Like they said, he had an impressive career. Maybe too impressive. I mean: perfect. He was being groomed for one of the top slots in the corporation. General. Chief of staff. Anything.
Before David Petraeus could assume his most recent top slot in the corporation—that of Director of Central Intelligence—there must first commence the kabuki of confirmation hearings.
While generally hailed by the Examiners and the Limbaughs as “our most successful general in a generation,” “a general who’s turned around two wars,  the most successful general of modern times,” Petraeus has in the past peeved such people with his perceived reluctance to run with the torture crowd.
Heretofore, Petraeus has been of the torture “turned around and bit us in the backside” school. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, fantasists—Rubio, Cornyn, DeMint, that crew—fanatically devoted to the delusion that torture had cracked open the secret of the dead man’s whereabouts, vowed to publicly drag their knuckles through the Petraeus hearings, hooting that the nominee must endorse employment of the prod and the generator and the bastinado, lest he face Trouble.
But, as it developed, it was a senator from the Democratic branch of the corporation, Mark Udall, who broached the subject. Asking the soon-to-be spook-chief: “do you see torture any differently in a CIA context than in a military context?”
Well, as it happens, Petraeus does. Seems he is now deeply concerned with the following hallucination: a “special situation” involving an “individual in your hands who you know has placed a nuclear device under the Empire State Building. It goes off in 30 minutes, he has the codes to turn it off.” And so, said Petraeus, he would like Congress to fashion a Law, one that will guarantee that any of his new charges who fall into such a hallucination, and therein begin wailing on people, will be Protected.
So. It has come to this. The new Director of Central Intelligence wants enshrined into law a figment. Fiction from television. Pixels. Vapor. Something that does not now, never will, never can exist.
Seeing what isn’t there, it really pays these days, at least for some people. Thursday the Senate voted 94-0 to promote Petraeus to his new top slot in the corporation.
The first problem with the Petraeus hallucination is this business about “the codes.”
Who is he talking about—”a nuclear device under the Empire State Building[;] [i]t goes off in 30 minutes, he has the codes to turn it off”? It is my understanding that Americans are supposed to not sleep at night for biting their nails over Al Qaeda, the Emmanuel Goldstein of our time. But Al Qaeda has never had anything to do with “codes.” That outfit has pretty much always been Three Men And A Truck Bomb. It did fly some airplanes into some buildings, but all in all it is better defined by those sadsacks who tried to set fire to their underpants and shoes. People who can’t successfully light their drawers on fire are going to stash under the Empire State Building a nuke that runs on “codes”?
Clearly, Petraeus has Max Headroomed inside an episode of 24, or fallen asleep into a Tom Clancy novel. It’s like he thinks the world is the fictional film Juggernaut, wherein a baddie puts aboard a cruise ship fiendishly clever bombs that have to be gingerly disarmed by his former mates in the Brit bomb squad, who are airlifted to the doomed vessel, floating (in a storm, natch) far out at sea. They are filled, these bombs, with terrifyingly complex wires and relays and liquids and whatnot, and if you don’t know what you’re doing while you’re monkeying around in there, they will blow any nearby heads right off. There is a Mean digital display inside each bomb, showing how many days and hours and minutes remain until The End. And no one has the codes!
When the police nab the baddie, they wail on him awhile with some truncheons; he is then heaved into a room and ordered to, via wireless, tell the Chief Disarmer, who is sweating deep inside a bomb, which of two wires to cut: one will disarm the bomb, the other will make it go boom. The baddie tells the Chief Disarmer to cut one wire; the Chief Disarmer cuts the other. And, as a result, All Are Saved.
Thus exposing the second problem with the Petraeus hallucination. Even if Three Men And A Truck Bomb do somehow contrive to smuggle a nuke under the Empire State Building—complete with codes!—no amount of electrifying the genitals of those involved is going to ensure that those people tell the truth. We know this from people the US has already treated like frogs in biology class, in the course of the War on Terra. They gave Abu Zubaydah, for instance, the full monty, and this is what they got:
They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a waterboard, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety—against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target.” And so, Suskind writes, “the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”
Darth Cheney’s boys, operating out there on “the dark side,” may have committed some serious oopsies in “leap[ing]” to treat as gospel whatever nuttery flowed from Zubaydah’s agonized lips. Like bringing the big hammer down on some Saudi princes and Pakistani generals who were, in fact, innocent.
But hey. Nobody said it was going to be easy, this War on Terra business. What’s important is that they got their hands on Zubaydah. And he had the codes!
The third and most basic problem with the Petraeus hallucination is that if you know there is “a nuclear device under the Empire State Building,” and you know that “it goes off in 30 minutes,” and you know that an “individual in your hands” “placed the [device],” and you know that “he has the codes,” then the laws of logic decree that you’re going to know so much about the entire operation that you’re going to know “the codes,” too.
Because “knowing” invokes certainty. The place beyond doubt. A place that is almost never attained in the real world. But that is attained very tidily, before the end of each episode, in nearly every show on television.
Scene of Baddie assembling nuclear device. Zoom in on Baddie putting in “the codes.” Cut to Baddie smuggling the device under the Empire State Building. Series of cuts depicting Heroic Authority Figure near-magically managing Somehow to Learn of The Plot. Roll endless car chase, at the conclusion of which Baddie is apprehended, and brought before Heroic Authority Figure. Cut to Heroic Authority Figure trying to talk to Baddie in civilized manner. Cut to Baddie snarling, spitting in the face of Heroic Authority Figure. Cut to device under the Empire State Building. Cut to angelic Disabled Girl hobbling onto the building’s observation platform, accompanied by blind father with guide dog. Cut to Heroic Authority Figure in deep conversation with underlings. Cut to Baddie smirking and smoking. Cut to Disabled Girl, the wind softly blowing through her angelic tresses. Cut to Heroic Authority Figure nodding mournfully to Chief Hulking Underling. Cut to Chief Hulking Underling, moving with dispatch, yet also regret, zoom in as he begins to snip off the first digits of Baddie’s fingers. Cut to corridor; screams heard bouncing off the walls. Roll many vehicles racing wildly through streets. Cut to Heroic Authority Figure, bending before the nuclear device, punching in “the codes” just seconds before the device will explode. Cut to white-garbed doctor, saying: “You got him here just in time; we were able to sew him back up so his hands’ll be as good as new.” Cut to Heroic Authority Figure, observing wryly: “Good enough to try to protect his backside, for the next 60 years in prison.” Cut to devoted underlings, chortling heartily. Cut to commercial.
That’s where an “individual [is] in your hands who you know has placed a nuclear device under the Empire State Building[;] [i]t goes off in 30 minutes, [and] he has the codes to turn it off” comes from. It’s not from life. It’s from television.
In life, you don’t know that sort of thing. You may suspect it. But that’s it. In life, if you are a cop or a spook, and someone comes flapping up to you to announce: “I am Darth Cheney, I placed a bomb under the Empire State Building, it will go off in thirty minutes, and I know the codes!” you don’t thereby know those things. In fact, odds are high that you have been presented with a barking lunatic.
George II, he “knew” that Abu Zubaydah was “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.” He told the American people that, in a nationally televised speech. He was convinced that Zubaydah “had the codes.” And he did. But they were codes like this:
CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries “in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3″—a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail “what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said.”
When the head of George II’s spook-shop, George Tenet, informed George II that Zubaydah was “mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be,” a man “insane, certifiable, split personality,” George II would have nothing to do with that reality.
Bush “was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,” Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, “Do some of these harsh methods really work?”
No. But they were used anyway. As apparently they will be used again, with Petraeus in his new top slot in the corporation, the next time somebody or other “knows” that somebody or other else “has the codes.”
These people who are so utterly convinced that they “know” things—who are they? I have trouble for some minutes—sometimes even hours—knowing my own name, when I wake up each morning. Much less do I “know” who might “have the codes.”
In my view, these “knowers” are pretty fucking scary. As far as I can tell, they’re the folks who transform this planet into a charnel house. As Robert Stone observed of them, in A Flag For Sunrise:
How could they? he wondered. How could they convince themselves that in this whirling tidal pool of existence, providence was sending them a message? Seeing visions, hearing voices, their eyes awash in their own juice—living on their own and borrowed hallucinations, banners, songs, kiddie art posters, phantom worship. The lines of bayonets, the marching rhythms, incense or torches, chanting, flights of doves—it was hypnosis. And they were the vampires. The world paid in blood for their articulate delusions, but it was all right because for a while they felt better. And presently they could put their consciences on automatic. They were beyond good and evil in five easy steps—it had to be okay because it was them after all. It was good old us, Those Who Are, Those Who See, the gang. Inevitably they grew bored with being contradicted. Inevitably they discovered the fundamental act of communication, they discovered murder. Murder was salutary, it provided reinforcement when they felt impotent or unworthy. It was something real, it made them folks and the reference to death reminded everyone that time was short and there could be no crapping around. For the less forceful, the acceptance of murder was enough. Unhappy professors, hyperthyroid clerics and flower children could learn the Gauleiter’s smirk. The acceptance showed that they were realists which showed that they were real.
Though elsewhere Petraeus is routinely referred to as “the man credited with turning back insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan,” there in the agency many believe Petraeus to be a form of moron. They call him Daffy Dave, and wish that he and his “counterinsurgency doctrine” would just go to sleep. Some of them have written these sorts of things down, from time to time, on paper or in the tubes, and over the past weeks such people have changed their pants hourly, as they feverishly sought to purge agency databases of all such references, before Petraeus arrived to secure his new top-slot. They do not, these people, want him reading such things. Which would likely mean that they would be assigned to the streets to work as hot-dog vendors.
It hasn’t been easy, these past years, being a spook. First there was Porter Goss and his Caligula crew; many of the agents with brains were booted in the backside, or fled voluntarily. George II, a sort of clumsy baby elephant who couldn’t help but trample whatever he touched, did more damage to the CIA with Goss and his cronies than a dozen “moles.”
Now Daffy Dave is arriving, to more or less cement the transformation of the CIA into an arm of the military. Petraeus is certainly not the first military man to serve as Director of Central Intelligence, but the darkly amusing little game of musical chairs that includes his appointment is particularly transparent: he is replacing Leon Panetta, who is moving over to the top slot of Defense Secretary. It’s like: general, Defense Secretary, CIA Director—what fucking difference does it make? It’s all the same corporation.
As Peter Oborne recently observed in the Telegraph:
Incoming defence secretary Leon Panetta’s solution, expounded at his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month—to place US military personnel under CIA direction, so their operations can be made secret and unaccountable—is sinister and unconstitutional.
Sinister, unconstitutional: whatever. “He has the codes!”
Maybe it’s for the best, that the CIA is easing out of the spy trade, to go marching on a road of bones with the rest of the boys.
Americans have never really been very good at espionage. They only started seriously peeping about 70 years ago, as compared to, say, the French, who’ve been about spying for 400 years, or the Chinese, who’ve been at it for 4000.
Then they drove into the ditch early, did the Americans, with their preoccupation with machines. Americans think that if something is worth knowing, they’ll learn it from a machine. So drones, satellite photographs, recording every conservation everywhere on the globe and then running them all through a battery of filtering devices—fun stuff like that, American spooks go for. Human beings are so devalued in the trade they are referred to with the ugly acronym HUMINT, which sounds like a form of robot. Ten years they looked for Osama bin Laden, with all their many machines, but when they finally found him, it was through a human being.
In their continuing reliance on machines, they haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on in the world, American spies and their masters. In contrast to, say, the French, who wanted nothing to do with Operation Iraqi Fiefdom, thank you very much, because a member of Saddam’s cabinet was on their payroll, and so they were pretty damn sure there were no WMDs in Iraq. The French tried to pass this guy on to the US, but the George II people didn’t want to hear about it. He interfered with their narrative, this guy, and anyway there is deep institutional suspicion of the French among GOoPers. This is because the French seem to have brains, and also enjoy sex. These concepts are alien to GOoPers. The French, to GOoPers, are a fearsome oddity: in the immortal words of National Lampoon, the French “fuck with their faces and fight with their feet.”
Too, the CIA is getting pretty irrelevant these days. Most American spookery post-9/11 comes courtesy numberless covert outfits directly embedded into the military. There has also been a metastasizing of spookery contractors, mercenaries, and freelance froot-loops. Many crazies have come of the box, since the War on Terra began, and there is no way to get them all back in again.
When Admiral William Fallon was appointed commander of CENTCOM, he soon learned that there were all sorts of shadowy spies and contractors and random assorted nutter platoons running around in his theater of operations. Yet he was precluded absolutely from knowing who they were, or what they were doing. He was afraid that some of them might someday go mad, and do something untoward, and the first he would hear about it was when somebody slipped a hood over his head, threw him aboard a plane, frogmarched him into Washington, and set him before a committee of Congress, intent on measuring his head for a pike.
So he quit.
And we learn Friday that the grand Durham investigation into the BushCo torture regime has culminated in criminal investigations of a few CIA rowdies involved in the deaths of two War on Terra prisoners.
And that seems to be it.
For those of us who have been following the War on Terra torture trail over the past decade, this “ending,” as Hunter S. Thompson said of the resignation of Richard Nixon, has “all the grace and meaning of a Coke bottle thrown off a third-floor fire escape on the Bowery.”
I was never one clamoring for large-scale prosecutions of George II and his merry men, because I figured it would never happen. And because I don’t like cages, regardless of who is in them. My shiny happy delusion was that there might be some form of truth and reconciliation commission, where everybody from Darth on down to this poor sap could get up there and get it all out, without fear of prosecution, in the hope and expectation of it happening never again.
But no. Not gonna be that way. It is going to happen again. For “he has the codes!” Eternal recurrence, bound for thee. Because there has been no learning. And “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”