Typically, when faced with a problem, the first thing Bush administration officials do is reach for their dictionaries to pretzel and torture words into whatever shape best suits them. Then they declare themselves simply to be following precedent (which turns out, of course, to be whatever they’ve wanted to do all along). In this way, in the famous torture memos that flowed from the White House Counsel’s office, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon, the meaning of “torture” was at one point in 2002 redefined into near nonexistence (“must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”) and then made dependent on the mind and intent of the torturer. As a result, “torture” became, by definition, a policy we didn’t engage in even as we waterboarded suspects in our global network of CIA-run (or borrowed) secret prisons. In a similar fashion, this administration has managed to redefine aggressive war, kidnapping, the President’s powers to detain both citizens and non-citizens, assassination, the meaning of various international agreements and American laws, and the Constitution itself. Then, definitions in hand, administration officials have marched defiantly into the world, armed to the teeth, and done exactly what they pleased.
Just this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed for a Europe whose various publics (and media) are up in arms over CIA behavior — the use of airports, military bases, and former compounds or prisons of the old Soviet Gulag to facilitate illegal detentions, kidnappings (called “extraordinary renditions”), and the torture and abuse of various terror suspects. Some of these suspects have been held for long periods and abused in numerous ways, only to be found innocent of any criminal acts whatsoever. This has, it seems, become common enough to gain a name of its own among CIA cognoscenti — “erroneous renditions.” Such high-handed actions, undertaken in a spirit of impunity, are today making their way to various European courts and bodies of inquiry.
Our Secretary of State, on the eve of her departure, finally offered an administration response to this and, for instance, to the recent revelation that the CIA had sent 437 flights (assumedly on various rendition tasks) through German airspace since 2001 — some certainly carrying captured or kidnapped “ghost detainees” to secret prisons elsewhere on Earth. She essentially said: “Trust us…”; offered implicit threats to release information on what European officials may have known about our illegal activities to their angry publics (“It is up to those governments and their citizens to decide if they wish to work with us to prevent terrorist attacks against their own country or other countries, and decide how much sensitive information they can make public. They have a sovereign right to make that choice.”); and emphasized that this administration always acts within the law and, as our President insists, simply does not torture — even while our Vice President and other top officials lobby vigorously against Senator John McCain’s anti-torture amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill reiterating that it is the law of the land not to offer those in our custody “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In a classic case of we’re-innocent-and-anyway-they-did-it, Rice on departure admitted to the use of “rendition” and then painted it as a time-tested technique of practically all governments on the planet. “Torture,” she added, “is a term that is defined by law. We rely on our law to govern our operations. The United States does not permit, tolerate, or condone torture under any circumstances… The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture. The United States does not use the airspace or the airports of any country for the purpose of transporting a detainee to a country where he or she will be tortured.” These are, of course, outright lies — except according to the Bush administration definitions of such things — and typical of the behavior of its officials.
In fact, those officials seem to carry handy-dandy dictionaries in their heads — and so regularly redefine reality on the run to suit their immediate needs. How about, to take a recent lighthearted example, our Secretary of Defense Donald (“I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”) Rumsfeld, who is a walking redefinition of just about anything. According to his own account, he had a revelation worthy of the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary over Thanksgiving weekend and sent a memo around the Pentagon suggesting the eradication of the Iraqi “insurgency” by wiping out the I-word itself. Urging journalists to “consult their dictionaries,” the SecDef told them: “Over the weekend, I thought to myself, ‘You know, that [term "insurgent"] gives them a greater legitimacy than they seem to merit… It was an epiphany.” Instead of the label “insurgents,” he suggested, why not use “enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government” or ELIG?
Behind such verbal shenanigans lies a deeply serious attempt to pull our government fully into the shadows, to make it a black hole into which vast amounts of information and power of every sort will flow, and out of which nothing is to come but Bush definitions of reality. This is chilling indeed.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.]