Just Don’t Call It Torture

And we know for a fact that information wrung from 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others has helped prevent further attacks on U.S. soil.

The quote above is from an editorial in Opinion Journal defending torture. Like most rightie “facts,” this fact was born from faith rather than from evidence. Let’s look at what we actually do know.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured in March 2003. It is alleged that KSM is being held in a “ghost” prison, possibly in Jordan, so that CIA interrogators can use “interrogation methods that are banned by US law.”

Sounds like he might have been tortured, yes. On the other hand, our President says we do not torture. Is the Opinion Journal editorial writer assuming that Bush lies? (Snort)

So, we don’t know for a fact that KSM was tortured, but for argument’s sake let’s assume he was. Did torturing KSM really provide information that “helped prevent further attacks on U.S. soil?” According to the White House’s own reckoning, one terrorist plot has been foiled on U.S. soil since KSM was captured, which was “to attack targets on the East Coast of the United States using hijacked commercial airplanes.” We have no way to know if “interrogating” KSM provided any information about that one plot. And we have no way to know if that one plot really was a plot and not a figment of John Ashcroft’s overheated imagination.

To give credit where credit is due, according to this Washington Post article KSM was behind a thwarted attempt to bomb London’s Heathrow Airport in mid-2003. And below the White House list of ten “plots” is a list of five “casings and infiltrations,” one of which (#2, collecting information on U.S. gas stations) involved KSM, according to WaPo. But we have no way to know from information made public so far how these “plots” or “casings” were uncovered, and we have to take on faith these were serious plots (or “casings,” as the case may be).

But the White House’s claims of attacks prevented on U.S. soil are a tad sketchy, and even if we assume these were all real plots that really were prevented, we don’t know for a fact where the intelligence came from that helped stop them. It could just as easily have come from standard law-enforcement type practices (e.g., wiretaps etc.) as from “interrogations.”

So, we don’t “know for a fact that information wrung from 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others has helped prevent further attacks on U.S. soil.” It’s possible, certainly, but it’s not something we “know for a fact.” Either the Opinion Journal editorial writer has access to classified information, or he is pulling his “facts” out of his butt.

Now that we’ve gotten that bit of “fact” checking out of the way, let’s go back and put the sentence at the top of this post in context:

If Osama bin Laden is alive and looking for signs of flagging U.S. will to fight the war on terror, he need look no further than our national debate about interrogating his compatriots and others who would do us harm.

Post-9/11, after all, it is hardly far-fetched to imagine a scenario in which our ability to extract information from a terrorist is the only thing that might prevent a bioterror attack or even the nuclear annihilation of an American city. And we know for a fact that information wrung from 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others has helped prevent further attacks on U.S. soil.

The editorial writer has stitched together two unrelated premises. The first premise is that we have to be hard and let the world know that we’re willing to torture people to send a message to Osama bin Laden that we’re serious about fighting terrorism. But this premise ignores the message being received by the rest of the Muslim world. Last week Fareed Zakaria wrote,

Ask any American soldier in Iraq when the general population really turned against the United States and he will say, “Abu Ghraib.”

As President Bush’s approval ratings sink at home, the glee across the globe rises. He remains the most unpopular political figure in the world, and newspapers from Europe to Asia are delighting in his troubles. Last week’s protests in Mar del Plata were happily replayed on televisions everywhere. So what is the leader of the free world to do? It’s simple: end the administration’s disastrous experiment with officially sanctioned torture. …

…A few months before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Coalition Provisional Authority polls showed Iraqi support for the occupation at 63 percent. A month after Abu Ghraib, the number was 9 percent. Most telling, 61 percent of Iraqis polled believed that no one would be punished for the torture at Abu Ghraib.

One might conclude that a willingness to torture is sending the wrong message. And surely there are other ways to communicate our seriousness about fighting terrorism. Like, maybe, not letting Osama bin Laden escape because we were busy doing Osama bin Laden’s work for him when we invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein. (See further discussion of this point here.)

The writer’s second premise is that we need to gather intelligence from captured terrorists to stop future terrorist attacks. And I agree. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t agree. The question is, what is the best way to gather that intelligence? The pro-torture camp assumes that torture is necessary to gather intelligence but offer no evidence to support that assumption except for what they pull out of their butts (see above, known facts about intelligence allegedly squeezed out of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and also this earlier Mahablog post for further discussion of this point).

Now the Opinion Journal editorial writer sinks further into intellectual dishonesty:

The McCain Amendment is driven by the so-called torture narrative: the proposition that CIA techniques for questioning high-level al Qaeda detainees somehow “migrated” to Iraq and caused the Abu Ghraib abuses. But the irony is that Congress is proposing this remedial overreaction at the very moment the evidence has become overwhelming that the torture narrative is false.

For a detailed account of how the CIA torture techniques migrated to Iraq, see “The Torture Question,” PBS Frontline, which you can watch online here.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Schlesinger headed one of more than a dozen major inquiries into detainee abuse, and he explained last year that the Abu Ghraib abuses were simply sadistic behavior by poorly trained reservists on the “night shift.” The victims weren’t even intelligence targets. If that evidence wasn’t conclusive enough, we now have the verdicts of the nine courts-martial that punished the Abu Ghraib offenders, none of which found evidence to support the proposition that the abuses had anything to do with interrogations.

Let’s go back to the already linked Fareed Zakaria column:

We now have plenty of documents and testimonials that make plain that the administration created an atmosphere in which the interrogation of prisoners could lapse into torture. After Sept. 11, 2001, high up in the administration – at the White House and the Pentagon – officials and lawyers were asked to find ways to bend and stretch the traditional rules of war. Donald Rumsfeld publicly declared that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the war against al Qaeda. Whether or not these legalisms were correct, their most important effect was the message they sent down the chain of command: “Push the envelope.”

No one at the top was outlining what soldiers should not do, which lines they should not cross, which laws they should remember to adhere to strictly. The Pentagon’s own report after investigating Abu Ghraib, by Gen. George Fay, speaks of “doctrinal confusion … a lack of doctrine … (and) systemic failures” as the causes for the incidents of torture.

And the incidents clearly go well beyond Abu Ghraib. During the past few months, declassified documents and testimony from Army officers make abundantly clear that torture and abuse of prisoners is something that has become quite widespread since 9/11. The most recent evidence comes from autopsies of 44 prisoners who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan in U.S. custody. Most died under circumstances that suggest torture. The reports use words like “strangulation,” “asphyxiation” and “blunt force injuries.” Even the “natural” deaths were caused by “Arteriosclerotic Cardiovascular disease” – in other words, sudden heart attacks.

The purpose of the McCain Amendment is to clarify what U.S. practices are; to set some parameters to be sure these little misunderstandings don’t continue. The editorial writer’s and the Bush Administration’s position seems to be these things don’t happen, and if they do happen it’s an aberration, but don’t you dare stop us from continuing to do them.

The next logical question is, WTF? Jeanne d’Arc of Body and Soul may have the answer: “I’m wondering if the administration’s obvious fear of the McCain amendment has little to do with not being allowed to use certain interrogation methods, and much more to do with that pressure to prosecute, which could lead to some uncomfortable questions being asked.”

Bushies do not like uncomfortable questions, do they? And don’t even get started on prosecute.

Back to the Opinion Journal:

We aren’t saying that there haven’t been abuses–probably hundreds of them–of detainees in the war on terror. But there have also been more than 70,000 detainees. In other words, the rate of prisoner abuse compares favorably with the U.S. civilian detention system, and it is better than the rate in earlier conflicts such as Vietnam and even World War II. Alleged abuses have been routinely investigated, and punished when warranted in courts-martial that have revealed a military willing and able to police its own.

Right now we don’t know what’s going on out there in the secret prisons and to prisoners “rendered” to Egypt or Syria or who knows where. It may be years before all the facts come out. How can one possibly say it’s not as bad as Vietnam (a lame defense if there ever was one) or, for pity’s sake, World War II? Show me the autopsy reports of the 44 German or Japanese prisoners held by America who died from “strangulation,” “asphyxiation” and “blunt force injuries.”

My father’s younger brother was a U.S. Marine embassy guard in Peking on December 7, 1941. The next day he was taken prisoner by Japanese troops, and he remained a POW until August 1945. He came home in a state of severe emaciation and with multiple medical problems that would eventually take his life in 1973. I grew up with the story of Uncle Harry’s ordeal (possibly the subject of a future post), and I believed it was part of a deeply rooted code of honor that America didn’t do those things.

Maybe I was wrong. But the Opinion Journal had better come up with some damn hard evidence before I’ll be persuaded that prisoners held by America during World War II were routinely mistreated, whether for information or for sport.

The Opinion Journal writer goes on to say that the Geneva Conventions only apply to good prisoners; i.e., “They must, for example, have fought in uniform and shown some respect for the laws of war, such as avoiding attacks on civilians.” (By those criteria I’m not sure my uncle would have qualified, since he was assigned to an embassy and was never in combat, although he did wear a uniform.) According to this Wikipedia article, guerrillas qualify for protection under some circumstances, as do some civilians.

But it’s disturbing to me that the editorial writer assumes that when a prisoner falls outside of POW status there’s no good reason not to mistreat him. Notice this from the just-linked Wikipedia article, about POWs in World War II:

POW facilities held by Allied nations like the USA, UK and Canada usually complied strictly to the Geneva Conventions, which sometimes created conditions POWs found were more comfortable than their own side’s barracks. This approach was decided on the idea that having POWs well treated meant a ready supply of healthy and cooperative laborers for farmwork and the like, as allowed by the Geneva Conventions, which eased personnel shortages. There were also the benefits of a lower chance of having to deal with escapes or prisoner disruption. In addition, as word spread among the enemy about the conditions of Allied POW camps, it encouraged surrenders which helped further Allied military goals efficiently. Furthermore, it may have raised morale among the Allied personnel when the usefulness of this approach was accepted by reinforcing the idea that this humane treatment of prisoners showed that their side was morally superior to the enemy.

In other words, humanity can be an advantage.

Get this:

Recognizing guerrillas and terrorists as POWs would be a form of unilateral disarmament, and, worse, would legitimize their behavior. The U.S. was respecting, not skirting, international law when it refused to classify them as such.

“Unilateral disarmament”? So if we don’t treat prisoners with cruelty and malice we are putting ourselves at risk? Do we want to start making sense, Opinion Journal?

Finally this paragraph, which has been commented on in other blogs:

As for “torture,” it is simply perverse to conflate the amputations and electrocutions Saddam once inflicted at Abu Ghraib with the lesser abuses committed by rogue American soldiers there, much less with any authorized U.S. interrogation techniques. No one has yet come up with any evidence that anyone in the U.S. military or government has officially sanctioned anything close to “torture.” The “stress positions” that have been allowed (such as wearing a hood, exposure to heat and cold, and the rarely authorized “waterboarding,” which induces a feeling of suffocation) are all psychological techniques designed to break a detainee.

So we start off with the “Oh, yeah? Well, Saddam was worse” defense, which is not exactly the moral high ground. Regarding an eisode of “waterboarding” documented at Guantanamo, Andrew Sullivan notes that “Medical doctors were on hand to ensure that the victim didn’t die.” “Psychological” techniques, my ass.

Over and over again, we see people with some experience–former CIA and other intelligence agents, or former POWs–say that torture is not a good way to get intelligence, and that particular techniques known to have been used at Guantanamo and elsewhere are nothing less than torture. And righties, most of whom learned all they know of torture from watching movies, defend torture for its value in gathering intelligence. And, by the way, those torture techniques don’t sound that bad, so we don’t think they’re really torture.

Maybe we should test those techniques on the Opinion Journal editorial writer to be sure they are’t torture. But I’ll let Senator McCain have the last word:

To prevail in this war we need more than victories on the battlefield. This is a war of ideas, a struggle to advance freedom in the face of terror in places where oppressive rule has bred the malevolence that creates terrorists. Prisoner abuses exact a terrible toll on us in this war of ideas. They inevitably become public, and when they do they threaten our moral standing, and expose us to false but widely disseminated charges that democracies are no more inherently idealistic and moral than other regimes. This is an existential fight, to be sure. If they could, Islamic extremists who resort to terror would destroy us utterly. But to defeat them we must prevail in our defense of American political values as well. The mistreatment of prisoners greatly injures that effort.

The mistreatment of prisoners harms us more than our enemies. I don’t think I’m naive about how terrible are the wages of war, and how terrible are the things that must be done to wage it successfully. It is an awful business, and no matter how noble the cause for which it is fought, no matter how valiant their service, many veterans spend much of their subsequent lives trying to forget not only what was done to them, but some of what had to be done by them to prevail. …

…I’ve been asked often where did the brave men I was privileged to serve with in North Vietnam draw the strength to resist to the best of their abilities the cruelties inflicted on them by our enemies. They drew strength from their faith in each other, from their faith in God and from their faith in our country. Our enemies didn’t adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment, a few of them unto death. But every one of us—every single one of us—knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such mistreatment of them. That faith was indispensable not only to our survival, but to our attempts to return home with honor. For without our honor, our homecoming would have had little value to us.

5 thoughts on “Just Don’t Call It Torture

  1. hmm, i wonder what andy would call waterboarding, if it was done to him due to his unrepented gayness? oh, i guess it would be okay since a doc would be there. don’t these righties understand that if we accept torture, become passe about it, that torture could turn on us. they are sooooo shortsighted!!! but you know what, they are entertainers, without the extreme right and left, andy would not have anything to write about. they are like martin and lewis, bud and abbott, gracie and george, a straight(pardon the pun) to the weird ones. one goes with the other.

  2. Pingback: The Mahablog » We Have Met the Enemy …

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