Darker Convergence

From his exile in the closed city of Gorkiy in 1980, Andrei Sakharov composed an open letter to Academician A.P. Aleksandrov, then president of the Academy of Sciences:

"My ideal is an open pluralistic society which safeguards fundamental civil and political rights, a society with a mixed economy which would permit scientifically-regulated, balanced progress," he wrote. "I have expressed the view that such a society ought to come about as a result of the peaceful convergence of the socialist and capitalist systems and that this is the main condition for saving the world from thermonuclear catastrophe."

This credo sits at the core of Sakharov's thought, it highlights both his sense of alarm over the thermonuclear sword of Damocles suspended over humankind and his firm vision of a path out of danger through the reconciliation of the parties then locked in a fateful Cold War. Essential to it is the notion of convergence. The roots of Sakharov's idea are not entirely certain. Clearly it stems in part from the world of physics, following perhaps on Pascal's concept of the convergence of the extremities. On the other hand, its routine use at the time derived from the work of the Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen, who argued that the disparities between the communist and market economies were steadily contracting. Tinbergen pointed to the development of a regulatory state, the steady growth of social welfare programs and monitoring and oversight of pricing as evidence of this convergence. More generally, it seems that Sakharov saw in European social democracy an emerging middle ground between the ideological extremes of the United States and USSR. The United States and the USSR would gradually grow closer to the Nordic and Middle European model, it assumed, and a clash of world views, which with the arrival of the a massive stockpile of nuclear warheads and the motion of mutually-assured destruction carried the potential of species extinction, could be avoided.

The Cold War ended with the dissolution of the USSR; its external empire faded starting in 1988, while the internal empire devolved into Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the other successor states a few years later at the end of 1992. This was marked less by the sort of convergence that Sakharov had foreseen than by what — at least at first — seemed to be a sort of neoliberal triumphalism. First the satellite states and then the successors of the USSR quickly appeared to embrace the dogma of market economics. Holdouts against this trend, such as Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were quickly labeled as outliers and eccentrics. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed "the end of history," in the Hegelian sense — the struggle between two ideologies seeking world dominance had ended. Capitalism won.

There is something to the triumphalist model, but it is also far too simple. If we look more closely, we see that Russia, the heart of the old empire, has in fact embraced elements of a market economy and a liberal democratic political system — but far less of either than the triumphalists imagine. Russia's economic system is actually something different — what a number of observers have labeled "national capitalism" — a system in which state management of a significant part of the economy (concentrated in the energy sector) remains an undeniable fact, even as this management assumes the outward appearance of the corporate commercial world. On the other hand, a substantial space has been opened for free economic activities and those with clever ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit can go places in today's Russia.

Russian democracy similarly remains rather problematic. A stroll through the bookstores on Tverskaya shows shelves stocked with the works of once-banned authors. Magazines, newspapers and Internet sites offer bold and often sarcastic criticism of the powerful. On the other hand, Russia's multiparty democracy struggles to offer the citizens a meaningful choice at election time. Instead they have a choice between parties divided between the service of certain power-brokers but united in a supine attitude towards the autocrats of the moment. The divisions are less meaningful and the choices less real than the Russian electorate had in the years following the 1905 Revolution. The broad perception is that key political decisions are brokered by a handful of powerful men in back rooms and that the voters at the polls play a role only at the margins of the political process. Measured against the realities of the USSR at the time Sakharov began his period of social and political activism, the changes in Russia are little short of astonishing. On the other hand, measured against the heady expectations of the first years of the

of Boris Yeltsin, they are an enormous disappointment.

But it would be a mistake to measure change solely on the basis of what has happened in Russia and to assume that America has been static. We should also consider what has happened to America in the years following the end of the Cold War. It seems undeniable that America today has changed markedly from the America of 1992. With the collapse of Communism, which truly presented an existential threat to America and the world, America first harvested a peace bonus of sorts. But nine years later, following September 11, 2001, under the leadership of George W. Bush and the Republicans, the American political system was shaken by the threat of Islamicist radicals, who clearly did not present an existential challenge. America enmeshed itself in two wars in the Middle East under Bush 43, and under Obama it added a third military operation in the region, in Libya. But significantly, America's commitment to certain core democratic values, unshakable through the Cold War, suddenly seemed in doubt. In sum, this period saw a remarkable transformation in which the national security state gained unprecedented power and prestige, the forces of secrecy and unaccountable state power grew. An America committed to human rights and the rule of law, a nation with a proud tradition of holding even the powerful accountable for their misconduct — this America is fading.

I will furnish two vignettes to characterize the change in America's political culture. Each can of course be dismissed as something passing and insignificant, but I think rather that each reveals something more profound. On Monday at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Republican Party, a panel discussion was convened under the rubric "CIA Interrogations and the Bin Laden Operation." Former attorney general Michael Mukasey, former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, former CIA lawyer John Rizzo, and Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, argued about the role that "enhanced interrogation techniques" had played in the identification of Bin Laden's lair. Neoconservative publicist Ben Wittes and a lone human rights advocate, Elisa Massimino, rounded out this gathering. This seems to have been part of a larger media operation aimed at claiming credit on behalf of the Bush operation for the raid in Abbottabad that led to Bin Laden's death. This is a preposterous claim to be sure, but it is the sort of political propaganda and historical revisionism that is commonplace in Washington, especially among Republicans whose principal parallel with Russians of recent memory consists of their tireless retrofitting of history to suit their immediate political aspirations. Nevertheless, the content of this event was not a victory lap, but something darker and more disturbing.

Mukasey, who paced nervously before the event popping tic-tacs, took the floor to reassert the essence of an op-ed he had written in the prior week. His voice cracking, Mukasey insisted that waterboarding was not torture and it was completely lawful at the time it was used, apparently because of subsequently repudiated but nevertheless talismanic charm-like memoranda written by his colleague John Yoo. He then asserted that a key source of the information used to track Bin Laden had been waterboarded and without this he never would have given up information that led to the identification of Bin Laden's courier. He then proceeded to criticize the Obama administration for its decision to ban the Bush-era techniques, glossing over the fact that Bush himself had done away with these techniques in September 2006. The techniques that Mukasey deemed invaluable to the survival of America include waterboarding, long-time standing (stoika), hypothermia, light- and sound-deprivation, slamming a prisoner's head into a false wall, and sleep deprivation, among other techniques. These techniques were derived from a program that trained American pilots to resist torture, which identified them as practices used by the USSR, China, North Korea and North Vietnam. If you've visited the KGB Museum in Vilnius or seen any of the exhibitions at the Sakharov Museum mounted with the cooperation of Memorial about interrogation techniques of the Cheka and NKVD era, then each of these techniques would be familiar to you. To be sure, they were far from the most horrible of the techniques in the Chekist's arsenal. Still stoika, hypothermia and waterborading were among the favorites. But this is not the end of this chilling overlap. The arguments made by Thiessen and Mukasey in the course of the AEI program have a similarly familiar ring. These techniques do not constitute torture because they are so mild, we are told, they produce no lasting harm to the victim, only temporary sensations of danger or discomfort. The emphasis in justification is placed of course on superficial physical contributions, not on a deeper analysis of psychological or longer-term physical harm. But as Arthur Koestler reminds us in Darkness at Noon, where he catalogues these same tools in the hands of the NKVD and KGB, the real point is terror, the desire to psychologically crush the prisoner, rendering him broken and pliant in the hands of his interrogator. The interrogator does not expect truth from the person he breaks, but rather just the opposite: useful lies. Thiessen, a publicist for certain political figures, says that real torture involves "blood splatters" and prisoners "passing out from pain," and these techniques are carefully gauged not to leave obvious traces of physical abuse. Indeed, these thoughts embrace the ethos of the Bush era, and form a common ground to the current battery of torture-enablers and defenders. At the detention facility maintained by a task force of the Joint Special Operations Command at Camp Nama in Iraq, a site where gross mistreatment of prisoners was well documented, a sign was posted that read "No Blood, No Foul." And, as many of you know, this precisely is the motto to which NKVD interrogators operated in the late 1930s. That indeed is a remarkable, a distressing convergence, and not one I ever anticipated finding in my lifetime.

The major premise of the AEI gathering was that these torture techniques facilitated one of the most important intelligence coups of the war against Al Qaeda, namely the identification of Bin Laden's hideout. As CIA Director Leon Panetta has made clear, and Senator John McCain drove home on the floor of the senate, that premise is flatly false. What we are witnessing is the big lie in progress. George Orwell described this phenomenon in Nineteen Eighty-Four, "To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed." The idea apparently is that a claim, repeated often enough as a raw fact, will gain acceptance, whether it is true or not. The issue in contest here is not whether "torture works." Indeed, it would be foolish to suggest that any particular technique, including torture techniques "do not work." Surely in some circumstances torture will get a prisoner to talk, and sometimes even to give information that is in some way useful. That is not the issue. Instead the effort here is, after the fact, to tie a signal accomplishment of American intelligence in the war against Al Qaeda — the successful location of Bin Laden — to the use of waterboarding, a torture technique. And that is the Big Lie.

What drives this display? It may be that Mukasey, Thiessen and Yoo genuinely believe that the use of these torture techniques is essential to national security. That attitude is common enough in authoritarian societies, too. But the real concern here clearly lies elsewhere. John Yoo, who wrote memoranda approving the use of torture and who has stated that he could approve, as a legal matter, a decision to crush a small child's testicles or to exterminate a village to get information, offers us the mindset of a hardened war criminal. He may be protected under the current political environment inside the American Beltway, but he risks arrest if he travels outside of the country.

We are witnessing an attempt to scuttle the prohibition on torture altogether — certainly in order to shield Bush administration policymakers from the proper legal consequences of their choices, but perhaps because of a growing be- lief among American Republicans in particular that the war against terrorists can only be fought using torture — which is to say, terror — as a principal tool.

For advocates of the Bush-era techniques, this is merely a question of using the most effective practices to collect intelligence. But nothing is more fundamental to a modern state than its attitude about the dignity of the human being, and, as millions who have taken to the streets of the Middle East with the word "dignity" on their lips know, only the absolute prohibition on torture provides meaning to these words.

Andrei Sakharov paid special attention to what happened to persons held in prison because, this lets us know all we need to know about the true nature of the society that operates that prison. They might be political prisoners punished because of their ideas, they might be common criminals, or they might be terrorists and lethal enemies of the state. But once they are disarmed and held in the power of the state, they must be treated in a way that recognizes the fundamental dignity of every human being. If the prisoner committed a serious crime, the state may punish him, even severely, through proper process. But in no circumstance can torture or similar cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment be allowed. Moreover, Sakharov pointedly reminded the Western democracies of their torch-bearing role. It was imperative that they live to the values they articulated. Do not take the false step of playing the game by your adversary's rules, he warned.

He issued that controversial warning, which brought him much trouble in Soviet society, in the context of arms negotiations. The West must insist on its core values first, he said, then it can talk arms limitations. And indeed it was this approach that linked human rights firmly to the process of international dialogue and security, that brought an end to the Cold War, and laid the foundation for a new world. There is no inconsistency between human rights advocacy and national security; rather, just the opposite. The Helsinki Process showed plainly their powerful consonance. By receding from human rights values today, the United States is undermining that great compact, it is acting against its own interests, and undermining its security and that of every other nation.

A second event is approaching on the horizon. Within roughly two weeks, in a Baltimore courthouse federal prosecutors will open the trial of Thomas A. Drake, a former senior official of the National Security Agency. Drake is being charged under the Espionage Act. But is Drake a spy for an enemy power? Certainly not. Drake is a patriot whose actions consistently reflected the best interests of the state. Drake discovered fraud, waste and abuse linked to a highly classified $1 billion government contract that supported a surveillance program. After raising questions about this internally and getting nowhere, he allegedly furnished information to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, who published an award winning exposé about the contract fraud. This information was enormously embarrassing to Drake's boss because it also helped reveal that the NSA was engaged in snooping on the communications of tens of millions of American citizens and residents without court permission, conduct which constituted a crime under American law — as three federal judges in fact determined. So why is Drake, a classic whistleblower, being prosecuted as a spy? Lanny Breuer, a senior official of the Justice Department told Jane Mayer in an article in the New Yorker that the prosecution was almost "automatic" (even though it was only the fifth such prosecution in history) because "You don’t get to break the law and disclose classified information just because you want to." He added, "Politics should play no role in it whatsoever."

But these comments should be tested carefully. The fact is that classified information is disclosed every day and that criminal prosecutions rarely result. Alberto Gonzales, Pete Hoekstra, Richard Shelby, Dick Cheney are among the many high-profile political figures who made unauthorized leaks of US secrets in recent years. Gonzales, Hoekstra, Shelby and Cheney were dealing with compartmentalized and extraordinarily sensitive matters, and so were a series of the most senior figures in the Obama team when they gave interviews with the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, freely discussing, and allowing him to publish highly classified information in his discussion of Obama's conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (Obama's Wars). They would all claim inadvertence or good, public-minded intentions, but a smart young prosecutor could easily fashion arguments and probably convince a jury that they did so for their own selfish reasons and that they damaged the security of the country. Breuer insists that "politics should play no role in it," but all the available evidence suggests exactly the opposite: this is all about politics. Gonzales, Hoekstra, Shelby, Cheney and the senior members of the Obama team never had anything to worry about because their leaks served some political purpose inside the Beltway. It is only leaks that expose wrongdoing or stupidity on the part of the powerful that bring down the wrath of the federal prosecutors.

Moreover, I mention the Drake case because the Justice Department official gives precisely the argument that the procurator general of the Russian Federation gave to justify the espionage charges against Aleksandr Nikitin, the man who courageously revealed the reckless dumping of nuclear waste by the Russian North Fleet in the Arctic Sea. The espionage label was used to silence a person who revealed vital information about the misconduct of government actors. Nikitin's acquittal in a trial brilliantly managed by Yurii Shmid, who spoke to us yesterday, and the severe slap that the Russian Supreme Court delivered to the prosecutors in 2000 can be viewed as a clear indicator of the rise of the rule of law and democratic constitutionalism in Russia. The national-security state was publicly thrashed.

The open advocacy of torture and the indictment and trial of Drake may be viewed as evidence of precisely the opposite trend in the United States today. They show us a state in which the national-security establishment asserts itself steadily and ever more aggressively. They show us a Justice Department which equivocates and waffles on the enforcement of fundamental laws respecting human rights — and nothing is more fundamental than the torture prohibition, but then zealously guards the prerogatives of senior figures in the national-security establishment whose conduct, once exposed, may earned them embarrassment. American Justice in the Obama era demands impunity for acts of torture, arguing that we should not "look back." But for the honest citizen whistleblower who has revealed criminal conduct it knows no mercy, not even the protection that statutes prescribe for the whistleblower. He must be punished for his very act of civic responsibility — which it deems an act of disobedience against the national-security state.

The example of Andrei Sakharov is important to understanding these matters and guiding us to a sensible response. Sakharov was an elite member of his nation's defense establishment. He gave assurances to keep state secrets and he treated those assurances very solemnly. But he also recognized his higher duty as a citizen to act in the interests of his nation and the world. And he recognized that an open society is suffocated by excessive secrecy — that too often it is used to hide heinous crimes and stupidities. Consequently, Sakharov fully appreciated and valued the role played by whistleblowers and denounced the use of the heavy hand of state power to suppress them.

Sakharov makes four points in this process: First, he reminds us of a fundamental fact: that a state that abuses and mistreats prisoners, that tortures, that disrespects the rights of its own citizens, will almost certainly be a threat to its neighbors and to the world as a whole. Abuse of human and civil rights is the essential indicator for a state that engages in unjustified war-making and false charges in the course of its diplomacy.

Second, human rights and an open society with an informed populace are essential if a state's national security policies are to reflect the fair interests of its people. One of Sakharov's most courageous acts came near the end of his life. He ascended the podium at the Congress of People's Deputies and attacked the decision to invade and wage war on Afghanistan as a horrible crime, causing the wrath of the entire Soviet military establishment to descend upon him. His message is broader: Civilian control of the military and a democratic process in decisions to use force on the international stage are essential if abuse is to be checked. Public debate is essential to root out hyperventilating statements, jingoism and war-mongering and to force an earnest assessment of the likely costs to any society that may result from the use of military force. A patriotic citizen owes his state a duty — not to blindly support every foreign military operation that the state proposes, but instead to scrupulously weigh the case for war. Some wars are just, and must be embraced. But those which are not must be loudly and resolutely opposed, remembering that the outcome of no war is ever so certain as its instigators imagine, that the cost in human life and human misery is immense, and that the benefits of a war of choice are very rarely realized. For Sakharov, the right of the individual citizen to participate in public discussion and decision-making was the very essence of a rights- based modern democracy. One of the greatest failings of the authoritarian state was their exclusion of the individual voice, and their silencing of the voice of conscience.

Third, human rights include fair access to information — that is, the natural tendency of the state to preserve security decisions to its security-clearance holding elites by restricting access to vital information must be firmly limited. The cult of secrecy is a growing challenge to the Western democracies, but particularly to the United States. Moreover, human rights include the free exchange of information and ideas among peoples, including the right of communication and the right to travel. Human contact across borders constitutes a natural process of rapprochement, builds understanding and lowers mutual distrust. This is particularly true for journalists, lawyers, healthcare professionals, politicians, artists, educators and scientists who should strive to the creation of a professional environment that overcomes borders. Throughout human history, conflicts have been exacerbated by distrust, xenophobia and unfounded suspicions which transparency, free communication and travel can incrementally reduce.

Finally, human rights can (and should) be recognized as a universal value, just as true for Western democracies as for the formerly socialist world, for the masses of the Middle East or the dramatically developing economies of East Asia. This commonality of values will reduce the likelihood of conflicts among peoples and among nations. The American security establishment distances itself from human rights just as the concept and its universality are once more validated, as millions take to the streets across the Arab world, demanding the right to live their lives free from torture, with guarantees of dignity to their physical persons and a meaningful voice in deciding their own future. In East Asia, the same concept of human rights is now understood as fundamental to the most successful societies — Japan, Korea and Taiwan, for instance — and its spread throughout the region is inevitable. Walking back from human rights is tactically foolish, and it would put the Americans on the wrong side of history.

On these points, Sakharov found ready support in the Western democracies, because he articulated values fundamental to them. That was clearly the case in the America of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In Europe, that continues to be the case. But America today urgently needs to reaffirm its commitment to its founding values and its role as a beacon-carrier for human rights. Its conduct over the last decade has provided even its closest friends with reason to question where it is headed, and to wonder if they are making a mistake following in its wake.

The work that Sakharov foresaw, the construction of open societies founded on a commitment to democracy, the rule of law and fundamental human rights, remains far from complete. Although its proponents will claim otherwise, it now seems likely that historians will view the "war on terror" as a detour from the historical path favoring human rights and democracy. To be candid, of course, it is a project which will never reach completion. But the conditions, viewed fairly, exist for us to continue this work today, to turn away from the xenophobia, fear and hatred which have so far dampened this process. Sakharov was a skeptic about political ideologies of all types. But he was convinced about one ideology:

"The ideology of human rights is probably the only one which can be combined with such diverse ideologies as communism, social-democracy, religion, technocracy, and nationalism; it can form as well a foundation for the positions of persons who do not want to tie themselves to theoretical intricacies and dogmas, who are tired of the abundance of ideologies, none of which have brought people simple human happiness. The defense of human rights is a clear path toward the unification of peoples in our turbulent world and to the relief of their suffering."

Sakharov offered these words as guidance for his fellow citizens. But for America in 2011, they might be the essential elixir.


Tags: aleksandrov, andrei sakharov, bin laden, bush administration, civil liberties, cold war

    • Scott Horton
    • Scott Horton is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, where he covers legal and national security issues. As a practicing attorney, Horton has focused on investment in emerging markets. He is also a life-long human rights advocate and serves as a director of the Moscow-based Andrei Sakharov F...

    • Scott Horton's full bio »