The Art Of Euphemism

Crofton Black and Edmund Clark's book Negative Publicity, which tracks Bush-era extraordinary renditions through photographs and redacted documents, is a compound of elegant presentation and rough stuff

Negative Publicity, sub-titled “Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition”, is a compound of elegant presentation and rough stuff. The unBook of the Year, it is at once objet d’art and charge sheet; a pretty, awful warning. Its documentary dossier and discontinuous text are interleaved with photographs by Edmund Clark, invisibly stained with images of what is not there: the victims of rendition and its executives and extras (civilian aircrew and auxiliaries), licensed by Washington and London to conduct subtractions.

Composed of elements which, for the most part, we already might have/should have known, Negative Publicity is, on the bland face of it, an apolitical montage, no more tendentious than a plea for what used to be called “common decency”. The two, discrete, authors are Clark and Crofton Black, an Oxonian doctor of philosophy, classical scholar turned investigative journalist, with an essay by the architect Eyal Weizman, “Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures”. The art-object’s material, in spiral-bound foolscap, is of mostly captionless, blandly suggestive photographs and reproduced pages from businesslike documents; the interstitial commentary is an exercise in calm outrage. The compendium is published by an outfit labelled “Aperture”, which suggests the judas-hole through which a prisoner can be spied from outside his cell or through which he may peer, if he can get that far.

Seconding the book’s disjunctive posture, I offer a set of stepping stones towards defining the abyss in front of (unless it’s behind) a society which, in fear and vanity, endorses by indifference what citizens/consumers are warned that they might find “distressing” to witness enacted on the TV screen, certainly before 9pm. We want to know with one eye and are advised to close the other.

For openers, on two pages marked “023 (-209,265-269)”, topped and tailed with “Top Secret”, the unsaid is made visible, in the form of five and four long paragraphs which have been, in the current jargon, “redacted”, i.e. blacked out. The reader is primed, by artful layout, to presume that something illegal is being concealed, if only for his own good. We gather that the US government is hiding a constellation of such documentary black holes. The British contribution is of scant, routine civilities from (now Sir) Mark Allen, the head of MI6’s counter-terrorism unit, to Moussa Koussa, the head of Colonel Gaddafi’s Intelligence, after the delivery to the latter of a Libyan “jihadi” and his wife, who had been living in Thailand before being kidnapped in an Anglo-American operation.

According to Tom Bower in Broken Vows, his recent, riveting biography of Tony Blair, both the PM and Jack Straw later denied knowledge of any such operation, although its immediate result was to enable Blair to kiss the Colonel on both cheeks. On retirement, Mark Allen joined BP as a “special adviser”. The company’s activities in Libya had been made markedly easier by Blair’s willingness to go the extra, quiet mile for all our sakes: for “eggs, broken”, see under “omelettes”.

Site in north-east Kabul, believed to have been the location of the “Salt Pit”, the CIA’s first prison in Afghanistan

Alain Resnais’ 1955 film Nuit et Brouillard emitted a similarly loud silence in picturing the volatilisation of unpersons from Nazi Europe. Jean-Marie le Pen later called the Holocaust a historic “point de détail”. The communal Europe of 1958 was, incidentally but not by chance, an attempt to rejuvenate the Old Continent, without wrinkles. In order to give it a pacific history, written on a blanked page, economics replaced politics. Numbers, in the form of enhanced and speculative statistics, became the common language. The reduction of people to logged, numerically tattooed, impersonal items was a Nazi fetish. 

It may well be that only several hundred people, few of whom one would care to have to tea, suffered “rendition” at the hands of British and American operatives. “Fuss, fuss, fuss,” should we say? Should we? To advance the number of people tortured or delivered for, oh, “special treatment”, as a reason to let the matter rest is to allow accountancy a place in ethics. Does the question whether, at least for the sake of people we love, we might be tempted to torture a suspect put the matter in perspective? Possibly; but whatever we might then do, or license others to do, we would have to concede that none of it will be ethical. There you are! Where?

“In each interrogation session in which an Enhanced Technique is employed, a contemporaneous record shall be created setting forth the nature and duration of each such technique employed, the identities of those present, and a citation to the required Headquarters approval cable . . .” The prosaic prudery of the CIA director’s vocabulary renders into due, because dull, process what our people do to their people. As for what their people do to their people, the reduction of language to cliché and circumlocution is collateral to the process of rendering the human conscience to some extra-territorial dimension where the rules of the game have no tenure and no co-ordinates. “Terror” denies distinctions and renders our people always in a state of emergency. Habeas corpus is replaced by sauve qui peut. The doctrine of Universal Human Rights leads to the elaboration of the means to deny them. In the bureaucratic quagmire, language is in a state of deliquescence: “enhanced” means uglier.

Gore Vidal may have been the first writer to perceive the danger of what he termed “the National Security State”. He blamed Harry Truman for empowering a secret state within the United States. The operations of what became the Central Intelligence Agency were concealed from the scrutiny of the press and, when it came to specifics, even of the politicians who authorised its budget. The implication was that democracy was too fragile and too sentimental to be trusted. Platonic guardians with hard heads and pitiless purposes would take care of what the soft public would as soon not know about or lacked the wit to guess. In defence of freedom, the CIA took on the lineaments of the KGB.

A room formerly used for interrogations in the Libyan intelligence service facility at Tajoura, Tripoli

In security organisations, the deposit of the unspeakable is paperwork. From a document dated January 2003, signed by the Director of Central Intelligence: “Enhanced techniques are techniques that do incorporate physical or psychological pressure beyond Standard Techniques . . . These techniques are, the attention grasp, walling, the facial hold, the facial slap (insult slap), the abdominal slap, cramped confinement, wall standing, stress positions, sleep deprivation beyond 72 hours, the use of diapers for prolonged periods, the use of harmless insects, the water board, and such other techniques as may be specifically approved pursuant to paragraph 4 below.” Do you copy?

We feel we have “been here before”, some of us; if only because we should or might have been. One has only to think back, if old enough, to the young Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s La Torture dans la République (1954), a pamphlet which caused a scandal in the early stages of the Algerian war and is now out of print, but scarcely out of date. Vidal-Naquet’s father, Jew and résistant, was tortured and murdered, along with V-N’s mother, by the Gestapo. For those beyond the Nazi reach, the Continent became an Other Place: “we” never had to endure the horror and the humiliation, not only of defeat but also of mutual betrayal. During the Jacobin terror, in 1797, Joseph Joubert, living in Montignac, in the rural south-west, remarked, “Our fear of enemies and their vengeance is redoubled when they also live next door.”

Ineptly conducted geopolitics and surging immigration render that kind of proximity pandemic. The Englishman’s castle has no reliable portcullis; and yet he has a nervous conviction that it cannot happen here, provided . . . we do what has to be done, or someone does. From this quasi-innate quasi-innocence derives a part, however small, of the British sense of detachment from what Lord Carrington called, when speaking of the sides in the Balkan conflict of the early/mid-1990s, “these people”, by which, of course, he meant those people. Who were they? The ones who, in his words, “don’t know how to behave”.

At the end of the text comes a note on “the Glomar response, a form of denial that aims to add no information to the public domain. Under its terms, US state agencies are authorised to ‘neither confirm nor deny the existence or non-existence’ of documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act. The Glomar response is justified on the basis that the very fact of the ‘existence or non-existence’ is itself information whose disclosure should be banned for ‘security reasons’. The term is derived from a ship named the Glomar Explorer built by the CIA and used to recover a sunken Soviet submarine in 1968.”

In order that the secret world and its budget remain beyond public question, its officers had regularly to convince their political masters and each other that, like Housman’s mercenaries, they were saving the sum of things for pay. Patriotism and bureaucracy, with the right people behind the desks, and the right fingers on the triggers, became indistinguishable. To justify the duplicity, it had to be an article of faith that “enhanced” vigilance, by whatever you-don’t-want-to-know means, was scoring victories which the average citizen should count himself lucky to be taxed for.

Two pages of the declassified “Special Review: Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (September 2001–October 2003)”

The rules of the secret game insist that open declaration of the achievements of “intelligence” is counter-productive: by alerting the enemy to how savvy we have been, we become less so. Hence the public would do well to take it on trust that the secret, sometimes dirty war was decisive in the salvation of the West. The fact that rare disasters, like the 1961 Bay of Pigs episode, came to embarrassing light could be said to be evidence only of how many unmentioned successes were clinched in the dark. The Other Side knew that we were onto them, or might soon be, even if (so subtle was our bluff) it was not so. Paranoia is the import/export business of all secret services. Stanley Kubrick: “Paranoia is knowing what’s going on.” And also possibly not knowing. And then again . . . Keep turning that screw.

The aggravated paranoia of a number of CIA and “intelligence community” operatives, who saw enemies even (if not particularly) among their colleagues, showed what pressure such people were under, how grave the risk to security and how vital the need to reinforce our capacity to survey subversives whose cunning could never be overestimated. The “Cambridge spies” (Burgess and Maclean), like the Rosenbergs, were god-sends to the New Guardians, even though it can be questioned just how much “vital” information, inaccessible by any other means, those particular demons passed to Moscow. Why was Kim Philby not rumbled? Might it be that, because he served as a conduit, he had a renewable lease on immunity? No investigation ever goes as far as it could; every revelation just might be concealing something; there is always something beyond enough.

Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre (1961) told of a French officer patient, in the Algerian hospital where Fanon was a doctor. The officer had suffered a breakdown due to overwork, because of the prolonged conscientiousness with which he obliged himself to torture his victims. No one can be sure that a man has told all he knows, not even the victim himself. Therein lies the torturer’s excuse and his frustration.

Integral to the happy accountancy of “our” secret services is an infinity of appalling things that, thanks to their stewardship, never happened. In pious times, God could be thanked for aversions of a similar order; hence we can have no idea just how good He is. In the a posteriori simultaneity of electronic surveillance, the security services are the recording angels whose vigilance deters what they might, or might not, be there to nip in the bud. You can’t see them, but they’re there. We hope and fear.

The emblematic moment of public puerility in post-war western “thinking” came when Jack Kennedy was reported as saying that Ian Fleming’s James Bond was his favourite literary character (as Jack Bauer, our guy, would be on TV). The man whose father — as JFK only somewhat jestingly remarked — had bought him the presidency endorsed, if he did not impersonate, the defence of Our Way of Life as delegated to a dandified and gallant lady’s man with a licence to kill without being questioned. Kennedy also presaged the necessity for statesmen to embrace the vulgarity of what Dwight Macdonald called “mass-cult”. Since Kennedy uttered his endorsement of trash, what successful politician can be suspected of having read, let alone quoted, what used to be called serious books? Tony Blair’s social advisers asked some Booker Prize winner to 10 Downing Street, where the cool Britannic PM took him to be a painter.

Sketches by Mohammed Shoroeiya of three torture devices used on him in a CIA prison in Afghanistan: two wooden boxes and a waterboard. From the Human Rights Watch report, “Delivered Into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya”, 2012 (© Mohammed Shoroeiya)

In the mid-1960s, John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold took the romance out of Her Majesty’s Secret Service and put salt on its crumpet. David Cornwell’s reupholstery of himself as The Square announced him as the master of duplicity, soured by imperial nostalgia for the Great Game: oh my Sykes and my Picot long ago! Le Carré’s sad spies and their cuckolded master, the unsmiling Smiley, served a flawed cause and a waning power. Their American “cousins” were regarded with more suspicion than their “honest” Communist enemies. While the game still required nerve, it lacked idealism. Killing was no longer a cure, only a living.

While Le Carré promises that “we” are no better than “they” are (whoever they may be, or we are), nostalgia for Ian Fleming’s ruthless refinement — the Old Etonianism that dares not speak its name — has kept the casting of James Bond, and his expensive adventures, a matter of headline (and fatuous) importance. Investment in Bond films is Britain’s most profitable expenditure on defence.

Le Carré’s fictional world seems plausible, if only because no one has much fun in it. It also encourages a post-imperial fantasy in which, since there is neither good nor evil, honour nor faith, we have every excuse for scowling resignation. Because Le Carré’s vision is grey on grey, we have the illusion that he must be depicting something quasi-documentary. What is true is that just because a writer cannot do jokes does not make him serious.

The actor Charles Laughton, who played Captain Bligh to Clark Gable’s Fletcher Christian in the original film of Mutiny on the Bounty, declared that he found it difficult to play a role on the screen until he had furnished himself with a definitive way of walking. The images of Tony Blair alongside George W. Bush, and later going solo, demonstrate how he took on the — dare we say? — crusading roll of a sheriff in the world’s wild Middle East. Blair had found the walk to enable him to walk the walk he had to walk. The interplay between showbiz and geopolitics, journalism and — let’s pretend — truth, filmed image and bloody reality, has contrived an inseparable blend of entertainment, war and terror. The movies (Eye in the Sky the latest of a legion) relish the dilemmas of our guardians by asking “What would you do, chum?” and then find a way (usually explosive) of sparing us the need to answer.

The images of what IS executioners and torturers actually do are withheld from viewing eyes. Brave TV executives spare us blood and guts, just as censors, in the good old days, saved us from nipples, pubic hair and what is now the nightly ins-and-outs of adult stuff. The rumble of impending News keeps our finger on the button as we almost see the horror, the horror. We never have to hear the screams or smell the smells. As long as we consent to be viewers and consumers of the media, terror — trumpeted by now-watch-on headlines — induces the illusion that domestic passivity is a nostrum: TV is our in-house mental NHS. It allows us almost to see/guess what is being done, but to feel so little that it becomes a form of terrible comfort; visual medication. Taking care replaces action in a society where salvation has become a matter of mundane longevity, not a heavenly prospect. The new Reformation, urged by Brexit’s secular bishops, asks the British to detach themselves from (the Treaty of) Rome and cultivate their own insulated redemption. Xenophobia and Universal Human Rights are heads and tails of the new world disorder.

Room 11, Skopski Merak Hotel,Skopje, Macedonia: Khaled el-Masri was held here before being handed over to the CIA. He was later exonerated

In early 2003, Kyle “Dusty” Foggo was deputed to oversee construction of three detention centres in nondescript surroundings — Romania, Morocco, Lithuania — to an identical plan, to ensure disorientation: non-slip floors, flexible plywood walls to soften impact. Foggo did so well that he was promoted to CIA executive director under Porter Goss. Rendition and showbiz converge. Sets are built in suitable locations. Outside Vilnius, the Antaviliai riding stables were bought, in March 2004, by a company named Elite LLC, incorporated in Washington DC “to provide consulting and advisory services in the area of finance, investments and general trading”. How sweet the precise falseness devised to bag a vacuum!

Crofton Black: “The site was managed by an American in his mid-fifties called Rod. When people asked Rod what he was doing there, he’d say: ‘Oh I’m dealing with finance, a finance broker.’ Maybe he could lend folk in the village some money, a hundred thousand or so? ‘That’s small money for me,’ says Rod. ‘We only count hundreds of millions here.’

“. . . most people working on the site were very reluctant to speak. ‘When something is very secret, you have a suspicion right away that something is wrong.’”

In May 2006, Foggo was indicted on corruption charges. He pleaded guilty in 2009 and was sentenced to 37 months in jail (dare we wonder what peccadillo that extra month was for?). “With my acceptance of responsibility my secrets will be kept and with that I am pleased.” Goss resigned.

Rendition subject: “In this second cell the bare light bulb was kept on all the time except when guards brought food or entered the cell for some other reason. My hands and feet were constantly shackled. In addition to my hands being chained, there was a chain attached to an iron post in the wall that attached to my right hand. The chain that held me was long enough to allow me to reach the bucket I used for a toilet. It was very heavy, which made it hard to move. The chain was so heavy that I could not even lift my right hand to my chest during prayer.”

Laid Saidi, Algerian, was rendered from Tanzania to Afghanistan in 2003. According to the New York Times, he was interrogated about a telephone conversation in which he had allegedly talked, in a mixture of English and Arabic, about planes. In fact, it was about tyres: Arabic for plane being ta-ira. The 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee noted he was “subjected to ice water baths and 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation”, before being released “because the CIA discovered that he was likely not the person he was believed to be”.

But then perhaps by that time he was. And by that time, who were we?

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