Does that mean it isn't news? Journalists frequently cover any leak of confidential information as news, just the fact that it got leaked is usually enough. When a member of a political elite writes what has come to be known as a "Kiss and Tell" book after leaving office, most of what is in the book is not new. Nevertheless, for a good week afterward, people discuss the one or two choice tidbits someone found and promoted, or they talk about the impact of the book, or they editorialize on the stance of the author or even the author's loyalty. None of that is news.
There is a reason for failing to cover these stories when they first come out, reasoning that it is not current to continue to talk about them after they come out, and then criticizing new and subsequent revelations as "not news." It is avoidance behavior. There is a great reluctance to cover stories that the government of the United States officially sanctioned torture in secret, signed off by the President and his highest level advisors. There is no reluctance to portray torture in films, videos, TV shows, or computer games. But as often noted here, the portrayal is very different from the reality. There is no reluctance of officials acting like they need to be tough enough to commit torture, and to imply that people who wouldn't are not up to the task of defending the nation. There is no reluctance to engage in endless political debate in the press about enhanced interrogation techniques and to use the word waterboarding as frequently as possible.
Too Big To Fail
So what is the reluctance? I've been told that torture doesn't sell, that it's a fringe issue. The makers of '24' would beg to differ. We get told the American people do not want to be battered with stories of what America has done wrong. There is some truth to that. But let's talk about the expression that was all over the news this morning, the day after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson came out with a plan for backing up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the latest evolution of the problem variously known as the mortgage lending crisis, the loan crisis, or virtually any term of endearment that precludes the use of the words "scandal" or "crime". Let's talk about "too big to fail".
What on earth does "too big to fail" have to do with the government's torture program, with torture in general, with anything at all about the issues of torture and human dignity?
Everything. The expression is used in financial news whenever it is being asserted that the rules of the "market" will be suspended because of the dangerousness of the situation, and the urgency of the need to have a solution. Because this is a torture blog, and because that way of framing the invocation of "too big to fail" clearly puts it into a class of arguments seen frequently in torture debates, we can call this the ticking bomb invocation. It will invariably be issued together with an invocation we will call the collegiality invocation: That only in extreme circumstances which have never been met in the current case, are the individual players to be held responsible. In most cases, complaints about these two invocations being raised will be dealt with using the complexity invocation: The situation is very complex, that is why it will be mentioned only briefly in the media (consumers don't like issues that cause their eyes to glaze over), and that is why, even if the invocations look totally inappropriate, unfair, or unjust, they are the right thing to do anyway.
But perhaps if we knew how many of these large problems were running simultaneously, how many of them have the same players, and the same time frames, and the tactics were compared in each crisis, we might shed some light on how big the problems really are, and what is preventing a solution to them. The current mortgage crisis has roots in free market ideology, that has been referenced in articles about it. Lenders were under no scrutiny as they made more and more risky loans, and financial players appear to have had no checks and balances on an industry that came up with more and more creative ways to package these things. Those who were supposed to be watching for problems, the bond ratings people, were not functioning properly, in part because the risk involved was being concealed by arcane financial instruments, but more fundamentally because there was a transmutation of a statistical tool -- diversification -- into a religious entity. Any risk therefore was ameliorated by diversification, and when combined with another tool -- slicing -- which purported to divide the loan bundles up by risk and charge based on security for the product. The net result was a system in which any amount of risk would only produce a corresponding set of slices, and all of it was available to create profit. Except -- if the market itself went bad. Diversification does not change the outcome when all of the values go down, only when some of them do and some don't. And at that point, the presumptions in the slicing mechanism are wrong.
Why was this being done? We hear from plenty of sources now that common sense was suspended. That usually indicates some pressing need, or some ingrown secrecy. The pressing need was the need for very high gains. The need to pretend that the economy was supporting large gains and that it was growing came from a lot of different sources, one in particular was the rapid inflation of costs in health care. When health care costs are rising in double digits, then investments used to pay them -- it is an insurance scheme, after all -- must also rise quickly. So the large funds that must invest to pay for this must also realize double digit gains. Simultaneously the portion of the economy that depended on consumption was rising. But consumers weren't seeing that kind of rise in their wages, which track various cost of living indices. So more and more nefarious schemes needed to be created to separate consumers from money they had in their material goods -- principally their houses, but also in other forms of getting them to borrow. This was done by selling them mechanisms for spending their equity, and borrowing to spend. So underpinning the whole system was a large and diverse marketing campaign to get the American public to do something that violated their common sense by promising them something that they could not have had otherwise.
One can go back into the roots of this whole problem, and come out with players who were dismantling the safeguards and long held beliefs about borrowing beginning in the 1980's. One can find the players in the Reagan administration who shifted the health care industry to a for profit industry and created the current interlocking network of managed care, insurance influence on medical practice, physicians joint ventures and most of all deregulation. These were supposed to be part of a solution to rising costs and became the problem (Barlett and Steele, Critical Condition). One can go back into the roots of the changes in lending practices and find the loosening beginning as the derivatives market started up. Technology created new ways of putting together complex sets of probabilities and new ways of betting (although people in the industry hate that word). That provided the tools that were later used for giving out mortgages on less than solid finances.
Technology also provides another interesting puzzle piece: Information about technology that is not common knowledge can make it impossible to understand what has been done without significant analysis. This might be known as the analysis hurdle. It was on full display during the FISA Amendment debate. The NSA was holding all the cards. The public did not know key elements of the debate, which leaked out slowly -- that databases were involved; that the minimization procedures, as applied to databases, for which they were not designed, left a big loophole; that the loophole had already been tested before the FISA court: rollbacks were not required by the court and there was precedent for it in that setting. Without that information the new bill might seem innocuous. With it, the new bill meant that databases on all information on the internet, including that on all Americans, could be compiled.
One can see the dot com bust as the cataclysmic event that caused the financial industry to squirm and lash around looking for a place to make the gains they had become dependent on after the crash of the companies that weren't anywhere near as solid an investment as they had seemed when they were lavished with funds. One can see the non-bubble, non-cyclical deep problems pushed to the side, the use of knowledge of a few short years since the 1960's passing for expertise, the applications of tools for one problem to solutions of another. The federal reserve working to create the housing market to solve that problem with no one looking at the big picture. One can see the same players recycle from crisis to crisis. Part of why this happens is something that we might call the expertise principle. This principle might say that whatever situation occurs in crisis, and by in crisis here we mean as news requiring expert commentary, the situation is a modification of previous situations. Many times this may be true, but when we are invoking the principle, it is because it is not.
Consequently, although my broker had predicted a market downturn around 2000-2003 well before the dot com bust, based entirely on non-cyclical information, the removal of money from bank accounts to the stock market was due to peak around then, that would have created a scenario that had not been seen before, and so it did not occur, because an expert cyclical business recessions would not be an expert. If the facts conflict with the asserted distribution of expertise, the facts are rejected. This is a subtle version of what might be called social framing, in reference to the cognitive variety that George Lakoff presents. In this version, we reject the facts because they do not correspond well to the social frame of where the expertise lies and who the players are, in Lakoff's version (George Lakoff, Don't Think of an Elephant), we reject the perception because they do not correspond well to the cognitive frame of how we believe reality to be constructed. When this produces enough dissonance to finally be undeniable, we get the denial of expertise invocation, in which history is presented as a case where the experts were uniformly wrong. The current classic example of this was the existence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. There is a denial of the existence of experts better than those usually heard from who said he didn't have them, even though there were such experts, who, in retrospect, had better credentials of expertise than those who were wrong.
All of these actions and invocations work together to change the public perception and prevent change in a system that has just shown a serious or unconscionable result. Even without malice of forethought, these forces will prevent serious inquiry into the causes of a catastrophe, because they preserve the social order. And a lot of information that never, ever comes out, a lot of players who never seem to suffer any consequences for their action. And above all, invocations of complexity, and the ticking bomb: Something must be done now, regardless of norms, standards, laws, or dire things will happen. The situation is too complicated for anyone to understand. While the situation was building, it was nothing to worry about because we had seen it before under the expertise principle, and once it broke, there was uniform surprise that anything like this could occur. And finally collegiality: The players are not accused of crimes, even if they occurred. The problems are re-cast as political differences, competing theories. We don't put people in jail for theories, we have free speech and academic freedom, and besides, it was a crisis, we had to do something, times were different, you have to understand.
No matter what your opponent, or your co-conspirator for that matter, has done, it does not rise to the level of action, because no one wants to feel that their own actions might be so judged - even if they themselves have done nothing wrong. Regardless of how egregious the behavior of a colleague on the faculty at many academic institutions, the discussion of terminating a tenured professor will turn entirely on the question of whether or not taking action will lead down a slippery slope that will eventually threaten all the professors on the committee discussing the tenure review. It would only be in the case of public outcry so loud that it might threaten them from the outside that such an action would be taken, no matter what the alleged action or how despised the perpetrator. Sometimes this is a good thing, it limits all process to strict procedures and written terms for which tenure may be overridden. Usually it never gets to a full examination of those procedures, the idea of doing such a review will get shelved well before people debate the fine points of the removal process.
The War At Home and the War Against The People
One more input, and then we are ready to go back to figure out why the torture debate is forming the way it is. The roots of the war in Iraq. It has been obvious for a while now that some of the arguments and motivations all around in this war have their roots in the Vietnam War, the perceptions of why it was fought and how it was fought, the perceptions about how it concluded and why. Depending on point of view, these perceptions vary greatly. Depending on how much time and attention has been devoted to any given point of view or course of subsequent action, reactions and perceptions vary from extremely simpleminded to extremely complex. The overriding action that is important for this analysis is the interdependence between the progress in the war and the public perception at home. There was even a name for it at the time: It was called the War At Home. Famously, Simon and Garfunkel's Seven O'Clock News/Silent Night has in the background, "[Former Vice President Richard] Nixon also said 'Opposition to the War in this country is the greatest single weapon working against the U.S.'" Combined with an influential book called The Selling of the President 1968, there were the roots of a conscious manipulation of public opinion using marketing tools to influence politics and policy, and the belief that part of fighting a successful war was to fight the war at home, and that the decision of whether or not an action should be undertaken should not be left to the people, or to their representatives, but made by a small number of people who have the expertise, and the guts, to make them, usually in secret. Such secret decisions are necessary because only those who have full contact with the situation, and access to secrets, can be trusted to act properly on behalf of the people. This is a version of the anti-bureaucratic principle, that people in desk jobs don't know. It was on full display during the testimony of Oliver North before the Iran-Contra Committee (Cohen and Mitchell, Men of Zeal).
But managing the War At Home in the modern era is not an invocation itself. It has taken on the importance of a war itself. The scandal broken by the New York Times about the military analysts, and their relation to the Pentagon, had specific references to a psyops campaign. It is a well conceived, large, and broadly targeted campaign where the battlefront is the War At Home. If one feels like one is the target, if one feels like the American people are the enemy in this campaign, that is not really an accident. To the extent that the American people are capable of developing a reaction to the Global War on Terror that would cause it to come to an end other than that planned by its proponents, those Americans are the target and the enemy.
What are the tactics? There is a corps of military analysts who make sure the story that comes out from the press is compatible with the strategic and tactical goals of the war. Simultaneously, the embedding program has worked to make sure the message coming out from the real war is the message that would be most beneficial to the proponents. If that cannot be done, then it is the job of the analysts to lessen the impact and to challenge all points of view until the correct interpretation of the news becomes the norm. At the strategic level, members of the administration will fan out to the Sunday morning talk shows to present the message, and the talking points will be disseminated, and experts from think tanks supportive of the effort will be booked onto shows to present the proper point of view. When things don't work this well, there are the occasional firings, as with Gina Gray at Arlington National Cemetery recently in the news. The tactics do the following: Build support for the war, if the war goes badly, narrow the context of the part which is going badly. The religious civil war becomes criminal gunmen from militias and an outlaw group, al Qaeda. During the narrowing, work to prevent the information from flowing, reduce the profile of the war in the news. Remove the subjects from the portrayal that lead to changes in public perception -- coffins of soldiers returning home, burials. The public should be comfortable with what is happening, if that can be achieved, it should drop from their radar, they should be ignorant. This is not incompatible with a government which derives its mandate from the consent of the governed because of the anti-bureaucratic principle that only those on the ground should make such choices, the rest don't understand.
So now it's time for the bulleted list of invocations, principles and tactics:
- ticking bomb invocation
- collegiality invocation
- complexity invocation
- expertise principle
- analysis hurdle
- anti-bureaucratic principle
- social framing
- War At Home
- psyops campaign
Once the story is built this way, the psyops campaign has succeeded. The media can be relied on to invoke the expertise principle and pretend that we have seen this before, even though we really haven't. They can be expected to have, as their worst paradigms for comparison, Richard Nixon, and Joe McCarthy, even though Torquemada and Pol Pot might be more appropriate. Although occasionally someone will say it, almost never will any of these paradigms be reached or exceeded, which relegates the problem to the realm of the political.
At which point, the collegial principle will take over. No one wants this to turn into a criminal matter, because everyone believes that if a political matter turns criminal, we are headed down a slippery slope. The fact that it was a criminal matter to begin with, and that there is no slippery slope that really one can go down from torture, except possibly mass atrocity and genocide, gets lost for now. Time, for scandals, is like Carl Sandburg's Grass. And so we have predictions in the press that nothing will eventually come of the torture policy scandal. But it isn't a scandal, its a crime. But the truth seeps out from crimes and does not go away. But there are those, international prosecutors, investigators who refuse to quit, lawyers representing those tortured, who won't let the grass grow here. Specifically for those in Congress, for whom this isn't a scandal but an obligation, the belief that it is a political matter about which one should be collegial is currently strong. A wake up call is needed.
Notice: As soon as possible, we will be posting a letter that we wish to send to the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. We will be asking for an investigation, under Article 15 of the Rome Statute, which allows the Prosecutor to investigate at his discretion. We would like to add signatures to this letter,and will put up some method by which people can add their names. Alternatively, you may email the authors of this blog and ask to be added to the list.