingrained in the Bush Administration. The torture and indefinite detention of prisoners—at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and unnamed “black site” facilities—were meant to produce horrifying information that could serve P.R. purposes, not just military ones. Saddam’s trial was yet another attempt to demonstrate the justice of the cause. And we are now beginning to see the same evidence-gathering passion applied to Iran’s nuclear program, sponsorship of terrorism, and activities in Iraq. When, earlier this month, American troops raided an Iranian government-liaison office in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil—infuriating Kurdish officials in the process—it was, in part, to find material showing that Iranian agents are behind much of the violence in Iraq. (U.S. forces took the office’s files and computers, and held five employees for more than a week of questioning.)

The Administration has exhausted what was once an enormous stock of political capital by repeatedly insisting that it has uncovered the truth, and then being proved wrong. Right now, Iran, because of its size, wealth, military power, location, religious and civilian leadership, and ambitions, really is a serious threat—much more so than Iraq was four years ago. The United States’ ability to do anything about that threat has been severely degraded by the Iraq war. The damage is not so much military as epistemic: if nobody believes our accounts of threats, then we can’t assemble alliances to counteract them. The Libby trial reveals a White House that thought its problems were with people who could not be counted on to confirm its suspicions, like Ambassador Wilson. It should have worried less about those who would speak truth to power, and worried more that power is no longer trusted to speak truth.

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