October 6, 2016

The Cyber

Can a secret still be a secret if everybody knows about it? Top brass US intelligence officials, including former NSA director General Michael Hayden, seem to think so. “Stuxnet, no comment!” echoes like a mantra ...

Can a secret still be a secret if everybody knows about it?

Top brass US intelligence officials, including former NSA director General Michael Hayden, seem to think so. “Stuxnet, no comment!” echoes like a mantra throughout the beginning of Zero Days, Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, airing on Showtime November 19th. Unfortunately for the higher-ups at NSA, the secret’s out and pandora’s cyber box has been thrown wide open.

Co-designed by NSA and Mossad to wreak havoc on Iranian centrifuges back in the mid 2000’s, the Stuxnet virus, “the Stradivarius of malware,” has ushered in a whole new world, one in which physical objects in the real world can be turned into targets for sophisticated cyber weapons.

Nations around the world have rules of war IRL—treaties and red lines for nuclear and chemical weapons—but what are the rules of engagement online? Al-Qaeda whistleblower and all-around intelligence guru, Richard Clarke, tells us about the critical need for a new Geneva Convention for cyber warfare.

The Internet began with beautiful dreams of free-flowing information, of unfettered access to all the world’s information, of technology making the world a better place. But behind all the promises and wonders lay hidden vulnerabilities. Now with each hack, each breach, each leak—all spawning thousands of news stories around the world—we’re all being forced to confront the other side of paradise.

This hour, it’s digitally assured destruction, with Walter Isaacson, Richard Clarke, Alex Gibney, Jeremy Allaire, Sara M. Watson and Jonathan Zittrain.

Timeline: Weaponizing the Web

  • 1952: The National Security Administration (NSA) is founded secretly by the Truman administration to surveil communications and provide intelligence to governments.
  • 1952: Israel’s intelligence corps Unit 8200 founded.
  • 1989: Tim Berners-Lee conceives of the internet at CERN.
  • 2007-10: The US and Israel sabotage Iran’s uranium enrinchment facilities at Natanz with Stuxnet, malware coded by the NSA in conjunction with Unit 8200. It’s the first time a cyber attack affects real-world infrastructure. (Reuters)
  • 2009: United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) created under the Obama administration as the “offensive” outgrowth of the “defensive” NSA. (Washington Post)
  • 2010 Iran creates their own cyber command organization, قرارگاه دفاع سایبری‎‎ (The Cyber Defense Command).
  • 2012: Iran’s Cyber Defense Command releases a virus that erases three-quarters of the files at Aramco, Saudi’s national oil company. (New York Times)
  • 2013: Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald leak NSA documents, revealing the scope of the U.S. executive branch’s global surveillance powers. (The Guardian)
  • 2015: Obama administration releases official cyber policy. (The White House)
  • 2016: Justice Department indicts seven Iranian hackers for breaking into major US banks and attempting to shut down a dam in NY. (Bloomberg)
  • 2016: Alex Gibney documentary reveals large-scale offensive cyber program, Nitro Zeus. (New York Times)

Extended interviews


March 20, 2014

Putin, Ukraine and Reading the Russians

Russian troops are encircling naval bases, Crimea is locked down. We Americans are looking across an ocean, flummoxed in a familiar way by the mind and the mission of the Russian president and people. Why do we keep getting Russia wrong? Putin is only the latest in a series of Russian leaders that have divided American thinkers and policymakers against themselves. Is he a realist, or is he ruled by his emotions? by Cold War nostalgia? by a vision of Eurasian Union? Is he a fascist or a plutocrat, or is he simply reacting to the West’s expansion of NATO? Is he winning — or has he overplayed his hand?
What Would Tolstoy Say About Russia and Ukraine?
Suzanne Massie: Reagan and Russia

Russian troops are encircling naval bases, Crimea is locked down. We Americans are looking across an ocean, flummoxed in a familiar way by the mind and the mission of the Russian president and people.

Suzanne Massie, who persuaded Ronald Reagan that he could hate Communism and love the Russian people in the same career, puts it this way: Why do we keep getting Russia wrong? Putin is only the latest in a series of Russian leaders that have divided American thinkers and policymakers against themselves. Is he a realist, or is he ruled by his emotions? by Cold War nostalgia? by a vision of Eurasian Union? Is he a fascist or a plutocrat, or is he simply reacting to the West’s expansion of NATO? Is he winning — or has he overplayed his hand?

We turn to Massie and other close familiars of Russian culture and history to try and figure out how to read the Russians, now and forever. Thought experiment: given that many of our best insights into Russian character and temperament come to use from their literary geniuses, can we summon some collective judgment on Putin, Ukraine and the Crimea from the contentious, often dissident wisdom of Tolstoy, the humanist; Dostoevsky, the Slavic Nationalist; Chekhov, the gentle star of both Moscow and Yalta; Solzhenitsyn, who argued forcefully that Ukraine must be an eternal part of Russia; and Vladimir Nabokov, who sailed out of Russia for the last time from the Crimea?

By the Way • March 17, 2014

The Armor You Have

If you come to see the emblem of the police department of your small town on the door of a giant armored truck, you'll have seen the end of a long story — the story of America's lurch into and out of what's sometimes called, in Pentagon jargon, the battlespace. Consider the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected): in effect, an enormous armored truck.

This piece is a follow up to our March 13, 2014 show, “Will We Ever Get Over 9/11?”

If you come to see the emblem of the police department of your small town on the large door of an armored truck, you’ll have seen the end of a long story — the story of America’s lurch into and out of what’s sometimes called, in Pentagon jargon, the battlespace.

Consider the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected): in effect, an enormous armored truck. A typical model, the Navistar MaxxPro, weighs almost 38,000 pounds — not a tank, technically, but only thirty percent lighter than the Bradley Fighting Vehicles that charged down Iraqi highways in the Gulf War. You can tell an MRAP by its nautical-looking V-shaped hull, high off the ground, a small architectural change that diverts much of the force of explosions coming from below. (The innovation dates to 1960s and ’70s, to the colonial armies of southern Africa, of the 1960s and ’70s engaged in guerrilla warfare against rebels prone to laying mines.)

One Navistar MaxxPro now belongs to the police department of Madison, Wisconsin; there’s another in Watertown, New York. The Georgia communities of Waycross, Cartersville, Doraville, and Newnan each have their own large armored vehicles. In fact MRAPs and machines like them now appear in semi-official photographic tableaux on law-enforcement homepages across the country. Ohio State University has an MRAP; Virginia Tech has one that appears during athletic events, with the Nike “swoosh” logo and the words, “PREPARE FOR COMBAT” across the back. These vehicles look like bigger versions of the ones that gathered redundantly around the Arsenal Mall during Boston’s post-Marathon manhunt last April, and that roll back and forth down Storrow Drive on the Fourth of July.

We may forget that many of these vehicles were built for a military purpose: to endure the kind of explosive that is never detonated in the United States, to win the sort of war that we are supposed to have left behind.

The U.S. Department of Defense called a new wave of MRAPs into being in 2007 in an attempt to counter the improvised explosive device, or IED, which was still wreaking havoc on American forces in Iraq. This was fully two years after a frustrated army specialist—one of thousands who had been asked to prepare for IED attack by, at worst, affixing plywood and sandbags to his Humvee—confronted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a town-hall meeting in Kuwait. His question: “Now why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up armor our vehicles, and why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?” Rumsfeld’s reply may serve as the epitaph of the entire war.

Memos from the weeks following show Rumsfeld worrying aloud about armored trucks to Pentagon brass, but quickly he was reassured. No one, he was told, was going to be asked to travel around Iraq without sufficient armor: “They are simply going to change the tactics… That issue ought to be eliminated, one would think.” Two days later, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army Chief of Staff, followed up: the Army would stick with the (supremely vulnerable) Humvee, while it considered whether to buy MRAPs and which ones. Over the next two years, IEDs would continue to kill and maim soldiers — 993 dead, more than 11,000 wounded — unless they were riding in MRAPs. According to one manufacturer, Force Protection, Inc., its model, the Cougar, was hit 3,200 times over five years, but only five of its passengers were killed. It is unclear who to blame for the slow trickle of these vehicles into the warzones through the end of 2006, but it is clear by now that many parties — Secretary Rumsfeld’s office, the contracted manufacturers, and military leadership — share responsibility for the protracted vulnerability of Americans at war.

It was Rumsfeld’s replacement, Robert Gates, who openly embraced the MRAP, ordering more than 15,000 vehicles by the end of 2007 and jumpstarting production. $44 billion was earmarked for the vehicle program in total. This allotment was for the most part separate from the more than $20 billion spent on the Joint IED Defeat Organization, the search for a durable high-tech solution to the roadside-bomb problem which is considered one of the wars’ great sources of waste. Together, the initiatives amounted to at least $64 billion spent in response to a weapon, the IED, that costs around $30 to make.

Across 2007 and 2008, IED and other violence dropped across the board in Iraq, following the surge in troop levels. It is not clear to what extent the late-coming MRAPs played a role, or what good effect they might have had on veterans’ lives or on the course of the American adventure in Iraq if they had been available in sufficient numbers from day one. There are now 10,000 and more of the vehicles in Afghanistan, the graveyard of Soviet tanks.

***

Now we are witnessing the transfer of these specialized, heavy-duty war machines to domestic law-enforcement agencies of varying size. Under the Defense Department’s 1033 Program, more than 13,000 MRAPs, once sorely needed and now denoted as “excess property”, have been offered to sheriff’s departments, prisons, and campus police for free or for the price of shipping. (Business Insider likened it to buying a preowned luxury sedan with 100,000 miles on the odometer.)

The acquisition program has alarmed both the ACLU, which began a “Towns Don’t Need Tanks” campaign last year, and a more extreme libertarian set online. When the website Infowars reported (erroneously) last year that the Department for Homeland Security was going to acquire 2,700 MRAPs for itself, some posted strategies for disabling the vehicles if they were ever put to use on American citizens in what’s called the “S.H.T.F.” contingency. Recommendations include tipping them over (they have a high center of gravity), leading them into holes hidden under leaves, and blowing them up using homemade IEDs.

Many of the officials acquiring the MRAPs admit the vehicles’ overkill aesthetic. But they’re also clearly pleased, both by their power to intimidate and by the fire-sale price. If they cost nothing, if they were going to be reduced to scrap metal anyway, they are post-consumer material. There can be no complaint of waste no matter how, or whether, the MRAPs are ever needed by the small-town police forces that inherit them. Sheriff Wayne Gallant of Oxford County, Maine (pop. 57,481), whose office received one Navistar MaxxPro, gave a shrug to the Bangor Daily News: “It’s just going to be a safety tool, it’s not going to be used as a patrol unit or anything like that… Maybe it will never be used.”

As soldiers waited in Iraq and Afghanistan, now we wait here — not for the armor-plated rescue vehicle, but for the emergency that could warrant its place in our lives.

— Max Larkin.

February 27, 2014

Nasser Rabbat: Life and Death in Syria

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic architecture at MIT, a Damascene from way back.  The question we ask him is, “What will we say happened to Syria in front of our eyes, ...

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic architecture at MIT, a Damascene from way back.  The question we ask him is, “What will we say happened to Syria in front of our eyes, and was non-intervention in Syria as damaging in the end as previous American interventions have been?”

Nasser Rabbat wrote a marvelous account of his father’s death last year, a man who lived through most of the 20th century, and a great deal of Syria’s national history. It is the story of both a man and his nation, and it’s available in English at The Atlantic.

He wanted to go back to Damascus and die in Damascus. So how do I sum up his life? A Lebanese cardiologist was summoned to come and see him. My dad was half-drugged and had an IV in his hand and oxygen in his nose. The doctor was saying, “So what is paining you the most, where do you feel pain?” And my dad, in a very soft voice, answered the question, “Syria, the problem in Syria.”

 

Podcast • April 30, 2009

Angles on Empire: Book Week at Brown

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Der Derian and Catherine Lutz (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3) We’re taking two fresh measures here of the United States as military colossus — in two new ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Der Derian and Catherine Lutz (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

We’re taking two fresh measures here of the United States as military colossus — in two new books from the Watson Institute this spring. Two common points here: you won’t forget these perspectives once you’ve taken in the view; and you won’t see them anytime soon on page one of the New York Times. One is about our military real estate: 900-plus US military bases around the world — many of them toxic, more and more of them under local protest. The other is about the cultural process of war: the technology, media, narrative story line, TV and digital graphics of military power into the 21st Century. The anthropologist Catherine Lutz edited The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts. Political theorist James Der Derian wrote Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial Media-Entertainment Network.

I asked James Der Derian to take apart the pun in his title about virtue, virtuality, virtuosity…

JDD: I was hoping that “virtuous war” would be a felicitous oxymoron — the tension between the idea of war, which is bloody and dirty, and the whole idea in the virtuous that you can do good through something so blunt as warfare. Part of it comes out of the humanitarian intervention systems that evolved out of earlier administrations; we shouldn’t put this all on the doorstep of the Bush administration. You see it coming together, the virtual and the virtuous, both in doctrine and technology. The idea that what we can do should determine what we should do is part of the notion of “virtuous.” At one time the words “virtual” and “virtuous” were synonymous. They went down separate tracks in the Middle Ages. They always contained this idea of producing an effect at a distance, which technology can do; but it was about producing a good effect. Christ was in some ways a “virtual” tool of God. The notion also in Greek thinking as well of how the gods operated carried the idea of “virtuosity.” So in the United States it becomes almost a “deus ex machina” — to use war — in particular, a high-tech, low-casualty (at least for our side) form of warfare — to solve some of these intractable problems.

CL: What is the connection between the “war on terror” and your “virtuous war”?

James Der Derian: virtual virtuosity

JDD: It speaks to the virtualization of the enemy During the Cold War we had a fairly obvious enemy other. General Powell at one point said we’re being deprived of enemies: all we had left at one point was the North Koreans. In one way when you talk about the War on Terror, it’s to recognize that the old models, the old paradigms of war (particularly the idea of organized violence among and between states) no longer holds. And yet the master narrative continues. So you’re looking for some “other” to plug into this notion of “the enemy.” One reason why the President and others use the term “war on terror,” as absurd as it sounds, is that we didn’t want to recognize the face that you could have 19 terrorists spend about $500-thousand and incur close to $25-billion in immediate destruction, not including the Iraq war that followed, which is going to top out probably around $1-trillion before we get out of there.

CL: Is it possible that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda mastered virtuous or virtual warfare before we did?

JDD: No, but it you look at what Bin Laden said in a famous interview in 2004, he’s talking about how “we’re going to provoke the superpower, provoke the Crusader, and we’re basically going to beggar them.” He was very savvy about the notion of how to magnify this minuscule group of really pathological heretics within Islam into this colossus that would produce this over-reaction — would call out almost an auto-immune response where our attempt at a cure would be worse than the disease. In that case, Bin Laden was incredibly rational and savvy about how to magnify what was a pretty insignificant force into something that now can play on the same field as the superpower.

James Der Derian in conversation with Chris Lydon and Catherine Lutz at the Joukowsky Forum, Brown University April 28, 2009.

Cathy Lutz picked up immediately on the convergence of these two scholars’ perspectives.

Catherine Lutz: a fantastical system

I think that’s exactly the way to look at the American military bases — as a response that has a certain rationality but ends up being a completely overwrought response to the notion of empire — of the desire that the United States has a role, should play and can play a role in controlling events around the world. Hence this global spread and distribution of these bases with that dream behind it of global control, global surveillance, global knowledge. The assumption that there’s a lot of rationality in the system as a whole — we need to rethink that. There’s rationality in parts of it, different forms of rationality, but they form up into what we can see is a pretty fantastical system… It costs over $100-billion in the US military budget. It’s a very significant investment in a certain kind of idea of the world, and the US role in it.

Catherine Lutz in conversation with Chris Lydon and James Der Derian at the Joukowsky Forum, Brown University April 28, 2009.

Podcast • April 29, 2009

David Kennedy: Requiem for Human Rights?

Twenty five years ago on a human-rights mission to Uruguay, David Kennedy fashioned the legal argument that freed five tortured prisoners (mostly medical students) from prison under a military dictatorship. The odd part is that ...

Twenty five years ago on a human-rights mission to Uruguay, David Kennedy fashioned the legal argument that freed five tortured prisoners (mostly medical students) from prison under a military dictatorship. The odd part is that Kennedy (now Brown University’s vice president for international affairs) came away from his own adventure with doubts of all kinds about well-intentioned strangers intervening in faraway places.

I’ve never read an introspection quite like Kennedy’s memoir, The Rights of Spring, about his innocence abroad in Uruguay in 1984. These could be extended notes for a screenplay of a key life moment, questions we all ask ourselves: What am I doing in this picture? Who would play me in my movie? What are the camera angles and points of view here? Why did I say what I said? What did she hear me say? What’s going on below the surface between lawyer and prisoner? Between lawyer and judge? What is the hierarchy of rules in play? And why did Kennedy’s moments of intense connection with the Uruguayan prisoners reaffirm a gulf of estrangement?

On a second reading, I thought: this book would do (for soldiers and civilians) as a “counterinsurgency manual.” I feel some disproportion here. David Kennedy has exhumed more delicate questions about his case against torture than some of our public servants asked about inflicting torture. Why so much anguish about human-rights interventions, and so relatively little about the military kind? Who is pressing David Kennedy’s examination of conscience about our military campaign in Afghanistan?

The argument of this book — and of a parallel book I wrote about the law of war — is to try to awaken within the military command, also among soldiers in the field, a sense of their own moral agency. One more anecdote: there are all these stories of soldiers in Iraq who came back from the field quite troubled that they had killed civilians or children. And then they’re connected back to duty and back to mental health by their mental health professionals, by their pastors, by their military commanders, who say: what you did was proportional. In one way or another, distinctions and norms are used to quiet the very normal sense of ethical jeopardy that goes with violence.

I this book I’m talking about the ethical jeopardy that goes with political action, which I don’t think is any more or less dramatic than the ethical jeopardy that goes with military affairs. But the mechanisms in which it’s shrouded and elided and denied are quite similar.

David Kennedy in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Joukowsky Forum, Brown University April 29, 2009.

The public point of the book is to wonder what’s left of the human rights movement after many of its ideals have been encased in government and big bureaucracies — and many others have been trashed on our side at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Gaza. On elite campuses like Brown, it is almost an undergraduate rite of passage to start your own NGO to attack hunger, disease or an ancient injustice in the back of beyond. But is “human rights” still a viable cause, or career?

Podcast • October 10, 2008

Andrew Bacevich: The End of Exceptionalism

Andrew Bacevich incandesces with the rage of a serious professional: with a West Pointer’s scorn for political weasels and embarrassment at incompetent generalship; with a citizen’s horror at the Long Peace that became the Long ...
Andrew Bacevich incandesces with the rage of a serious professional: with a West Pointer’s scorn for political weasels and embarrassment at incompetent generalship; with a citizen’s horror at the Long Peace that became the Long War — war today as “a seemingly permanent condition.” He burns with a Nieburhian realist’s dread of our imperial self-destruction; with a father’s remorse at the loss of his son and namesake on Army duty in Iraq. Representative prat boys in Bacevich’s account (and there are many of them) are the “insufferable” Doug Feith, #2 in the Rumsfeld Pentagon who was dubbed by General Tommy Franks “the stupidest fucking guy on the planet,” and also the same Tommy Franks, who spun the vulgar celebration of himself as an all-conquering hero in quick wins over the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is the distillation of Andy Bacevich’s fury. It is the single best stab I’ve read at accounting for the general “meltdown,” the political, military, financial, cultural and moral disarray we are still heading into; and amazingly it’s a best-seller (7 weeks on the New York Times list, as high as #4 in hardcover non-fiction). The short form of a compact book is this: bullying abroad cannot sustain an orgy of consumption back home. Or conversely, as Bacevich puts it: “A grand bazaar provides an inadequate basis on which to erect a vast empire.”

In Bacevich’s neat-but-not-too-neat formulation, a single year set the trap we’re now in — the twelvemonth between August 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union started to sink, and August 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and dared the US and its allies to undo the deed. American mythmaking spun the first into a war victory, not Russia’s internal collapse, and it hyped the second, an overmanned police action, into a world-historical invitation to redesign the Middle East. Thus did hubris gear up for nemesis.

Not the least appealing thing about Andy Bacevich is that his mind is in motion. I first encountered him six years ago, in the week that the Bush Doctrine (written for “the boys in Lubbock,” as the president said) foretold an era of unilateral arrogance, pugnacity and preemption. On a panel with Andy before a mass of Boston University freshman, I blurted out the Founders’ warning against empire and Jefferson’s caution about a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” My memory is that Andy Bacevich blew me off and argued that the Bush Doctrine was no worse than the Clinton record. He had just published a half-hopeful account of American Empire. We recall that symposium in our conversation the other day:

I may have said ‘there is an American Empire; get used to it,’ because my own evolving, and there’s no question about it, evolving thinking about US foreign policy especially after the Cold War ended, persuaded me that we needed to think in terms of an imperial presence. We need to see that we’re imperial, not to brag about it but to recognize the course we had embarked upon and where it had brought us. If you insist, and many people in my conversations and talks insist on this, we’re not an empire, we don’t have colonies, we’re not like Britain, we’re not like Rome. In a formal sense you can make that case, you know we don’t have colonies that’s true, but we are an empire in the most fundamental sense in terms of our expectations, the expanse of our influence, the prerogatives that we insist upon. Now if I said ‘we’re an empire; get used to it,’ I’m guessing what I meant was we’re an empire and by recognizing that we’re an empire it might be possible for us to manage the empire in ways that the empire will be sustainable. That the empire might at least minimize the moral offenses that it commits. That an empire can be managed in a way to serve the larger interests and purposes of a variety of people. I don’t think empires have to be evil and oppressive and stupid. Now the direction that my thinking has evolved since that time 6 years ago is I’ve become persuaded that at least with this administration that its recklessness, its arrogance, its hubris has been very much at odds with the notion of an empire wisely managed. And the actions of this administration have so squandered American power and influence in the world that they have rapidly accelerated the decline of the American empire. Again, it’s not that I’m interested in the empire as such. I am interested in the well-being of the United States of America. And I think this administration has done great damage to our well-being.

Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and The Limits of Power in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 30, 2008

Podcast • October 8, 2008

Bernard Lown’s Prescription for Survival

Bernard Lown: Rx for sudden nuclear death The world-renowned cardiologist Bernard Lown won the Nobel Prize for Peace, (outside his field, so to speak) for putting doctors (starting with the Russian Eugene Chazov, above, who ...

The world-renowned cardiologist Bernard Lown won the Nobel Prize for Peace, (outside his field, so to speak) for putting doctors (starting with the Russian Eugene Chazov, above, who was Leonid Brezhnev’s heart doctor in the 1980s) into the fight against nuclear weapons in a global force called International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). His professional obsession had been sudden death, one by one, by coronary events. As Dr. Lown says, how could he not try to make a healing connection with the real danger of sudden death, in the hundreds and thousands, maybe millions, by nuclear events? The Nobel recognized in Bernard Lown the doctor-as-citizen to the nth degree, the world citizen, a saint of public health.

Many heart doctors (also Bernie’s mother) have said he should have won another Nobel Prize, for Medicine, for developing the defibrillator — the now implantable (and universal) electrical restart button for the heart. That’s the story of Bernard Lown the researcher and innovator, the doctor-as-scientist to the nth degree, an experimenter and inventor in the family of Thomas Edison.

And then there is Bernard Lown the doctor-as-doctor, the patient’s friend, the hands-on healer to the nth degree. If you haven’t had a touch of Bernie’s doctoring, you’re missing something. The finest interviewer in America is not on radio or television – sorry, Terry Gross; sorry, Ted Koppel. The best interviewer in America is Bernie Lown. He examines you inch by inch. And then he sits there with you in what feels like a sealed room. No interruptions, no distractions of any kind. “Half like a general, half like a bishop,” as Henry James writes about a doctor in The Wings of the Dove. Like Henry James’ doctor, Bernie sets on the desk between the two of you “a great empty cup of attention.” Bernie listens and watches.

“You have a unilateral stare,” he said to me a few years ago.

“Meaning what?” I asked.

“Meaning you lead with your right eye. Your right eye does more of the looking than the left.”

“And what does that tell you,” I wanted to know.

“Not easy to say,” he said. “It could be a sign of aggressiveness.”

A year later, I asked him: “Okay, Bernie, where’s the unilateral stare now – which eye?”

“It’s your right eye,” he said.

“How could you be sure?” I asked.

“I looked,” he said.

“Does that cost extra?” I checked.

“No,” he said, “it’s part of my exam.”

Bernie has written in The Lost Art of Healing that the taking of a patient’s history is the most important diagnostic device ever invented; and that touching – the laying on of a doctor’s hands – is the most effective tool in medicine. He is a doctor on the William Carlos Williams model, who is willing and able to become us, to become the patient, for half an hour, or an hour at a stretch. You leave his office, as Henry James’ Milly Theale did in The Wings of the Dove, feeling that you’ve confessed and been absolved.

Best of all: months later I realized that under Bernard Lown’s care, my tachycardia was gone.

Our conversation here is about 87-year-old Benard Lown’s new memoir, Prescription for Survival, about the nuclear obsession that led to his Nobel. I urged him to begin with the revelatory freak happenstance, at a press conference on the eve of the Nobel ceremony, when a Russian journalist had a heart attack and both Lown and his opposite number, Evgeny Chazov, heart doctor to Brezhnev and the Politburo, jumped to the rescue. Lown’s impromptu speech in that moment is a capsule of his life:

We have just witnessed what doctoring is about. When faced with a dire emergency of sudden cardiac arrest, doctors do not inquire whether the patient was a good person or a criminal. We do not delay treatment to learn the politics or character of the victim. We respond not as ideologues, nor as Russians nor Americans, but as doctors. The only thing that matters is saving a human life. We work with colleagues, whater their political persuasion, whether capitalist or Communist. This very culture permeates IPPNW. The world is threatened with sudden nuclear death. We work with doctors whatever their political convictions to save our endangered home. You have just witnessed IPPNW in action.

The patient and the planet survived a while.

Podcast • September 18, 2008

Torture, Part 3: the Philip Gourevitch version

In our third go at this miserable business of sanctioned American torture, Philip Gourevitch turns it around, Pogo-style. We have met the victims, he says in effect, and they are us. Click to listen to ...

In our third go at this miserable business of sanctioned American torture, Philip Gourevitch turns it around, Pogo-style. We have met the victims, he says in effect, and they are us.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philip Gourevitch (58 minutes, 27 mb mp3)

Philip Gourevitch (photo: Andrew Brucker)

Even if you want to put it into culture war terms, or a war of our principles versus theirs, or our civilization versus theirs – we’ve violated the principles that we claim our civilization stands for, in order to fight off this threat to our civilization. That’s what’s so incoherent about it. That’s where, when I look at these photographs from Abu Graib, when I look at the story, a lot of what I wrote this book for is to ask not ‘why did we go?’ and ‘how did we de-humanize them? and do these things to them?’ It’s ‘how did we do this to ourselves? Why are we doing this to ourselves?’ Maybe the best way to get us to stop doing it is not to ask why are we doing this to them – why are we doing this to ourselves?

Philip Gourevitch of Standard Operating Procedure, in conversation with Chris Lydon in James Der Derian’s global security seminar at Brown’s Watson Institute, September 17, 2008

Philip Gourevitch’s book, Standard Operating Procedure, is of course the hard-cover partner of the Errol Morris movie.

Gourevitch‘s eye and story-telling pen are as powerful as any thousand pictures from Abu Ghraib. This is his reading, for example, of the interrogation (with the help of dogs) of a prize prisoner called “AQ” (for Al Qaeda) before he turned out finally to be a used-car dealer in Baghdad, a man of no political or security interest:

Once again Smith moved in with the animal. In one picture you see it lunging, ears back, a black blur of muscle and jaw… Smith is in the picture, crouching over the dog, restraining him and urging him on at the same time.

It does not seem possible to amplify the drama of this moment, but the look on AQ’s face does just that. He has the horrified, drawn-back, and quivering expression of a thoroughly blasted soul. It is all there in his eyes, moist and mad with fear, fixed on a mouthful of fangs. What secrets does he have that we want so badly, but are so precious to him that he endures this day after day? The answer in AQ’s case was none. Once again at Abu Ghraib they had the wrong guy, or they had the guy wrong, and when they realized this after several months of dogs and bondage and hooding and noise and sleeplessness and heat and cold and who knows just what other robust counter-resistance techniques, they told him to scram, and closed his case. The pictures of AQ on that night before New Year’s are the last known photographs of our prisoners on the MI block at Abu Ghraib, which seems fitting, because these pictures don’t leave much to the viewer’s imagination, except the obvious question: if you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which?

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.

As Abu Ghraib was the sequel to Guantanamo, our classroom conversation with Philip Gourevitch flows out of our session two days earlier with Philippe Sands — and Sands’ point that the criminal torture story began with President Bush’s dismissal of the Geneva Conventions in February, 2002 and “migrated” from there. One of the Morris-Gourevitch interviews with the investigator Tim Dugan gets it all into a nutshell, in the vernacular:

Tim Dugan was summoned to join a meeting with Colonel Pappas to discuss the interrogation of this fresh crop of Saddam cronies. Pappas explained that he’d just got off a conference call with General Sanchez and the secretary of defense. “He said, ‘We’re starting a special projects team, and we’re going to break the back of the resistance. Anybody who doesn’t want to volunteer for this has to leave the room. And if you volunteer, you can’t talk about this to anybody,'” Dugan said. “We all volunteered and he said all approach techniques were authorized. Someone asked, ‘Even dogs?’ And he says, ‘yep, even dogs.’ He’s like, ‘We got a chance to break this unlawful insurgency, and the people in an unlawful insurgency have no protection under the Geneva Conventions.'”

Dugan thought that was pretty definitive. “If the fuckin’ secretary of defense designates the motherfucker an unlawful insurgency, I mean, what the fuck am I supposed to say? It’s an unlawful insurgency, wouldn’t you think? He’s the second-highest motherfucker in the country during the war.”

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.

Podcast • September 17, 2008

Philippe Sands’ Torture Team

First, the Spencer Tracy “verdict” from “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961). Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philippe Sands (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Who will pay for the illegal abuse of detainees at Guantanamo? ...

First, the Spencer Tracy “verdict” from “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961).

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philippe Sands (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Who will pay for the illegal abuse of detainees at Guantanamo? If violations of the Geneva Conventions — and specifically of Common Article 3, against torture, cruelty and “outrages upon personal dignity” — are “‘war crimes,’ punishable as federal offenses,” as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Hamdan case two years ago, who will prosecute them?

Will Americans and the US government initiate an examination of the record — and of our national conscience? Or are we waiting for a prompt from abroad — waiting, in effect, for Donald Rumsfeld or Antonio Gonzalez to get their version of the Pinochet “tap on the shoulder,” as they’re strolling on a sidewalk in London, Berlin or Mexico City?

Philippe Sands of Torture Team: “…doing nothing is not an option.”

In his book Torture Team and in our conversation, Philippe Sands aims such questions at the top tier of his own legal profession. Who will hold to account the lawyers who gave President Bush the very bad advice that the Geneva rules, the US Army manual on interrogation, and the long tradition against torture (President Lincoln’s order in 1863 was that “military necessity does not admit of cruelty”) did not apply to the Al Qaeda suspects picked up after 9.11? And then: what about the lawyers who gave Donald Rumsfeld a green light to introduce abusive interrogation at Guantanamo in the autumn of 2002?

Torture Team can be read as a fiercely accusatory extension of Jane Mayer’s argument in The New Yorker and her book, The Dark Side, that “but for the lawyers this would not have happened.” Philippe Sands brings to bear an English barrister’s perspective and a generous investment of shoe leather in the US. He interviewed a large cast of principals and credits the marvelous openness of American society for his access to (among others) Rumsfeld’s chief counsel William “Jim” Haynes; the first commanding officer at Guantanamo, Major General Michael Dunlavey and his counsel, Lt. Col. Diane Beaver; the Navy’s General Counsel who blew the whistle on enhanced interrogation, Alberto Mora; the Pentagon’s aggressive Undersecretary for Policy Doug Feith, and the apparently witless chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. But then he turns scathingly to the judgment that ideology, and lawyers, drove the mission to create something new: a “legal black hole” in which designated persons would be stripped of their humanity and all their rights.

That is precisely what the system of rules that the United States had done so much to put into place after the Second World War was intended to avoid. It comes back to Spencer Tracy in Judgement at Nuremberg: the dignity of even a single human person is what our values are about. There are no legal black holes. The moment you go down that route you undermine the entirety of who it is we believe we are, and what it is we believe we’re doing… I think there was a conscious decision to remove international legal constraints (and U.S. legal constraints — after all, that’s why Guantanamo is outside the US) which would limit the ability of the administration to adopt new techniques of interrogation. The legal black hole was the removal of international constraints on interrogation as part of an ideological drive to increase executive power and remove the shackles of international law. It has failed miserably.

Philippe Sands in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 15, 2008.

The press and popular culture didn’t help us notice what was underway, Sands observes. Notably, the Fox TV hit, 24 (another Jane Mayer subject) was as insidiously wrong about the long-term issues as Judgement at Nuremberg was once eloquently right. Sands also makes you wonder about the elite legal establishment — most particularly Harvard Law School, training ground of principals like Alberto Gonzales and Jim Wright and home base of the inescapable advocate of “torture warrants,” Professor Alan Dershowitz. But the hard focus here is on the legal minds who used a devious process to create a lawless prison (seedbed, not least of Abu Ghraib) that became an even more monstrous symbol of American power out of control.

The choice we don’t have, Philippe Sands argues, is to do nothing about this stain on the American reputation, the American soul.