November 13, 2006
The fallacy of torture's effectiveness-3
In the cover story of the October 2006 issue of The Progressive magazine, Alfred W. McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror dissects The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb argues the apart from its immorality, the chief argument against torture is that the price it enacts is too high and ultimately defeats the people who use it.
The price of torture is unacceptably high because it disgraces and then undermines the country that countenances it. For the French in Algeria, for the Americans in Vietnam, and now for the Americans in Iraq, the costs have been astronomical and have outweighed any gains gathered by torture.
Although mass torture can get you useful information, the costs are so high as to make it useless. You end up not only alienating the population abroad (as has already happened to the US with the news of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo), you also eventually lose support at home as more and more people become disgusted with what their own government has done in their name. McCoy quotes British journalist Sir Alistair Horne as saying "You might say that the Battle of Algiers was won through the use of torture, but that the war, the Algerian war, was lost."
McCoy then discusses a crucial question: If torture produces limited gains at such high political cost, why does any rational American leader condone interrogation practices "tantamount to torture"? He answers that the basic cause is insecurity in the leadership and the need to feel that they are doing something especially as events slide out of their control. "[T]he powerful often turn to torture in times of crisis, not because it works but because it salves their fears and insecurities with the psychic balm of empowerment."
But this raises another problem. Once you have brutally tortured someone, you cannot just let them go, to freely speak about their treatment. You cannot bring them to an open trial where they can tell the judge and the public how they were treated. Allowing the victims of torture to speak about their conditions rebounds badly on you. The film Road to Guantanamo is one example of the negative consequences, because it is based on the story of three young Britons after they were eventually released from Gunatanamo.
The BBC radio program The World also had a report on October 24, 2006 in which their reporter went to a remote village in Pakistan. A young man there had returned home psychologically broken after being tortured in Guantanamo. His story was widely known in the entire region and had angered many other young men who had then joined up with various guerilla forces, trained, and then slipped into Afghanistan to fight the US there.
Then we have the story of Canadian Maher Arer who, while changing planes in the US on his way home from a business trip, was detained by US authorities and then sent to Syria to be tortured before being eventually released because they had nothing against him. He is now telling his story.
In a multipart report on MSNBC, reporter Bill Dedman confirms the essence of McCoy's case that once you torture someone, you cannot let go and you cannot bring them to trial either.
Mohammed al-Qahtani, detainee No. 063, was forced to wear a bra. He had a thong placed on his head. He was massaged by a female interrogator who straddled him like a lap dancer. He was told that his mother and sisters were whores. He was told that other detainees knew he was gay. He was forced to dance with a male interrogator. He was strip-searched in front of women. He was led on a leash and forced to perform dog tricks. He was doused with water. He was prevented from praying. He was forced to watch as an interrogator squatted over his Koran.
That much is known. These details were among the findings of the U.S. Army's investigation of al-Qahtani's aggressive interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
. . .
Although they believed the abusive techniques were probably illegal, the Pentagon cops said their objection was practical. They argued that abusive interrogations were not likely to produce truthful information, either for preventing more al-Qaida attacks or prosecuting terrorists.
. . .
Will Mohammed al-Qahtani, the suspected 20th hijacker, ever face trial?
The cops who directed the investigation, Col. Mallow and Fallon, said they were told several times by prosecutors in the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions, as the military trials are known, not to keep bringing forward a case against al-Qahtani, that there would be no case.
"The techniques made some detainees unprosecutable," Fallon said. "It would provide the defense counsel a tremendous advantage at trial to sway the presiding officer and members, as well as it would have disclosed those techniques to the public."
More recently, the Washington Post reports on the case of Majid Khan. The US government is trying to prevent any access to him because of what he might say about how he has been treated.
The Bush administration has told a federal judge that terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons should not be allowed to reveal details of the "alternative interrogation methods" that their captors used to get them to talk.
The government says in new court filings that those interrogation methods are now among the nation's most sensitive national security secrets and that their release - even to the detainees' own attorneys - "could reasonably be expected to cause extremely grave damage." Terrorists could use the information to train in counter-interrogation techniques and foil government efforts to elicit information about their methods and plots, according to government documents submitted to U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton on Oct. 26.
. . .
Joseph Margulies, a Northwestern University law professor who has represented several detainees at Guantanamo, said the prisoners "can't even say what our government did to these guys to elicit the statements that are the basis for them being held. Kafka-esque doesn't do it justice. This is 'Alice in Wonderland.' "
Kathleen Blomquist, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said yesterday that details of the CIA program must be protected from disclosure. She said the lawyer's proposal for talking with Khan "is inadequate to protect unique and potentially highly classified information that is vital to our country's ability to fight terrorism."
Government lawyers also argue in court papers that detainees such as Khan previously held in CIA sites have no automatic right to speak to lawyers because the new Military Commissions Act, signed by President Bush last month, stripped them of access to U.S. courts. That law established separate military trials for terrorism suspects.
To avoid this kind of post-torture situation, governments end up keeping torture victims locked up and out of sight forever. But then after awhile, as the numbers get larger, even that option gets unwieldy and expensive in terms of money and manpower. So the temptation is to "pump and dump," i.e. pump people for information, then kill them and dump the bodies. It is estimated that the CIA's Phoenix program in Vietnam resulted (by the CIA's own count) in over 20,000 such murders. So once you get started on the torture road, the final destination is state-approved murder, and that is the road we are currently on.
This is where torture inevitably leads you. It should never be condoned.
POST SCRIPT: Russ Feingold
Politics is a dirty business and it is hard to remain 'pure' and still get elected to high office. Although I have repeatedly said that the Democratic and Republican parties are just two factions of a single pro-war/pro-business party, I recognize the need to find and support the least worst elements of each.
Sadly, the person I would have been most likely to support enthusiastically for President has said he has no intention of running for that office. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin made the announcement on Saturday.
Feingold has distinguished himself by staking out positions on principle. Here are some of his accomplishments:
1. He was the only senator to vote against the notorious "USA Patriot" Act, that began the rapid slide towards dismantling civil liberties.
2. He introduced a motion to censure President Bush for authorizing warrantless wiretaps.
3. He supports the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.
Glenn Greenwald points out how the beltway pundits and politicians (who wouldn't recognize a principle if it was handed to them on a plate surrounded by watercress) simply could not understand Feingold and tried desperately to interpret his actions as either Machiavellian scheming or the actions of a political naif.
When people ask why the political culture does not produce better candidates, we tend to rightly blame the strong influence of money. But a good share of the blame must be placed at the feet of the oh-so-smug-and-knowing insider cynicism of the political chattering classes.
With Feingold's departure from the race, we are headed closer to a nightmare scenario in 2008 where the two factions of the pro-war/pro-business party will send their most cynical and opportunistic and unprincipled representatives to vie for the presidency: Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain. The pundits will love them because they play the games according to the debased rules they understand, where the only things that matter are strategy and tactics, and principles are irrelevant.