Truthout Stories Wed, 17 Dec 2014 14:54:18 -0500 en-gb Stickup Kid ]]> News Wed, 17 Dec 2014 12:27:49 -0500 After Duo Created CIA Torture Methods, Did World's Largest Group of Psychologists Enable Abuses?

As a psychologist identified as the "architect" of the CIA's torture program admits he personally waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, we look at allegations that the American Psychological Association — the largest association of psychologists in the world — secretly colluded with U.S. abuses. Speaking to Vice News, retired Air Force psychologist James Mitchell confirmed for the first time he personally waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Mitchell was hired to help create the interrogation program along with his partner, Dr. Bruce Jessen. The Senate report says Mitchell and Jessen were paid $81 million to help design the CIA's torture methods, including some of the most abusive tactics. The Senate's findings come as the American Psychological Association has launched a review to determine whether its leadership also played a role in CIA torture. The APA's probe was prompted by revelations from Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter James Risen. In his new book, "Pay Any Price," Risen reveals how after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, the APA formed a task force that enabled the continued role of psychologists in the torture program. There has been a deep division within the APA's policy on interrogations for years. Unlike the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, the APA never prohibited its members from being involved in interrogations.

We are joined by two guests: Steven Reisner, a founding member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and psychological ethics adviser to Physicians for Human Rights; and Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of "A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror," as well as "Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: A retired Air Force psychologist identified as the "architect" of the CIA's torture program has confirmed for the first time he personally waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. James Mitchell told Vice News, quote, "Yes, I waterboarded KSM. I was part of a larger team that waterboarded a small number of detainees." Mitchell also reportedly waterboarded Abu Zubaydah at a secret CIA black site in Thailand. Mitchell was hired to help create the interrogation program along with his partner, Bruce Jessen, another psychologist. The Senate report says Mitchell and Jessen were paid $81 million to help design the CIA's torture methods, including some of the most abusive tactics. The pair had no prior experience in interrogation.

AMY GOODMAN: Defending his role last week, James Mitchell said the abuse of prisoners is preferable to the Obama administration's ongoing drone war that claims civilian lives. He was speaking to Vice News.

JAMES MITCHELL: To me, it seems completely insensible that slapping KSM is bad, but sending a Hellfire missile into a family's picnic and killing all the children and, you know, killing Granny and killing everyone is OK, for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is: What about that collateral loss of life? And the other is, is that if you kill them, you can't question them.

AARON MATÉ: As Mitchell defends his part in the torture program, the American Psychological Association has launched a review to determine whether its leadership played a role. The APA's probe was prompted by revelations in the new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist James Risen. The book reveals how after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal the APA formed a task force that enabled the continued role of psychologists in the torture program. One APA official wrote an email expressing gratitude to an intelligence official for influencing the decision, saying, quote, "Your views were well represented by the very carefully selected task force members."

AMY GOODMAN: There has been a deep division within the American Psychological Association's policy on interrogations for years. Unlike the American Medical Association and the smaller APA, the American Psychiatric Association, the APA, the American Psychological Association, which is the largest association of psychologists in the world, never prohibited its members from being involved in interrogations.

We're joined right now by two guests. We're going first to Steven Reisner, founding member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and psychological ethics adviser to Physicians for Human Rights. His latest piece for Slate is called "CIA on the Couch: Why there would have been no torture without the psychologists."

Well, Steven Reisner, it's great to have you back on Democracy Now! You also, years ago, ran for president of the APA, and your major plank was to stop involvement with torture. Your campaign, along with many hundreds of psychologists within the APA, has been going on for years. You now say that the torture could not have gone on without your colleagues, the psychologists?

STEVEN REISNER: Unfortunately, yes, that is true. The Bush administration's Justice Department created a legal rationale for torture that required the presence of psychologists and medical professionals. And so, on one hand, for legal cover, there had to be psychologists present. On the other hand—and even more horrifying for members of my profession—the torture regime itself was created at the CIA by these two psychologists, Mitchell and Jessen, and in the Department of Defense psychologists were involved in creating the torture program and in overseeing it from the beginning to the end.

AARON MATÉ: Talk about the role of Mitchell and Jessen, these two contractors paid $81 million to come up with these tactics that were used—basically created the program.

STEVEN REISNER: Well, these two psychologists were sought out by the CIA because the CIA had been—had found this manual, which they called a resistance manual, an al-Qaeda resistance manual. And in it, the al-Qaeda operatives are taught how to handle their imprisonment to not give up too much information. So someone had the idea that our own resistance trainers, psychologists, might have something to say about that manual. This seems to have been an opportunity for Mitchell and Jessen. They were resistance trainers who had been part of a program to basically torture our own soldiers to try to teach them to resist. So, the two of them got the manual, they wrote about it, and they claimed that they had special expertise, because of their resistance training, to break the resistance of al-Qaeda members.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how significant they were and the response by the American Psychological Association to what they were doing. It wasn't also just the two of them. They started the program. They got tens of millions of dollars for it.

STEVEN REISNER: Well, they created this torture program and justified it. They did the assessment of the prisoners, they did the torture itself, and then they did the evaluation of how well the torture worked. The level of conflict of interest and their self-promotion is horrendous. And it started a kind of virus of putting psychologists in these roles of overseeing and directing enhanced interrogations. And what happened very early on is that the professional—the American Psychological Association decided that it was going to do its part by bringing researchers together with operatives to make those interrogations more effective, on the one hand, and to find a way to permit psychologists to be present, according to—by changing its ethical policy, on the other hand.

AMY GOODMAN: Let's go to Vice News, go back to the Vice News interview with one of the two psychologists who helped create the CIA's program. James Mitchell was asked if the so-called EITs, enhanced interrogation techniques, were designed to get actionable intelligence. This was what he said.

JAMES MITCHELL: It was to facilitate getting actionable intelligence by making a bad cop, that was bad enough that the person would engage with a good cop. I would be stunned if they found any kind of evidence to suggest that EITs, as they were being applied, yielded actionable intelligence.

AARON MATÉ: That's James Mitchell, architect of the tactics used in the CIA torture program, speaking to Vice News. We're going to be joined now by Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He's the author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror and Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation. Professor McCoy, can you talk about the role of Mitchell and Jessen in this torture program?

ALFRED McCOY: Well, they were the latest in a long history of American and Canadian psychologists helping the CIA design its interrogation protocols. This is an extraordinarily long history that goes back to 1951, when the CIA, in alliance with British and Canadian psychologists, set out to crack the code of human consciousness. And they worked with a very famous Canadian psychologist named Donald O. Hebb. And he conducted a series of experiments from 1951 to '54 that discovered the basic concept of sensory deprivation or sensory disorientation, which, when you read the Senate report, that is the core of the CIA's tactics.

These were originally developed for offensive uses, for us to break down captured Soviet spies. Then, in 1955, some 30 pilots returned as prisoners of war from North Korea, and they had been tortured. They gave statements, some of them, on Radio Beijing, alleging falsely that the United States had engaged in germ warfare. One of the pilots, a Marine Corps aviator, was put on trial. He was court-martialed. And at the end of this very sad saga, President Eisenhower ordered that all American military personnel at risk of capture by the enemy should be conditioned to resist torture. And this was the origin in the U.S. Air Force of the survival, evasion, escape, resistance doctrine, OK, which was using these psychological torture techniques, flipping them and using them defensively to train our personnel to resist enemy interrogation.

During the long years of the Cold War, the CIA propagated the offensive techniques among our allies worldwide. We trained SAVAK in Iran. We ran the Phoenix Program in South Vietnam. We trained Latin American militaries in the doctrine of torture. And as the Cold War wound up in the 1980s, the CIA did a review, repudiated the doctrine, developed a policy of not using coercive techniques. The Defense Department recalled the training manuals from Latin American militaries, under Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. These manuals were destroyed, and it was all over.

Now, when 9/11 struck, the only place where these techniques resided within the bowels of the U.S. bureaucracy was in the SERE doctrine. And so, it's quite logical that the CIA turned to two former U.S. Air Force SERE trainers and got them to, again, reverse-engineer the defensive doctrine into an offensive doctrine, using these psychological torture techniques against al-Qaeda and terrorist suspects.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what KUBARK is?

ALFRED McCOY: Sure. KUBARK was the distillation of the CIA's decade of research into these psychological torture techniques. All that work, that first of all developed sensory deprivation or sensory disorientation, and then parallel work done by two researchers at Cornell University Medical School—they found that the KGB's most effective torture technique was not brutal beating, but self-inflicted pain. And these two basic doctrines of sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain were encoded in something called the KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual in 1963. KUBARK was then the CIA's cryptonym for itself. So, the real title of the manual was the CIA's Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual. And that manual and those techniques were propagated worldwide for the next 30 years among U.S. allies in Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa, Iran, and particularly South Vietnam.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to break and then come back to this discussion. In our last segment, we're going to be talking with former Senator Mike Gravel. He's calling on Colorado outgoing Senator Mark Udall to read into the Congressional Record the full Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA's involvement with torture. But before we do that, we've got lots to cover with Professor Alfred McCoy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr. Steven Reisner. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Professor Al McCoy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Steven Reisner, who formerly ran for president of the American Psychological Association. He's a founding member of the Coalition for Ethical Psychology. I want to turn to a part of a [ 2007 ] Democracy Now! broadcast from San Francisco on a vote by the American Psychological Association's Council of Representatives to reject a proposal to ban psychologists from participating in interrogations at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere. This meeting in San Francisco at this time was incredibly contentious. Many APA members wanted to reject the resolution, even though it was about to be approved. Democracy Now! was filming. One by one, these psychologists took to the stage to voice their outrage.

DAN AALBERS: My name is Dan Aalbers, and I am just another psychologist who thinks that the moral issue of our time has landed at our doorstep. ... We have made an enormous mistake, and I think it's not only did we do the wrong thing morally, we did not act in our best interests. We are now standing against the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the British Psychological Society, numerous human rights organizations, the U.N., the Council of Europe. And this detention and interrogation policy is going to go down. And once it does go down, we will find that we have secured the best cabin on the Titanic. Thank you.

NANCY WECKER: Hi, my name is Nancy Wecker. I'm in private practice in San Francisco. I just want to propose a conflict that we have. It's like we're embedded in the military, you know, like the journalists who are embedded in the war. That's our problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Not long after the town hall meeting had begun, the APA's public affairs officer approached Democracy Now! and told us to stop filming. She said we could only tape 10 minutes and that we had passed our time limit. I got on the microphone and told the people gathered at the meeting what was happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Excuse me, just [inaudible] a point of procedure. We're told that reporters are only allowed to record for 10 minutes, and Pamela Willenz of the APA said that she will call security on us now, because we're going to be recording for more than 10 minutes. So I was wondering if there could be any sense of the meeting, or a rationale, since this is a town hall meeting, for not being allowed to record for more than 10 minutes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We want to vote.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Can we vote to allow recording at the town hall meeting? Can we all vote to allow recording?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Can we vote to allow recording?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: We want the press to witness this.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Can everyone who approves of allowing the reporters to record please raise your hand?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, folks, the recording will continue through the session.

AMY GOODMAN: And with that, we continued taping the town hall meeting. APA members were outspoken about their concerns. Retired Bay Area psychologist Carter Mehl criticized the APA leadership for not bringing the issue of interrogations to the forefront.

DR. CARTER MEHL: Why are we being secretive? I understand why the CIA needs to be secretive. We are a public organization. And I would like someone from APA leadership to explain their rationale, why they thought a town meeting like this should be cut off, that the press should be excluded after 10 minutes. I would really like to know. I'm trying to understand. That is my problem, is what is the leadership coming from? Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This was a meeting of the American Psychological Association. It was in 2007. Now, before this kind of speak-out, at the formal meeting, psychologist Jean Maria Arrigo stood on the dais before this standing-room crowd at the annual APA meeting. This came two years after she participated in an APA panel known as the PENS Task Force that concluded psychologists working in interrogations play a, quote, "valuable and ethical role." Arrigo criticized the findings and make-up of the panel.

JEAN MARIA ARRIGO: Six of the 10 members were highly placed in the Department of Defense, as contractors and military officers. For example, one was the commander of all military psychologists. Their positions on two key items of controversy in the PENS report were predetermined by their DOD employment, in spite of the apparent ambivalence of some. These key items were: (a) the permissive definition of torture in U.S. law versus the strict definition in international law, and, second, participation of military psychologists in interrogation settings versus nonparticipation. Those are the two principal issues. And because of their employment, they have to decide the way they do.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the psychologist Jean Maria Arrigo. She was part of this PENS Task Force—and PENS stands for Psychological Ethics and National Security—the original whistleblower on this report that's on this committee, that's now being cited with James Risen reporting on the emails that came out around this. Steven Reisner, if you could talk more about her role and what has now been revealed about this critical PENS meeting. Speaking of secrecy around this meeting, Jean Maria Arrigo talked about, in the meeting, her natural tendency was to begin taking notes. She was invited to be on this panel. And another member of the panel turned to her and said, "You will put your notes down now."

STEVEN REISNER: Right. It's probably the only task force in APA history where the members were forbidden from taking notes. So, Jean Maria was a part of this task force because she's an oral historian in military and national security intelligence. But she suspected, rather quickly, that the task force had been brought together for some purpose that wasn't communicated to all the members, but had only been understood by the military-connected members. But she was sworn to secrecy. And she kept that secrecy pretty much until she had a conversation with myself and a few other of us who were questioning the task force. And I mentioned to her that I had just learned that the head of the APA Practice Directorate, Russ Newman, was married to a BSCT in Guantánamo and that that was not—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what "BSCT" is.

STEVEN REISNER: A BSCT is a behavioral science consultant. The BSCTs at Guantánamo oversaw the interrogations. That was the part of the role, the essential role, that psychologists played in this whole process. And I had mentioned that because General Kiley was a guest at that convention, and he had mentioned that to a group of us. And Jean Maria kind of turned white, and she said, "One of the secrets that I was asked to keep was that Russ Newman was a guiding force at that task force. And we didn't know that his wife was a BSCT at Guantánamo." So she said that now that this is revealed, "that I was basically duped. I'm going to reveal all that took place at that meeting, because I think that that meeting had some—that it was a duplicitous meeting, that the APA was colluding with the CIA and the Pentagon." It turns out that she was very prescient, because Jim Risen's book gives us the smoking gun to validate what Jean Maria suspected at the time.

AARON MATÉ: So the APA is now probing this, probing this task force that worked with the CIA. Why do you think they would have done this in the first place?

STEVEN REISNER: Would have done which? Probe or agree?

AARON MATÉ: Why they would have colluded with the CIA to enable the program?

STEVEN REISNER: Well, we've all been wondering about that. The American Psychological Association has deep, long-standing connections with the Department of Defense and the intelligence agencies. In fact, the Department of Defense was the first government agency to really recognize the important roles that psychologists play. A huge number of psychologists work for the Department of Defense at the VAs and in the military itself, so—but also, some very key members of the American Psychological Association governance have always had ties to military contracts. There are members of the governance who run an organization called HumRRO, which is a—which has itself tens of millions of dollars of Pentagon contracts to supply psychological expertise to the Pentagon. So there's all kinds of unfortunate overlap and conflicts of interest that seem to press the APA to support military policy uncritically and sometimes, perhaps, behind the scenes.

News Wed, 17 Dec 2014 11:52:01 -0500
Mike Gravel to Sen. Mark Udall: Make Full Torture Probe Public Like I Did With Pentagon Papers

On the Senate floor last week, outgoing Democratic Sen. Mark Udall called for a purge of top CIA officials implicated in the torture program and cover-up, including current Director John Brennan. But as he enters the final days of his Senate term, Udall is facing calls to take action of his own. The Senate findings released last week amount to only a fraction of the full report — 480 heavily redacted pages out of more than 6,000 pages total. The White House has blocked the report's full release in deference to the CIA's wishes. That's sparked demands that Udall invoke a rarely used congressional privilege and make the report public. There is precedent for him to follow: In 1971, then-Alaska Senator Mike Gravel entered more than 4,000 pages of the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers into the Senate record, insisting the public had a right to know the truth behind the Vietnam War. More than four decades later, Gravel joins us to talk about his historic action and why he is now calling on Udall to follow in his footsteps with the full Senate report on CIA torture.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: On the Senate floor last week, outgoing Democratic Senator Mark Udall called for a purge of top CIA officials implicated in the torture program and cover-up, including current director John Brennan. In stark language, Udall accused the CIA of lying.

SEN. MARK UDALL: The CIA has lied to its overseers in the public, destroyed and tried to hold back evidence, spied on the Senate, made false charges against our staff, and lied about torture and the results of torture. And no one has been held to account. ... There are right now people serving in high-level positions at the agency who approved, directed or committed acts related to the CIA's detention and interrogation program. It's bad enough not to prosecute these officials, but to reward or promote them and risk the integrity of the U.S. government to protect them is incomprehensible. The president needs to purge his administration of high-level officials who were instrumental to the development and running of this program.

AARON MATÉ: As Senator Udall urges President Obama to fire John Brennan, Udall himself faces calls to take action of his own. The Senate findings released last week amount to only a fraction of the full report—480 heavily redacted pages out of more than 6,000 pages total. The White House has blocked release of the full report so far, backing the CIA's wishes. That's sparked demands that Udall invoke a rarely used congressional privilege and make the report public. Using the absolute free speech rights for members of Congress, Udall could read the torture report into the Congressional Record. And with his term about to expire after losing re-election, Udall has not ruled that out, saying he will, quote, "keep all options on the table."

AMY GOODMAN: There is a precedent for Senator Udall to enter the torture report into the public record. In 1971, after The New York Times published portions of the Pentagon Papers, the Nixon administration tried to block the release of further details. But a junior senator from Alaska named Mike Gravel insisted the public had a right to know the truth behind the war. He then read more than 4,000 pages of the 7,000-page document into the Senate record—well, not exactly read. He did, though, put them into the Congressional Record. Senator Gravel spoke to the media about his decision.

SEN. MIKE GRAVEL: When I came into possession of these papers, I looked around, and nobody in government had done anything. The only thing that was being done in government was an effort to stifle and hide this stuff. And it just dawned on me that somebody—if we're going to have any faith at all in our institutions, somebody from government's got to be—got to have the same resolve, the same feelings for stopping the killing as Ellsberg did, as the Post did, as The New York Times did, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as all these...

Not only myself, because the people who released this were bureaucrats. They're all bureaucrats, the people that we disparage so often. They weren't elected officials, they were bureaucrats. And they had much less risk than I have. The risk that I have is being expulsed from the Senate. ...

Tonight, right now, we have these documents. We have them under the most stringent circumstances imaginable. Mr. President, Mr. Congressman, there is no ... the people must know the full story of what has occurred over the past 20 years within their government. The story is a terrible one. It is replete with duplicity, connivance against the public and public officials. I know of nothing in our history to equal it for extent of failure and extent of loss, in all aspects of the term.

AMY GOODMAN: That's Senator Mike Gravel in 1971 taking advantage of congressional privilege to disclose the contents of the Pentagon Papers that were then kept secret. Well, today, four decades later, former Senator Gravel is among those calling on Senator Mark Udall to follow in his footsteps and enter the full Senate report on CIA torture into the Congressional Record. Former Senator Gravel joins us now from San Francisco. He's the former senator from Alaska, serving from 1969 to 1981.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Senator Gravel. You putting this into the record meant, for the first time, though the Times had reported on it and The Washington Post had reported on the Pentagon Papers, that the full Pentagon Papers were now available to the public. Can you talk about what you're asking Senator Udall to do now, as he leaves the Senate, having been defeated in Colorado?

MIKE GRAVEL: Well, he may have the opportunity getting his hands on the full report. He doesn't have to read it into the Senate record. It's already in the Senate record, because it's the record of a committee. So you don't have to duplicate that. What he has to do is exercise the speech and debate clause, take this record of 6,000 pages, put a press release describing why he's doing it, and release it to the public. It's that simple.

Most members of Congress, unfortunately, don't fully understand that there's three functions that representatives have to perform. One is to inform the public. Two is to legislate. And three is to have oversight. And so, what we have with the release of this document, or the summary, was an oversight. This is—they conducted oversight, and they released it to the public. Madison, Jefferson, James Wilson, George Washington all felt—all felt the most important function of representation was to inform the people as to what their government is doing. And so, this is all that the Feinstein committee has done thus far, but we need to see the entire record so that it could be probed.

I'll give you an example. I'm very concerned about the egregious corruption that has brought about the incarceration of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. Now, does her name show up in the 150 names that are in the summary? Or in the several thousand names? Because she has been put in jail because—when she's not a terrorist. And she suffered five years of rendition at the hands of the American government and the Pakistani government, who was paid off with bonuses for that.

Amy, let me touch upon the arguments that are made with respect to the report that's already been released, and that is very simply that this is partisan. Well, it's not partisan. The study began in the committee with both the Democrats and Republicans. But when the Republican leadership began to see what was unfolding, well, they withdrew. They withdrew their staff people working on the documents. Now, what are the documents? And this goes to the issue, "Well, they didn't interview us." Well, you're going to interview these people? Do you think they're going to tell you the truth? These documents are internal emails, communications, that really indict themselves in the wrongdoing. And that's what the documents show. So, now, when we talk about the partisanship, it's not the partisanship. This is not a Democratic deal. This is a very simple, straightforward, under the Constitution, reporting to the American people what their government has done.

And the dialogue that just took place before I came on just shows the level of debasement—debasement—of the American morality that's taken place over the years with—we're not talking about people off the street doing this, we're talking about elites that are deeply involved with the military debasing our morality. And then the comment is, "Well, there's no reaction from the American people." There's no way for the people to react until Election Day. And by that time, it's too confused.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Senator Gravel—

MIKE GRAVEL: So, all I can say is—

AARON MATÉ: —going back to your decision in 1971 to speak out, I imagine that you were under pressure to not take the action that you did. What factored into your decision, and how did you prepare?

MIKE GRAVEL: Well, I didn't have to prepare. When I was 23 years old, I was a top-secret control officer in the Communications Intelligence Service. Now, back then, we wiretapped and opened people's mail wantonly. This was in Europe. Now, move forward, I'm now 42 years old, and I'm in the United States Senate. Nixon sends over the Pentagon Papers to the Senate and to the House.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds, Senator Gravel.

MIKE GRAVEL: It's put in a room, under armed guard. And a senator—no staff members allowed, but a senator can't go in—and even taking notes. Now, at 42 and a United States senator, I can't do that, but when I was 23, I could do that wantonly. I mean, it just shows you how silly we are trapped in this unbelievable culture of secrecy that is in the military and has permeated through the rest of our culture.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Gravel—

MIKE GRAVEL: Example, what's been talked about recently.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to wrap here, but we're going to do part two with you, and we're going to post it online at Mike Gravel is the former U.S. senator from Alaska, best known for his release of the Pentagon Papers. He's calling on Mark Udall to do something similar, the senator from Colorado, the outgoing senator, is to get the Senate Intelligence Committee full thousands of pages into the Congressional Record.

That does it for our show. Happy birthday to Renée Feltz. I'll be speaking tonight in Washington, D.C., at Busboys and Poets at 5:30. Check our website.

]]> (Bethania Palma) News Wed, 17 Dec 2014 11:41:26 -0500
Year in Review: Part 1 ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Wed, 17 Dec 2014 11:26:12 -0500 How the CIA Covered Up Its Lie on Torture and bin Laden

The Senate torture report reveals how senior CIA officials concealed the agency's false account of its torture program, focused on Osama bin Laden's courier and used the film Zero Dark Thirty to popularize its own line while suppressing evidence that contradicted it.

Men crowd onto the top of an adjacent building to get a view of the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals two days before, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 4, 2011. A report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Dec. 9, 2014 discredits the often-repeated notion that the torture of detainees was instrumental in locating bin Laden. (Warrick Page/The New York Times)Men crowd onto the top of an adjacent building to get a view of the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals two days before, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 4, 2011. A report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Dec. 9, 2014 discredits the often-repeated notion that the torture of detainees was instrumental in locating bin Laden. (Warrick Page/The New York Times)

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The Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report sheds new light on how the CIA created and then continued to protect its false claim that it found Osama bin Laden in part because of its abusive interrogation tactics.

The report presents detailed evidence based on reviewing millions of pages of CIA documents that the identification of bin Laden's courier who was eventually found to be living with the al-Qaeda leader in the Abbottabad compound had nothing to do with the CIA torture program.

And in revealing the new details about what the CIA knew and when it knew, the report documents for the first time the extraordinary mendacity of the CIA's senior managers in seeking to hide the truth from Congress, senior cabinet officers and the public.

From the moment bin Laden was killed, the CIA launched a determined new campaign to convince Congress and the public that its torture program had been key to locating bin Laden - and that the agency's operations people had tracked him down by a series of operations in which one operation yielded clues that brought still others and led ultimately to Abbottabad. That campaign ultimately extended to using the popular film Zero Dark Thirty to promote the agency's justification for torture.

The same day as the raid in Abbottabad, the CIA deputy director, Michael Morell, briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee, and two days later CIA director Leon Panetta himself led a second such briefing. In both briefings, the CIA asserted that interrogation of CIA detainees with "enhanced interrogation techniques" had "played a substantial role" in developing the intelligence that led to bin Laden, according to the committee report.

But the report shows that, contrary to the agency's claim, the CIA's abusive interrogation methods did not produce any information on bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, that did not become available from another authoritative source through traditional interrogation methods.

The CIA rebuttal, currently posted on its website, presents the argument the agency had been making for years: that al-Qaeda operative Ammar al-Baluchi, "after undergoing EITs, was the first detainee to reveal that Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti served as a courier for messages from Bin Ladin after Bin Laden had departed Afghanistan."

The CIA statement claims the information obtained from al-Baluchi by its "enhanced" interrogation methods "prompted CIA to re-question other detainees on Abu Ahmad's role, to review previous reporting in light of this information, and to increase the focus of Abu Ahmad's role in our questioning." In combination with other information, it said, the information allowed the agency to ultimately "determine his true name and location."

That CIA argument became the dominant popular understanding of the relationship between the CIA's torture tactics and the intelligence on al-Qaeda and bin Laden when it was transferred to the silver screen in the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty, which won Academy Award nominations for best picture and best screenplay.

Whatever personal views film director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal may have had about the CIA torture program, the film followed the CIA script on the issue of greatest importance to the agency. That was hardly coincidental. Boal confirmed that he had gotten "first-hand accounts" of the process of tracking the courier from those who were involved. Administration officials acknowledged that Boal had been given access to White House, Pentagon and CIA officials - including the real-life CIA officer depicted in the film. Those meetings ensured Zero Dark Thirty would tell a story that suited the interests of those seeking to protect the CIA's reputation.

The film begins with a scene showing a detainee bloodied from being beaten and strung up on ropes that is followed by another scene of the detainee being waterboarded. Significantly, the torture victim in the film is named "Ammar." The filmmakers could not have known to call the character "Ammar" without being told by the real-life "Maya" or other CIA officials, because Ammar al-Baluchi's name had never been published.

Maya, the female CIA officer in the movie who witnesses the torture of Ammar, appears to experience revulsion to it, but then shakes off her initial reaction and reaffirms her determination to get bin Laden - through torture if necessary.

Left alone with Ammar, who pleads for her to stop the torture, Maya tells him, "You can help yourself by being truthful." Later, after Maya has tried to trick Ammar into revealing the name of bin Laden's courier, he yields the information under torture. And although the courier had come under different names, according to the movie, it was Ammar's identification of al-Kuwaiti that motivated Maya to pursue that figure over the next few years.

Thanks to the Senate report, we now know that Bigelow and Boal swallowed a CIA account that used its torture of Ammar al-Baluchi to buttress its argument that the torture program played a role in recognizing the importance of bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti.

The Senate torture report confirms that the CIA did indeed torture Ammar al-Baluchi from May 17, 2003, to May 20, 2003, and that he did tell his interrogators under torture that al-Kuwaiti was bin Laden's courier. But it also reveals what the CIA and Zero Dark Thirty never acknowledged - that, on May 19, 2003, al-Baluchi insisted that he had fabricated the information he had given them about al-Kuwaiti the previous day.

The report shows that al-Baluchi told his interrogators that a brother of al-Kuwaiti was to take over courier duties for Osama bin Laden. Then in June 2003, al-Baluchi said there were rumors that al-Kuwaiti was a courier.  Finally, in January 2004, he retracted all his previous testimony and claimed that al-Kuwaiti was never a courier for bin Laden, because he was too young and inexperienced.

Even more important, however, the report shows how the CIA sought to prevent the Senate Intelligence Committee from learning that the most reliable intelligence on al-Kuwaiti actually came from an al-Qaeda detainee named Hassan Ghul during interrogation immediately after being captured in Iraqi Kurdistan in January 2004 before he was in the custody of the CIA. A footnote in the report quotes former CIA targeting officer Nada Bakos recounting how Ghul provided the critical information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti to Kurdish officials in a free-flowing conversation in a Kurdish safehouse where he was under no coercion.

According to the CIA documents cited by the Senate report, Ghul even told his Kurdish interrogators that al-Kuwaiti and bin Laden would probably be living in the same place. That in itself would have been sufficient to focus the CIA's bin Laden team on finding al-Kuwaiti.

The report also made it clear that there was no reason to torture Ghul. Nevertheless, the CIA's torture program managers insisted on torturing Ghul as soon as he was in their custody without even giving him a chance to talk freely. The interrogators subjected him to extreme sleep deprivation and a "hanging position" that caused him "mild paralysis," as CIA reports described it. In the end, CIA reports show, Ghul provided no additional information on al-Kuwaiti.

And when the Senate committee finally learned about Ghul's volunteering the crucial information about al-Kuwaiti after being picked up in Kurdistan and asked the CIA about it in October 2013, the agency pretended it knew nothing about it. "We have not identified any information in our holdings suggesting that Hassan Gul [sic] first provided information on Abu Ahmad while in [foreign] custody," according to the agency's response.

The CIA response was the most recent move in what we now know was a simple strategy for deceiving Congress and the White House: The officials who had been in charge of the program had used the elementary bureaucratic trick of withholding documents that would contradict the interests of the agency in question and claim upon further questioning that they did not find any such documents. The officials responsible for maintaining the fiction could not have anticipated that a former agency officer who knew the truth would ever speak out publicly and destroy what had appeared to be a successful cover-up.

News Wed, 17 Dec 2014 12:05:10 -0500
CIA Torture Is Out in the Open - but Guantanamo Bay Detainees Are Still Going Nowhere

The recent release of a US Senate committee’s report on CIA interrogation methods during the War on Terror has sent shockwaves around the world. Detailing the extent and sheer brutality of the enhanced interrogation techniques used during the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme after 9/11, it is a devastating exposé of the US attitude to fundamental human rights during a desperately dark era.

The US and its allies complicit in its illegal rendition, secret detention and torture programme are now busily proclaiming that the torture described in the report was wrong, shameful and now a thing of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We must not forget the 136 detainees remaining in Guantanamo Bay, who are still being tortured and held indefinitely without trial.

For them, the era of abuse and injustice described in the report is far from over – and hopes of an end to the facility’s nightmarish legal story are faint indeed.

Open and Shut

Prior to his election, the US president, Barack Obama, vowed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and, in fact, in January 2009, he signed an executive order mandating that other venues for the detainees be found.

To date, he has been devastatingly unsuccessful – largely thanks to the persistent blocking of his requests by Congress.

However, there are rumours that Obama is planning to issue another executive order for the closure of Guantanamo Bay that would sidestep the bans imposed by lawmakers in Congress on bringing the detainees to the US in the event of the camp’s closure.

But even if Obama does take a bold step like that, it’s hard to imagine how one could come to terms with the injustice of suffering years of torture while imprisoned outside the rule of law.


The release of the torture report comes at a time when the Obama administration is currently battling a court order, which his administration seeks to overturn, from a US federal judge who has called on the administration to make public videos of Guantanamo inmates being force-fed – an act which has been condemned by the UN as torture.

Gruesome descriptions of the suffering inflicted upon inmates on hunger strike has gained much attention and forms part of a very long list of the systematic violation of human rights at the detention facility since its opening in 2002.

The US has ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which not only categorically forbids it from practising torture but also requires it to prevent and hold accountable any individuals who are involved in these particular kinds of human rights violations.

Hence the sorry saga of the US authorities' efforts to exempt Guantanamo’s inmates from the law.


In seeking to avoid condemnation and ensure that these heinous acts were somehow “legal” from the start, George W Bush’s administration sought to redefine torture to exclude some of its favourite techniques, including psychological torture and waterboarding.

This was done by narrowing the definition to include only suffering “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”.

Similarly, in order to sidestep its legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the United States defined al-Qaeda members as “unlawful enemy combatants” without prisoner-of-war status.

That meant individuals subjected to torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment were understood to no longer be protected by the rights and protections enshrined in Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, which would hold the US accountable for charges of war crimes.

Guantanamo has also come in for criticism in relation to the rights of the child and the treatment of child soldiers because of 15-year-old detainee Omar Khadr, who was imprisoned there for eight years. But of course, the United States is one of only three countries in the world (along with Somalia and South Sudan) who have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Left Hanging

There is one piece of international human rights law to which the US is legally bound and out of which it cannot easily wriggle (linguistically speaking). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law, to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Of the total of 779 inmates ever detained at Guantanamo Bay only nine have been convicted of any crime and last year, the U.S. government identified 46 individuals on an “indefinite detainee” list – people who are thought to be too dangerous to release or move, but who cannot be tried in a civilian or military court.

As long as Guantanamo Bay is still operating – and as long as its detainees are subjected to torture and unlawfully deprived of their various rights enshrined in international human rights and humanitarian law – any apologies from leaders in the US or its allies for the findings of the torture report cannot be taken seriously.

News Wed, 17 Dec 2014 10:57:02 -0500
Prosecute the Prosecutors: A Way to Justice in Staten Island, Ferguson and Cleveland

Thousands are protesting across the nation to seek justice in the Staten Island, Ferguson and Cleveland cases.  Leaders from President Obama to members of Congress to state and local officials are joining an outraged public in calling for conversations about how and why unarmed young Black men and children have been killed by police in recent weeks. Angriness with police actions in African American communities has been simmering for decades.

There is a way to achieve justice and that is to prosecute the prosecutors. The law provides that victims and families of victims can sue in cases of prosecutorial malfeasance. Prosecutors are rarely charged criminally, and even more rarely convicted criminally by reluctant courts who work with them, but it can and should happen when merited.  The families should not be faced with a brick wall of prosecutors they think are immunized from action when lawsuits are in fact possible, especially in glaring circumstances. Civil suits against the prosecutors are another route for damages for Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice’s families.

The three cases would be very different from one another but the most glaring is the Staten Island case, where a video shows store-owner Eric Garner first rationally asking what he had done and then gasping during a choke hold, something that was barred for over 20 years, saying many times before dying, “I can’t breathe.” Daniel Panteleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner, has several complaints of false arrests and unwarranted and unlawful strip searches, and police have had to settle.

People believe a grand jury’s proceedings are totally secret but in fact, witnesses who testify are free to come out and say what happened inside.  Ramsey Orta, the Staten Island videographer, told the press that he was made to testify in only a cursory way, for 10 minutes, and during his testimony, the grand jury members were tweeting and texting, paying little attention.  The prosecutor, who runs the show, essentially blew off Orta, clearly wanting to get rid of him as soon as possible.

This man had likely the most important onsite evidence proving murder.  It was the Zapruder film of the case.  The coroner had five options from “undetermined causes” on down but branded the situation specifically the most forceful —“homicide” — and stated that the “choke hold” and “pressure” on the chest killed the victim.  The man who was there, shot the video, saw it all unfold, saw the angles, saw the time durations, and saw the result was blown off.

Ten minutes?  The jury playing around, ignoring it? The prosecutor not asking the jury to focus, and the prosecutor not asking this witness penetrating questions for several hours?  This seems a preeminent potential case of holding prosecutors accountable.

In Ferguson, there was no video evidence (revealed to date), other than Michael Brown lying unattended for four hours after the shooting, and the case was muddied by some conflicting witnesses regardless of veracity. However, Prosecutor Bob McCulloch has asserted on many occasions he would have joined the police force if not for medical issues. His father, who was a police officer, was allegedly killed in 1964 by a Black man. Regardless, he claims it was “not something that clouds my judgment.”

But the assistant prosecutor, Kathy Alizadeh, opened the door wide to a malfeasance case. She told the jury and handed out an old state law, right before the policeman testified, that it was legal for him to shoot a fleeing suspect, a law that was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1985, making it not legal. Two weeks later the assistant prosecutor told the jurors that “the information was incorrect” and did not explain to the non-lawyer jurors what was incorrect.   The assistant prosecutor also told the jurors that neither the difference between what they were told initially nor the Supreme Court’s power to override the earlier state law were significant.  The assistant prosecutor told the jurors these were “not important,” and said this is not “a law class.”  Here “fraud against the court” is a prosecutable offense that has been won against prosecutors.

It wasn’t relevant that the policeman committed likely illegal acts if you know the right law? Obviously Brown got from the car to 35 feet away as he was shot further. Let alone that the policeman was never confronted about why, regardless of the earlier fight in the car, when Brown was later 35-plus feet away and he then knew he was unarmed, even if Brown was running toward him (in doubt, but say it’s true), the policeman didn’t shoot the final shots at legs to disable rather than the head to kill? Both the assistant prosecutor and chief prosecutor are culpable here for not aggressively penetrating these issues, as well as the intentional disinformation and obfuscation of the law.

Opinion Wed, 17 Dec 2014 09:48:44 -0500
America's Addiction to Torture

Masked Guantánamo protesters kneel during the Democratic National Convention August 25, 2008, in Denver. (Photo via Shutterstock)Masked Guantánamo protesters kneel during the Democratic National Convention August 25, 2008, in Denver. (Photo via Shutterstock)

State-sanctioned torture is not just a US export; it's part of a long history of domestic terrorism. We must connect the dots between the same lawlessness and culture that subjects foreign nationals to brutal violence, and provides immunity for killer cops at home.

Masked Guantánamo protesters kneel during the Democratic National Convention August 25, 2008, in Denver. (Photo via Shutterstock)Masked Guantánamo protesters kneel during the Democratic National Convention August 25, 2008, in Denver. (Photo via Shutterstock)

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The United States is addicted to torture. Not only does this savage addiction run through its history like an overheated electric current, but it has become intensified as part of a broader national psychosis of fear, war and violence. A post 9/11 obsession with security and revenge has buttressed a militarized culture in which violence becomes a first principle, an essential need, whether in the guise of a national sport, mode of entertainment or celebrated ideal.

Foreign and domestic violence now mediate everyday relations and the United States' connection to the larger world. As such, terror, fear, war and torture, become normalized, and the work of dehumanization takes its toll on the US public as more and more people not only become numb to the horror of torture but begin to live in a state of moral stupor, a coma that relegates morality to the dustbin of history. How else to explain recent polls indicating that 58 percent of the US public believe that torture under certain circumstances can be justified, and that 59 percent think that the CIA's brutal torture methods produced crucial information that helped prevent future attacks?

There is more at stake here than manufactured ignorance and an unconscionable flight from the truth. There is also a dangerous escape from justice, morality and the most basic principles central to a democratic society. The celebration of brutality, spectacles of violence and the affirmation of torture suggests that in a market-driven society with its unchecked individualism, sheer Darwinism and refusal to think about social costs or, for that matter, any notion of the public good, the addiction to cruelty, violence and torture becomes less difficult and almost too easy. In the age of disposability and despicable gaps in wealth, income and power, modern terror becomes normalized and points to the onslaught of a mode of totalitarianism that is more than an ephemeral moment in history. Violence is no longer marginal to American life; it is the foundation that now drives it. As Lawrence Wittner recently observed:

When it comes to violence and preparations for violence, the United States is, indeed, No. 1. In 2013, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. government accounted for 37 percent of world military expenditures, putting it far ahead of all other nations. (The two closest competitors, China and Russia, accounted for 11 percent and 5 percent respectively.) From 2004 to 2013, the United States was also the No. 1 weapons exporter in the world. Moreover, given the U.S. government's almost continuous series of wars and acts of military intervention since 1941, it seems likely that it surpasses all rivals when it comes to international violence.

With the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report on the CIA's use of torture, it becomes clear that in the aftermath of the loathsome terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States entered into a new and barbarous stage in its history, one in which acts of violence and moral depravity were not only embraced but celebrated. (1) Certainly, this is not to suggest that the United States had not engaged in criminal and lawless acts historically or committed acts of brutality that would rightly be labeled acts of torture.

That much about our history is clear and includes not only the support and participation in acts of indiscriminate violence and torture practiced through and with the right-wing Latin American dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil in the 1970s but also through the willful murder and torture of civilians in Vietnam, Iraq, and later at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan. The United States is no stranger to torture, nor is it free of complicity in aiding other countries notorious for their abuses of human rights. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman reminded us by taking us as far back as 1979 that of the "35 countries using torture on an administrative basis in the late 1970s, 26 were clients of the United States." (2)

Officially sanctioned torture was never discussed as a legitimate concern; but, as indicated by a few well-documented accounts, it seems to be as American as apple pie.

In fact, the United States has a long record of inflicting torture on others, both at home and abroad, although it has never admitted to such acts. Instead, the official response has been to deny this history or do everything to hide such monstrous acts from public view through government censorship, appealing to the state secrecy principle or deploying a language that buried narratives of extraordinary cruelty in harmless sounding euphemisms. For example, the benign sounding CIA "Phoenix Program" in South Vietnam resulted in the deaths of over 21,000 Vietnamese. (3) As Carl Boggs argues, the acts of US barbarism in Vietnam appeared both unrestrained and never ending, with routinized brutality such as throwing people out of planes labeled as "flying lessons" or "half a helicopter ride," (4) while tying a field telephone wire around a man's testicles and ringing it up was a practice called "the Bell Telephone Hour." (5) Officially sanctioned torture was never discussed as a legitimate concern; but, as indicated by a few well-documented accounts, it seems to be as American as apple pie. (6)

Torture for the United States is not merely a foreign export; it is also part of a long history of domestic terrorism as was evident in the attempts on the part of the FBI, working under a secret program called COINTELPRO, designed to assassinate those considered domestic and foreign enemies. (7) COINTELPRO was about more than spying; it was a legally sanctioned machinery of violence and assassination. (8)

Read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project.

In one of the most notorious cases, the FBI worked with the Chicago Police Department to set up the conditions for the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, two members of the Black Panther Party. Noam Chomsky has called COINTELPRO, which went on from the 1950s to the 1970s, when it was stopped, "the worst systematic and extended violation of basic civil rights by the federal government," and said it "compares with Wilson's Red Scare." (9) What characterized these programs of foreign and domestic terrorism was that they were all shrouded in secrecy and allegedly were conducted in the name of democratic rights.

Torture also has a longstanding presence domestically, particularly as part of the brutalized practices that have shaped US chattel slavery through to its most recent "peculiar institution," the rapidly expanding prison-industrial complex. (10) The racial disparities in US prisons and the criminal justice system register the profound injustice of racial discrimination as well as a sordid expression of racist violence. As the novelist Ishmael Reed contends, this is a prison system "that is rotten to the core . . . where torture and rape are regular occurrences and where in some states the conditions are worse than at Gitmo. California prison hospitals are so bad that they have been declared unconstitutional and a form of torture." (11)

After 9/11, the United States slipped into a moral coma as President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney worked tirelessly to ensure that the United States would not be constrained by international prohibitions against cruel and inhumane treatment.

One of the more recently publicized cases of prison torture involved the arrest of a former Chicago police commander, Jon Burge. He was charged with routinely torturing as many as 200 prisoners, mostly African-Americans, during police interrogations in the 1970s and 1980s, "in order to force them to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit." (12) One report claims that many of these men were beaten with telephone books and that "cattle prods were used to administer electric shocks to victims' genitals. They were suffocated, beaten and burned, and had guns forced into their mouths. They faced mock executions with shotguns. . . . One tactic used was known as 'the Vietnam treatment,' presumably started by Burge, a Vietnam veteran." (13) The filmmaker Deborah Davis has documented a number of incidents in the 1990s that amount to the unequivocal torture of prisoners and has argued that many of the sadistic practices she witnessed taking place in the US prison system were simply exported to Abu Ghraib.

After 9/11, the United States slipped into a moral coma as President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney worked tirelessly to ensure that the United States would not be constrained by international prohibitions against cruel and inhumane treatment. They furthered that project not only by making torture, as Mark Danner argues, "a marker of political commitment" but also by constructing a vast secret and illegal apparatus of violence in which, under the cover of national security, alleged "terrorists" could be kidnapped, made to disappear into secret CIA "black sites," become ghost detainees removed from any vestige of legality, or be secretly abducted and sent to other countries to be tortured. As Jane Mayer puts it,

the lawyers also authorized other previously illegal practices, including the secret capture and indefinite detention of suspects without charges. Simply by designating the suspects "enemy combatants," the President could suspend the ancient writ of habeas corpus that guarantees a person the right to challenge his imprisonment in front of a fair and independent authority. Once in U.S. custody, the President's lawyers said, these suspects could be held incommunicado, hidden from their families and international monitors such as the Red Cross, and subjected to unending abuse, so long as it didn't meet the lawyer's own definition of torture. And they could be held for the duration of the war against terrorism, a struggle in which victory had never been clearly defined. (14)

The maiming and breaking of bodies and the forms of unimaginable pain inflicted by the Bush administration on so-called enemy combatants was no longer seen in violation of either international human rights or a constitutional commitment to democratic ideals. The war on terror had now reduced governance in the United States to a legalized apparatus of terror that mimicked the very violence it was meant to combat. In the aftermath of 9/11, under the leadership of Bush and his close neoconservative band of merry criminal advisers, justice took a leave of absence and the "gloves came off." As Mark Danner states, "the United States transformed itself from a country that, officially at least, condemned torture to a country that practiced it." (15)

But it did more. Under the Bush-Cheney reign of power, torture was embraced in unprecedented ways through a no-holds-barred approach to the war on terror that suggested the administration's need to exhibit a kind of ethical and psychic hardening - a hyper-masculine, emotional callousness that expressed itself in a warped militaristic mindset fueled by a high testosterone quotient. State secrecy and war crimes now became the only tributes paid to democracy. The latter is particularly evident in Cheney's morally irresponsible if not depraved response to the Senate report in which he stated, "I think that what needed to be done was done. I think we were perfectly justified in doing it and I'd do it again in a minute." (16)

The interrogations were considered so inhumane and cruel by some CIA officers that they threatened to transfer to other departments if the brutal interrogations continued.

Cheney went so far on NBC's "Meet the Press" to deny that waterboarding and related interrogation tactics were torture. In Cheney's dark world, there are no mistakes as long as the ends justify the means. "Asked again whether he was satisfied with a program that erroneously locked up detainees, he replied, 'I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.'" (17) This is the barbarous discourse of willful denial reminiscent of statements provided by other war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann and Pol Pot who also denied that their actions were a violation of human rights, barbaric, and sanctioned human suffering. Hopefully, Cheney's admission that he sanctioned and engineered the CIA to torture people will be repeated again in a court of law in which he is charged as a war criminal.

As Frank Rich once argued and the Senate Intelligence Committee report confirms, "[T]orture was a premeditated policy approved at our government's highest levels . . . psychologists and physicians were enlisted as collaborators in inflicting pain; and . . . in the assessment of reliable sources like the FBI director Robert Mueller, it did not help disrupt any terrorist attacks." (18) When the torture memos of 2002 and 2005 were eventually made public by the Obama administration, clearly implicating the Bush-Cheney regime in torture, they revealed that the United States had been turned into a globalized torture state. (19) Conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan went so far as to claim that "If you want to know how democracies die, read these memos." (20)

The memos, written by government lawyers John Yoo, Steven Bradbury and Jay Bybee, allowed the CIA under the Bush administration to torture al-Qaeda detainees held at Guantánamo and other secret detention centers around the world. They also offered detailed instructions on how to implement 10 techniques prohibited in the Army Field Manual, including facial slaps, "use of a plastic neck collar to slam suspects into a specially-built wall," (21) sleep deprivation, cramped confinement in small boxes, use of insects in confined boxes, stress positions and waterboarding. All of this and more are now documented in the Senate report. In fact, the report claims that current disclosures about the practice of torture used by the CIA were more brutal and less effective than previously reported.

Waterboarding, which has been condemned by democracies all over the world, consists of the individual being "bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual's feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner [and] produces the perception of 'suffocation and incipient panic.'" (22) The highly detailed, amoral nature in which these abuses were first defined and endorsed by lawyers from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) was not only chilling but also reminiscent of the harsh and ethically deprived instrumentalism used by those technicians of death in criminal states such as Nazi Germany. Andy Worthington suggests that there is more than a hint of brutalization and dehumanization in the language used by the OLC's principal deputy assistant attorney general, Steven G. Bradbury, who wrote a detailed memo recommending:

"nudity, dietary manipulation and sleep deprivation" - now revealed explicitly as not just keeping a prisoner awake, but hanging him, naked except for a diaper, by a chain attached to shackles around his wrists - [as,] essentially, techniques that produce insignificant and transient discomfort. We are, for example, breezily told that caloric intake "will always be set at or above 1,000 kcal/day," and are encouraged to compare this enforced starvation with "several commercial weight-loss programs in the United States which involve similar or even greater reductions in calorific intake" . . . and when it comes to waterboarding, Bradbury clinically confirms that it can be used 12 times a day over five days in a period of a month - a total of 60 times for a technique that is so horrible that one application is supposed to have even the most hardened terrorist literally gagging to tell all. (23)

The New York Times claimed in an editorial "that to read the . . . four memos on prisoner interrogation written by George W. Bush's Justice Department is to take a journey into depravity." (24) The editorial was particularly incensed over a passage written by Jay Bybee, who was an assistant attorney general in the Bush administration at the time. As The Times then pointed out, Bybee "wrote admiringly about a contraption for waterboarding that would lurch a prisoner upright if he stopped breathing while water was poured over his face. He praised the Central Intelligence Agency for having doctors ready to perform an emergency tracheotomy if necessary." (25)

Bybee's memo is particularly disturbing, even repugnant, in its disregard for human rights, human dignity and democratic values, not only describing how the mechanics of waterboarding should be implemented but also providing detailed analysis for introducing insects into confined boxes that held suspected terrorist prisoners. In light of mounting criticism, Bybee both defended his support of such severe interrogation tactics and further argued that "the memorandums represented 'a good faith analysis of the law' that properly defined the thin line between harsh treatment and torture." (26) Indeed, it seems that Bybee should have looked carefully at the following judgment pronounced by the US court in Nuremberg to the lawyers and jurists who rewrote the law for the Nazi regime: "You destroyed law and justice in Germany utilizing the empty forms of the legal process." (27)

As brutal as the revelations revealed in the memos proved to be, the Senate report on torture goes even further in documenting the millions of dollars spent on black sites, the amateurish qualifications of people to even conduct interrogations, the complicity of unqualified psychologists who milked the government for $81 million to develop torture techniques, and the endless lies produced by both the CIA and the Bush-Cheney administration regarding everything from the use of secret prisons established all over the world to the false claims that the use of torture was responsible for providing information that led to the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden by members of the Navy SEALs. (28) The report also stated that far more people were waterboarded than was first disclosed and that the sessions amounted to extreme acts of cruelty. Some members of the CIA choked up over the cruel nature of the interrogations and sent memos to Langley calling their legality into question, but were told by higher officials to continue with the practice. In fact, the interrogations were considered so inhumane and cruel by some CIA officers that they threatened to transfer to other departments if the brutal interrogations continued.

The rhetorical gymnastics used by the torture squad are designed to make the US public believe that if you refer to torture by some seemingly innocuous name then the pain and suffering it causes will suddenly disappear.

The United States was condemned all over the world for its support of torture and that condemnation, hopefully, will take place once again in light of the report. Fortunately, President Obama, when he came to office, outlawed the most egregious acts practiced by the professional torturers of the Bush-Cheney regime. Yet undercurrents of authoritarianism die hard in the circles of unaccountable power. The Senate report makes clear that the CIA engaged in lies, distortions and horrendous violations of human rights, including waterboarding and other sordid practices. The report also reveals that the CIA used monstrous methods such as forced rectal feeding, dragging hooded detainees "up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched" and threatening to kill or rape family members of the prisoners.

In spite of the appalling evidence presented by the report, members of the old Bush crowd, including former Vice President Cheney, former CIA directors, George J. Tenet and Michael V. Hayden, and an endless number of prominent Republican Party politicians, are still defending the United States' use of torture or, as they euphemistically contend, "enhanced interrogation techniques." The psychopathic undercurrent and the authoritarian impulse of such reactions finds its most instructive expression in former Bush communications chief Nicolle Wallace who while appearing on the "Morning Joe" show screeched in response to the revelations of the Senate report, "I don't care what we did."

As Elias Isquith, a writer for Salon, contends, as "grotesque as that was, though, the really scary part was [the implication that] . . . waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions and sexual assault is part of what makes America 'great.'" (29) Wallace's comments are more than morally repugnant. Wallace embodies the stance of so many other war criminals who were either indifferent to the massive suffering and deaths they caused or actually took pride in their actions. They are the bureaucrats whose thoughtlessness and moral depravity Hannah Arendt identified as the rear guard of totalitarianism.

Illegal legalities, moral depravity and mad violence are now wrapped in the vocabulary of Orwellian doublethink. For instance, the rhetorical gymnastics used by the torture squad are designed to make the US public believe that if you refer to torture by some seemingly innocuous name then the pain and suffering it causes will suddenly disappear. (30) The latter represents not just the discourse of magical thinking but a refusal to recognize that "If cruelty is the worst thing that humans do to each other, torture [is] the most extreme expression of human cruelty." (31) These apostles of torture are politicians who thrive in some sick zone of political and social abandonment, and who unapologetically further acts of barbarism, fear, willful lies and moral depravity.

They are the new totalitarians who hate democracy, embrace a punishing state and believe that politics is mostly an extension of war. They are the thoughtless gangsters reminiscent of the monsters who made fascism possible at another time in history. For them, torture is an instrument of fear, one sordid strategy and element in a war on terror that attempts to expand governmental power and put into play a vast (il)legal and repressive apparatus that expands the field of violence and the technologies, knowledge and institutions central to fighting the all-encompassing war on terror. Americans now live under a government in which the doctrine of permanent warfare is legitimated through a state of emergency deeply rooted in a mass psychology of violence and culture of cruelty that are essential to transforming a government of laws into a regime of lawlessness.

The Senate report has brought one of the darkest sides of humanity to light and it has sparked a predictable outrage and public condemnation.

Once the authoritarian side of political governance takes hold, it is hard to eradicate. Power is addictive, especially when it is reckless and offers personal rewards from those who have capital, benefit from human misery and are more than willing to reward politicians who follow the corporate script. Witness the support by a number of Republicans who still support the practice of torture and deny the legitimacy of the Senate report. Ignoring that torture is an element of power that is built on what can be rightly termed a willed amorality, they attack the Senate report not for its content but because they believe its release will anger the alleged enemies of the United States, as if that hasn't already been done through a range of savage military practices or diplomatic acts. Or they argue that the Senate report is simply an attempt to embarrass the Bush-Cheney administration.

Civility has not been the strong point of a party that is overtly racist, hates immigrants, shuts down the government and caters to every whim of the financial elite. Moreover, we don't alienate our enemies; we create them by threatening to bomb them, encircling them with nuclear weapons, demonizing Muslims, torturing them and killing them through indiscriminate drone strikes that mostly kill civilians. Principles are not being defended in these arguments, only the kind of raw, naked power that has come to mark authoritarian regimes. It gets worse. The defenders of the globalized torture state are not simply confused or morally damaged; they are wedded to a finance state and the corporate machinery of social, cultural and political violence that will provide them with lucrative jobs once they finish the bidding of defense contractors and other elements of the finance and warfare state.

To his credit, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam War, broke with the moral dinosaurs in his party and, in defending the release of the Senate report, insisted that the CIA's use of torture during the Bush-Cheney years "stained our national honor, did much harm, and little practical good." Most of his colleagues disagree and are now arguing that in spite of the evidence, torture produced actionable intelligence and helped to save lives, a claim the Senate report strongly negates. Once again, empirical utility trumps the levers of justice and the principles of human rights as moral considerations give way to a kind of ghastly death-embracing dance with a debased instrumental rationality.

Not only has the United States lost its moral compass, but it has degenerated into a state of political darkness reminiscent of older dictatorships that maimed human bodies and inflicted unspeakable acts of violence on the innocent, while embracing a mad war-like utility and pragmatism in order to remove themselves from any sense of justice, compassion and reason. This is the formative culture not simply of a society that is ethically lost, but one that produces a society that willingly becomes complicitous with the savage ethos and beliefs of an updated totalitarianism. The Senate report has brought one of the darkest sides of humanity to light and it has sparked a predictable outrage and public condemnation. Thus far, little has been said about either the conditions that made this journey into the dark side possible, or what moral, political and educational absences had to occur in the collective psyche of both the US public and government that not only sanctioned torture but allowed it to happen. What made it so easy for the barbarians not only to implement acts of torture but to openly defend such practices as a sanctioned government policy?

With the release of the report, the supine US press finally has to acknowledge that the United States had joined with other totalitarian countries of the past in committing atrocities completely alien to any functioning democracy. The United States is no longer even a weak democracy. The lie is now more visible than ever. Nonetheless, the usual crowd of politicians, pundits and mainstream media not only have little to say about the history of torture committed by the United States at home and abroad, but also about their own silence, if not complicity, in this dark side of US history. The possibility of a politically and morally charged critique has turned into a cowardly and evasive debate around questions such as: Does torture prevent terrorist acts from taking place? Is waterboarding really an act of torture? Is torture justified in the face of extremist attacks on the United States? Is the CIA being scapegoated for actions promoted by the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld crowd? And so it goes. These are the wrong questions and reveal the toxic complicity the mainstream press has had all along with such anti-democratic practices. War crimes should not be debated; they should be condemned without qualification.

For a society to treat torture as a reasonable practice worthy of informed debate reveals a cancer deeply embedded in the American social and political psyche.

In an incredible act of bad faith, those responsible for state-sanctioned acts of torture are now interviewed by the mainstream media and presented, if not portrayed, as reasonable men with honorable intentions. Rather than being condemned as agents of a totalitarian state and as war criminals who should be prosecuted, those who both gave the orders to torture and those who carried out such inhuman practices are treated as one side of a debate team, anxious to get the real story out in order to provide the other side of the narrative. There is more than a hint of moral depravity here; there is also what I have called elsewhere the violence of organized forgetting.

Torture is not about the cowardly appeal to balance. The only reasonable approach any democracy can take toward torture is both to condemn it and to prosecute those responsible for it as well as those who practice it. In this case, that would include the highest elected officials such as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, members of the CIA, the subcontractors who tortured and all those others who engaged in such despicable acts such as hanging people upside down, raping them rectally, subjecting them to freezing temperatures while chained to a floor, and in some cases killing them.

For a society to treat torture as a reasonable practice worthy of informed debate reveals a cancer deeply embedded in the American social and political psyche, partly produced by the carcinogenic culture of the mainstream media, the spectacle of violence and unchecked militarism of US society, and those commanding cultural apparatuses that believe that the only value that matters is rooted in acts of commerce and the accumulation of capital at any cost. Ideas matter; education matters; morality matters and justice matters in a democracy. People who hold power in the United States should be held accountable for the actions they take, especially when they violate all decent standards of human rights.

Maybe it is time to treat the Senate torture report as just one register of a series of crimes being committed under the regime of a savage neoliberalism. After all, an economic policy that views ethics as a liability, disdains the public good and enshrines self-interest as the highest of virtues provides a petri dish not just for state-sanctioned torture abroad but also for a range of lawless and cruel policies at home. Maybe it's time to connect the dots between the government's use of waterboarding and a history that includes the killing of Bobby Hampton, a Black Panther, by the Chicago police, the illegal existence of COINTELPRO, the savage brutality of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, (32) the rise of the post-Orwellian surveillance state, the militarization of the local police, the transformation of underserved US cities into war zones, the creation of Obama's kill list, the use of drones that indiscriminately execute people, and the recent killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of militarized police forces that now act with impunity. (33)

Is it not reasonable to argue that the lawlessness that creates the torture state and provides immunity for killer cops also provides protection for those in the government and CIA who put into play the tentacles of the globalized torture state? Is it too far-fetched to argue that Eric Garner's utterance, "I can't breathe, I can't breathe," is a reminder of the many foreign nationals under the control of the torture state who might have uttered the same words as they were being tortured? Connect these dots and there is more at play here than retreat into a facile high moralism that condemns torture as a "stain on our values." Instead, what becomes evident is that torture has become symptomatic of something much larger than an errant plunge into immorality and lawlessness, and begins to reveal a more systemic rush into what Robert Jay Lifton has described as "a death-saturated age" (34) in which matters of violence, survival and trauma inescapably bear down on daily experience while pushing the United States into the dark recesses of a new authoritarianism. The mad and naked horror of torture has now become normalized rather than thought to be unimaginable, just as radical evil fails to provoke moral outrage and degenerates into the fog of everyday banality. The Senate report reveals only one moment in an endless upsurge of lawlessness that has come to characterize the United States' long, slow plunge into totalitarianism. Americans now inhabit a society where the delete button holds sway and the ethical imagination withers. And what is being erased is not only any vestige of a sense of commitment, but public and historical memory and the foundations of any viable notion of justice, equality and accountability. That is the story that needs to be told.

There is another story to be told about another kind of torture, one that is more capacious and seemingly more abstract but just as deadly in its destruction of human life, justice and democracy. This is a mode of torture that resembles the "mind virus" mentioned in the Senate report, one that induces fear and paralysis, and produces the toxic formative culture that characterizes the reign of neoliberalism. Isolation, privatization and the cold logic of instrumental rationality have created a new kind of social formation and social order in which it becomes difficult to form communal bonds, deep connections, a sense of intimacy and long-term commitments. Neoliberalism has created a society of monsters for whom pain and suffering are viewed as entertainment or deserving of scorn, warfare is a permanent state of existence, torture becomes a matter of expediency, and militarism is celebrated as the most powerful mediator of human relationships.

Under the reign of neoliberalism, politics has taken an exit from ethics and thus the issue of social costs is divorced from any form of intervention in the world. These are the ideological metrics of political zombies. The key word here is atomization and it is the curse of both neoliberal societies and democracy itself. A radical democracy demands a notion of educated hope capable of energizing a generation of young people and others who connect the torture state to the violence and criminality of an economic system that celebrates its own depravities. It demands a social movement unwilling to abide by technological fixes or cheap reforms. It demands a new politics for which the word revolution means going to the root of the problem and addressing it non-violently with dignity, civic courage and the refusal to accept a future that mimics the present. Torture is not just a matter of policy; it is an addiction, a deadening mindset, a point of identification, a form of moral paralysis, a war crime, an element of the spectacle of violence, and it must be challenged in all of its dreadful registers.

This is a revised and updated version of an article previously published in CounterPunch.


1. The report can be found here:

2. Cited in Edward S. Herman, "Folks Out There Have a 'Distaste of Western Civilization and Cultural Values,'" Center for Research on Globalization (September 15, 2001). Online:

3. On the Phoenix Program, see Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program, (Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse, 2000).

4. Carl Boggs supplies an excellent commentary on the historical amnesia in the US media surrounding the legacy of torture promoted by the United States. See Carl Boggs, "Torture: An American Legacy," (June 17, 2009). Online:

5. Ibid.

6. There are many valuable sources that document this history. Some exemplary texts include: A.J. Langguth, Hidden Terrors: The Truth About US Police Operations in Latin America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979); Gordon Thomas, Journey Into Madness: The True Story of Secret CIA Mind Control and Medical Abuse (New York: Bantam, 1989); Danner, Torture and Truth; Jennifer K. Harbury, Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of US Involvement in Torture (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005); Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006); and Rejali, Torture and Democracy. See also Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (New York: Doubleday, 2008); and Phillipe Sands, Torture Team (London: Penguin, 2009). On the torture of children, see Michael Haas, George W. Bush, War Criminal?: The Bush Administration's Liability for 269 War Crimes (Westport: Praeger, 2009). Also, see Henry A. Giroux, Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (Boulder: Paradigm, 2010).

7. Amy Goodman, "From COINTELPRO to Snowden, the FBI Burglars Speak Out after 43 Years of Silence (Part 2)," Democracy Now! (January 8, 2014). Online:

8. For an excellent source, see Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States (Boston: South End Press, 2001). Also see The People's History of the CIA. Online:

9. Chomsky quoted in Amy Goodman, "From COINTELPRO to Snowden, the FBI Burglars Speak Out after 43 Years of Silence (Part 2)." Online:

10. See, for example, Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005); and Loic Wacquant, Punishing the Poor (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

11. Ishmael Reed, "How Henry Louis Gates Got Ordained as the Nation's 'Leading Black Intellectual,'" Black Agenda Report (July 27, 2009). Online:

12. Pepe Lozano, "Chicago Torture Probe Draws Worldwide Attention," Political Affairs Magazine (July 6, 2006). Online: See also Susan Saulny, "Ex-Officer Linked to Brutality Is Arrested," The New York Times (October 22, 2008). Online:

13. Lozano, ibid.

14. Mayer, The Dark Side, p. 8.

15. Mark Danner, "US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites," New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 6 (April 9, 2009), p. 77.

16. Michel Chossudovsky, "The Senate CIA Torture Report. Dick Cheney: "The Report is Full of Crap," Global Research (December 12, 2014). Online:

17. Scott Shane, "Backing C.I.A. Tactics, Cheney Ramps Up Criticism of Senate Torture Report," The New York Times (December 14, 2014). Online:®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0.

18. Frank Rich, "The Banality of Bush White House Evil," The New York Times (April 26, 2009), p. WK14.

19. The torture memos can be found at the American Civil Liberties Union website. Online:

20. Andrew Sullivan, "The Bigger Picture," The Daily Dish (April 17, 2009). Online:

21. Ewen MacAskill, "Obama Releases Bush Torture Memos: Insects, Sleep Deprivation and Waterboarding among Approved Techniques by the Bush Administration," The Guardian (April 16, 2009). Online:

22. Ibid.

23. Andy Worthington, "Five Terrible Truths About the CIA Torture Memos," Future of Freedom Foundation (April 22, 2009). Online:

24. Editorial, "The Torturers' Manifesto," The New York Times (April 19, 2009), p. WK9.

25. Ibid.

26. Bybee cited in Neil A. Lewis, "Official Defends Signing Interrogation Memos," The New York Times (April 29, 2009), p. A12.

27. Thomas C. Hilde, "Introduction," in On Torture, ed. Thomas C. Hilde (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008), p. 141.

28. Mark Mazzetti, "Panel Faults C.I.A. Over Brutality and Deceit in Terrorism Interrogations," The New York Times (December 9, 2014). Online:

29. Elias Isquith, "'I don't care what we did': What Nicolle Wallace's rant reveals about America's torture problem," Salon (December 9, 2012). Online:

30. See the repudiations of the right-wing arguments by Rebecca Gordon, "American Torture - Past, Present, and . . . Future? Beyond the Senate Torture Report," (December 14, 2014). Online:

31. Thomas C. Hilde, "Introduction," in On Torture, ed. Thomas C. Hilde (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008), p. 1.

32. On the Phoenix Program, see Douglas Valentine and Carl Boggs.

33. See, for one example of this type of analysis, Chauncey DeVega, "The Culture of Cruelty is International: From Lynchings to Eric Garner and the CIA Torture Report," We Are Respectable Negroes (December 10, 2014). Online:

34. Robert Jay Lifton, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), p. 479

News Wed, 17 Dec 2014 11:09:46 -0500
Seeds of Truth: Vandana Shiva and The New Yorker

Closeup of cotton. (Photo: Carol Von Canon)Closeup of cotton. (Photo: Carol Von Canon)

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(A response to the article "Seeds of Doubt" by Michael Specter in The New Yorker)

I am glad that the future of food is being discussed, and thought about, on farms, in homes, on TV, online and in magazines, especially of The New Yorker’s caliber. The New Yorker has held its content and readership in high regard for so long. The challenge of feeding a growing population with the added obstacle of climate change is an important issue. Specter’s piece, however, is poor journalism. I wonder why a journalist who has been Bureau Chief in Moscow for The New York Times and Bureau Chief in New York for the Washington Post, and clearly is an experienced reporter, would submit such a misleading piece. Or why The New Yorker would allow it to be published as honest reporting, with so many fraudulent assertions and deliberate attempts to skew reality.

‘Seeds of Doubt’ contains many lies and inaccuracies that range from the mundane (we never met in a café but in the lobby of my hotel where I had just arrived from India to attend a High Level Round Table for the post 2015 SDGs of the UN) to grave fallacies that affect people’s lives. The piece has now become fodder for the social media supporting the Biotech Industry. Could it be that rather than serious journalism, the article was intended as a means to strengthen the biotechnology industry’s push to ‘engage consumers’? Although creative license is part of the art of writing, Michael Specter cleverly takes it to another level, by assuming a very clear position without spelling it out.

Specter’s piece starts with inaccurate information, by design.

“Early this spring, the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva led an unusual pilgrimage across southern Europe. Beginning in Greece, with the international Pan-Hellenic Exchange of Local Seed Varieties Festival, which celebrated the virtues of traditional agriculture, Shiva and an entourage of followers crossed the Adriatic and travelled by bus up the boot of Italy, to Florence, where she spoke at the Seed, Food and Earth Democracy Festival. After a short planning meeting in Genoa, the caravan rolled on to the South of France, ending in Le Mas d’Azil, just in time to celebrate International Days of the Seed.”

On April 26th, 2014, at the Deutsches Theater Berlin, one of Germany’s most renowned state theatres. I gave a keynote speech for a conference on the relation of democracy and war in times of scarce resources and climate change. From Berlin I flew into Florence for a Seed Festival organized by the Government of the Region of Tuscany, Italy, The Botanical garden of Florence (the oldest in Europe), Banca Etica and Navdanya.  I was joined by a caravan of seed savers, and we carried on to Le Mas d’Azil where we had a conference of all the European seed movements.

It would be convenient in the narrative that Specter attempts to weave, to make this exercise look like a joyride of ‘unscientific people on a “pilgrimage”’. Writing about the European governments, universities and movements accurately would not suit Specter’s intention because the strong resistance (including from governments) to GMOs in Europe is based on science.

My education doesn’t suit his narrative either: a Ph.D. on the ‘Hidden Variables and Non-locality in Quantum Theory’. Specter has reduced my M.Sc. Honors in Physics to a B.Sc. for convenience.  Mr. Specter and the Biotech Industry (and The New Yorker, by association) would like to identify the millions of people opposing GMOs as unscientific, romantic, outliers. My education is obviously a thorn in their side.

“When I asked if she had ever worked as a physicist, she suggested that I search for the answer on Google. I found nothing, and she doesn’t list any such position in her biography.”

Specter has twisted my words, to make it seem like I was avoiding his question. I had directed him to my official website since for the past few months I have repeatedly been asked about my education. The Wikipedia page about me has been altered to make it look like I have never studied science. The Biotech Industry would like to erase my academic credentials. I have failed to see how it makes me more or less capable of the work I do on evolving and ecological paradigms of science. I consciously made a decision to dedicate my life to protect the Earth, its ecosystems and communities. Quantum theory taught me the four principles that have guided my work: everything is interconnected, everything is potential, everything is indeterminate, and there is no excluded middle. Every intellectual breakthrough I have made over the last 40 years has been to move from a mechanistic paradigm to an ecological one. I had the choice to continue my studies in the foundations of Quantum Theory at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) or to take up a research position in interdisciplinary studies on science policy at IIM, Bangalore. I chose the latter because I wanted a deeper understanding of the relationships between science and society.

This was my email response to Specter, copied to the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick:

A tight schedule must have kept Specter from mentioning Africa in his piece, although he intended to, given that a considerable amount of the world’s poor are also in Africa and must be fed. But Africa might not have needed addressing, probably because the Biotech Industry is happy with the progress they are making in deploying GMO cotton and banana in Africa. In the US, six-week human trials of these bio-fortified bananas are happening as I write this. And what are these bananas? They are bananas into which they have put a gene found in another variety of banana that has elevated levels of Beta-Carotene. They could have just used the banana with higher Beta-Carotene if the intent was to alleviate Vitamin A Deficiency, but there’s no money in that.

Specter calls me a Brahmin, which is inaccurate and a deliberate castist aspersion, insinuating falsely, elitism. ‘Shiva’ is not a Brahmin caste name. My parents consciously adopted a caste-less name as part of their involvement in the Indian Independence Movement that included a fight against the caste system. But this is inconvenient to Specter’s narrative.

Specter’s gift for half-truths is evidenced when he says:

“Shiva said last year that Bt-cotton-seed costs had risen by eight thousand per cent in India since 2002. In fact, the prices of modified seeds, which are regulated by the government, have fallen steadily.”

“Bt-cotton-seed costs had risen by eight thousand per cent in India since 2002” is incorrect. I did not say that. The cost of cotton seed after the 2002 approval of Bt-cotton, when compared to the price of cotton seed before Monsanto entered the market in 1998, has increased exponentially. The percentage was used in reference to this increase. I was a little conservative when I said “8000%”, since I didn’t maximize the number for effect. I’m not predisposed to hyperbole. I am grateful to Specter for pointing this out. I’ll redo the math now.

Monsanto entered the Indian market illegally in 1998, we sued them on 6th Jan in 1999. Before Monsanto’s entry to the market, local seeds cost farmers between ₨5 and ₨10 per kg. After Bt Cotton was allowed into the market Monsanto started to strengthen its monopoly through (i) ‘Seed Replacement’, in which Monsanto would swap out farmers seeds with their own, claiming superiority of their ‘product’, and (ii) ‘Licensing Agreements’ with the 60 companies that were providing seeds in the Indian market at the time. Monsanto ensured a monopoly on cotton seeds in India and priced the seeds at ₨1,600 for a package of 450 gms (₨3555.55 per kg, out of which the royalty component was ₨1,200). ₨3555.55 is approximately 711 times ₨5, the pre-Bt price. The correct percentage increase would be 71,111%. It is this dramatic price increase that I always talk about.
The reduction of prices that Specter mentions was because the State of Andhra Pradesh and I took the issue to the Monopoly and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (India’s Anti-Trust Court) and Monsanto was ordered, by the MRTP Court and the Andhra Pradesh Government, to reduce the price of its seed. Monsanto did not willfully reduce its prices, nor was an “Invisible Hand” at work. He quotes the Farmers Rights Clause in Indian law from the Plant Variety Protection and Farmers Rights Act, deliberately misnaming a clause as an act, misleading anyone who might want to do some research of their own, as many readers of The New Yorker do.

“Shiva also says that Monsanto’s patents prevent poor people from saving seeds. That is not the case in India. The Farmers’ Rights Act of 2001 guarantees every person the right to “save, use, sow, resow, exchange, share, or sell” his seeds. Most farmers, though, even those with tiny fields, choose to buy newly bred seeds each year, whether genetically engineered or not, because they insure better yields and bigger profits.”

I do say Monsanto’s patents prevent poor people from saving seeds. They prevent anyone who is not ‘Monsanto’ from saving or having seeds including researchers and breeders. This is true in most parts of the world. Specter makes it appear as though Indian farmers are protected and have always been, merely by mentioning “The Farmers’ Rights Act of 2001”. I happen to have been a member of the expert group appointed by our Agriculture Ministry to draft that very act. We have worked very hard to make this happen and I am very proud of the fact that India has built Farmers Rights into its laws. But the farmers are not completely protected since Monsanto has found clever ways around the laws, including collecting Royalties renamed as ‘Technology Fees’. This issue has many pending cases in Indian courts.

This section in Specter’s piece is designed to deliberately break the established connections between GMOs, Seed Patents and IPRs, and mislead his readers to echo Monsanto’s attempt to hide the catastrophic implications of a seed monopoly and Bt-Cotton’s failure in India as it tries to enter new markets in Africa proclaiming it’s success in India. Indian farmers can’t choose to buy genetically modified or hybrid varieties. Choosing would require choice, an alternative. Monsanto has systematically dismantled all alternatives for the cotton farmer. Monsanto’s hold on corn, soya and canola is almost as strong as their monopoly on cotton. Approximately $10 billion is collected annually from U.S. farmers by Monsanto, as royalty payments. Monsanto has been sued for $ 2.2 billion by Brazilian farmers for collecting royalty on farm-saved seeds.  The seed market is no longer governed by market forces. The element of choice is missing altogether. The farmer can only choose if he has an option.

In its evidence to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, the Monsanto representative admitted that half the price of Monsanto seeds is royalty. My work and the work of movements in India, has prevented Monsanto from having patents on living resources and biological processes. Article 3(J) of our patent clause was used by the Indian Patent Office to reject Monsanto’s broad claim patent application on climate resilient seeds. In other countries that do not share our history, Monsanto uses such patents to sue farmers, such as Percy Schmeiser in Canada (for $200,000) as well as 1,500 other farmers in the US. In the case of Monsanto vs Bowman, Monsanto sued a farmer who had not even purchased seeds from them.

If Specter had really listened, he would have heard what I was actually saying about seed monopolies, even if it was inconvenient to his story. I’m sure that during his research over the last 8 months, he would have come across at least some of these examples of oppression.

“Although India bans genetically modified food crops, Bt cotton, modified to resist the bollworm, is planted widely. Since the nineteen-nineties, Shiva has focused the world’s attention on Maharashtra by referring to the region as India’s “suicide belt,” and saying that Monsanto’s introduction of genetically modified cotton there has caused a “genocide.” There is no place where the battle over the value, safety, ecological impact, and economic implications of genetically engineered products has been fought more fiercely. Shiva says that two hundred and eighty-four thousand Indian farmers have killed themselves because they cannot afford to plant Bt cotton. Earlier this year, she said, “Farmers are dying because Monsanto is making profits—by owning life that it never created but it pretends to create. That is why we need to reclaim the seed. That is why we need to get rid of the G.M.O.s. That is why we need to stop the patenting of life.””

If Specter had actually travelled across the cotton belt in Maharashtra State (surely the Monsanto office could have easily directed him there), he would have heard from his trusted sources that there is a decline in Bt Cotton cultivation in favor of Soy Bean due to failed Bt crops. He would have heard of Datta Chauhan of Bhamb village who swallowed poison on November 5, 2013, because his Bt cotton crop did not survive the heavy rains in July that year. He would have heard of Shankar Raut and Tatyaji Varlu, from Varud village, both who committed suicide due to the failure of their Bt Cotton. Tatyaji Varlu was unable to repay the Rs. 50,000 credit through which he received seeds. Specter could have met and spoken to the family of 7 left behind by Ganesh, in Chikni village, following the repeated failure of his Bt Cotton crop. Ganesh had no option but to buy more Bt Cotton and try his luck multiple times because Bt Cotton was the only cotton seed in the market, brilliantly marketed under multiple brand names through Licensing Arrangements that Monsanto has with Indian companies. Multiple packages, multiple promises but the contents of each of those expensive packets is the same: it’s all Bt. It’s vulnerable to failure because of too much or too little water, reliant on fertilizer, and susceptible to pests without pesticide, all additional costs. The farmer, with a field too small to impress Specter, does not choose Bt Cotton of his free will. That choice is dictated by the system Specter attempts to hail.

Specter and the BioTech twitter brigade have found resonance and are harping on my “confusing a correlation with causation”. Allow me to explain the cause to these scientific and rational people and hopefully help them pull their heads out of the sand.

By destroying the alternative sources of seed, as I explained earlier, a monopoly was established. Promises were made of higher yield and a reduction of pesticide costs to initially woo farmers. With a monopoly, Monsanto increased the price of seeds since it didn’t have to compete in the market. In India, the agents that sell Monsanto seeds also sell the pesticides and fertilizer, on credit. A Bt Cotton farmer starts the cultivation season with debt and completes the cycle with the sale of the crop after multiple applications of fertilizer and pesticide acquired on more credit. As the Bt-toxin was rendered useless, the crop was infested by new pests and yields of Bt Cotton started to decline, more fertilizer and pesticide were purchased and used by the farmers in the hope of a better yield next time around, destroying soil health. Degraded soil led to lower yields and further financial losses to the farmers. Many farmers would plant seed from another brand, not knowing it was the same exact Monsanto seed Bollguard, and that it would not fare any better and would require more fertilizer and pesticide than before, going deeper and deeper into debt. This cycle of high cost seeds and rising chemical requirements is the debt trap, from which the farmers see no escape, and which drives these farmers of the cotton belt to suicide. There is a cause for each and every farmer taking his own life, he is not driven to it by correlation. And the cause is a high cost monopoly system with no alternative. If it were any other product, Monsanto would be liable for false advertising, and a product liability claim due to intentional misrepresentation regarding Bt Cotton. Specter promotes a system of agriculture that fails to deliver on its promises of higher yield and lower costs and propagates exploitation.

Not only does Specter support a system which leaves no alternatives for farmers, he also promotes the force feeding of consumers, with GMOs, including victims of disasters.

“In 1999, ten thousand people were killed and millions were left homeless when a cyclone hit India’s eastern coastal state of Orissa. When the U.S. government dispatched grain and soy to help feed the desperate victims, Shiva held a news conference in New Delhi and said that the donation was proof that “the United States has been using the Orissa victims as guinea pigs” for genetically engineered products. She also wrote to the international relief agency Oxfam to say that she hoped it wasn’t planning to send genetically modified foods to feed the starving survivors. When neither the U.S. nor Oxfam altered its plans, she condemned the Indian government for accepting the provisions.”

Specter is ill informed about the cyclone in Orissa, or he copied this information from another inaccurate report accusing me of making the cyclone victims starve. The US aid was a blend of corn and soy, not grain. The agency distributing it was C.A.R.E. After the cyclone in 1999 that devastated the east coast of India, Navdanya was involved in the rehabilitation of the victims on the ground in Orissa and has been involved in such efforts each time there has been a calamity in that region. The shipment Specter mentions, under a humanitarian guise, was an attempt to circumvent India’s ban on the import of GMOs. The farmers who received the tainted shipment called it inedible. A nondescript mixture of soy and corn is not food for rice eating peoples. We tested this mixture and found it to be genetically engineered corn and soya. The results were sent to the Health Ministry and the Government ordered an immediate stop to the illegal import of GMOs. The hybrid rice available in the market would not grow in the saline soil left behind by the cyclone. Navdanya provided the farmers with salt-tolerant varieties to allow them to rebuild their livelihoods and for them to have food. The Orissa farmers, later, shared their salt-tolerant seeds with the victims of the tsunami that hit Tamil Nadu in 2004. Monsanto, through its influence in USAID, has used every natural and climate disaster to push its GMO seeds on devastated communities, including Haiti after the earthquake, where farmers protested against this imposition. Monsanto has also taken thousands of patents on climate resilience in traditional seeds and has acquired climate research corporations to exploit the vulnerability of communities in the future. This is not humanitarian from any perspective.

Specter is also supporting the Biotech Industry attack on Governments passing GMO labelling laws in the U.S. Coincidentally, following The New Yorker piece, Michael Specter wrote another piece questioning GMO labeling in America. The Biotech Industry is now suing the state of Vermont for its labeling laws. The grounds of Monsanto’s suit is that labeling their product would infringe on Monsanto’s first amendment right. Specter’s two articles work very well together.  An obvious question is whether Specter set out to do a profile on me at all or whether this was a calculated attempt to attack the burgeoning anti-GMO movement within the US? Both articles were conveniently timed to mislead consumers in the US about legislation in their own country by using fallacies about the situation in India.

“Between 1996, when genetically engineered crops were first planted, and last year, the area they cover has increased a hundredfold—from 1.7 million hectares to a hundred and seventy million. Nearly half of the world’s soybeans and a third of its corn are products of biotechnology. Cotton that has been engineered to repel the devastating bollworm dominates the Indian market, as it does almost everywhere it has been introduced.”

Being the only seed in the market through monopoly would, of course, be domination. The Bt-cotton seed is not dominating markets because it is effective. Bt-cotton has led to the emergence of resistance to Bt in the Bollworm and the emergence of pests that never affected cotton earlier, forcing the increased use of pesticides accompanied by lower yields. Specter quotes acreage but fails to mention that in the US, Round-Up Ready corn and soya are plagued by super-weeds. The only new ‘technologies’ being touted by the Biotech Industry are Bt and Ht (Herbicide Tolerant). Both these ‘technologies’ have failed to deliver on what they promised- the control of pests and weeds. This is because they got the science wrong, the ecological science that allows us to understand pests and weed control, and the evolution of resistance in pests and weeds.

Almost a century and a quarter after The Jungle Book, Specter is stuck in Kipling’s India. He uses imagery of elephants and natives to subtly invoke a fetishized idea of eastern cultures that resonates with a western perspective, a truly romantic one.

“The majority of local farmers travel to the market by bullock cart. Some walk, and a few drive. A week earlier, a local agricultural inspector told me, he had seen a cotton farmer on an elephant and waved to him. The man did not respond, however, because he was too busy talking on his cell phone.

The third person account of a farmer on an elephant with a mobile phone makes for a lovely visual. What is Specter trying to achieve with this? There is an implication of contradictions here, an idea that milestones in ‘development’, like the cell phone, symbols of modernity, have no place in the same frame as an elephant. If Specter looked around, listened and understood, he would have noticed that the cell phone is a necessity of life in the 21st century, even in India. In fact, India has more mobile phone subscribers than the US. We also have elephants and they do exist together. Elephants cost more than a midsize car, to buy and to keep, especially in a semi-arid area like Aurangabad.

Invoking imagery of a quaint India reveals an ethnographic prejudice that fits right into the strategy of seemingly ‘helping’ India while extracting, like colonizers, capital and natural resources from the colonies. In ways other than the obvious, Specter sounds like an Angrez Sahib (English Sahib) describing the ‘natives’ in 1943, when he notes

“skin the color of burnt molasses and the texture of a well-worn saddle”

One can only hope that he may overcome his disdain of non-white, non-industrial populations, Indian farmers, and farmers in general, because he seems to view them as inferior and incapable of feeding themselves and their growing population even though the Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 70% of global food comes from small farms. It shows the sort of narrow-minded thinking that is paraded as reason in a bid to justify the imposition of GMOs to create new sources of royalties. A system of food production that accounts for only 30% of the food people eat cannot be presented as a solution to hunger.

Specter attempts to use the 100-degree heat and dusty roads to distract from the elephant in the room, which incidentally has a farmer riding it, no cell phone, just crippling debt. How are second-hand stories from one village, during a fleeting visit “a scientific study” about the situation across the 3,500,000 hectares of cotton cultivation in Maharashtra State. I have been going to Vidarbha in Maharashtra since 1982 when we launched Samvardhan, the national organic movement, from Gandhi’s ashram in Seva Gram. I have seen, first-hand, a proud region of hard working, productive farmers, growing diverse and multiple crops, reduced to indebtedness and a complete desperation. And Navdanya has been working in this devastated region for the past two decades to create hope and alternatives for the farmers and the widows of those who were driven to suicide. The crisis we witness today is like the crisis created by colonialism. Specter mentions the Great Bengal Famine but only provides partial information.

“In 1943 alone, during the final years of the British Raj, more than two million people died in the Bengal Famine. “By the time we became free of colonial rule, the country was sucked dry,” Suman Sahai told me recently.”

The Bengal Famine was caused by the ongoing war as well as a tax in which the British took 50% of every farmer’s crop. This sort of taxation, in today’s India has taken the form of royalties, especially in cotton. Even before a seed has been planted, money has left the farm and made its way to St. Louis. It can’t be difficult to see the similarity between seed monopolies and colonialism.

The real reason for the Bengal Famine was speculation – as evidenced by Amartya Sen’s extensive work – that drove the price of food so high that most people could not afford it. It was mostly a man-made famine. The same system of speculation that caused famines, like that of 1943, exists today. It’s now more organized, more lethal and captained by Wall Street. Large Agri-business, armed with near-monopoly power, increase prices beyond market-determined increases in costs.

Although, Specter writes about India becoming an exporting nation, he hides the fact that as a result of ‘Free Trade’ India has now become heavily dependent on imports of oil-seeds and pulses— staples for millions of Indians.  In the nineties, because of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), prices of tortillas in Mexico City rose sharply while the price of corn, sold by Mexican farmers, went down. Free trade does not imply free-market, and more often than not it means the poor go hungry while profits of corporations, especially in agriculture, increase.

International financial speculation has played a major role in food price increases since the summer of 2007. Specter quotes import and export data many times in his piece. Most of this trade is mandated by trade agreements written by these very corporations. Due to the financial collapse in America, speculators moved from financial products to land and food, which explains the increasing speculation on food and land-grabs. This directly affects prices in domestic markets. Many countries are becoming increasingly dependent on food imports. Speculators bet on artificially created scarcity, even while production levels remain high.  Based on these predictions, Big Agriculture has been manipulating the markets. Traders keep stocks away from the market in order to stimulate price increases and generate huge profits afterwards.

In Indonesia, in the midst of the soya price hike in January 2008, the company PT Cargill Indonesia was still keeping 13,000 tons of soybeans in its warehouse in Surabaya, waiting for prices to reach record highs. This artificial inflation of prices is a result of profits to be made from financial speculation, and creates hunger when there is actually enough food to feed everyone on the planet. Frederick Kaufman, in his Harpers Magazine article entitled, “How Wall Street starved millions and got away with it”, writes that “imaginary wheat bought anywhere affects real wheat bought everywhere.”

Specter would have served The New Yorker and himself well by doing a little more research before narrating the stories from his trip to India. His one-day trip speaking with one farmer and a nameless agricultural inspector is hardly part of scientific reasoning. Specter’s piece is ripe with fabrication. He says he went and met cotton farmers near Aurangabad in:

late spring, after most of the season’s cotton had been picked.

For the record, in the Maharashtra state, cotton is a Kharif crop, sown in June or July depending on the monsoon and harvested between the months of November and February. It is unlikely that the farmers would have waited for Mr. Michael Specter to show up this May so that he could catch the tail end of the harvest.  As curiously, Specter chose not go to the Vidarbha region with the most Bt-Cotton related farmer suicides.

We work with the farmers and the widows in Vidarbha to rebuild their lives and give them hope. Farmers that have escaped the debt-trap created by Bt Cotton and it’s ancillary requirements of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have done so through the use of seeds made available through organic farming and community seed banks set up by Navdanya. Through the availability of these seeds and not having to buy pesticides and fertilizers, the net income of these farmers has increased.

Nilesh, a Bt cotton farmer in Chikni village in Yavatmal District, for an acre in 2013-14, spent ₨1,860 for seeds, ₨1,000 for pesticides, ₨1,500 for fertilizer, ₨500 for irrigation. Without adding any other expenses he might have had his expenses amount to ₨4,860 per acre. His yield per acre of 1 quintal (100 kg) that sold for ₨4600 left him with a loss of ₨260 per acre. In contrast, Marotirao Deheka who farms organically in Pimpri village in Yavatmal District spent ₨400 on seeds, ₨750 on irrigation, ₨3,000 on all other costs to a lower total of ₨4,150 per acre. Yet, his yield of 3 quintals, which sold for ₨15000, earned him a net profit of ₨10,850.

The role of  “journalist-turned-activist”, or more accurately “pundit,” we now see across the pro-GMO lobby. Take the case of the British “activist”, Mark Lynas, who touts himself as an anti-GMO turned pro-GMO activist. Following his conversion, he has subsequently written extensively in favor of GM crops. But no one in the UK’s anti-GMO movement had ever heard of Mark Lynas – until his much publicized talk in Oxford. Like Specter, Lynas has become one of the strongest, most articulate voices for the GMO movement. The question remains – are these journalists “sponsored” by the GMO movement? Or are they simply writers who believe that GMO crops are good for the world (despite information to the contrary)?

Whatever is the case, it’s undeniable that the pro-GMO lobby is adopting a more sophisticated approach to its propaganda machine. It has turned its story of debt, hunger and suicide into the articulate voices of storytellers, of communicators, of respectable media houses.

Has The New Yorker been influenced by loyalty to its benefactors? Marion Nestle, a dear friend, and Francis Lappe’s (another dear friend) daughter, Anna Lappe, received invitations from Condé Nast to participate in an image clean up for Monsanto.  They obviously refused. Please refer to the recent article (August 7, 2014) entitled:  Read the Emails in the Hilarious Monsanto/Mo Rocca/Condé Nast Meltdown.

For the record, ever since I sued Monsanto in 1999 for its illegal Bt cotton trials in India, I have received death threats, my websites have been hacked and turned into porn sites, the chairman of a girls’ college founded by my grandfather, has been harassed. Actions have been taken to impede Navdanya’s work by attempting to bribe my colleagues to leave – and they have failed. None of these systemic attacks over the last two decades have deterred me from doing my research and activism with responsibility, integrity, and compassion. The concerted PR assault on me for the last two years from Lynas, Specter and an equally vocal Twitter group is a sign that the global outrage against the control over our seed and food, by Monsanto through GMOs, is making the biotech industry panic.

Character assassination has always been a tool used by those who cannot successfully defend their message. Although they think such slander will destroy my career, they don’t understand that I consciously gave up a ‘career’ in 1982 for a life of service. The spirit of service inspired by the truth, conscience and compassion cannot be stopped by threats or media attacks. For me, science has always been about service, not servitude.

My life of science is about creativity and seeing connections, not about mechanistic thought and manipulated facts.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
– Albert Einstein

News Wed, 17 Dec 2014 11:26:49 -0500
New York State Official Raises Alarm on Charter Schools - and Gets Ignored

A top official in the New York State Comptroller’s Office has urged regulators to require more transparency on charter-school finances. The response has been, well, nonexistent.

Add another voice to those warning about the lack of financial oversight for charter schools. One of New York state's top fiscal monitors told ProPublica that audits by his office have found "practices that are questionable at best, illegal at worst" at some charter schools.

Pete Grannis, New York State's First Deputy Comptroller, contacted ProPublica after reading our story last week about how some charter schools have turned over nearly all their public funds and significant control to private, often for-profit firms that handle their day-to-day operations. The arrangements can limit the ability of auditors and charter-school regulators to follow how public money is spent – especially when the firms refuse to divulge financial details when asked.

Such setups are a real problem, Grannis said. And the way he sees it, there's a very simple solution. As a condition for agreeing to approve a new charter school or renew an existing one, charter regulators could require schools and their management companies to agree to provide any and all financial records related to the school.

"Clearly, the need for fiscal oversight of charter schools has intensified," he wrote in a letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio last week. "Put schools on notice that relevant financial records cannot be shielded from oversight bodies of state and local governmental entities."

It's a plea that Grannis has made before. Last year, he sent a similar letter to the state's major charter-school regulators – New York City's Department of Education, the New York State Education Department, and the State University of New York.

He never heard back from any of them. "No response whatsoever," Grannis said. Not even, he added, a "'Thank you for your letter, we'll look into it.' That would have been the normal bureaucratic response."

We contacted all three of these agencies and the mayor's office for comment. None of them got back to us.

The charter-school debate in New York, as elsewhere, is politically fraught. De Blasio's cautious stance on charters has put him at odds with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose financial backers include some big-dollar charter-school supporters. The state comptroller's office has faced repeated lawsuits from charter groups and operators challenging its authority to audit charter schools.

To Grannis, though, his efforts aren't about politics. His office is "agnostic on charters," as he put it. His office also audits the finances of traditional public-school districts, he pointed out.

"We're the fiscal monitors. We watch over the use or misuse of public funds," Grannis said. "This isn't meant to be anti-charter. Our job is not to be pro or anti."

Grannis has not yet gotten a response from the mayor's office about the letter he sent last week.

As to the charter-school regulators who got his letter the year before? He's still puzzled why they wouldn't be more interested in a possible fix, or why the charter regulators never bothered to respond.

"I honestly don't know," Grannis said. He said he's going to send another round of letters to them.

News Wed, 17 Dec 2014 00:00:00 -0500