Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Book Review - Unjustifiable Means: The Inside Story of How the CIA, Pentagon, and US Government Conspired to Torture

This review is adapted from my posting at Amazon.com

Mark Fallon's new book, Unjustifiable Means: The Inside Story of How the CIA, Pentagon, and US Government Conspired to Torture, is the story of one man's journey towards bitter illumination. It is also the story of a nation's journey into a moral abyss.

Fallon was a top counterintelligence official and investigator, someone who believed in patriotic idealism, who discovered a core of thuggery inside the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus. From 2002 to 2004, he was a top official for the government's Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF). Rather than turn aside (something repugnant to him), he tried to intervene against the barbarism of torture. What he encountered was the corruption of institutions to which he otherwise had been loyal, which he had served for decades. The book is the story of what he experienced and what he felt driven to do.

But this book also has a metastory, manifested in the form of words, sentences, paragraphs and ultimately pages of redactions. The repeated blackened lines of typeface represent the arm of that same torturing government Fallon opposed reaching into the reader's own personal universe, that sacred connection between reader and author. The shadow of the evil that conjured up torture, and then acted to protect it, seeps into the realm of the reader him or herself.

As anyone who has studied the torture issue for some time can readily see, many of the redactions are embarrassingly stupid, including censorship of names that were recorded in otherwise declassified government documents, or opernly reported by the press. But other redactions are serious and frightening, such as the attempt to still hide the full story about the torture of Mohammed Al Qahtani, the so-called 20th hijacker.

Mark Fallon is a congenial author, and he wishes to convey some of the shock and outrage he felt as the full implementation of the CIA's torture program unfolded, born out of the government's embrace of modern psychological and psychiatric forms of control over human behavior, and spread into the military.

I wouldn't look to this book for a full history of how that all took place, nor does the author pretend to present such a history. His is the account of a whistleblower. His former position inside Guantanamo and corridors of the Defense Department apparatus provides a unique and invaluable perspective of just how the torture policy spread and how it was covered-up.

In the end, Fallon witnesses the bureaucratic institutions to which he pledged fealty fatally infected by the virus of torture. His is a harrowing journey, and one that, it is clear from the narrative, haunts him still.

Along with books recently written by former detainees themselves, this book by someone on the other side of the interrogation booth is essential reading. I think the torture scandal is even far deeper and darker than even Mark Fallon presents it -- and his is a pretty dark portrayal -- but U.S. readers in particular must understand the courage it took for some of the government's most loyal and idealistic officials and servants to confront those in power with the truth of their crimes.

I believe that the torture policy began far earlier than after 9/11, and was inimitably linked to long-time policies of war and conquest. It's current manifestation was itself a logical extension of the "war on terror." From that standpoint, one can see Fallon's battle against torture, and others like him (some of whom he discusses in the book), is important and certainly courageous, as the people they come to oppose are seriously dangerous, with a great deal of power behind them.

Rather than the sense of failure that haunts Mark Fallon -- many times he bemoans the fact he could not actually stop the full torture program -- his moral awakening at a dire time in history is a triumph of the human spirit.

The confrontation with the urge to torture goes back centuries now, to Voltaire and the French Enlightenment, and on to Nuremberg, to those who organized ad hoc tribunals against Vietnam War crimes in the 1960s, to citizens in North Carolina today trying to bring their own state government to account for its collaboration with CIA torture, and many, many more. The latter include those I've known in the psychology profession who have fought to end collaboration with torture and war crimes in their own profession.

The fight against torture is something that has unfolded over generations, and sadly, I've come to realize, will take generations more to win. But what Mark Fallon and others like him achieved was significant. Some of the torture was cut back. The policy dragged out of the shadows and exposed in public. It is not so easy for the torturers to operate as before.

In the end, Mark Fallon's book is a document about a significant time in our history. Every partisan of human rights and liberty will want it on their bookshelf.

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