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June 22, 2009

On torture-24: What happens next?

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

For the last post in this long and admittedly depressing series, I want to tie up some loose ends.

What Dahlia Lithwik and Phillipe Sands point out, and which this series of posts has examined in great detail, is that the discussion on whether the US committed torture is over. There is no question about it and anyone who keeps saying that it didn't is ignorant, lying, or relying upon a convoluted reading of history and the definition of torture. At the very least, such people should be willing to agree on the issue being examined by the International Criminal Court, which "is the first permanent, treaty based, international criminal court established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community."

Lithwik and Sands point to a highly significant statement given on January 13, 2009, just before Obama took office, by someone intimately aware of what is going on in Guantanamo. Susan Crawford was the convening authority of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay.

Crawford, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general, is hardly the kind of hippie moonbat Cheney would like to poke fun at. And that's why everything changed this morning when the Washington Post published a front-page interview by Bob Woodward, in which Crawford stated without equivocation that the treatment of alleged 20th Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed al-Qahtani at Guantanamo Bay was "torture."

Crawford also told Woodward that the charges against al-Qahtani were dropped because he was tortured. This has devastating consequences for the Bush administration's entire rationale for the new techniques of interrogation: that they would make the United States safer by producing intelligence and keeping dangerous individuals off the streets. We now know they do neither. The torture produced no useful information from al-Qahtani, and the cruelty heaped upon him will make it more difficult, if not impossible, to justify his long-term incarceration.

There is a third major consequence to the Crawford interview: Her principle objection to detainee abuse is not ephemeral or spiritual, but a damning indictment of the impact it will have on American troops and the prospects for America's authority abroad: "If we tolerate this and allow it, then how can we object when our servicemen and women, or others in foreign service, are captured and subjected to the same techniques? How can we complain? Where is our moral authority to complain? Well, we may have lost it."

Whether torture occurred and who was responsible will no longer be issues behind which senior members of the administration and their lawyers and policymakers can hide. The only real issue now is: What happens next?

The answer to that question takes you to a very different place when the act is torture, as Crawford says it is. Under the 1984 Torture Convention, its 146 state parties (including the United States) are under an obligation to "ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law." These states must take any person alleged to have committed torture (or been complicit or participated in an act of torture) who is present in their territories into custody. The convention allows no exceptions, as Sen. Pinochet discovered in 1998. The state party to the Torture Convention must then submit the case to its competent authorities for prosecution or extradition for prosecution in another country.

Torture is one of those cases where we seem to be even less enlightened now than we were in the past when it comes to judging our own actions with at least some impartiality.

In 1901 a US army major was sentenced to 10 years hard labor for waterboarding a Philippine insurgent. Similarly, water boarding was designated as illegal by U.S. generals in Vietnam 40 years ago and a US soldier who waterboarded a Vietnamese prisoner was court-martialed. But now, far from taking action against torturers, we dispute whether these acts are even torture. We excuse and even praise torturers and those who support and authorize torture by saying they acted 'in good faith' or 'in the interests of the nation'. (By coincidence, yesterday's Sunday Doonesbury cartoon dealt with this.)

We have sunk a long way in the last 100 years. We can only go up from here.

POST SCRIPT: Documentary on torture

Those who have stuck with me through this long series on torture may also want to watch the three-part documentary Torturing Democracy put out by the National Security Archive.

June 19, 2009

On torture-23: So now what?

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

None of the architects of the Bush/Cheney torture administration has been called to account, at least so far, for their actions. Of the authors of the infamous memos from the Office of Legal Counsel authorizing torture, one is now a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley (John Yoo) while the other is now an Appeals Court judge (Jay Bybee).

Of the others who were deeply involved in approving these policies (Bush, Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Alberto Gonzalez, John Ashcroft, David Addington), none appear to be under any threat of even investigation in the US, let along prosecution for their actions. This means that other countries may feel obliged to take action since torture is a crime against humanity that is not protected by national boundaries. Spain has taken an interest in possible prosecutions against six people (John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, William Haynes, and Douglas Feith) and if, as I hope, they carry it through, then any of them could be arrested and extradited to Spain is they set foot in any of the 24 countries that are parties to European extradition conventions.

But in the US such concerns about law and justice are viewed as quaint and casually dismissed, with the so-called 'war on terror' being used as a 'get out of jail free' card to excuse each and every atrocity. The rot is deep with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia minimizing the evil of torture by trivializing it saying, "I suppose it's the same thing about so-called torture. Is it really so easy to determine that smacking someone in the face to determine where he has hidden the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles is prohibited in the constitution?"

Even the children of suspects are being used as part of the torture techniques. The number of deaths of detainees while undergoing 'questioning' in US custody is another underreported scandal. Glenn Greenwald tells the stories of some of them.

Because of their deep involvement in torture, the US is now categorized by other countries as one that practices torture, although many are reluctant to say so publicly. A manual on torture awareness put out by the Canadian government and given to its diplomats was accidentally released to the press. It puts US as one of the countries on a torture watch list. Other countries on the list include Afghanistan, China, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Despite his campaign promises to bring back a respect for the rule of law, what is becoming clear is that Obama is weaseling out of his own obligation to uphold the law and has no intention of taking any action against those who instituted torture practices. So he too becomes complicit in the torture policies of the Bush/Cheney regime. Mark Danner says that there is bipartisan complicity in torture, with the Democrats quaking at fears that by opposing torture, they would be seen as coddling terrorists:

Republicans from Dick Cheney on down have been unflagging in their arguments that these "enhanced interrogation techniques . . . were absolutely crucial" to preventing "a major-casualty attack." This argument, still strongly supported by a great many Americans, is deeply pernicious, for it holds that it is impossible to protect the country without breaking the law. It says that the professed principles of the United States, if genuinely adhered to, doom the country to defeat. It reduces our ideals and laws to a national decoration, to be discarded at the first sign of danger.

This is why torture is at its heart a political scandal and why its resolution lies in destroying the thing done, not the people who did it. It is this idea of torture that must be destroyed: torture as a badge worn proudly to prove oneself willing to 'do anything" to protect the country.

The only way to gain the moral high ground is to abide by the rule of law and prosecute those who break it, especially in the case of vicious and unconscionable crimes like torture. Glenn Greenwald argues why we should not make excuses for torture and points out that in Britain, pressure is building on the government to investigate and take action on the allegations of torture.

That's because torture is illegal in Britain, as it is in the United States. But unlike the United States: Britain hasn't completely abandoned the idea that even political officials must be accountable when they commit crimes; their political discourse isn't dominated and infected by the subservient government-defending likes of David Ignatius, Ruth Marcus, David Broder and Stuart Taylor demanding that government officials be free to commit even serious war crimes with total impunity; and they don't have "opposition leaders" who are so afraid of their own shadows and/or so supportive of torture that they remain mute in the face of such allegations. To the contrary, demands for criminal investigations into these episodes of torture (including demands for war crimes investigations from conservatives) span the political spectrum in Britain.

Ray McGovern suggests that pressure may be slowly building here on Obama to have some accountability.

We can only hope. At the very least, we can start, as Phillipe Sands recommends, by releasing all the torture documents, including videos. Secrecy inevitably leads to abuses.

POST SCRIPT: The Ventures

Was there anyone in my generation who did not dream of wanting to play like The Ventures, with their pure, clean guitar sound and the driving, pulsating drums? Bob Bogle, one of the founders, died two days ago.

Here they are in their early days with Wipe Out:

And later they shed the clean-cut look but kept the same music with Tequila:

People probably are most familiar with the theme from the TV series Hawaii Five-O:

June 17, 2009

On torture-22: Psychologists complicity in torture

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

We see that once you allow torture as authorized and official policy, you inevitably widen the circle of people who are involved. In particular, psychologists and doctors have been deeply involved in the process, the former to devise the torture techniques and to measure the effects, and the latter to monitor the extent of the physical harm done to the victims and try and prevent death. After all, the purpose of torture is to create psychological breakdown, to get the person to confess or reveal information. Physical abuse is just a means to achieving that end.

There has been considerable controversy within the psychology and medical communities about the extent to which they have been involved in researching and constructing the torture protocols that are currently being used. After all, what does it say about the medical profession if it allows its members to be part of such a repugnant process?

But the discussion about the highly questionable role that psychologists have played in torture has not really made it into mainstream news, so much so that it became #10 of Project Censored's list of the top 25 censored stories for 2009. One of the ignored stories it highlights appeared in 2007 in Vanity Fair magazine. Katherine Eban reports that in 2006:

a psychologist named Jean Maria Arrigo came to see me with a disturbing claim about the American Psychological Association, her profession's 148,000-member trade group. Arrigo had sat on a specially convened A.P.A. task force that, in July 2005, had ruled that psychologists could assist in military interrogations, despite angry objections from many in the profession. The task force also determined that, in cases where international human-rights law conflicts with U.S. law, psychologists could defer to the much looser U.S. standards—what Arrigo called the "Rumsfeld definition" of humane treatment.

Arrigo and several others with her, including a representative from Physicians for Human Rights, had come to believe that the task force had been rigged—stacked with military members (6 of the 10 had ties to the armed services), monitored by observers with undisclosed conflicts of interest, and programmed to reach preordained conclusions.

Jane Mayer, author of the book The Dark Side has written about the role that even well-known psychologists have played in torture. Scott Horton summarizes one key thesis of Mayer's book:

She traces the development of the torture techniques to the work of two contractors, Mitchell and Jessen, and disclosed the specific techniques they developed. She notes that the techniques rely heavily on a theory called "Learned Helplessness" developed by a Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, who assisted them in the process. All of this was done under the thin pretext of being a part of the SERE program. Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association. This helps explain why the APA alone among professional healthcare provider organizations failed to unequivocally condemn torture and mandate that its members not associate themselves with the Bush Administration techniques.

The names of military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen come up repeatedly in discussing the involvement of psychologists in torture. They were two of the trainers in the original SERE program that was used to train US personnel to resist torture and were the ones who originally suggested in the wake of 9/11 that those same techniques be used on detainees to elicit information, although there had been no evidence that this produced anything useful. While you can make people talk, it has been seen with Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that what people say under torture is of little value.

Mitchell and Jessen have been defended by other military psychologists in the program like Bruce Lefevre, who argue that when it comes to advancing the interests of the US, normal ethical guidelines that call for looking after the welfare of the person in front of you can be abandoned.

Under questioning about his own role, Seligman has tried to distance himself from the charges that he actively aided in the development of torture techniques, although he allows that his work may have been used this way. He said that his research interest was in how to resist torture and that he cannot be held responsible for those who use it ways not originally intended.

The psychology community has not come out well in this shoddy episode. The American Psychological Association (APA) is the one major medical professional organization that has rejected calls to come out with a strong and unequivocal condemnation of torture and to require its members to refuse to participate with the activities in the detention centers.

Psychologist Bryant Welch, author of the book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind and someone in a position to provide an insider's view of the organization, in an article titled Torture, Political Manipulation and the American Psychological Association tries to find the answers to some key questions: "How did the APA form such an obviously close connection to the military? And why did the APA governance—the Board of Directors and the Council of Representatives—go along with the military interests? How could an organization of such bright and ethical people be rendered so incompetent to protect the profession from the horrible black eye they have given us?" He concludes that over time, the organization had become too cozy with the military and developed an anti-democratic ethos that stifled debate and criticism.

Another psychologist Stephen Soldz reveals that another former APA president Joseph Matarazzo was involved with Mitchell and Jensen's CIA-consulting torture firm, and describes the efforts by the APA to now distance itself from the disgrace of being seen as accommodating of torture.

Jane Mayer sums up the sorry state of professional ethics:

I personally feel that the medical and psychological professionals who have used their skills to further a program designed to cause pain and suffering should be a high priority in terms of accountability. It has long been a ghastly aspect of torture, worldwide, that doctors and other medical professionals often assist. The licensing boards and professional societies are worthless, in my view, if they don't demand serious investigations of such unethical uses of science.

Mayer is absolutely right.

POST SCRIPT: Jose Padilla vs. John Yoo

Last Friday, Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White (who incidentally was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush) refused to dismiss Jose Padilla's civil lawsuit against John Yoo, as requested by the latter. Padilla has alleged that Yoo's torture memos were instrumental in causing the abuse Padilla received and thus Yoo had violated his constitutional rights.

Obama's justice department defended Yoo's argument that the president's war powers meant that the judiciary had no oversight. In other words, the current justice department agrees with the despicable Bush doctrine that the president can do what pretty much what he likes with detainees.

In his ruling, the judge outlines the case that Yoo and the Obama justice department is trying to make:

First, Yoo contends that the courts should not review the designation of Padilla as an enemy combatant because Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Joint Resolution, authorizing the President to make such a designation, and thereby relegated the issue of designation specifically to the legislative and the executive branches of government. Second, Yoo contends that the Court should show the proper deference to executive discretion in times of war. Next, Yoo contends that the Court should abstain from reviewing the alleged constitutional violations presented in this matter because the claims necessarily would uncover government secrets, thereby threatening national security. Lastly, Yoo argues the courts should deny review of this matter because the allegations involve issues relating to foreign affairs and foreign relations, matters specifically designated to control by the coordinate branches of government.

The judge rejected these arguments and ruled that the case against Yoo can now continue. See Glenn Greenwald (as usual) for more details.

June 15, 2009

On torture-21: The case of Abu Zubaydah again

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

What has emerged is that research by psychologists on "learned helplessness" has formed the basis of the current torture techniques practiced by the US. The goal is to destroy the victim's mind until that person feels total dependence on the interrogator. It turns out that this is fairly easy to do. They succeeded with Jose Padilla and with Abu Zubaydah. But destroying a mind is one thing. Getting useful information is another.

I have written before about Abu Zubaydah. He was the person you may recall whom George W. Bush insisted was a valuable high-ranking al Qaeda operative from whom valuable information was gleaned using torture, although Bush of course did not use that word. This case was seized upon by the media and by those who used it to justify torture, claiming it 'worked'. But Ron Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine says the reality is quite different, as can be seen from this excerpt in Barton Gellman's review of it:

One example out of many comes in Ron Suskind's gripping narrative of what the White House has celebrated as one of the war's major victories: the capture of Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002. Described as al-Qaeda's chief of operations even after U.S. and Pakistani forces kicked down his door in Faisalabad, the Saudi-born jihadist was the first al-Qaeda detainee to be shipped to a secret prison abroad. Suskind shatters the official story line here.

Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries "in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3" -- a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail "what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said." Dan Coleman, then the FBI's top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality."

Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics -- travel for wives and children and the like. That judgment was "echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President," Suskind writes. And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States." And over the months to come, under White House and Justice Department direction, the CIA would make him its first test subject for harsh interrogation techniques.

They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

After they had destroyed him mentally, the interrogators then proceeded to destroy the videotapes that had recorded the torture sessions, hardly the behavior of people who thought they were acting legally or morally or who at least thought that they were practicing an effective technique.

As Kevin Drum says:

So here's what the tapes would have shown: not just that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative, but that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative who was (a) unimportant and low-ranking, (b) mentally unstable, (c) had no useful information, and (d) eventually spewed out an endless series of worthless, fantastical "confessions" under duress. This was all prompted by the president of the United States, implemented by the director of the CIA, and the end result was thousands of wasted man hours by intelligence and and [sic] law enforcement personnel.

Torture produced similar false information in the case of Khalid Shekh Mohammed:

In other words, not only was torture unnecessary, but it was actually counterproductive. KSM produced no new information under torture, only a litany of false confessions — maybe out of vanity, maybe in an effort to protect other al-Qaeda operatives. Who knows. What we do know is that torturing KSM did no good, sent hundreds of agents scurrying after phantoms, and has made his prosecution far more difficult than it needed to be.

This is what torture leads to.

POST SCRIPT: Rewriting Hamlet


June 12, 2009

On torture-20: The case of Jose Padilla

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

In the previous post, we saw how the US government, over a period of time, studied and refined the techniques of psychological torture practiced by other countries and then outsourced these practices to its client states during the Cold War. With the onset of the 'war on terror' following the events of 2001, it started using those techniques directly, leading to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, and the so-called 'black sites' around the world.

Jose Padilla, who was arrested in the US in 2002 at Chicago airport and charged with threatening to explode a so-called radioactive 'dirty bomb', was one of the earliest victims of the new policies. Then Attorney General John Ashcroft held a sensational press conference announcing his arrest and George W. Bush then designated him as an 'illegal enemy combatant' not entitled to a trial in the regular courts, even though he was an American citizen. The sensational 'dirty bomb' charge that was used to terrify people and garner publicity was later quietly dropped and replaced by much vaguer conspiracy charges. The ability of the government to declare a US citizen as an enemy combatant was challenged and went through several court iterations before the government in November 2005, presumably seeking to avoid a US Supreme Court decision against it, decided to charge him in the regular civilian courts in Miami, Florida. He was found guilty in 2007 and sentenced to over 17 years in prison.

This is how the mind of Jose Padilla was destroyed so that he was willing to say anything his torturers wanted him to say. According to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Padilla was originally kept in extreme isolation for three months in something called the 'brig' at a naval base in South Carolina: "Padilla's cell measured nine feet by seven feet. The windows were covered over… He had no pillow. No sheet. No clock. No calendar. No radio. No television. No telephone calls. No visitors. Even Padilla's lawyer was prevented from seeing him for nearly two years." Even when in shackles he was taken to see a dentist, he had to wear blacked out goggles to prevent any light from reaching him and headphones to shut out any sound.

Dr. Angela Hegarty, a forensic psychiatrist who examined Padilla, describes in chilling detail how they broke down Padilla and the net result, which was that he identified totally with his interrogators and the Bush government. He did not want to do anything that might result in him being sent back to the brig, and he felt that the best way to do that was to acquiesce in whatever the government wanted, even if it meant turning against his own lawyers. The US government threatened him with further torture if he revealed information about the torture he had already experienced. "According to the Yale Clinic's suit, the government threatened Padilla that if he told anyone what happened to him while he was an enemy combatant, that he would be re-designated an enemy combatant and taken back into Defense Department custody. The suit alleges, as have his defense attorneys, that Padilla's lawyers were not able to mount as complete a defense as they could have were Padilla not afraid to talk to them for fear of government retaliation."

Alfred W. McCoy, who had studies the history of torture in some detail, says that when he saw the now-iconic photo from Abu Ghraib of the black-hooded prisoner standing with outstretched arms and fake electrodes connected, he immediately recognized two classic and key torture features that the CIA had developed: sensory deprivation (in the form of the hood) and stress positions (standing with arms outstretched). This makes implausible the story put out by the Bush-Cheney administration that blamed the lowly soldiers in charge of the prisoners for the torture, by describing them as a few "bad apples". It is highly unlikely that they could have stumbled upon these highly researched torture techniques on their own.

With the end of the Cold War, the US tried to have it both ways: trying to reach the moral high ground by signing the 1994 Convention Against Torture, while quietly trying to reserve for itself the right to continue the psychological torture practices it had perfected. This was, as is the case with all major pro-war/pro-business actions, a bipartisan effort. As McCoy says:

When the Cold War came to a close, Washington resumed its advocacy of human rights, ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture in 1994 that banned the infliction of 'severe' psychological and physical pain. On the surface, the United States had apparently resolved the tension between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices.

Yet when President William Clinton sent this UN Convention to Congress for ratification in 1994, he included language drafted six years earlier by the Reagan administration—with four detailed diplomatic 'reservations' focused on just one word in the convention's 26-printed pages. That word was "mental."

Significantly, these intricately-constructed diplomatic reservations re-defined torture, as interpreted by the United States, to exclude sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain—the very techniques the CIA had refined at such great cost. Of equal import, this definition was reproduced verbatim in domestic legislation enacted to give legal force to the UN Convention--first in Section 2340 of the US Federal Code and then in the War Crimes Act of 1996.

Remember that obscure number--Section 2340—for, as we will see, it is the key to unlocking the meaning of the controversial Military Commissions Law enacted by the US Congress just last September.

In effect, Washington had split the UN Convention down the middle, banning physical torture but exempting psychological abuse. By failing to repudiate the CIA's use of torture, while adopting a UN convention that condemned its practice, the United States left this contradiction buried like a political land mine ready to detonate with such phenomenal force, just 10 years later, in the Abu Ghraib scandal.

McCoy's article sheds light on something that has puzzled me, which was the brazen attempt by Bush/Cheney to deny the obvious, that what they were doing was torture. They were aided in this effort by a compliant media that treated these statements respectfully and which still avoids using the word torture when talking about the treatment of detainees. It becomes clear that Bush/Cheney and all the apologists in their administration who approved and authorized these torture techniques are depending on the above convoluted reasoning to imply that they satisfied the letter of the law and treaties against torture.

POST SCRIPT: Oh, the horror

The Daily Show shows the awful conditions under which the Swedes live because of their socialist policies.

Part 1:

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The Stockholm Syndrome
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Part 2:

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The Stockholm Syndrome Pt. 2
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June 11, 2009

On torture-19: The long history of US involvement in torture

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

There may be some who think that the revelations of torture that occurred in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, and the various "black sites" operated by the CIA in countries around the world are aberrations that occurred just recently as a result of the misguided "war on terror" and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are wrong. Noam Chomsky describes America's long history of engaging in torture. (See also his longer article, not online, in the June 2009 issue of Z Magazine.)

Over the past 60 years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA's "torture paradigm," developed at a cost that reached $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy in his book A Question of Torture. He shows how torture methods the CIA developed from the 1950s surfaced with little change in the infamous photos at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. There is no hyperbole in the title of Jennifer Harbury's penetrating study of the U.S. torture record: Truth, Torture, and the American Way. So it is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang's descent into the global sewers lament that "in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way."

None of this is to say that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did not introduce important innovations. In ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their own government-established torture chambers. As Allan Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out: "What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system's torture, which is done by foreigners under U.S. patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so."

Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but "merely repositioned it," restoring it to the American norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. "[H]is is a return to the status quo ante," writes Nairn, "the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more U.S.-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years."

Most people think of torture methods as involving direct physical ill treatment like pulling out fingernails or burning or beatings. Those are the methods of amateurs. Alfred W. McCoy says that the US government, working with psychologists, studied, developed, and refined torture techniques that did not require crude physical abuse. "During the 1950s as well, two eminent neurologists at Cornell Medical Center working for the CIA found that the KGB's most devastating torture technique involved, not crude physical beatings, but simply forcing the victim to stand for days at time—while the legs swelled, the skin erupted in suppurating lesions, the kidneys shut down, hallucinations began."

Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side describes what was written in the 2007 confidential report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which interviewed detainees:

They described not just standing, but being kept up on their tiptoes with their arms extended out and up over their heads, attached by shackles on their wrists and ankles, for what they described as eight hours at a stretch. During the entire period, they said they were kept stark naked and often cold.

This was even done to a one legged detainee who was forced to stand without his prosthesis. They chained his arms to the ceiling so he could keep his balance.

Another well-known psychologist, Canadian Donald O. Hebb, found that he could produce a state similar to psychosis in people in just 48 hours, without using drugs, hypnosis, or electroshock. All it required was sensory deprivation, just having people continually wear goggles, earmuffs, and gloves. And the people who experienced this were not prisoners who were treated harshly or otherwise made to suffer or were fearful of being harmed. They were college student volunteers at McGill University in Canada, and they sat all the while in comfortable cubicles. And yet, even though they knew they were not in any danger, they quickly broke down mentally.

The CIA codified all these discoveries into a manual and beginning with the 1960s, these torture discoveries were then propagated by the CIA to its allies in all the repressive anti-communist regimes in Asia and Latin America as part of the Cold War, before coming back again to the US in its so-called 'war on terror'.

Next: The case of Jose Padilla

POST SCRIPT: The new challenge of being white in America

Larry Wilmore of The Daily Show interviews a group of white children about the difficulties they now face as a newly underprivileged group. If the attitudes of these children are close to being representative of children in general, I am much more hopeful about the future.

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White in America - The Children
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June 10, 2009

On torture-18: And now, executions without even a trial?

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

As I said in a previous post, practicing torture leads to the problem that you cannot then allow people to talk about the treatment they received.

It appears that the Obama administration is now circulating a new proposal to solve that pesky problem by executing people without even a trial, based purely on their guilty pleas, even though those might have been obtained under torture. According to Saturday's New York Times:

The Obama administration is considering a change in the law for the military commissions at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that would clear the way for detainees facing the death penalty to plead guilty without a full trial.

The provision could permit military prosecutors to avoid airing the details of brutal interrogation techniques.

The proposal would ease what has come to be recognized as the government’s difficult task of prosecuting men who have confessed to terrorism but whose cases present challenges. Much of the evidence against the men accused in the Sept. 11 case, as well as against other detainees, is believed to have come from confessions they gave during intense interrogations at secret C.I.A. prisons. In any proceeding, the reliability of those statements would be challenged, making trials difficult and drawing new political pressure over detainee treatment.

Note the use of the euphemisms 'brutal interrogation techniques' and 'intense interrogations' which the media uses instead of the word 'torture' when it is talking about US actions. It only uses the word torture when those practices are done by other countries.

Imagine what would have been the reaction if Roxana Saberi or Euna Lee or Laura Ling were to be executed without an open trial. But the Times, ever sympathetic to the needs of the political establishment, simply refers to this appalling proposal as a possible way to 'ease' the 'government's difficult task'.

The article quotes David Glazier, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who has written about the commission system, as saying: "This unfortunately strikes me as an effort to get rid of the problem in the easiest way possible, which is to have those people plead guilty and presumably be executed. But I think it's going to lack international credibility."

So this is where the torture policies have driven us. We throw people into prisons, keep them without charges or trial for years on end, we torture them, and then based on their confessions, we execute them without giving them a chance to give their version of the story.

The original drafters of the US constitution were trying to create a document that they hoped would be a model to other nations of how the rights of government and people would be balanced by providing checks and balances. Their document was flawed (particularly in the way it allowed slavery to continue) but I think it is fair to say that the drafters would be appalled at the level of impunity with which the current government acts in violating the basic human rights of people. We seem to have restored the unilateral and unchecked power of kings, the very thing they sought to oppose.

POST SCRIPT: The case of Lakhdar Boumidienne

Lakhdar Boumedienne is an Algerian and Bosnian citizen who was doing humanitarian work for the Red Crescent Society when he was abducted in Bonia by the US, shipped to Guantanamo, and tortured there for nearly eight years. When the US Supreme Court, in a landmark 5-4 decision, said that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 under which he was being held was unconstitutional because it denied the right of habeas corpus, he was finally given a trial and the district court judge ruled in November 2008 that there was no credible evidence to keep holding him and ordered his release.

He now lives in France with his family. (See Glenn Greenwald for the full story.) You can see an interview with him that Jake Tapper of ABC News conducted.

A much more detailed account of the interview can be read here. In it we are told that in addition to the harsh treatment he received, the letters from his family were never given to him. There is a particularly poignant passage:

Last month, in a tearful ceremony at an airport outside Paris, Boumediene was reunited with his family. His daughters, who were toddlers when he was detained, are 13 and 9 years old.

"I cried, just cried. Because I don't know my daughters," he said. "The younger, when I moved from Bosnia to Gitmo, she had 18 months, only 18 months. Now 9 years. Now she's big. Between 18 months, baby and 9 years, she walking, she's talking, she play, she's joking. It's a big difference."

It is important to realize that Boumedienne was eventually released only because he was brought to trial and allowed to make his case. Obama's new proposals of "preventive detention" seeks the authority to keep people like Boumedienne in prison and tortured indefinitely and even executed without trial.

June 09, 2009

On torture-17: Media double standards

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

I began the series of posts on torture with a partial hypothetical based on the true story of two American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling arrested by North Korea. I said that if those journalists were convicted on the basis of confessions obtained using torture, we would be up in arms, even though torture is exactly what the US has been doing to the detainees it has held.

Those two journalists have now been found guilty by a North Korean High Court after a five-day trial and sentenced to 12 years hard labor. The US government and media assumes that the two are innocent (Hillary Clinton describes the charges as "baseless"), except perhaps for accidentally crossing the border into North Korea, and that the sentence was unduly harsh, and that the North Koreans did this just to force the US into some kind of negotiations.

Earlier we had the media spotlight on another American journalist Roxana Saberi who was tried in Iran for espionage and convicted before being released later by an Iranian appeals court. Again, the US government and media saw this trial as purely political, and Saberi received a huge amount of publicity.

Many readers may be surprised to learn that these are not the only recent cases of journalists being arrested by governments. There are others who have been held without charge or trial for much longer periods under much worse conditions, whose plight has been largely ignored by the US media, although they have been publicized elsewhere. The reason is, of course, that these hapless journalists are being held by the US government and this means, of course, they are presumed to be guilty and dangerous and their indefinite detention is to be excused or even justified.

Glenn Greenwald describes some of the cases.

  • Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj was held in the back hole of Guantanamo for six years without trial, beginning in 2001, before being finally released. Even more disgraceful, even after the American interrogators realized that al-Haj was just a journalist, they then tried to coerce him to spy on Al Jazeera for them.

  • The AP photographer Bilal Hussein was detained by the US for two years without any charges brought against him, after his photographs contradicted US claims.

  • Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer for Reuters, was detained by the US in September 2008.

That's not all. The Committee to Protect Journalists says:

Hussein’s detention is not an isolated incident. Over the last three years, dozens of journalists—mostly Iraqis—have been detained by U.S. troops, according to CPJ research. While most have been released after short periods, in at least eight cases documented by CPJ Iraqi journalists have been held by U.S. forces for weeks or months without charge or conviction. In one highly publicized case, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a freelance cameraman working for CBS, was detained after being wounded by U.S. military fire as he filmed clashes in Mosul in northern Iraq on April 5, 2005. U.S. military officials claimed footage in his camera led them to suspect Hussein had prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. In April 2006, a year after his arrest, Hussein was freed after an Iraqi criminal court, citing a lack of evidence, acquitted him of collaborating with insurgents. (my italics)

As Greenwald says:

In Iran, at least Saberi received the pretense of an actual trial and appeal (one that resulted in her rather rapid release, a mere three weeks after she was convicted), as compared to the journalists put in cages for years by the U.S. Government with no charges of any kind, or as compared to the individuals whom we continue to abduct, transport to Bagram, and insist on the right to imprison indefinitely with no charges of any kind. Who was treated better and more consistently with ostensible Western precepts of justice and press freedoms: Roxana Saberi or Sami al-Haj? Saberi or Bilal Hussein? Saberi or Ibrahim Jassam? Saberi or the Bagram detainees shipped to Afghanistan and held in a dank prison, away from the sight of the entire world, without even a pretense of judicial review, a power the Obama administration continues to insist it possesses?

The London Independent reports on the reason that Saberi was convicted of espionage.

A joyful Roxana Saberi yesterday thanked those who helped win her release as her lawyer revealed his client had been convicted of spying in part because she had a copy of a confidential Iranian report on the war in Iraq.

Ms Saberi, a freelance journalist who was freed on Monday after four months in prison in Tehran, had copied the report "out of curiosity" while she worked as a freelance translator for a powerful body connected to Iran's ruling clerics, said the lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht.

In fact, when we compare the case of Saberi in Iran with the way the US treats the journalists it arrests, Iran comes out much better. Robert Dreyfuss notes that what Saberi did to get herself arrested was more serious than what was done by many of the journalists under US custody and yet she got a quick trial and was released after a quick appeal. As Dreyfuss says:

Here's what I wonder: If an Iranian journalist came to the United States, deliberately let his reporter's credentials expire, took a job working for an important US agency that handles confidential or classified material, and then secretly copied one of those documents out of "curiosity," do you think he would have been released by an appeals court? Or do you think that he might have received, say, eight years in prison for espionage?

Saberi had confessed to being a US spy while serving 100 days in prison. After her release, she said she made a false confession out of fear. She describes her treatment:

In Evin, the jail in the Tehran suburbs where many political prisoners are held, Saberi endured "severe psychological and mental pressure, although I was not physically tortured.

"The first few days, I was interrogated for several hours, from morning until evening, blindfolded, facing a wall, by up to four men, and threatened ... I was in solitary confinement for several days," Saberi said.

I can well imagine that Saberi was frightened and that her confession was not freely given, even though the conditions she describes pale in comparison to the kinds of torture practices the US is guilty of.

The US government and those in the media who cheer on policies of "preventive detention" and condone and excuse torture have absolutely no standing to complain when other governments do similar things.

POST SCRIPT: A real ticking time bomb

Scott Roeder, the person who has been arrested and charged with killing Dr. George Tiller, told the Associated Press that similar violence has been planned against other abortion providers but refused to provide further details. The news report continues, "It wasn't clear whether Roeder knew of any impending violence or whether he was simply seeking publicity for his cause. Law enforcement authorities including the Justice Department said they didn't know whether the threat was credible."

But there's a way to find out, isn't there? We could simply torture him because what we have here is a 'ticking time bomb' scenario so beloved by those who use it in hypothetical situations to justify torture.

John Cole who, like me, opposes torture in all circumstances, issues a challenge to evangelical Christians who are more supportive of torture than nonbelievers or mainstream Protestants.

Since there is no doubt that we have a history of anti-abortion domestic terrorism, and since we know that evangelicals already support torture for everyone, when do we get to start waterboarding this guy? Does he have any children whose testicles can be crushed? Will we keep him up for weeks on end in stress positions in extremely cold rooms to get him to break? Beat him? All the right made a very good show of how shocked and appalled they were when this man killed Dr. Tiller, so surely they will not object. So when do we get to start torturing this guy?

This same challenge can be posed to anyone who thinks that torture works and uses the ticking time bomb hypothetical to justify torture. Shouldn't they be calling for Roeder to be tortured?

June 08, 2009

On torture-16: Obama's appalling stances on civil liberties

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

The corrupting effect of condoning torture can be seen in the way that Obama is now advancing the appalling policy of "preventive detention", allowing the government to hold prisoners without trial indefinitely. This means that the fundamental constitutional protection of habeas corpus has been abandoned by Obama as well, making a mockery of his claim to be teacher and scholar of constitutional law,.

What the Obama administration is doing is trying to create a range of 'trials', all designed to keep some people incarcerated forever, even if they cannot be proven guilty. Those whom they think they can prove to be guilty by normal rules of evidence they will try in the regular legal system. Those for whom the evidence may not be sufficient or not normally allowable (because, say, the information was obtained by torture or is hearsay or otherwise inadequate) will be tried in 'tribunals' where rules designed to protect the rights of defendants are relaxed and convictions easier to obtain. Those people for whom there is no real evidence or whose torture they do not want revealed to the world will be held indefinitely without trial.

That this is a gross perversion of what we think of as justice should be apparent to anyone. Gone is the quaint presumption that people are innocent until they are proven guilty. Replacing it is a medieval system where the ruler decides peremptorily whether you are guilty or not. Basically, what Obama is creating is a system where his administration first decides whether people are guilty, and then constructs a "legal" system that allows them to create a forum which will ensure that the detainees they have already decided is guilty will be found guilty. There is no other description for this than a 'show trial'. It is nothing less than the worst kind of legal sham practiced by authoritarian governments. If such trials were conducted by (say) Iran or North Korea or Russia, they would be denounced by the American media as a mockery of justice. But when practiced by the US government, the media actually goes along with it, treating the whole charade as a sensible practice.

Will Bunch points to the really disturbing part of Obama's recent speech where he outlined this policy of creating parallel trial systems and preventive detention. After first boasting about his familiarity with the principles of the US constitution acquired as both a student and teacher of it, Obama then proceeds to rip that venerable document to shreds:

Now, finally, there remains the question of detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people. And I have to be honest here -- this is the toughest single issue that we will face. We're going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.

Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture -- like other prisoners of war -- must be prevented from attacking us again. Having said that, we must recognize that these detention policies cannot be unbounded. They can't be based simply on what I or the executive branch decide alone. That's why my administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the rule of law.

But I want to be very clear that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for the remaining Guantanamo detainees that cannot be transferred. Our goal is not to avoid a legitimate legal framework. In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man. If and when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight. (my italics)

When Obama uses the royal "we" in the past paragraph, he is reserving to himself what should be the prerogative of the courts, the right to determine guilt or innocence. So it is clear: the Obama administration will first decide who is guilty and dangerous and then find a way to keep them in prison forever, a policy he describes using the Orwellian phrase "preventive detention". As Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights says:

[Obama] said some people are just too dangerous to let go and that we have to keep them…Though we'd do it differently then Bush. We will set up rules. Well no matter how you repackage Guantanamo, with all kinds of rules on top of it -- that is what he is doing, he is re-wrapping a preventive detention scheme and giving it some more due process. In the end, it still comes down to holding people -- much like Minority Report or pre-crime stuff -- for being dangerous, and that is not something that I think is constitutional or this country should be engaged in.

Obama's actions in creating this framework of show trials is all of a piece with his backtracking on his promises to quickly close Guantanamo, to quickly end the war in Iraq, and his reluctance to prosecute the war crimes of the Bush administration. While he drags his feet on his promise to close Guantanamo, yet another detainee, a 31-year old man, has committed suicide after being detained without charge or trial since February 2002.

William Blum sums up the problem with Obama:

The problem, I'm increasingly afraid, is that the man doesn't really believe strongly in anything, certainly not in controversial areas. He learned a long time ago how to take positions that avoid controversy, how to express opinions without clearly and firmly taking sides, how to talk eloquently without actually saying anything, how to leave his listeners' heads filled with stirring clichés, platitudes, and slogans. And it worked. Oh how it worked! What could happen now, as President of the United States, to induce him to change his style?

I could really feel sorry for Barack Obama — for his administration is plagued and handicapped by a major recession not of his making — if he had a vision that was thus being thwarted. But he has no vision — not any kind of systemic remaking of the economy, producing a more equitable and more honest society; nor a world at peace, beginning with ending America's perennial wars; no vision of the fantastic things that could be done with the trillions of dollars that would be saved by putting an end to war without end; nor a vision of a world totally rid of torture; nor an America with national health insurance; nor an environment free of capitalist subversion; nor a campaign to control world population ... he just looks for what will offend the fewest people. He's a "whatever works" kind of guy.

I think Blum's assessment of Obama is largely correct, though I would welcome being proved wrong. Being able to make stirring speeches is a valuable skill. It can make people rise to their better selves and to forget petty concerns. But it can never be a substitute for principled actions. If not backed up by concrete actions, the words will rapidly ring hollow and become a target of ridicule.

POST SCRIPT: Torture excuse chart

In this series of posts, I have painstakingly addressed all the excuses offered by torture apologists. I discovered that someone has organized many of them into a handy chart.

June 05, 2009

On torture-15: Media complicity in secrecy

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

One of the best ways to ensure good government is to have as much transparency as possible. When people are allowed to work behind closed doors with the promise of secrecy, abuses inevitably occur. The Bush/Cheney administration was highly secretive and unfortunately, when it comes to things like torture, the "extraordinary renditions" of prisoners (i.e., sending them to other countries that practice torture), and illegal wiretapping, the Obama administration seems to be also trying to keep as many things secret as possible. In fact, on some matters such as illegal wiretapping, Obama is making even more sweeping claims of presidential authority to keep secrets than Bush/Cheney did.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

[C]andidate Obama unambiguously vowed to his supporters that he would work to ensure "full accountability" for "past offenses" in surveillance lawbreaking. President Obama, however, has now become the prime impediment to precisely that accountability, repeatedly engaging in extraordinary legal maneuvers to ensure that "past offenses" -- both in the surveillance and torture/rendition realm -- remain secret and forever immunized from judicial review. Put another way, Obama has repeatedly done the exact opposite of what he vowed he would do: rather than "seek full accountability for past offenses," he has been working feverishly to block such accountability, by embracing the same radical Bush/Cheney views and rhetoric regarding presidential secrecy powers that caused so much controversy and anger for the last several years.

This Raw Story report shows the extremes to which Obama is willing to go: "For the first time, the Obama Administration's brief contends that government agencies cannot be sued for wiretapping American citizens even if there was intentional violation of US law. They maintain that the government can only be sued if the wiretaps involve "willful disclosure" -- a higher legal bar."

Dahlia Lithwick demolishes all the arguments for keeping secrets that are used to justify the Obama administration's actions, while Greenwald gives a summary of the views of all the people who are excoriating the abuses of the state secrets privilege by the Obama administration.

To see what extreme extents this penchant for secrecy is being taken by Obama, read the extraordinary case of what happened to Clive Stafford Smith, the lawyer for Binyam Mohamed (whose case was discussed earlier). Smith wrote a memo to President Obama about Mohamed's torture case. As required, he had to first send it to the Privilege Review Team, a secret tribunal of Pentagon officials that monitors all the communications of lawyers representing Guantanamo prisoners.

The PRT returned the memo to Smith with everything in it redacted and did not forward the concerns raised to Obama. (See the letter and redacted memo here). So Smith wrote directly to Obama and sent along the redacted memo, showing Obama how he was being denied access to information by the people below him, even though he was their superior officer. Unbelievably, Smith is now being charged with violating official secrecy merely for sending Obama the redacted memo, which is entirely blacked out. In other words, he is being charged for alerting the president that he was not getting the full story and for this act he faces a possible six months in prison if convicted. So much for Obama's promise of increased transparency.

While some courts have have dealt a setback to the government's attempts to keep secrets, the Obama administration seems likely to doggedly continue to fight to keep as much as possible under wraps.

In this they are aided and abetted by the media. You would think that the media, of all institutions, would vigorously fight any attempt by the government to keep secrets, to be in the forefront in championing openness. What is extraordinary is that some establishment journalists have become the strongest advocates for allowing the government to keep secrets, showing how much they have become co-opted by the government as an accomplice.

Richard Cohen wrote of the Lewis Libby prosecution: "it is often best to keep the lights off." ABC News's Peggy Noonan said this week of torture investigations: 'some things in life need to be mysterious. Sometimes you need to just keep walking." The Washington Post's David Ignatius, condemning Obama for releasing the OLC memos [i.e. the infamous Jay Bybee and John Yoo memos authorizing the use of torture], warned: "the country is fighting a war, and it needs to take care that the sunlight of exposure doesn't blind its shadow warriors." And the favorite mantra of media stars and Beltway mavens everywhere -- Look Forward, Not Backwards -- is nothing but a plea that extreme government crimes remain concealed and unexamined.

This remains the single most notable and revealing fact of American political life: that (with some very important exceptions) those most devoted to maintaining and advocating government secrecy is our journalist class, of all people. It would be as if the leading proponents of cigarette smoking were physicians, or those most vocally touting the virtues of illiteracy were school teachers. Nothing proves the true function of these media stars as government spokespeople more than their eagerness to shield government actions from examination and demand that government criminality not be punished.

As another example of media collusion with establishment power, the Bush administration used the media, especially the extraordinarily gullible Brian Ross of ABC News to advance the false story that torture worked quickly and efficiently to reveal vital information. The Bush White House seemed to look on Ross as the 'go to' guy when they wanted to disseminate false information to the public.

The arguments that have been put forward to excuse and justify those who tortured and authorized torture are so pathetic that they hardly need refuting. The fact that they are given any credibility at all is because our media is so slavishly faithful to the establishment, so complicit in their crimes, that they eagerly seek to find justifications for even the most horrific actions, and allow these pseudo-arguments to be repeatedly advanced without rebuttal.

As Mark Danner writes in the New York Review of Books:

It is a testament as much to the peculiarities of the American press—to its "stenographic function" and its institutional unwillingness to report as fact anything disputed, however implausibly, by a high official—that the former vice-president's insistence that these interrogations were undertaken "legally" and "in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles" continues to be reported without contradiction, and that President Bush's oft-repeated assertion that "the United States does not torture" is still respectfully quoted and, in many quarters, taken seriously. That they are so reported is a political fact, and a powerful one. It makes it possible to contend that, however adamant the arguments of the lawyers "on either side," the very fact of their disagreement makes the legality of these procedures a matter of partisan political allegiance, not of law.

The facts are clear: Torture is illegal and morally despicable under all circumstances. The US government authorized and committed acts of torture.

The consequences should also be clear: Those who authorized and committed torture should be investigated and prosecuted.

The fact that there is a 'debate' at all on this very clear issue is a sign of how debased our commitment to the rule of law has become, and the sorry role that the media has played in bringing it to that state.

POST SCRIPT: Mark Danner on how the press is obfuscating the torture issue


June 04, 2009

On torture-14: Torture and secrecy

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

It is not that torture never works but the history of torture suggests that in order to get a few bits of useful information, you have to throw a wide net for torture victims. 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 and points to a few cases in Vietnam and Algeria where mass torturing has worked. "Major success from limited, surgical torture is a fable, a fiction. But mass torture of thousands of suspects, some guilty, most innocent, can produce some useful intelligence."

But indiscriminate and widespread torturing of people is presumably not where any civilized society wants to go, though given how easily Americans can be frightened by vague threats, it would not surprise me if people were willing to countenance even that.

Once torturers have brutally treated someone, they become reluctant to let the victims freely speak about their treatment since such revelations rebounds badly on them. You cannot bring them to an open trial where they can tell the judge and the public how they were treated. Torture inevitably leads to excessive secrecy or even the killing of victims so they can never speak about their treatment. So secrecy and torture practices go hand in hand and the promise of secrecy creates the temptation for perpetrating even greater abuses.

Glenn Greenwald points out how the Bush administration tried to make a deal with two Gunantanamo detainees (British resident Binyam Mohamed and Australian citizen David Hicks) that they would release them only if they kept secret about the treatment they had received. Mohamed refused the deal and his detention was continued. So the US government was essentially using torture and detention as weapons, not to gain information but to gag their prisoners to prevent them speaking about their torture and detention.

Binyam Mohammed's story gets even worse. He was eventually sent back to England in February after the charge that he aided Jose Padilla fell apart. Mohammed had spent six years in US custody and claimed he was tortured at the hands of the US in Pakistan, Morocco, and Afghanistan, the countries being ones that he had been 'renditioned" to. After his release, a British High Court initially ruled that there was sufficient evidence that he had been tortured and that he was entitled to seek documentary evidence that the British government had in its possession about his treatment. But it later reversed itself because the Obama administration had threatened to withhold security cooperation with the UK if the documents were released.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

Just think how despicable that threat is: if your court describes the torture to which one of your residents was subjected while in U.S. custody, we will withhold information from you that could enable you to break up terrorist plots aimed at your citizens.

The principal issue here is that the Obama administration is not merely failing to investigate (let alone prosecute) acts of high-level criminality by U.S. government officials. Far worse, ever since he was inaugurated, Obama has engaged in one extraordinary legal maneuver after the next to block American courts from ruling on the legality of those actions. He has now extended his Bush-protecting conduct to the international realm, as he re-iterates Bush's threats that we will purposely leave British citizens more vulnerable to terrorist attacks if their courts rule that, under their laws, their citizens are entitled to know what was done to Binyam Mohamed.

Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney for Mr. Mohamed, said that he was disappointed with what Obama had done.

"What they are doing is twisting the arm of the British to keep evidence of torture committed by American officials secret," said Mr. Smith, a U.S. citizen. "I had high hopes for the Obama administration. I voted for the guy, and one hopes the new administration would not continue to cover up evidence of criminal activity."

The Metropolitan Police of London is investigating whether Mr. Mohamed was tortured when he was in American custody.

Mr. Smith said that by attempting to keep evidence of Mr. Mohamed's "abuse" secret, the U.S. official who communicated the threats to the British Foreign Office was in breach of British law, specifically the International Criminal Court Act of 2001.

"The U.S. is committing a criminal offense in Britain by seeking to conceal this information. What the Obama administration did is not just ill-advised, it is illegal," he said.

But despite these attempts at suppression of his torture, truly gruesome details are emerging about some of the methods used on Binyam Mohamed that make even waterboarding look tame by comparison, "very far down the list of things they did." These include such things as the slicing of his genitals with a scalpel,

This is what allowing torture under any circumstances leads to. It is the slipperiest of slippery slopes. One step on it, and you rapidly end up in a cesspool, committing the most odious of acts.

POST SCRIPT: Gay marriage loophole

New Hampshire yesterday became the sixth and latest state to pass a law allowing gay marriage, continuing the inevitable march towards full equality. But from the Onion News Network we learn that gays are willing do anything to get married.


Conservatives Warn Quick Sex Change Only Barrier Between Gays, Marriage

June 02, 2009

On torture-13: Why torture decisions have to be made impersonally

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let me finally address the question raised by the final excuse on the list put out by torture apologists, that if our own loved ones could only be saved by torture, wouldn't we approve of it?

I have said that I oppose torture on the principle that I cannot condone any practice that I would not accept if it were to be applied to my own loved ones. But what if the tables were turned and my own loved ones were under threat of harm and the security forces had captured someone who might have information that might save them? Wouldn't I want the security forces to do whatever it takes, even if it includes torture, if that might save their lives?

The answer is yes, I probably would want them to do whatever it takes to save my loved ones. I might even be willing to do it myself. There is no saying what we might do when we are placed in extreme situations far removed from our normal experience. But the fact that we might wish suspects to be tortured if it might save our own loved ones is not an argument for torture. It is instead a sign of our human weakness, an indication of how strong emotions can override our better nature. It is an argument for why people with a deep personal and emotional investment in a case should not be involved in any way with such investigations or interrogations, because their passions can cause them to commit atrocities that are beyond the pale of civilized behavior.

There is a reason why we do not allow vigilante justice. There is a reason why, if we report to the police that someone has killed or otherwise brutalized our loved ones, the police do not give us a gun and tell us to take care of it ourselves. There is a reason why in trials, any person who has any links to the case or has had a past involvement in a similar situation, is eliminated from the jury pool. It is because such people are too likely to be inflamed by our emotions to think rationally about evidence and proof and justice and law and principles.

The impersonal institutions of society, such as the police and the courts, are there to provide the dispassionate buffer that prevents us from committing atrocities arising out of our personal passions and grievances. The collective principles of morality and humanity and justice enshrined in those institutions are meant to save us from ourselves.

People are capable of advocating, let alone committing and condoning, all kinds of appalling acts when their own personal safety and well-being or that of their loved ones are at stake. A reliable staple of Hollywood films is where an enraged private individual takes the law into his or her own hands to avenge some personal wrong that the authorities cannot or do not want to deal with, and the audience invariably cheers the successful elimination of the evildoer at the end, however questionable the means used. Filmmakers are taking advantage of our natural empathetic feelings towards the victims of injustice. We are manipulated by the filmmakers into accepting torture and killing because they make sure that we, the audience, know for certain that the villain brutalized at the end is truly guilty, is really evil, and has no redeeming qualities. It would be interesting to see what would be the reaction if at the end of the film or in the pro-torture TV series 24, the righteous avenger finds that he or she has made a mistake and tortured an innocent person and we, the audience, find that we had been manipulated into cheering on a monstrous injustice.

This is what is being exploited by those who justify torture by asking us to imagine ourselves as the victims of a crime that might be prevented by torture. Notice that the people who are supporting torture repeatedly make the sweeping assumption that all the people in US custody at Guantanamo and elsewhere are horrible and dangerous people who are guilty of unspecified but presumably appalling crimes, the kind who would kill their own grandmothers for pleasure, even though this has not been established to be the case.

If we allow actions to be justified on the basis of the passions of the victims, then we are but a short step from barbarity. Take for example, Eugene Volokh, a professor of constitutional law. He cites a case where a criminal was publicly executed in Iran before a large crowd of spectators in a event that was made into a sordid spectacle, where he "was flogged 100 times before being hanged. A brother of one of his young victims stabbed him as he was being punished. The mother of another victim was asked to put the noose around his neck."

Volokh puts himself in the position of the victims' families and heartily approves of the barbaric way the execution was carried out, saying:

I particularly like the involvement of the victims' relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he'd killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing - and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act - was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging. The one thing that troubles me (besides the fact that the murderer could only be killed once) is that the accomplice was sentenced to only 15 years in prison, but perhaps there's a good explanation.

I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.

The disturbing tone of Volokh's comments (remember that he is a professor of constitutional law and is presumably well aware of why we have laws and constitutions) perfectly illustrates why we should keep victims of crimes out of the investigation and punishment of crimes.

Those with a strong personal and emotional stake in it are capable of the most appalling things, which is why the hypothetical of whether we might be willing to commit torture if we could save our own loved ones should not be used as a justification for the practice.

POST SCRIPT: Wretched excess

Stephen Colbert visits three restaurants where a single item on the menu costs $1,000.

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June 01, 2009

On torture-12: Would I use torture to save myself or lots of people?

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let me continue the look at the final excuse on the list put out by torture apologists, that if our own loved ones could only be saved by torture, wouldn't we approve of it?

Those seeking to justify torture using such extreme hypothetical situations usually describe two scenarios, of which the question above is the second form, which I will get to after dealing with the first form.

The first form of the hypothetical asks if I would be willing to risk the deaths of many people, including my own, if they might be saved by using torture on others. The answer is yes. Although some might find this attitude hard to understand, a little thought will show why it is eminently defensible. Michael Kinsley explains why using these types of 'ticking time bomb' scenarios to create and justify torture policies is a bad idea because of the problem of uncertainty.

There is yet another law-school bromide: "Hard cases make bad law." It means that divining a general policy from statistical oddballs is a mistake. Better to have a policy that works generally and just live with a troublesome result in the oddball case. And we do this in many situations. For example, criminals go free every day because of trial rules and civil liberties designed to protect the innocent. We live with it.

Of course a million deaths is hard to shrug off as a price worth paying for the principle that we don't torture people. But college dorm what-ifs like this one share a flaw: They posit certainty (about what you know and what will happen if you do this or that). And uncertainty is not only much more common in real life: It is the generally unspoken assumption behind civil liberties, rules of criminal procedure, and much else that conservatives find sentimental and irritating.

Sure, if we could know the present and predict the future with certainty, we could torture only people who deserve it. Not just that: We could go door-to-door killing people before they kill others. We could lock up innocent people who would otherwise be involved in fatal traffic accidents.

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. He points out that in the real world, the probability that a terrorist might be captured after concealing a ticking nuclear bomb in Times Square and that his captors would somehow recognize his significance is phenomenally slender.

The scenario assumes a highly improbable array of variables that runs something like this:

  • First, FBI or CIA agents apprehend a terrorist at the precise moment between timer’s first tick and bomb’s burst.
  • Second, the interrogators somehow have sufficiently detailed foreknowledge of the plot to know they must interrogate this very person and do it right now.
  • Third, these same officers, for some unexplained reason, are missing just a few critical details that only this captive can divulge.
  • Fourth, the biggest leap of all, these officers with just one shot to get the information that only this captive can divulge are best advised to try torture, as if beating him is the way to assure his wholehearted cooperation.

But this combination of factors is highly unlikely to occur. It is only after an event has occurred that people look back and see clearly the chain of events that led up to it and are able to unerringly "connect the dots", to use a currently popular cliché. He points out that Zacarias Moussaoui was in captivity for weeks before 9/11 being desultorily questioned without any useful information being obtained, because the "FBI did not have precise foreknowledge of Al Qaida's plot or his precise role."

McCoy quotes Roberta Wohlstetter who wrote in her study of that other great U.S. intelligence failure, Pearl Harbor that, after the event, "a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has occurred. But before the event, it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings." Scientists know this. They often grapple for years with puzzling data for which there seem to be no pattern and then when someone postulates a new theory, everything suddenly falls into place and it all makes sense and the pattern is clear.

People like Charles Krauthammer try to have it both ways. They want to project an image of themselves as urbane products of the Enlightenment with refined sensibilities, while at the same time justifying their most barbaric and revengeful impulses, condoning actions that make the Inquisition pale in comparison. Writing recently, he starts by trying to establish his adherence to Enlightenment principles, saying that "Torture is an impermissible evil." So far, so good. But then he immediately goes over to the dark side by adding:

Except under two circumstances. The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy.

The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. We know we must act but have no idea where or how -- and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.

Under those circumstances, you do what you have to do. And that includes waterboarding.

So for Krauthammer torture is impermissible except when it is permissible. Someone should quote him the immortal words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

The 'ticking time bomb' scenario as a justification for torture is seductive in its appeal. Sam Harris falls for it and even ethicist Peter Singer supports torture because, as a utilitarian, he supports the minimization of suffering, and using that calculus, if you can save many by torturing a few, then he says we should go for it: "Torturing a human being is almost always wrong, but it is not absolutely wrong. If torture were the only way in which we could discover the location of a nuclear bomb hidden in a New York City basement and timed to go off within the hour, then torture would be justifiable." (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 53.)

But as McCoy argues, the 'ticking time bomb' scenario is based on a whole set of flawed and implausible assumptions and as soon as you allow for exceptions to torture, you are guaranteed to have abuses. McCoy argues that allowing for torture even in very limited cases almost guarantees that the practice will expand and grow.

Once we agree to torture the one terrorist with his hypothetical ticking bomb, then we admit a possibility, even an imperative, for torturing hundreds who might have ticking bombs or thousands who just might have some knowledge about those bombs. "You can't know whether a person knows where the bomb is," explains Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole, "or even if they're telling the truth. Because of this, you end up going down a slippery slope and sanctioning torture in general."

While there is a (admittedly small) chance that we can all agree that torture should be unconditionally outlawed, once we allow exceptions there is almost no chance that we will all agree on what those exceptions should be. This is because the act of torture is so extreme, and the varieties of ways in which it can be practiced so numerous, that the people at the receiving end will not accept restrictions on how they can respond. It is only a matter of time before we reach the stage where we place the decapitated heads of so-called "enemy combatants" on spikes in public spaces as a warning, as was the practice of kings and queens in England against their perceived enemies.

But apart from the high degree of implausibility of the ticking bomb scenario, we must realize that we can never live in a risk-free society. We have no choice in the fact that we are all going to die at some point. The question is whether there is a level of barbarity to which we will not sink in order to save our skins.

To be continued…

POST SCRIPT: Rooks using tools

A remarkable video showing rooks carefully selecting the most appropriate tool to obtain food.


May 29, 2009

On torture-11: Invoking the extreme hypothetical

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's look at the final excuse on the list put out by torture apologists.

Excuse 11: Finally, the emotional appeal that takes various forms but one of the strongest is: If your children were being held hostage by terrorists, wouldn't you want any suspects to be tortured if that would save your child?

Before I directly address this question, let me make one thing clear. My unequivocal opposition to torture is based on the principle that I will not approve of any measures against other people that I would not accept if it were done to my own loved ones. There is no circumstance under which I would EVER consent to have my own child tortured. My opposition to torture is on the same grounds as my opposition to corporal punishment of children and the death penalty, that whatever I find objectionable when applied to my loved ones is also objectionable when applied to the loved ones of other people whom I don't know personally.

Not only am I opposed to torture on principle, I also oppose it because governments and security services have no compunction about lying about what evidence they have or have obtained that justifies torture, and will try and justify their contemptible actions using such lies. Read this appalling account of how the FBI coerces confessions from the innocent and how the courts help them cover it up.

Furthermore, we should never specify in advance the conditions when things like torture, murder, and corporal punishment are acceptable because doing so inevitably leads to abuse.

To explain, let's take murder, since that case is the easiest to understand but the action itself is the most extreme. We all say that killing someone is bad but we do excuse some people who do it. The mitigating factors may be self-defense or insanity. But such a judgment is always made on a case-by-case basis AFTER the fact of the killing. We should not specify in advance the conditions under which murder will be excused by saying, for example, that you can kill with impunity someone who enters your house. To do so would be to invite people to escape a murder conviction by creating the conditions under which he/she knows it will be excused. We want the system to be such that any person who kills another is never sure if they will be found guilty of murder and will thus hesitate before taking such an extreme step. Of course, psychopaths will kill anyway, as will those who cannot control their raging impulses, and such people will not be deterred by any laws from doing damage. But what we seek to do is to deter cold-blooded killers who try to calculate what they can get away with.

The danger of specifying the conditions under which you are allowed to kill someone leads to things like the tragedy in Texas where a couple shot and killed a seven-year old child who had apparently unwittingly trespassed on their property, though even the fact of trespassing is in doubt. Apparently Texas has a so-called 'Castle Doctrine' law that provides "civil immunity for a person who lawfully uses deadly force in any of the circumstances spelled out in the bill.". The couple seemed to take delight in using that license to shoot and kill the child even though they had to know that the child was not a threat to them in any way.

The only time we issue an almost blanket advance immunity for killing is for soldiers during wars (which can be argued are a form of collective insanity). But since we know that even this license can open the door to the committing of atrocities, we have instituted conventions that regulate even war time killings, setting out limits in conventions and treaties, so that stepping over those boundaries can result in charges of war crimes, though in practice only the losers get charged with those crimes. In World War II, Germans and Japanese were tried and executed for war crimes but not the Allied forces, although the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the blanket bombing of Dresden should have been tried as war crimes too.

It is the same thing with corporal punishment. I am opposed to it under every circumstance. Under extreme circumstances some parents will do extreme things like hitting a child. We may judge that such an action was excusable under the circumstances, but only after the fact. But we should never give categories of people (whether parents or teachers or priests or school administrators) advance blanket immunity to administer such punishment or let them know in advance the conditions under which they will escape punishment, by specifying which acts are justifiable and which are not. Doing so inevitably leads to abuse as sadistic people invoke their 'rights' to viciously attack helpless children.

The revelations of the long-term and systematic severe abuse of children by Catholic institutions in Ireland is an example of what happens when people think they have the right to discipline children using force, because they are parents or clergy or teachers. Another example is where people think it is allowed to subject others to humiliation during the process of ritualized hazing, and where some take this license to resort to cruelty.

There should always be a blanket prohibition against corporal punishment and hazing, like there is against killing. People who commit such acts must always have to justify their actions after the fact, aware that they may be found guilty of abuse. Without that restraint, we let loose those sadists who will exploit the conditions.

Next: What if my own child could be saved using only torture?

POST SCRIPT: Lewis Black on politics and religion and torture

From February 2008:


May 28, 2009

On torture-10: Christians and torture

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Before I get to the last of the excuses for torture on the list put out by apologists, I want to make a slight digression and comment on the curious reaction of Christians to torture.

As this series of posts has, I hope made clear, torture is a barbaric practice irrespective of who does it for whatever reason. So what does one make of recent poll results that says that the more you go to church, the more likely you are to approve of torture, while the less religious you are, the more you disapprove?

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified -- more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did.

The religious group most likely to say torture is never justified was Protestant denominations -- such as Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians -- categorized as "mainline" Protestants, in contrast to evangelicals. Just over three in 10 of them said torture is never justified. A quarter of the religiously unaffiliated said the same, compared with two in 10 white non-Hispanic Catholics and one in eight evangelicals.

In a way, I can understand this result, based on the story of Jesus's crucifixion, an intrinsically barbaric form of death penalty. In my experience, those who are the most fervent in their Christian beliefs are the ones who seem to take the most delight in wallowing in the most gruesome imaginings of this story, adding on layers and layers of blood and gore and violence as Jesus makes his way to the cross. The so-called passion of Christ is spelled out and dragged out in the most sickening way, as can be seen in the re-enactments of the event every Easter. Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, tend to not dwell so much on the gory aspects of the death, skipping pretty quickly to the happy ending of the resurrection.

I refused to go and see Mel Gibson's hit film The Passion of the Christ because of its reportedly relentless gruesomeness but a colleague of mine, a professor of religious studies, went to see it out of a sense of professional obligation and he told me that the reports I had heard were true, that the film consisted mostly of Jesus being repeatedly tortured in novel ways in sickening and graphic detail. And evangelical Christians loved the film, making it box office smash. In the film Religuous (see POST SCRIPT below), Bill Maher goes to a holy land theme park in (where else?) Orlando, Florida and we see a reenactment of the passion and the audience actually applauds as the Jesus actor, covered in fake blood and staggering under the weight of the cross, is assaulted by the guards.

Even the whole idea of the communion representing the eating of Jesus's flesh and the drinking of his blood must be contributing to the coarsening of one's natural revulsion against mutilation.

Surely there must be some relationship between evangelical Christians glorifying the torturing of Christ and seeing it as a good thing, and their thinking that torturing people in general cannot be that bad if Jesus chose to experience it?

The conservative website Red State, using some truly weird logic, argues that torture is completely consistent with Christian values. It first tries to argue that the actions that the US indulged in, such as waterboarding, was not torture, saying "Torture involves extreme physical pain or even death, such as the cutting off of appendages, gouging of eyes, use of shredders to the body, electrical shock—you name it. Blood is usually involved." As we have seen, this claim is impossible to sustain and is counter to all treaty and consensus judgments of what constitutes torture. It then goes on, "It’s likely even Jesus would have OK’d water boarding if it would have saved his Mom. He would’ve done the same to save his Dad, or any one of His disciples. For that matter, He even died to save all humans."

This does not even make sense since why would Jesus, being god and omniscient and all, need to torture anyone to get information? He would simply know everything, no? After all, he can hear millions of simultaneous silent prayers, which must mean that he can read minds. And why would he need to save his "Dad", since his "Dad" was also god and could probably take care of himself perfectly well, thank you very much?

Perhaps the explanation for this casual acceptance of such barbaric practices by those who undoubtedly consider themselves to be good Christians lies in the words of Clarence Darrow, the defense lawyer in the Scope evolution trial of 1925. Darrow had contempt for religion and once told a group of convicts, "It is not the bad people I fear so much as the good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel – he believes in punishment."

POST SCRIPT: Religulous

I recently saw the Bill Maher film Religulous and it was a riot. He looks at the religious practices of the major western religions, talks to religious people, and shows how idiotic their beliefs are. Religious sophisticates will complain, as they usually do, that he has not engaged with religion on a sophisticated plane and talked with theologians about Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine or discussed the anthropic principle and the like. Instead he spoke with preachers and believers. They made the same kind of criticism of Richard Dawkins and his book The God Delusion. (In interviews, Maher and the film's director say they tried to interview the heads of major religions but were turned down.)

But that is the point. He, like Dawkins, is dealing with the kinds of beliefs that religion gives most people, and showing that they are preposterous. What a few academic theologians believe has almost no resemblance to what almost all religious people believe, serving only as intellectual cover for gross superstitions. Maher asks people concrete questions, the kind that should be asked. Basically he asks people what they believe and why which results in hilarious, if sometimes mind-boggling, results.

The film is available on DVD. Here's the trailer:

The DVD has the usual bonus features that include scenes that were cut out and one of them was an interview with Rael himself, one of the latest in the line of prophets who say they were told in secret by a higher power that they are to be special messengers to humanity. And, of course, people believe them. (I have written about the Raelians and their founder before here, here, and here.)

May 27, 2009

On torture-9: The "everybody knew about it" excuse

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 9: Top Democrats were told what was going on and approved of it so that makes it ok.

This is a truly curious argument, evidenced in the absurd fuss over what Nancy Pelosi was told about torture and when she was told it. Some Republican politicians are putting the Attorney General on notice that if he takes actions against the Bush torturers, they will force him to widen the investigation to take into account the fact that the illegal practice of the "rendition" of prisoners to countries that torture also took place during the Clinton administration.

Some opponents of torture investigations advance this argument as if it were a checkmate move, as if the possibility of involvement of Democrats in torture will shut up those seeking action against torturers. They don't seem to realize that there are many of us who don't give a damn if the people prosecuted for torture are Democrats or Republicans. This is why we want a full investigation and prosecution of torture practices wherever it may lead and whomever it may lead to. If it turns out that top figures in the Democratic Party were complicit, they should also be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I myself strongly suspect that key Democratic leaders in both the House and the Senate were complicit in at least condoning torture policies and they should be exposed and tried as well.

Eric Posner, whom we saw yesterday argues that the Attorney General has the discretion not to prosecute torture (a claim that Glenn Greenwald dismisses as both 'frivolous' and 'lawless'), also argues that the bipartisan complicity on torture will be sufficient to prevent prosecution. In other words, that the Obama administration would be well-advised not to prosecute those who committed torture since it might embarrass members of his own party.

One can easily imagine the defense strategy, which will start by calling to the stand various Democratic senators and representatives who had been informed of the interrogation tactics and did not publicly object to them at the time. The testimony would surely be entertaining, as the politicians would be put in the impossible position of either admitting their moral complicity, which would make the entire trial look like a political show trial designed to punish Republicans but not Democrats, or looking like cowards who knew that the government was breaking the law but despite their oath to the Constitution were unwilling to do anything about it. Do Obama and Holder really want to put leaders of their own party in Congress in this position?

They obviously don't but they should. In any event, this is an irrelevant point to anyone who cares about the rule of law. Let us never lose sight of the fact that crimes against humanity, and torture is one, does not allow countries the discretion to not prosecute those suspected of committing them.

The Bush administration clearly took advantage of their ability to selectively brief Congressional leaders in secret about things like torture, knowing that this would make them complicit. What I don't understand is why people agree to be given classified briefings if they cannot do anything about things they hear that they find objectionable. The only reason I can think is that people, especially political leaders, seem to love to be told secrets, to feel that they are the holders of privileged information that the general public is not privy to. It gives them a sense of self-importance.

This underscores the pernicious effect of secrecy which is why the widespread use of background briefings and off-the-record interviews between politicians and journalists should be condemned, and why even politicians should never agree to be confidentially briefed on policies that they have no power to change. While agreeing to listen may make them feel important, they should realize that they are also being co-opted to tacitly support things they may not agree with.

Excuse 10: We need to focus on solving urgent problems like the financial and housing crisis and torture investigations will be divisive and distract us.

Does this excuse really need to be dignified by a response? Have we sunk so low, become so crass, that we trivialize and shunt aside deeply moral issues like torture that truly identify us as people, to focus only on money issues? Apart from the immorality of even making such a comparison, it is absurd to think that a nation as big as the US cannot handle more than one thing at a time.

POST SCRIPT: Obama's hypocrisy

While Obama gives uplifting speeches and says many of the right things about human rights and the rule of law, the fact is that his actions often don't match up to the rhetoric.

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May 26, 2009

On torture-8: The 'partisan politics' excuse

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 8: If we prosecute those who authorized torture, then this would be for purely partisan reasons for retribution by Democrats against Republicans.

The fundamental principle that is involved is that nobody is above the law. If this requires the prosecution of the officials of one party by the occupants of another party, that is just incidental. In fact, it is the very fact that the ruling party tends not to prosecute their own people that makes such cross-party prosecutions necessary. Of course, in a pro-war/pro-business oligarchy like the US, both parties are really one on issues like this, as can be seen in the way that the Obama administration is desperately trying to get out of its treaty obligations to take action against torturers. As is characteristic of oligarchies, each party protects the other when it comes to major issues, which is why other countries might step in to prosecute top US officials for torture if the US does not do so.

The idea that laws and treaties do not apply to actions by the US and its leaders is widely promoted by the oligarchy. Condoleeza Rice recently said that "by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture". John Dean says that Obama is also guilty if his Justice Department does not prosecute because Geneva Conventions and the torture treaty require actions be taken against those who both torture and authorize torture. There is an affirmative obligation for governments to take action against those who commit torture. It does not give countries the choice, as some people think, to "let bygones be bygones", to "look forward and not backward" and let torturers avoid prosecution and punishment. They do not have discretion in this matter. Since Attorney General Eric Holder has already conceded that waterboarding is torture, he is obliged to pursue prosecutions of those who committed torture.

Glenn Greenwald lays out the case for prosecutions clearly:

The U.S., under Ronald Reagan, legally obligated itself to investigate and prosecute any acts of torture committed by Americans (which includes authorization of torture by high level officials and also includes, under Article 3 of the Convention [against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment], acts of "rendering" detainees to countries likely to torture, as the Bush administration unquestionably did).

All of the standard excuses being offered by Bush apologists and our political class (a virtual redundancy) -- namely: our leaders meant well; we were facing a dangerous enemy; government lawyers said this could be done; Congress immunized the torturers; it would be too divisive to prosecute -- are explicitly barred by this treaty (i.e., binding law) as a ground for refusing to investigate and prosecute acts of torture.

This is also why the standard argument now being offered by Bush apologists (such as University of Chicago Law Professor Eric Posner, echoing his dad, Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner in Chicago) as to why prosecutions are unnecessary -- namely: there is "prosecutorial discretion" that should take political factors into account in order not to prosecute -- are both frivolous and lawless. The Convention explicitly bars any such "discretion": "The State Party in territory under whose jurisdiction a person alleged to have committed any offence referred to in article 4 is found, shall . . . submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution." The principal purpose of the Convention is to remove the discretion involved in prosecuting acts of torture and to bar the very excuses which every torturing society proffers and which our own torturing society is now attempting to invoke ("we were dealing with real threats; there were 'exceptional circumstances' that justified it; we enacted laws legalizing the torture; our leaders meant well; we need to move on")

By deciding not to pursue actions against torturers, Obama himself is violating international law, in addition to politically interfering with the actions of the Justice Department. Although people seem to have become accustomed to the Justice Department being seen as a political arm of the White House (thanks to the post of Attorney General being filled with political hacks like Alberto Gonzalez), we must not forget that it is supposed to be an independent agency, free of political control and obliged to take actions purely on the legal merits of the cases that come before it. To take direction from the political leadership, as is happening now with Obama trying to quash prosecutions of torture and illegal wiretapping, is itself wrong.

The fundamental principles involved here are really quite simple. There are certain things that civilized societies should not do, and torture is one of them. Anyone who tortures or authorizes torture has violated the law and committed a crime against humanity and can be prosecuted in any country. Nobody is above the law. Nobody.

POST SCRIPT: Bipartisan whitewash on torture

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on how Obama is morphing into Bush/Cheney when it comes to torture, warrantless wiretapping, and other illegal activities.

May 22, 2009

On torture-7: The 'acting in good faith' excuses

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 4: Even if it did violate binding laws and treaties, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

See the response to excuse #2 ("Even if it was torture, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.")

Excuse 5: The people who committed torture should not be prosecuted because they were told it was legal and they were merely following orders.

People who bring up this argument are either extremely ignorant, being willfully obtuse, or lying. Is there anyone in this day and age who does not know that this so-called "Nuremberg defense" is not valid? The defense that people should not be punished for obeying orders was not allowed during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war crimes after World War II and which has set the modern standard for how such crimes should be treated. Neither was the defense that the accusing parties were also guilty of the same crimes as the accused. "Just following orders" and "Others did it too" cannot be used to justify war crimes.

This principle was further reinforced in article 2, section 3 of the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which states that: "An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture."

Excuse 6: If we prosecute those who committed torture, then in future they will be "always looking over their shoulders" when conducting interrogations and be hesitant to take strong actions for fear of prosecution.

That is the whole point. People with the power of life or death over others should always be concerned about stepping over the line. They should always be looking over their shoulders, and take into account that if they commit excesses, they might face prosecution. This is what keeps atrocities in check. We want police and other security personnel to be keenly aware that there are lines that must not be crossed and that if they do, they will face the consequences. They may go ahead and do it anyway, but they should not assume while doing so that they have immunity for any and all actions. That have to be conscious of the fact that they will be called to justify why they chose the actions they did. And if they cannot justify it, they should expect to be prosecuted.

Excuse 7: The people who told the torturers that it was acceptable to torture were acting in good faith and trying to protect the country, so they should not be prosecuted.

This is the same kind of argument given by any dictator, autocrat, tyrant, or sadist, that they were doing it for the "greater good", to "defend the country against its enemies", to "save lives". This argument was again rejected at the Nuremberg trials where the top leadership of Nazi Germany was found guilty of war crimes for just setting policy and issuing orders. Hermann Goering said that the concentration camps were necessary to preserve order: "It was a question of removing danger." This argument was rejected, and even those who merely gave the orders were sentenced to death. It can well be argued that the people who are in command positions and give such orders are more culpable than the lower ranks that carried them out, though the latter are not excused from culpability.

Noam Chomsky and Tom Englehardt point out that the people who excuse US torture practices on the grounds of 'saving the country from attacks' never seem to consider the logical extensions of that argument.

There is still much debate about whether torture has been effective in eliciting information – the assumption being, apparently, that if it is effective, then it may be justified. By the same argument, when Nicaragua captured U.S. pilot Eugene Hasenfuss in 1986, after shooting down his plane delivering aid to U.S.-supported Contra forces, they should not have tried him, found him guilty, and then sent him back to the U.S., as they did. Instead, they should have applied the CIA torture paradigm to try to extract information about other terrorist atrocities being planned and implemented in Washington, no small matter for a tiny, impoverished country under terrorist attack by the global superpower.

By the same standards, if the Nicaraguans had been able to capture the chief terrorism coordinator, John Negroponte, then U.S. ambassador in Honduras (later appointed as the first director of national intelligence, essentially counterterrorism czar, without eliciting a murmur), they should have done the same. Cuba would have been justified in acting similarly, had the Castro government been able to lay hands on the Kennedy brothers. There is no need to bring up what their victims should have done to Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and other leading terrorist commanders, whose exploits leave al-Qaeda in the dust, and who doubtless had ample information that could have prevented further "ticking bomb" attacks.

Such considerations never seem to arise in public discussion.

The documentary Standard Operating Procedure (which I have not been able to see as yet) apparently argues that the low-level soldiers who carried out the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were merely scapegoats for the higher ups, cynically blamed for every wrong that happened while those who set the policy and encouraged these acts escaped. All the Bush administration principals discussed torture in detail so that they cannot now claim ignorance and conveniently put the blame on lower ranking 'bad apples'.

The Nuremberg principle that leaders 'acting in good faith' should not escape punishment for the acts that result from their orders was further reinforced in article 2, section 2 of the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which states that "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture." This is about as unequivocal a rejection of the 'good faith' or 'extreme circumstances' excuses as one is likely to find.

We did not accept this argument of imminent danger to justify the authorization of torture by Nazi leaders, we would not accept such a defense from (say) North Korean leaders, and we should not accept it from US leaders.

POST SCRIPT: The frightened and dangerous clown

I have been bemused by the media paying such respectful attention to the ravings of Dick "Vice President for Torture" Cheney. Josh Marshall gives an excellent evaluation of him and why his utterances should be mercilessly mocked.

This is an extremely gullible man who has just come off being the driving ideological force in an administration that most people can already see produced more fiascos and titanic, self-inflicted goofs than possibly any in our entire history. By any standard the guy is a monumental failure -- and not one whose mistakes stem in some Lyndon Johnson fashion from tragic overreach, but just a fool who damaged his country through his own gullibility, paranoia and bad judgment. Whatever else you can say about the Cheney story it ain't Shakespearean.

So as we see the big reporters trying to put him on some sort of equal footing with President Obama today, let's remember that the great majority of Americans see Dick Cheney, accurately, as a clown. And mockery isn't just the most effective but also the most morally apt response to the man.

I have always thought that Cheney is a very frightened man, something that Marshall and other commentators miss, perhaps because they have been taken in by Cheney's tough guy talk. His entire life history, from dodging fighting in Vietnam by getting five deferments to building a secure and secret underground bunker to hide in, are all clear signs of someone who lives in fear. It is the combination of fear and power that made him so dangerous.

The words that William Shakespeare put in the mouth of Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene II) describe Cheney perfectly:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

May 21, 2009

On torture-6: The legal excuse

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 3: These actions did not violate any laws or treaties binding on the US.

Yes they do. That crazy, soft-on-terror ideologue Ronald Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1984, and such international treaties have the power of law. In a signing statement, Reagan said the following: "Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today. The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called "universal jurisdiction." Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution."

Some have argued that these treaties only apply to prisoners of war, uniformed soldiers of another country captured on the battlefield, and that the so-called 'enemy combatants' do not warrant such protections. Charles Krauthammer who, like fellow-torture advocate Alan Dershowitz, starts from the ends he wants (the freedom for the US to torture others but not allow others to torture US citizens) and argues back to the premises, says that a captured terrorist "is by profession, indeed by definition, an unlawful combatant: He lives outside the laws of war because he does not wear a uniform, he hides among civilians, and he deliberately targets innocents. He is entitled to no protections whatsoever." (my italics)

Apart from the incredibly barbaric nature of the assertion that anyone who is detained by security forces for whatever reason has no protection whatsoever against any brutality inflicted on them merely because someone claims that he is a terrorist, this argument is not even legally sustainable. The above-mentioned Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment says that protection against torture applies to all persons, not just those formally designated as prisoners of war.

We also need to distinguish between the third Geneva Convention which refers to prisoners of war and the fourth Geneva Convention which deals with other people involved in conflicts. Article 3 of Geneva Convention IV says:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat [i.e., out of the battle] by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) taking of hostages;
(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. (my italics)

This idea that there can be a whole class of people who have no rights whatsoever and to whom we can freely apply torture is a bizarre new invention, created for the purpose of excusing the acts of torture authorized and condoned by the US government.

[Retired Brigadier General John Adams] made clear that during all his years of service and training, including his tenure as a professor at West Point, what he learned and what he taught was consistent: the United States military always acts under the rule of law, in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and upholds the Constitution. What was not taught, or even discussed, were terms like harsh or enhanced interrogation techniques ("I never heard those terms used"), or arguments concerning what constitutes a so-called unique enemy ("In all my training, the current discussions are the first time I ever heard that argument used"). Said Adams: "I have never known anyone in a leadership position in the military who would condone torture. They would never do it. It would go against all the training we had, and against what we were trained to do, which is to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law."

It may be possible that legal 'brains' similar to the infamous John Yoo and Jay Bybee in the Bush Justice administration may be able to find some tortured interpretation of the law and treaties that allow a tiny legal loophole in these treaty obligations. But it is truly disgusting to watch people who do not hesitate to apply broad sweeping moral judgments when torture is done by others suddenly retreat into nitpicking legalistic defenses when torture is done by the US. They seem to then think that if everything is 'legal' then it is acceptable. Some people argue that the real 'mistake' that the Bush administration made was in not going to Congress and getting a law passed that would have made all these practices legal, rather than depend on internal memos by the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department.

That misses the point. A country cannot make torture legal by changing its internal laws. Torture is considered a crime so vile and inexcusable that it is beyond the pale of civilized behavior and thus cannot take refuge within national boundaries or jurisdictions. It is a crime against humanity and anyone anywhere can take action against any suspected perpetrators.

POST SCRIPT: Ventura ventures into the torture debate

Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura was once a Navy SEAL and underwent waterboarding as part of the SERE training. He says that waterboarding is undoubtedly torture and that torture produces worthless information. He tells Larry King, "I'll put it to you this way, you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders."

He further says, "I will criticize President Obama on this level; it's a good thing I'm not president because I would prosecute every person that was involved in that torture. I would prosecute the people that did it. I would prosecute the people that ordered it. Because torture is against the law."

Watch:


May 20, 2009

On torture-5: The effectiveness argument

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 2: Even if it was torture, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

Once you accept this argument, then you are truly a barbarian, because you can use it to justify any action at all. If torture is justified to save the lives of others, why have any limits at all? Why not drive hot spikes through people? Why not cut off their limbs? Why not bring back the rack and other devices of the Inquisition? Why not torture the families and children of detainees? Why not torture and terrorize entire communities?

And why stop with alleged terror suspects? Why not allow police to solve crimes by routinely torturing suspects to get information and confessions? It would save a lot of time and money too.

Furthermore, the argument that torture was successful because no further attack occurred after 9/11 (ignoring the anthrax attacks for the moment) is meaningless.
"My magic baseball cap keeps lions away from the city."
"There are no lions in the city."
"See, it works!"

These kinds of arguments are mainly advanced by torture-lovers like the former vice president for torture Dick Cheney (a label given to him by the former director of the CIA Admiral Stansfield Turner) and have two self-serving purposes: they provide a justification for criminal acts and so that any new attack that might ever occur in the future can be blamed on the stopping of the torture practices. To substantiate such assertions, you need to provide specific evidence of an action that has been thwarted because of information gained that could only have been achieved by torture.

But an interrogator for the FBI Ali Soufan puts the lie to even the claim that torture garnered useful information that would not have been obtained otherwise.

Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned [Abu Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mr. Padilla. This is false. The information that led to Mr. Shibh’s capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods. As for Mr. Padilla, the dates just don’t add up: the harsh techniques were approved in the memo of August 2002, Mr. Padilla had been arrested that May.

As George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley says, the torturing of Abu Zubayda provided nothing of value, and the Bush administration lied about the effectiveness of torturing him in order to excuse its actions.

The Bush torture program is a wonderful example of not just the time-proven junk that comes from torture, but also the value of legal process as a way to acquiring legitimate information in legitimate ways. Putting aside the obvious immorality of the program, the reports show how we tortured people for little more advantage than the visceral and political benefits of "getting tough on terrorism."

It is becoming clear that torture was used for more than just to show toughness. The Bush administration was desperately seeking to justify the attack on Iraq and was using torture to try get confessions to "prove" that a link existed between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

"There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

"The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."

Similar reports are coming out elsewhere.

Khalid Shekh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month, an average of six time per day! If this most extreme form of torture is effective, why was it necessary to do it so many times? What made the torturers think that the 150th time would work better than the 149th time? Surely we can see that other motives must be at play. Either the torturers were seeking a false confession or anger, frustration, and sheer sadism had taken over from any intelligence gathering needs. What torture does best is produce false confessions and false information as the tortured person says anything at all just in order to make the torture stop.

As US airman Harold Fischer said about his experience at the hands of a Chinese torturer during the Korean war:

"[The torturer Chong] wanted me to admit that I had been ordered to cross the Manchurian border," Captain Fischer told Life magazine. "I was grilled day and night, over and over, week in and week out, and in the end, to get Chong and his gang off my back, I confessed to both charges. The charges, of course, were ridiculous. I never participated in germ warfare and neither did anyone else. I was never ordered to cross the Yalu. We had strict Air Force orders not to cross the border."

"I will regret what I did in that cell the rest of my life," the captain continued. "But let me say this: it was not really me — not Harold E. Fischer Jr. — who signed that paper. It was a mentality reduced to putty."

What torture does is produce "mentalities reduced to putty", people willing to say anything to escape the torment, hardly the source of good information. But even in the extremely unlikely event that proof were offered that torture produced useful information that could have been obtained no other way, I would still reject this utilitarian argument on moral grounds.

There are some things a civilized society should not do merely to save some lives. We cannot live in a risk-free world. We are all going to die someday. We have no choice in that matter. The only choice we have is whether we live with dignity and honor by upholding principles of civilized behavior or we become barbarians. Bush, Cheney, and all those who support and excuse torture have chosen barbarism.

POST SCRIPT: The bogus 'ticking time bomb' issue

The 'ticking time bomb' scenario so beloved by torture apologists and based on little more than fictional TV shows and films can hardly be used for torture that extends over a month as was the case of Khalid Shekh Mohammed. See Tom Tomorrow's cartoon parodying the absurdity of this argument.

May 19, 2009

On torture-4: Trying to excuse the inexcusable

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

These arguments that have been made to excuse the torture practices of the US have taken many shifting forms. In the next few posts, I list the top excuses for torture practices, followed by my responses.

Excuse 1: What was done by the US is not torture.

Excuse 2: Even if it was torture, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

Excuse 3: These actions did not violate any laws.

Excuse 4: Even if it did violate binding laws, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

Excuse 5: The people who committed torture should not be prosecuted because they were told it was legal and thus they were merely following orders.

Excuse 6: If we prosecute those who committed torture, then in future they will be "always looking over their shoulders" when conducting interrogations and hesitant to take strong actions for fear of prosecution.

Excuse 7: The people who told the torturers that it was acceptable to torture were acting in good faith and trying to protect the country, so they should not be prosecuted.

Excuse 8: If we prosecute those who authorized torture, then this would be for purely partisan reasons for retribution by Democrats against Republicans.

Excuse 9: Top Democrats were told what was going on and approved of it so that makes it ok.

Excuse 10: We need to focus on solving urgent problems like the financial and housing crisis and torture investigations will be divisive and distract us.

Excuse 11: Finally, the emotional appeal that takes various forms but one of the strongest is to invoke the extreme hypothetical: If your child was being held hostage by terrorists, wouldn't you want any suspects to be tortured if they had information that could save your child?

Excuse 1: What was done by the US is not torture.

This argument has been put forward in two ways. One is to suggest that what was done to the detainees was mild, even routine. Sleep deprivation? Who of us haven't had sleepless nights? Forced to stand for hours one end? Donald Rumsfeld used to wonder why the detainees were getting off so easy by being made to stand for only four hours when he often stands for 8-10 hours per day. And so on. The other is to suggest that since these torture techniques were used as part of the SERE program to train US personnel to resist torture, they cannot be torture since we wouldn't torture our own people, would we?

Do I really need to point out why these arguments cannot be taken seriously? There is a world of difference between experiencing something voluntarily or at the hands of people you know are on your side and do not want to harm you, and having the same thing done to you by your enemies who may want to kill you. To argue otherwise is like saying that since some people voluntarily participate in S&M sexual practices, then assault or rape cannot be crimes.

Torture apologist Charles Krauthammer actually put forward the argument that the above practices could not be torture because they were used to train US troops, to which an officer in the National Guard replied:

I have friends who have been to SERE and instructed SERE students and acted as interrogators. All agree that waterboarding and other such 'enhanced' techniques are good for training (in a strictly controlled environment) our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on what to expect in captivity. They also agree that it is torture to anyone outside that training environment. Finally, they all agree that torture rarely results in actionable intelligence, as the victim is willing to say most anything to end the torture.

But even beyond that, many people have been quite unequivocal about calling these practices torture. As John McCain asserted during the election campaign, the US executed Japanese soldiers in World War II for the same kinds of things that were done by the US interrogators, because they were considered torture and thus war crimes. McCain said "[F]ollowing World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding,"

Gen. Barry McCaffrey has called what was done by the US torture.

Gen Antonio Taguba, who was assigned to investigate the activities following the revelations at Abu Ghraib, has said that what was done by the Bush administrations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanmo constituted war crimes "when the Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture."

Brigadier General James Cullen (Ret.), former chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals said that giving these practices euphemisms such as "enhanced interrogation techniques" does not make it not torture. What was done was unequivocally torture. "We hear a lot of arguments to try to justify 'enhanced interrogation techniques,' but we know exactly what we're talking about. It's torture in different packaging."

In fact, the Senate Armed Services Committee said that the whole point of the SERE training that led to the abuses was to resist what was clearly identified as torture.

During the resistance phase of SERE training, US military personnel are exposed to physical and psychological pressures...designed to simulate conditions to which they might be subject if taken prisoner by enemies that did not abide by the Geneva Conventions. As one JPRA instructor explained, SERE training is "based on illegal exploitation (under the rules listed in the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) of prisoners over the last 50 years."

It is really quite simple. At the very minimum, if something is torture when done by others to you involuntarily, then it is still torture when done by you to others.

Next: More excuses

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart talks with a torture apologist

Clifford May comes out with the usual pathetic excuses for why torture is ok if done by the US. May is the president of something called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and nothing says that you love democracy more than advocating torture practices.

The full and unedited interview is shown below in three parts.

Part 1:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 1
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Part 2

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Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 2
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Part 3:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 3
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May 18, 2009

On torture-3: What was actually done to detainees by the US

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

An article by Mark Danner in the April 30, 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books accompanied his release of the February 2007 confidential report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on what was done to detainees in US custody. It is truly horrifying. These are the methods that were used by the US on its detainees:

  • Suffocation by water poured over a cloth placed over the nose and mouth…[i.e., 'waterboarding']
  • Prolonged stress standing position, naked, held with the arms extended and chained above the head...
  • Beatings by use of a collar held around the detainees' neck and used to forcefully bang the head and body against the wall...
  • Beating and kicking, including slapping, punching, kicking to the body and face...
  • Confinement in a box to severely restrict movement...
  • Prolonged nudity...this enforced nudity lasted for periods ranging from several weeks to several months...
  • Sleep deprivation...through use of forced stress positions (standing or sitting), cold water and use of repetitive loud noises or music...
  • Exposure to cold temperature...especially via cold cells and interrogation rooms, and...use of cold water poured over the body or...held around the body by means of a plastic sheet to create an immersion bath with just the head out of water.
  • Prolonged shackling of hands and/or feet...
  • Threats of ill-treatment, to the detainee and/or his family...
  • Forced shaving of the head and beard...
  • Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food from 3 days to 1 month after arrest...

How did the US torturers even come up with the ideas for these methods? They were developed as part of the SERE ("Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape") counter-resistance program developed by the US military, to train their own people to resist what they themselves called torture when it was done to them by others. Danner quotes a Senate Armed Services Committee report that says:

The techniques used in SERE school, based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions, include stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. It can also include face and body slaps and until recently, for some who attended the Navy's SERE school, it included waterboarding.

The progression is chilling. When done by the Chinese against US prisoners, these actions were unequivocally condemned as torture. These torture techniques were then used to train US personnel to resist torture in the event they were captured by countries that did not abide by the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions or the Treaty Against Torture. And then they were used as a how-to manual by the US to torture others.

There is no doubt that the US has tortured people in violation of the law. The question now is what should be done about it.

As Danner says:

One fact, seemingly incontrovertible, after the descriptions contained and the judgments made in the ICRC report, is that officials of the United States, in interrogating prisoners in the "War on Terror," have tortured and done so systematically. From many other sources, including the former president himself, we know that the decision to do so was taken at the highest level of the American government and carried out with the full knowledge and support of its most senior officials.

Once this is accepted as a fact, certain consequences might be expected to follow. First, that these policies, violating as they do domestic and international law, must be changed—which, as noted, President Obama began to accomplish on his first full day in office. Second, that they should be explicitly repudiated—a more complicated political process, which has, perhaps, begun, but only begun. Third, that those who ordered, designed, and applied them must be brought before the public in some societally sanctioned proceeding, made to explain what they did and how, and suffer some appropriate consequence.

And fourth, and crucially, that some judgment must be made, based on the most credible of information compiled and analyzed and weighed by the most credible of bodies, about what these policies actually accomplished: how they advanced the interests of the country, if indeed they did advance them, and how they hurt them.

But rather than following through on the logic that those who commit torture should face investigation and prosecution, what has been disgusting are the efforts to excuse and justify these actions in response to these revelations, simply because they were done by 'our' side.

Next: The parade of excuses for the torture committed by the US

POST SCRIPT: Hypocrisy

The Daily Show on the difference between the way Japanese torturers were treated compared to the US torturers for doing the same things.

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A Brief History of Torture
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May 15, 2009

On torture-2: When sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

In the previous post in this series, I invented a hypothetical example of two American journalists tortured by North Korea to argue that the reaction in the US is quite different when torture is done by other counties, in order to illustrate the hypocrisy of condemning those actions by others that we excuse in ourselves. It now turns out that this kind of scenario actually happened. Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, who is closely related to the ruling family of that country, was caught on videotape torturing people.

Particularly damaging was the apparent involvement of a policeman in the torture and the impunity with which Sheikh Issa could act, even after the tape emerged. He is a senior prince related to powerful members of the ruling family in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan is now under investigation in the United Arab Emirates after the shocking tape showed him beating a man with a nailed plank, setting him on fire, attacking him with a cattle prod and running him over.

The UAE at first said that the matter had been privately settled between Sheikh Issa and his victim. They also added that UAE police had followed all their rules and regulations properly.

The fresh revelations about Issa's actions will add further doubt to a pending nuclear energy deal between the UAE and the US. The deal, signed in the final days of George W Bush, is seen as vital for the UAE. It will see the US share nuclear energy expertise, fuel and technology in return for a promise to abide by non-proliferation agreements. But the deal needs to be recertified by the Obama administration and there is growing outrage in America over the tapes. Congressman James McGovern, a senior Democrat, has demanded that Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, investigate the matter and find out why US officials initially appeared to play down its significance. (my italics)

Unlike the CIA, which earlier this year revealed as a result of a lawsuit that it had destroyed 92 videotapes of its so-called "enhanced interrogations", the prince was not savvy enough to do the same and it appears that there are over two hours of tape showing him torturing over 25 people. Now there are calls for investigations and prosecutions because of fears that otherwise his actions will create public relations problems in the US.

I don't know why the UAE is worried. If there is any country that should understand and sympathize with the prince and seek to excuse his actions and need to torture, it is the US. Aren't we the country that detains people indefinitely without trial, without access to lawyers, courts, and family, and subjects them to all manner of treatments that violate all norms of acceptable behavior and has led to death, permanent injury, and insanity?

As Glenn Greenwald, who has been one of the strongest voices for the investigation and prosecution of torture wherever it occurs says sarcastically:

But anyway, enough about all that divisive partisan unpleasantness -- back to this brutal, criminal UAE prince: let's watch more of those videotapes, express our outrage on behalf of international human rights standards, and threaten the UAE that their relationship with us will suffer severely unless there is a real investigation -- not the whitewash they tried to get away with -- along with real accountability. We simply cannot, in good conscience, maintain productive relations with a country that fails to take "torture" seriously. We are, after all, the United States.

A recent obituary in the New York Times of a US soldier who had been captured by the Chinese during the Korean war casually labels his treatment by the Chinese as torture. The obituary reads:

Col. Harold E. Fischer Jr., an American fighter pilot who was routinely tortured in a Chinese prison during and after the Korean War… From April 1953 through May 1955, Colonel Fischer — then an Air Force captain — was held at a prison outside Mukden, Manchuria. For most of that time, he was kept in a dark, damp cell with no bed and no opening except a slot in the door through which a bowl of food could be pushed. Much of the time he was handcuffed. Hour after hour, a high-frequency whistle pierced the air.

But when it comes to what the US has done to the prisoners it controls, the same paper gets all coy about using that harsh word and resorts to euphemisms. As Andrew Sullivan comments:

The NYT's incoherence and double standards, equally, are self-evident. But I would like to know if [NYT editor] Bill Keller will remove the t-word from this obit and replace it with "harsh interrogations" as he does when referring to the US government's use of identical techniques. If not, why not? Remember: these people won't even use the word torture to describe a technique displayed in the Cambodian museum of torture to commemmorate [sic] the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge - as long as Americans do the torturing.

Some apologists for US torture try to trivialize it by characterizing what was done as little more than the kinds of hi-jinks done by fraternities. Glenn Greenwald applies that same logic to what was done to Fischer:

So that's torture now? To use the prevailing American mindset: a room that doesn't meet the standards of a Hilton and some whistling in the background is torture? My neighbor whistles all the time; does that mean he's torturing me? It's not as though Fischer had his eyes poked out by hot irons or was placed in a coffin-like box with bugs or was handcuffed to the ceiling.

The new Obama administration seems to have joined the chorus of people are anxious to put all this 'nasty' business of our own torture behind us, to ignore all the acts of torture that have been committed and to "look forward and not behind" so that we can then lecture other countries on the evils of torture.

The hypocrisy on this issue is so widespread and reaches all levels that people seem to be blinded by it, as this Tom Tomorrow cartoon indicates.

Next: What exactly did the US do to its detainees?

POST SCRIPT: Please don't tell us about the bad stuff we do

The Daily Show says that what seems to really upset some people is not the fact that the US government tortures people but that the torture practices were revealed.

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We Don't Torture
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May 14, 2009

On torture-1: Torture is just flat-out wrong

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Some of you might have heard of the case of two American journalists who are to stand trial in North Korea for having entered the country illegally on March 17, 2009. They are accused of committing acts that were hostile to that country.

It was revealed that the two had confessed to being spies for the US and had entered North Korea in order to gain information to aid a military attack on that country. The confessions came after the two journalists had been subjected to solitary confinement, waterboarded repeatedly, kept in sleep-deprived and stress positions for days on end, confined naked in a small box with insects allowed to crawl all over them, and repeatedly slammed against walls, a process known as 'walling'.

When the US protested against this treatment of its citizens, arguing that such acts constituted torture and were a gross violation of international laws and treaties and that the confessions thus obtained were inadmissible as evidence, the North Korean government stated that President Kim Jong Il had personally authorized the actions and their Justice Department has said that all these methods had been deemed to be legal, especially in light of the imminent threat to the nation's security because of the hostile attitude of the US towards North Korea.

This urgency required them to act quickly to get information from the captives to find out US plans and defend themselves against an attack. They said that the captured people were not uniformed soldiers and hence were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva conventions, and that they had been declared to be 'enemy combatants', not prisoners of war or civilians. The North Korean government claimed that everyone who participated in what they referred to as 'enhanced interrogation techniques' was justified in these actions and so no action would be taken against them and they would oppose any international tribunal as well. They claimed that not only were these methods proper and legal because they had been authorized by the president and his legal advisors, but that they had also been successful, as evidenced by the fact that no attack had occurred so far.

As I hope most readers realize, only the first of the above four paragraphs is based on fact. I concocted the other three so as to make a point, because it is time once again to revisit the question of torture. I hate to do it because it is a disgusting topic and the very fact that we have to even debate whether it should be allowed shows how low we have sunk. I would have thought that it should be clear to any civilized person who claims to adhere to accepted principles of morality and ethics and law that torture is wrong and should not be allowed or condoned.

Almost everyone would be appalled at the treatment described above if it had actually being done to the American journalists now under captivity in North Korea, and would unhesitatingly reject these kinds of justifications for torture as the kinds of blatantly self-serving excuses that are routinely offered up by brutal regimes to justify the appalling treatment of prisoners in those countries. Yet these are the very same arguments given used to justify the actions taken by the US government in its torturing of detainees.

But thanks to the collusion of our media and some sections of the opinion-making classes in academia and the media and politics, what is a clear ethical issue has been made to seem difficult and complex, with those who seek to excuse torture when done by the US trying to occupy the moral high ground.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

[V]irtually every single war criminal in history can recite good reasons for undertaking "excessive" measures. Other than psychopaths who do it exclusively for sadistic entertainment, every torturer can point to actual fears, or genuine threats, or legitimate grievances that led them to sanction violence and brutality.

But people like Goldsmith, Drezner, Douthat, and The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page can only see a world in which they -- Americans -- are situated at the center. They cite the post-9/11 external threats which American leaders faced, the ostensible desire of Bush officials to protect the citizenry, and their desire to maximize national security as though those are unique and special motives, rather than what they are: the standard collection of excuses offered up by almost every single war criminal.

This is the self-absorbed mindset that allows the very same people who cheered for the attack on Iraq to, say, righteously condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as a terrible act of criminal aggression. Russia's four-week occupation of Georgia is a heinous war crime, while our six-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq is a liberation. Russia drops destructive, lethal bombs on civilian populations, but the U.S. drops Freedom Bombs. Russian leaders were motivated by a desire for domination even though they withdrew after a few weeks; Americans, as always, are motivated by a desire to spread love and goodness. Freedom is on the March.

[T]hose who view American Torture as a fascinating moral dilemma over which Serious People publicly agonize -- as Drezner put it: "if you're a national security person, you don't care about the legal niceties . . . it is a complicated question; it's not cut and dried" -- have actually convinced themselves that their refusal to make clear, definitive judgments is a hallmark not only of their moral superiority, but of their intellectual superiority as well. Only shrill ideologues and simpletons on either side believe that the torture question is "cut and dried." They actually believe that their indecisive open-mindedness on such clear moral questions is a sign of their rich and deep complexity, even though it's nothing more than an adolescent inability to assess the world through any prism other than their own immediate reflexive desires and self-interest.

Ultimately, though, the reason leaders torture is irrelevant. It's one of those few absolute taboos, and it's almost as immoral to seek to dilute that taboo by offering motive-based mitigations as it is to engage in it in the first place.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on ASU

Arizona State University must have expected some backlash from its statement that Barack Obama was not worthy of receiving an honorary degree when he delivered the commencement speech yesterday. But they may have not bargained on receiving the full Jason Jones treatment.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
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November 21, 2006

Torture is not fun and games-2

Those who wish to excuse the actions of this administration or minimize the seriousness of torture sometimes take the tack of trivializing it, making it seem as if opponents of torture are making a big issue out of mere playfulness. Take Rush Limbaugh's response to a caller on his radio show when the events of Abu Ghraib were revealed.

CALLER: It was like a college fraternity prank that stacked up naked men --

LIMBAUGH: Exactly. Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?

(Of course, one cannot expect classy behaqvior from the likes of Limbaugh, a truly disgusting person who even mocked and caricatured actor Michael J. Fox for making an ad supporting stem-cell research and Missouri senate candidate Claire McCaskill who supports that research. In the ad, Fox courageously revealed the painful to watch, but unfortunately standard, symptoms of his Parkinson's disease, but Limbaugh ridiculed him and accused him of faking it. McCaskill won a close race and there is much speculation that Limbaugh's boorish behavior actually tipped the scales in her favor, since decent people resent ill people being mocked. And when that person is as much-liked as Michael J. Fox, the repugnance against Limbaugh was accentuated.)

But one has a right to expect higher standards of behavior from high government officials. And yet, another revealing episode of how torture gets trivialized was when Vice President Dick Cheney was interviewed by a radio show host and implied that he approved of the form of torture known as "waterboarding." This word can mean various things, but none of them are good.

According to wikipedia:

Waterboarding is a type of torture used in coercive interrogations or for punishment. In modern practice it simulates drowning and produces a severe gag reflex, making the subject believe his or her death is imminent while ideally not causing permanent physical damage.
. . .
The subject is strapped to a board and either tipped back or lowered into a body of water until he or she believed that drowning was imminent. The subject then is removed from the water and revived. If deemed necessary, the routine is repeated.

The technique characterized in 2005 by former CIA director Porter J. Goss as a "professional interrogation technique", involves tying the victim to a board with the head lower than the feet so that he or she is unable to move. A piece of cloth is held tightly over the face, and water is poured onto the cloth. Breathing is extremely difficult and the victim will be in fear of imminent death by asphyxiation. Journalists Brian Ross and Richard Esposito described the CIA's waterboarding technique as follows:

The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.

Described this way, it sounds terrible. But the sympathetic radio talk show host who interviewed Cheney put the question to him in this softball way. He said that his

listeners had asked him to ''let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves American lives.''

''Again, this debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?'' Hennen said.

''I do agree,'' Cheney replied, according to a transcript of the interview released Wednesday.
. . .
''Would you agree that a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?'' asked Hennen.

'It's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president 'for torture.' We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in,'' Cheney replied. "We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we're party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that.'' (my emphasis)

Notice how waterboarding is trivialized by calling it 'dunking', making it seem as if it is equivalent to the childhood game of bobbing for apples, or tossing a friend into a swimming pool, or sports teams dousing their winning coach with a cooler of ice water. The Daily Show had a segment on waterboarding which, while humorous, showed both its dangers and the fact that torture rarely yields any accurate or useful information but merely provides an outlet for the sadistic impulses of the torturers.

The Miami Herald naturally reported that the radio interview exchange implied that Cheney had approved of waterboarding.

Vice President Dick Cheney has confirmed that U.S. interrogators subjected captured senior al-Qaida suspects to a controversial interrogation technique called "water-boarding," which creates a sensation of drowning.

Cheney indicated that the Bush administration doesn't regard water-boarding as torture and allows the CIA to use it. "It's a no-brainer for me," Cheney said at one point in an interview.

Cheney's comments, in a White House interview on Tuesday with a conservative radio talk show host, appeared to reflect the Bush administration's view that the president has the constitutional power to do whatever he deems necessary to fight terrorism.

The U.S. Army, senior Republican lawmakers, human rights experts and many experts on the laws of war, however, consider water-boarding cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that's banned by U.S. law and by international treaties that prohibit torture.

When Cheney was naturally denounced for approving torture, his spokesperson tried, as usual, to issue a non-denial denial, saying that what Cheney understood by "dunking" was not waterboarding. But she also refused to say what he had understood by the term.

Lee Ann McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, denied that Cheney confirmed that U.S. interrogators used water-boarding or endorsed the technique.

"What the vice president was referring to was an interrogation program without torture," she said. "The vice president never goes into what may or may not be techniques or methods of questioning."

This strains credulity. Waterboarding has been the torture technique that has received the widest publicity. To imply that the Cheney and the talk show host and the caller all understood 'dunking' to mean anything other than that is preposterous. The very fact that Cheney did not ask for a clarification of what 'dunking' meant means that he understood what they were talking about.

That the US government has authorized and condoned torture is now undeniable, with more and more reports coming out confirming this. The German media has reported that "German agents saw US interrogators beat a 70-year-old terror suspect with a rifle butt, requiring the man to receive 20 stitches, and that they viewed documents that were smeared with blood," all of this occurring in secret US prisons in Europe just two weeks after September 11, 2001.

Only the most willfully blind can deny that torture is being carried out in a systematic manner that has been approved at the highest levels of the US government. What the Cheney interview illustrates is that there is a wink-wink attitude towards it, with the administration coyly refusing to give details about what it does and trivializing whatever is known.

It is disgraceful that we have descended to this. What we have is a paranoid administration that puts even the Nixon White House to shame. They seem willing to do anything and say anything that will serve their purpose. They do not seem to care what the laws or the US constitution or international treaties or conventions or just plain basic human decency say about anything.

I have a simple rule about torture or indeed of any action taken by law enforcement authorities: I do not approve of any action that I would oppose if it were done to me or to a loved one. A question that I would ask Cheney (or any other person who condones these methods) is whether he or she would approve of these methods that he finds 'no-brainers' being applied to his own spouse or children or siblings or friends or parents.

The passage of the Military Commissions Act by the US government is a good example of the kind of danger that James Madison warned us about:

I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.

The Military Commissions Act should be repealed. But given that the Democratic Party is also fundamentally pro-war, I am not hopeful that the new Congress will do so.

POST SCRIPT: Science-religion debate

The cover story of the November 13, 2006 issue of Time magazine is a debate on the topic "God vs. Science," featuring Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Both are prominent biologists. The former is an atheist while the latter is a practicing Christian. You can read it here.

November 20, 2006

Torture is not fun and games

You occasionally find people trying to downplay torture by arguing that what goes on in such situation is little different from the kind of hi-jinks that fraternities sometimes indulge in as part of their initiation ceremonies. For all I know, this could well be a slander on most fraternities. But even if it were not, and fraternities did act this way, this would be an argument against such fraternity initiation ceremonies and not an argument for torture. I do not believe that an argument can ever be made for the deliberate humiliation of one human being by another.

In Sri Lankan universities, hazing of incoming first year students has long been a serious problem, sometimes going so far as to cause deaths, either by "accidents" such as alcohol poisoning due to new students being forced to drink excessively, or suicides when they could not take the degradation anymore.

As a student and later as a faculty member, I personally hated the practice of hazing and would speak out against it, with the result that a pro-hazing leader once threatened to assault me. Those in favor of it said that it formed bonds of camaraderie. I found this to be a specious argument since it is unlikely that a good friendship can be built on an initial humiliating experience for one person at the hands of another. I have always suspected that hazing was a means for emotionally insecure people to find an outlet for their sadistic impulses, and that the people who enjoyed being hazed and subsequently became friends with those who hazed them had to have at least a streak of power-worshiping masochism.

But what people who argue that "torture is just fraternity-style hi-jinks" miss is that it is not the act itself that is often the problem. It is the context in which it carried out. There is a big difference between the experience of a fraternity pledge who has chosen to join a group with which he or she has some affinity and knows that they want him or her and that hazing is part of the initiation rites, and that of a prisoner in a strange country among people who he fears hate him and would like to see him dead.

In a previous post, I described the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani. There are some (and these will likely be men) who will think that what happened was not so bad and that it may even be fun. But they will be thinking this from the safety of knowing that nothing more will happen beyond what was described. The point of torture is that you don't know what will happen next or for how long it will continue or whether you will end up dead. This uncertainty is what makes torture so psychologically damaging.

Soon-to-be-former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved of the harsh interrogation methods used at Guantanamo and even thought that some of the limits were too lenient. For example, he said that he did not see why there had to be a four-hour limit on forcing a prisoner to stand when he said that he himself would stand for eight hours a day, But there is a big difference. He chooses when to stand and for how long. He can sit any time he wants to. For someone forced to stand at the whim of others, even an hour can be an excruciating experience because you do not know when it will end or what else will happen.

As a result of the torture practices, it is possible that Rumsfeld will face charges of committing war crimes in a suit to be filed in Germany, along with other luminaries such as current Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and former CIA director George Tenet.

[T]he other defendants in the case are Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone; former assistant attorney general Jay Bybee; former deputy assisant attorney general John Yoo; General Counsel for the Department of Defense William James Haynes II; and David S. Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Senior military officers named in the filing are General Ricardo Sanchez, the former top Army official in Iraq; Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of Guantanamo; senior Iraq commander, Major General Walter Wojdakowski; and Col. Thomas Pappas, the one-time head of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) says:

"The former secretary actually authorized a series of interrogation techniques," said Michael Ratner, President of CCR, "They included the use of dogs, stripping, hooding, stressed positions, chaining to the floor, sexual humiliation and those types of activities."

Those techniques, he says, amount to torture and violate the Geneva Conventions. Ratner will be traveling to Berlin next week and plans to file the suit on Tuesday.

A November 15, 2006 New York Times report by David Johnston reveals that the controversial secret overseas prisons and the "interrogation" methods used were directly approved of by Bush himself, so the culpability goes right to the top.

When I was a faculty member in the university in Sri Lanka, I once came across a group of senior students hazing a first year student at the beginning of the academic year. They had forced him to put on a pair of shoes on his hands and run around on all fours like a dog. Since I was opposed to hazing on principle (and it was against university policy anyway), I stopped it and took the student to my office to get him away from the others. Although what he had experienced would be considered very mild by anyone reading the above description, the student was shaking with fear and crying. I think the fact that he was at the mercy of other people who seemingly had the power to humiliate him and make do anything they wished to him was what was terrifying, more than any single thing that they made him do.

Torture is barbaric. There is no other word for it. It should not be tolerated under any guise.

POST SCRIPT: It’s here

Jon Stewart notes the kickoff to the "War on Christmas" and bemoans the direction that this war has taken.

November 13, 2006

The fallacy of torture's effectiveness-3

(See part 1 and part 2.)

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.

November 10, 2006

The fallacy of torture's effectiveness-2

(See part 1 here.)

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 and points out that there is little evidence that useful information is gleaned from torturing this or that individual.

This scenario still rests on the critical, utterly unexamined assumption that torture can get useful intelligence quickly from this or any hardened terrorist.

Advocates of the ticking bomb often cite the brutal torture of Abdul Hakim Murad in Manila in 1995, which they say stopped a plot to blow up a dozen trans-Pacific aircraft and kill 4,000 innocent passengers. Except, of course, for the simple fact that Murad’s torture did nothing of the sort. As The Washington Post has reported, Manila police got all their important information from Murad in the first few minutes when they seized his laptop with the entire bomb plot. All the supposed details gained from the sixty-seven days of incessant beatings, spiced by techniques like cigarettes to the genitals, were, as one Filipino officer testified in a New York court, fabrications fed to Murad by Philippine police.

McCoy says that "After fifty years of fighting enemies, communist and terrorist, with torture, we now have sufficient evidence to conclude that torture of the few yields little useful information. As the ancient Roman jurist Ulpian noted 1,800 years ago, when tortured the strong will resist and the weak will say anything to end the pain."

He cites, as an example of the damage caused by the weak saying anything that they think the captors want to hear, the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a senior Al Qaeda leader, who under torture

told his captors that Iraq trained Al Qaeda in chemical and biological weapons. This raises the possibility that he, like Murad, had been tortured into giving fabricated intelligence. Colin Powell relied on this false information in his now-disavowed speech to the United Nations before the Iraq War."

As Yale legal historian John Langbein puts it, “History’s most important lesson is that it has not been possible to make coercion compatible with truth.”

Proponents of torture present a false choice between tortured intelligence and no intelligence at all. There is, in fact, a well-established American alternative to torture that we might call empathetic interrogation. U.S. Marines first used this technique during World War II to extract accurate intelligence from fanatical Japanese captives on Saipan and Tinian within forty-eight hours of landing, and the FBI has practiced it with great success in the decades since. After the East Africa bombings of U.S. embassies, the bureau employed this method to gain some of our best intelligence on Al Qaeda and win U.S. court convictions of all of the accused.

One of the bureau agents who worked on that case, Dan Coleman, has since been appalled by the CIA’s coercive methods after 9/11. “Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to anyone who’s been deprived of his clothes?” Coleman asked. “He’s going to be ashamed and humiliated and cold. He’ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There’s no value in it.” By contrast, FBI reliance on due process and empathy proved effective in terror cases by building rapport with detainees.

Bush’s example of Zubaydah actually supports Coleman’s point. FBI agents say they were getting more out of him before the CIA came in with gloves off.

McCoy argues that allowing for torture even in very limited cases almost guarantees that the practice will expand and grow.

Once we agree to torture the one terrorist with his hypothetical ticking bomb, then we admit a possibility, even an imperative, for torturing hundreds who might have ticking bombs or thousands who just might have some knowledge about those bombs. “You can’t know whether a person knows where the bomb is,” explains Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole, “or even if they’re telling the truth. Because of this, you end up going down a slippery slope and sanctioning torture in general.”

It is not that torture never works but the history of torture suggests that in order to get a few bits of useful information, you have to throw a wide net for torture victims. McCoy points out a few cases in Vietnam and Algeria where mass torturing has worked. "Major success from limited, surgical torture is a fable, a fiction. But mass torture of thousands of suspects, some guilty, most innocent, can produce some useful intelligence."

But indiscriminate and widespread torturing of people many of whom are bound to be innocent is presumably not where any civilized society wants to go, though given current trends, it would not surprise me if people were willing to countenance even that. All it would seem to require to gain approval from the US public and policymakers is for the scriptwriters of 24 Hours to have in the next season a storyline where Jack Bauer goes on a mass torturing rampage and despite leaving a long trail of broken human beings, succeeds in foiling some diabolical plot.

November 09, 2006

The fallacy of torture's effectiveness

I have written before that the passage and signing of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA) means that the US, as a nation, has decided that it has accepted the idea that the government can arrest and detain and torture people indefinitely without giving them access to family, lawyers, or courts. Thus, in one stroke, the US has abruptly removed individual freedoms and protections that took years of hard struggle to attain.

It always amazes me that those who support these moves invoke fiction as a basis for their reasoning, often mentioning the TV show 24 hours. Although I have not watched that program, from the way it is invoked it appears that it regularly involves the hero Jack Bauer having to confront a 'ticking time bomb' scenario where he, in order to avert a major disaster, has to get crucial information from an individual who won't talk. Bauer then tortures the person, the person reveals the information, and thus the day is saved. (Those who watch the show please correct me if my inferred impression is wrong.)

On a recent Real Time with Bill Maher program, Maher pointed out that with the passage of the MCA, the US government has now become identical with those reviled South American juntas where people just 'disappeared' and were never heard from again. Wall Street Journal editor Stephen Moore immediately sprang to the administration's defense saying that he sees nothing wrong with shooting someone in the leg to get information, invoking Bauer again for support. He argues that what he calls 'Jack Bauer justice' is what the American people want. The fact that this may be true (as evidenced by the passage of the MCA) is not a cause for rejoicing.

Hillary Clinton had earlier opposed the MCA saying it "undermines the Geneva Conventions by allowing the president to issue executive orders to redefine what are permissible interrogation techniques. Have we fallen so low as to debate how much torture we are willing to stomach?" But now, clearly feeling that she needs to be as barbarous as the current administration in order to have a chance of occupying the White House in the future, she is quoted as telling the New York Daily News "that the president should have "some lawful authority" to use torture or other "severe" interrogation methods in a so-called ticking-bomb scenario." She has, in fact, fallen to that low level that she despised just a short while ago.

This ticking time bomb scenario is a favorite of those who seem to take actual pleasure in inflicting pain on others, such as Charles Krauthammer. The reason that such people invoke such fictitious scenarios is that they have little else going for them. Careful analysis of actual situations shows that torture is not only immoral, but it also does not work, and requires for its success on the simultaneous existence of multiple factors, each of which is unlikely by itself.

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.

He writes that this myth originated with the academic speculations of philosopher Michael Walzer and went largely unnoticed until resurrected recently by another torture advocate Alan Dershowitz.

McCoy points out that:

In the real world, the probability that a terrorist might be captured after concealing a ticking nuclear bomb in Times Square and that his captors would somehow recognize his significance is phenomenally slender. The scenario assumes a highly improbable array of variables that runs something like this:
- First, FBI or CIA agents apprehend a terrorist at the precise moment between timer’s first tick and bomb’s burst.
- Second, the interrogators somehow have sufficiently detailed foreknowledge of the plot to know they must interrogate this very person and do it right now.
- Third, these same officers, for some unexplained reason, are missing just a few critical details that only this captive can divulge.
- Fourth, the biggest leap of all, these officers with just one shot to get the information that only this captive can divulge are best advised to try torture, as if beating him is the way to assure his wholehearted cooperation.

But this combination of factors is highly unlikely to occur. It is only after an event has occurred that people look back and see clearly the chain of events that led up to it and are able to unerringly "connect the dots", to use a currently popular cliche. He points out that Zacarias Moussaoui was in captivity for weeks before 9/11 being desultorily questioned without any useful information being obtained, because the "FBI did not have precise foreknowledge of Al Qaida's plot or his precise role."

“After the event,” Roberta Wohlstetter wrote in her classic study of that other great U.S. intelligence failure, Pearl Harbor, “a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has occurred. But before the event, it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings.”

But suppose that this highly unlikely sequence of events does happen. In such cases does torture yield useful information? This will be examined in the next posting in this series.

POST SCRIPT: Meanwhile, in other elections. . .

In a less-watched election, those Ohio candidates favoring the teaching of evolution and opposed to introducing intelligent design ideas into the science curriculum won seats in the State Board of Education elections. This continues the losing slide, both legal and electoral, for intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates that began with the reversal in Dover, PA.

The losses for the IDC side follow similar defeats in the Kansas primaries. The Ohio pro-evolution candidates were supported by the group HOPE which stands for "Help Ohio Public Education, a group of scientists angered by the board's flirtation with intelligent design, which courts have barred from science class."

In the race that drew national attention, Tom Sawyer, a former Akron mayor and 16-year congressman, was beating incumbent Deborah Owens Fink nearly 2-1 for a board seat that covers Summit, Ashtabula, Portage and Trumbull counties.
. . .
Three other HOPE-backed candidates appeared headed for victory Tuesday: former state legislator John Bender of Avon and retired school teacher Deborah Cain of Canton were clinging to narrow leads, and incumbent Sam Schloemer of Cincinnati was winning handily.

But the group's biggest target was Owens Fink, a University of Akron marketing professor. She was one of the most articulate proponents of a model lesson for 10th-grade biology teachers that called for a "critical analysis" of Charles Darwin's widely held theory that life on Earth descended from common ancestors.

Fink apparently got less than 30% of the vote, which has to be considered a pretty devastating loss for an incumbent.

March 10, 2006

The case against torture-3

One practical problem with using torture to extract information is that the people who ardently advocate it, including "the vice-president for torture" don't seem to realize that the kinds of scenarios they propose work only in fiction. It seems like they use TV programs like 24 hours as the basis for their claims for the validity of torture as a mechanism for extracting valuable information in a timely manner.

One is the so-called "ticking time bomb" scenario, in which a captured terrorist has information on an imminent attack that could kill hundreds or thousands of civilians.

Two administration officials, who asked not to be identified because they aren't authorized to speak to the press, said Cheney had described such a scenario several times, in which interrogators using generally approved methods can't pry the particulars out of the prisoner in time to prevent an attack.

Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz has argued that in such cases, torture should be used as a last resort, openly, with approval by the president or a Supreme Court justice.

But intelligence officers and other U.S. officials said the scenario was more likely to be found in James Bond films than in the real war on terrorism.

As Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch says:

"Israel tried that. Under the guise of just looking at the narrow exception of where the ticking-bomb is there and you could save the poor schoolchildren whose bus was about to be exploded some place. They ended up torturing on the theory that -- well, it may not be the terrorist, but it's somebody who knows the terrorist or it's somebody who might have information leading to the terrorist.

They ended up torturing say 90 percent of the Palestinian security detainees they had until finally the Israeli supreme court had to say this kind of rare exception isn't working. It's an exception that's destroying the rule."

But it is Michael Kinsley writing in Slate magazine who really destroys the case for torture, arguing that there is no bottom to the pit of abominations where this kind of thinking can lead.

What if you knew for sure that the cute little baby burbling and smiling at you from his stroller in the park was going to grow up to be another Hitler, responsible for a global cataclysm and millions of deaths? Would you be justified in picking up a rock and bashing his adorable head in? Wouldn't you be morally depraved if you didn't?

Or what if a mad scientist developed a poison so strong that two drops in the water supply would kill everyone in Chicago? And you could destroy the poison, but only by killing the scientist and 10 innocent family members? Should you do it?

Or what if an international terrorist planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, set to go off in an hour and kill a million people. You've got him in custody, but he won't say where the bomb is. Is it moral to torture him until he gives up the information?
. . .
In law school, they call this second point, "salami-slicing." You start with a seemingly solid principle, then start slicing: If you would torture to save a million lives, would you do it for half a million? A thousand? Two dozen? What if there's only a two-out-of-three chance that person you're torturing has the crucial information? A 50-50 chance? One chance in 10? At what point does your moral calculus change, and why?
. . .
There is yet another law-school bromide: "Hard cases make bad law." It means that divining a general policy from statistical oddballs is a mistake. Better to have a policy that works generally and just live with a troublesome result in the oddball case. And we do this in many situations. For example, criminals go free every day because of trial rules and civil liberties designed to protect the innocent. We live with it.

Of course a million deaths is hard to shrug off as a price worth paying for the principle that we don't torture people. But college dorm what-ifs like this one share a flaw: They posit certainty (about what you know and what will happen if you do this or that). And uncertainty is not only much more common in real life: It is the generally unspoken assumption behind civil liberties, rules of criminal procedure, and much else that conservatives find sentimental and irritating.

Sure, if we could know the present and predict the future with certainty, we could torture only people who deserve it. Not just that: We could go door-to-door killing people before they kill others. We could lock up innocent people who would otherwise be involved in fatal traffic accidents.

I never deal with extreme hypotheticals, situations so far removed from one's usual experience that it is futile to predict how one would act and feel is one happened to actually find oneself in that situation. Also, it is easy to tweak the hypothetical in order to get whatever result one seeks.

For example, people who construct extreme hypotheticals to justify torture always assume that it is done to a stranger. But what if it is done to someone close to you? Suppose the authorities happen to suspect that your own child or brother or sister or father or mother or spouse or close friend happens to have important information. Would you willingly hand them over to the torturers and listen to their screams of agony knowing that it is for a 'good cause'? I personally would never, under any circumstances, agree to the torturing of someone close to me and if it is not justified against those whom I love, where is the morality in allowing it to be done to strangers?

We now have reports of children as young as ten being raped and tortured in US custody in order to get others to talk.

An Iraqi TV reporter Suhaib Badr-Addin al-Baz saw the Abu Ghraib children’s wing when he was arrested by Americans while making a documentary. He spent 74 days in Abu Ghraib.

"I saw a camp for children there," he said. "Boys, under the age of puberty. There were certainly hundreds of children in this camp." Al-Baz said he heard a 12-year-old girl crying. Her brother was also held in the jail. One night guards came into her cell. "She was beaten," said al-Baz. "I heard her call out, 'They have undressed me. They have poured water over me.'"

He says he heard her cries and whimpering daily - this, in turn, caused other prisoners to cry as they listened to her. Al-Baz also told of an ill 15-year-old boy who was soaked repeatedly with hoses until he collapsed. Guards then brought in the child’s father with a hood over his head. The boy collapsed again.

Soon after veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker magazine broke the original Abu Ghraib torture story, he gave a talk where he said that even worse things had happened and hinted darkly of the existence of videos of the rape of children and their screams that would horrify people. But those videos never emerged, although we know that that the US authorities have been working feverishly to bottle up the information coming out of these prisons. The recent release in Australia by newspapers and their TV program Dateline of more graphic photos of Abu Ghraib abuses may be part of this suppressed information, though we cannot be sure.

In a recent report we learn:

The ACLU, on behalf of several human rights groups, has been trying to obtain additional evidence of misconduct in US-run prisons worldwide. In September 2005, a federal district judge ordered the government to turn over all evidence of abuse to the group, including photographs and videos, but so far, Washington has stalled the ruling with an appeal.

In a press release yesterday, the ACLU said it does not know whether the images released by Dateline are among those sought in its court battle.

This is where we end up when we allow torture under any circumstances. It is interesting that most of the reports I have read come from the overseas media or from the reports of private watchdog groups like the ACLU or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. It is as if the allegations are too sensitive for the mainstream US media to publicize. This silence enables people like Krauthammer and Dershowitz to wallow in their delusions that torture is something that can be done in very rare situations under clinical conditions by humane people, where we know for sure who is guilty, and are certain that they have exactly the information we seek.

Frank Anderson, a former chief of the CIA's Near East and South Asia division in the agency's Operations Directorate, the clandestine service, also worried about what the brutality does to those who carry it out. Anderson said "I will rebel against anyone who wants my son to torture, because it won't ever heal."

The reality is that once you open the gates for torture, it becomes ever more routine and ghastly, implemented by people who become more and more vicious and cruel as their efforts fail to produce results and the norms of civilized behavior become compromised, brutalizing those who are tortured as well as those who do the torturing.

There is no "right" way to torture. It is barbarism pure and simple. It must be banned.

March 09, 2006

The case against torture-2

Part of the reason that torture and other brutalities have not been greeted with the outrage that they deserve has been the response of some intellectuals who have helped make the case that torture is not so bad. In fact, they argue that it might even be a good thing in selected cases.

Take Charles Krauthammer. He writes: "A terrorist is by profession, indeed by definition, an unlawful combatant: He lives outside the laws of war because he does not wear a uniform, he hides among civilians, and he deliberately targets innocents. He is entitled to no protections whatsoever."

He goes on " Breaking the laws of war and abusing civilians are what, to understate the matter vastly, terrorists do for a living. They are entitled, therefore, to nothing. Anyone who blows up a car bomb in a market deserves to spend the rest of his life roasting on a spit over an open fire."

Interestingly, he seems to want to have it both ways. After writing with unnecessarily graphic imagery ("roasting on a spit over an open fire"?) that seems to betoken an almost wistful longing, he then tries to redeem his sense of his own humanity. "But we don't do that because we do not descend to the level of our enemy. We don't do that because, unlike him, we are civilized. Even though terrorists are entitled to no humane treatment, we give it to them because it is in our nature as a moral and humane people."

Actually, to say that another living thing is "entitled to no humane treatment" has already, in my opinion, put him outside the realm of civilized human beings.

But then he gets to the point which all advocates of torture eventually get to, which is the "ticking time bomb" hypothetical scenario.

A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Krauthammer then goes to the position already occupied by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, that torture is going to be necessary and will happen anyway, so we might as well regulate it by legislation requiring warrants, making rules, etc. so that we have controlled torture. What he and Dershowitz want, essentially, is to make complicit in their torture activities a whole phalanx of doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, soldiers, and assorted bureaucrats, because this is what will happen when you try to set up a "regulated" torture program and lay out all the rules under which it will operate.

Or take the case of Eugene Volokh. In March 2005, the Iranian government publicly executed a serial killer in a slow and brutal manner by first flogging him 100 times and then hanging him from a crane, all before a large crowd, and even allowed a relative of one of the victims to stab him during the execution and the mother of another victim to put the noose around his neck. By almost any measure, it was a savage display.

But Eugene Volokh approved of it, writing:

I particularly like the involvement of the victims' relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he'd killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing - and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act - was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging. The one thing that troubles me (besides the fact that the murderer could only be killed once) is that the accomplice was sentenced to only 15 years in prison, but perhaps there's a good explanation.

I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.

Who is this Eugene Volokh who, like Krauthammer, writes with such relish about seeing people die in excruciating agony? He is a professor of constitutional law at UCLA and one of the principal authors of a popular law blog called The Volokh Conspiracy. The fact that someone who has presumably thought deeply about the law and constitutional issues can pen such words is a sign that the so-called war on terror has undermined all the values that we should hold dear.

Volokh received a lot of criticism for his posting and started to backtrack, but on practical rather than moral grounds. Initially, he said that such types of punishments would violate the US constitution. But his solution to that problem was to recommend changes in the constitution removing that barrier.

UPDATE: I should mention that such a punishment would probably violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. I'm not an expert on the history of the clause, but my point is that the punishment is proper because it's cruel (i.e., because it involves the deliberate infliction of pain as part of the punishment), so it may well be unconstitutional. I would therefore endorse amending the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause to expressly exclude punishment for some sorts of mass murders.

Naturally, I don't expect this to happen any time soon; my point is about what should be the rule, not about what is the rule, or even what is the constitutionally permissible rule. I think the Bill of Rights is generally a great idea, but I don't think it's holy writ handed down from on high. Certain amendments to it may well be proper, though again I freely acknowledge that they'd be highly unlikely.

In any event, there's nothing unconstitutional about letting victims' relatives participate in the execution; it's only the use of cruel means that would require an amendment.

He then backtracked some more, but again because of practical questions, because even if the amendment to the constitution he advocated were adopted, the actual implementation difficulties would be huge:

What I found most persuasive about Mark's argument was his points about institutions: about how hard it would be for a jury system to operate when this punishment was available, and how its availability would affect gubernatorial elections, legislative elections, and who knows what else. Even if enough people vote to authorize these punishments constitutionally and legislatively (which I've conceded all along is highly unlikely), there would be such broad, deep, and fervent opposition to them - much broader, deeper, and more fervent than the opposition to the death penalty - that attempts to impose the punishments would logjam the criminal justice system and the political system.

And this would be true even when the punishments are sought only for the most heinous of murderers. It's not just that you couldn't find 12 people to convict; it's that the process of trying to find these people, and then execute the judgment they render, will impose huge costs on the legal system (for a few examples, see Mark's post). Whatever one's abstract judgments about the proper severity of punishments, this is a punishment that will not fit with our legal and political culture.

So Krauthammer, Dershowitz, and Volokh all approve of such cruelty in principle but are only concerned, if at all, about the practical problems of implementation. If such influential opinion shapers have these views, is it any surprise that there is so little outrage at the things that are currently being done by the US?

Apart from the actual torturing of prisoners at military prisons like Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Bagram base in Afghanistan, and Guantanamo in Cuba, the website Jesus' General listed the way that the US military is taking hostages in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are kidnapping and holding the wives and children of people hostage, either to force fugitives to give themselves up, or if they are already in custody, to make them talk. We have sunk to the level of those people who kidnapped journalist Jill Carroll and the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq and are holding them hostage, using them as bargaining chips.

People like Krauthammer always finely tune their arguments for self-serving purposes. For example, he says that for the ordinary soldier caught on the field of battle "There is no question that he is entitled to humane treatment. Indeed, we have no right to disturb a hair on his head." Clearly he carefully situating himself so that his approval of torture is not used for the torturing of captured US soldiers, with blame falling on him. But this kind of careful legal tap-dancing is worthless because it assumes that everyone will agree to operate according to rules set by one side.

But the point is that once you allow the torturing of anyone under any circumstances, all bets are off. People who capture US soldiers will be unimpressed by Krauthammer's delicate distinctions. They will argue that just because the US soldiers have nice uniforms and know how to march in formation does not mean that they should receive better treatment than the irregulars who fight guerilla wars. Allowing torture is like a kick in boxing. Once you allow that, you are in a different kind of fight and the Marquis of Queensbury rules don't apply anymore. Now anything goes.

This kind of escalation is similar what happened with the Muslim cartoons that caused offense. (See here for my earlier posts on this topic.) When an Iranian paper said that they were, in response, seeking Jewish holocaust cartoons to test the depth of the commitment of western newspapers to the freedom of the press argument that they used for publishing the cartoons, some people said that this was going over the line of acceptability, that they should have stopped with cartoons involving Jesus or something. But with such issues, the unresolved point always is "Who gets to draw the line?"

While there is a (admittedly small) chance that we can all agree that torture should be unconditionally outlawed, once we allow exceptions there is almost no chance that we will all agree on what those exceptions should be. This is because the act of torture is so extreme, and the varieties of ways in which it can be practiced so numerous, that the people at the receiving end will not accept restrictions on how they can respond.

It is absurd to think that people are going to agree to have international monitors to see if torturers are following some set of rules.

To be continued…

POST SCRIPT: Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks (photojournalist, cinematographer, movie director, novelist, poet, music and ballet composer) died earlier this week at the age of 93. In an earlier posting I had quoted him on his 88th birthday in 2000 saying:

I think most people can do a whole awful lot more if they just try. They just don’t have the confidence that they can write a novel or they can write poetry or they can take pictures or paint or whatever, and so they don’t do it, and they leave the planet dissatisfied with themselves.

I used to tell the first year students in my physics classes this quote to encourage them to think big and to explore the many facets of their own interests and personalities and not to be intimidated from trying something just because they felt they were not good enough.

After all, Parks tried and did many things even though he was a black man growing up at a time when many doors were not open to him because of his skin color. As he said in his autobiography "Nothing came easy. . .I was just born with a need to explore every tool shop of my mind, and with long searching and hard work. I became devoted to my restlessness."

March 08, 2006

The case against torture

It seems bizarre that we have reached a stage where we actually have to make a case against the use of torture. One would have thought that it would be self-evident that torturing people is wrong and should not be condoned. But sadly, that is not the situation anymore. We are now in a place where the formerly unthinkable is now not only thought but also done and actively encouraged.

Clearly, Vice-President Cheney has emerged as someone who has no scruples in this regard.

A top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell has launched a stinging attack on US Vice-President Dick Cheney over abuse of prisoners by US troops.

Col Lawrence Wilkerson accused Mr Cheney of ignoring a decision by President Bush on the treatment of prisoners in the war on terror.

Asked by the BBC's Today if Mr Cheney could be accused of war crimes, he said: "It's an interesting question."

"Certainly it is a domestic crime to advocate terror," he added.

"And I would suspect, for whatever it's worth, it's an international crime as well."

Even former CIA Director Stansfield Turner refers to Cheney as the "vice president for torture."

The former spymaster claims President Bush is not telling the truth when he says that torture is not a method used by the US.

Speaking of Bush's claims that the US does not use torture, Admiral Turner, who ran the CIA from 1977 to 1981, said: "I do not believe him".

On Dick Cheney he said "I'm embarrassed the United States has a vice president for torture.

"He condones torture, what else is he?"

The relentless fear-mongering generated by the so-called "war on terror" has produced a siege mentality where people are willing to trade humane values for a spurious sense of security. And what is worse, it seems as if people do not even want to know the truth. Reports that document outrages against civilized behavior are either unreported, under-reported, or can be seen only in the foreign press.

Project Censored documents that the ACLU and other organizations have unearthed military autopsy reports that "provide indisputable proof that detainees are being tortured to death while in US military custody. Yet the US corporate media are covering it with the seriousness of a garage sale for the local Baptist Church."

The details of each military autopsy report of the deaths of prisoners in US custody can be seen here. They are sickening. Here is a sample:

Final Autopsy Report: DOD 003164, (Detainee) Died as a result of asphyxia (lack of oxygen to the brain) due to strangulation as evidenced by the recently fractured hyoid bone in the neck and soft tissue hemorrhage extending downward to the level of the right thyroid cartilage. Autopsy revealed bone fracture, rib fractures, contusions in mid abdomen, back and buttocks extending to the left flank, abrasions, lateral buttocks. Contusions, back of legs and knees; abrasions on knees, left fingers and encircling to left wrist. Lacerations and superficial cuts, right 4th and 5th fingers. Also, blunt force injuries, predominately recent contusions (bruises) on the torso and lower extremities. Abrasions on left wrist are consistent with use of restraints. No evidence of defense injuries or natural disease. Manner of death is homicide. Whitehorse Detainment Facility, Nasiriyah, Iraq."

The Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff points out how the posturing of people like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham (who try to speak as if they oppose torture) actually provide cover for the Bush administration to strip the people being held in its custody of their basic rights and remove all oversight of the treatment of prisoners, in effect allowing the military authorities to do all the things that are symptomatic of brutal dictatorships, acts that are routinely condemned when done by countries that are not allies the US.

How has it come to this? How can it be that in the 21st century, centuries after the age of enlightenment, we are consciously allowing, if not actively encouraging, governments to commit acts that can only be described as barbaric? Is there anything at all that would arouse public anger? Or is it only a matter of time before we reach the stage where we place the decapitated heads of so-called "enemy combatants" on spikes in public spaces as a warning, as was the practice of kings and queens in England against their perceived enemies?

To be continued...

POST SCRIPT: Ali and Frazier

Just after writing about the bad way that Ali treated Frazier, I read that today is the thirty-fifth anniversary of their "Fight of the Century" where Frazier won on points. It provides information about how Ali turned on Frazier despite Frazier helping him during his time of exile from boxing because of his political and religious convictions.

It was Frazier who helped support Ali - the self-proclaimed "People's Champion" - during his three-year-plus year exile from boxing, loaning the former champ money and speaking to athletic commissions about reinstating Ali's boxing license. It was also Frazier who felt betrayed by Ali for the biting "Uncle Tom" and "White Man's champion" barbs leading into the fight.

I agree with the comments after yesterday's post that Ali was the victim of a lot of prejudice and hate for his speaking out, and nothing can take away from his courage and principled stands, and his willingness to sacrifice his career at its peak. But I do think that his treatment of Frazier is something that he should regret.