This week’s Newsweek cover: How ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ predicts the future. The story, by Daniel Klaidman, explores the question: Could the Obama administration someday announce that the “war on terror” is over? Klaidman reports on the growing signs that the administration may be debating when to consider the war “finished.”
It’s a question that President Obama has quietly discussed with his closest advisers. He has raised the issue publicly only in the vaguest terms: when he said, to rousing cheers on election night, that “a decade of war is ending,” it sounded more like a reference to Afghanistan and Iraq than a statement about the war on terror as a whole. Yet behind the scenes, Obama has led a persistent internal conversation about whether America should remain engaged in a permanent, ever-expanding state of war, one that has pushed the limits of the law, stretched dwindling budgets, and at times strained relations with our allies. “This has always been a concern of the President’s,” says a former military adviser to Obama. “He’s uncomfortable with the idea of war without end.” It is still considered politically treacherous for anyone, especially Democrats, to question whether war is the right framework for fighting terrorism. But just as the intelligence and military communities were criticized twelve years ago for having had too much of a “pre-9/11 mentality,” some in the administration have now begun to gingerly ask whether we today have too much of a “post-9/11” mentality. Or, as one adviser to Obama recently put it to me, “Is it time to start winding down the state of emergency?”
The latest from Isikoff
The federal judge who helped draft Justice Department memos on torture has set up a legal defense fund to pay the costs of defending against possible disciplinary or impeachment proceedings. Jay Bybee, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Las Vegas, quietly set up the fund last July following widespread news reports that he and a former deputy, John Yoo, were the focus of a long-running investigation by the Justice Department’s internal ethics unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), over their role in crafting the memos.
But there were no public references to the fund until this, week when Declassified noticed that a link to the fund had popped up on the website of Keep America Safe, an advocacy group set up last month by Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, that is highly critical of President Obama’s national security policies. The fund is listed as one of Keep America Safe’s “causes we support.”
The defense fund may be about to become extremely useful for Bybee, who anticipates legal expenses “well in excess of $500,000” as a result of the Justice investigation, according to a letter from the U.S. Judicial Conference ethics committee posted on the fund’s website. Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday that, after a nearly year-long delay and numerous internal reviews, the OPR report into the torture memos was finally slated to be released at the end of this month.
In just the last few days, virtually unnoticed by most of the news media, Obama administration officials have:
*Rejected a new Freedom of Information request for White House visitor logs (despite their announced intention to start making such documents public).
*Appealed, yet again, to invoke “state secrets” to block a lawsuit that might shed light on the CIA’s extraordinary rendition of terror suspects to countries that practice torture.
*Gotten Congress to pass legislation that would prevent graphic photographs of detainee abuse by the U.S. government from ever becoming public.
And all of this is in spite of Obama’s vow—in a memo on the first full day of his presidency—to create “an unprecedented level of openness” in government.
It’s become the conventional wisdom that the tortured will say anything to make the torture stop, and that “anything” need not be truthful as long as it is what the torturers want to hear. But years worth of studies in neuroscience, as well as new research, suggest that there are, in addition, fundamental aspects of neurochemistry that increase the chance that information obtained under torture will not be truthful.
So let’s break this down anatomically. Fact One: To recall information stored in the brain, you must activate a number of areas, especially the prefrontal cortex (site of intentionality) and hippocampus (the door to long-term memory storage). Fact Two: Stress such as that caused by torture releases the hormone cortisol, which can impair cognitive function, including that of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Studies in which soldiers were subjected to stress in the form of food and sleep deprivation have found that it impaired their ability to recall personal memories and information, as this 2006 study reported. “Studies of extreme stress with Special Forces Soldiers have found that recall of previously-learned information was impaired after stress occurred,” notes O’Mara. “Water-boarding in particular is an extreme stressor and has the potential to elicit widespread stress-induced changes in the brain.”
Stress also releases catecholamines such as noradrenaline, which can enlarge the amygdale (structures involved in the processing of fear), also impairing memory and the ability to distinguish a true memory from a false or implanted one. Brain imaging of torture victims, as in this study, suggest why: torture triggers abnormal patterns of activation in the frontal and temporal lobes, impairing memory. Rather than a question triggering a (relatively) simple pattern of brain activation that leads to the stored memory of information that can answer the question, the question stimulates memories almost chaotically, without regard to their truthfulness.
Begley, bringing the smartness
Alter, on the echoes of the Bush administration.