More News That’s Not News

You can file this under the heading of “stuff we already knew.” Peter Finn and Joby Warrick write for the Washington Post that

…not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

I already wrote a post about this same subject. It’s dated September 9, 2006. According to news stories then, what useful information came from Abu Zubaida was obtained through standard (e.g., Gevena convention-sanctioned) interrogation techniques. Once the “harsh interrogators” took over, no more useful information came from Zubaida.

Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations,” and other top officials called him a “trusted associate” of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.

In other words, the Bush Administration detained and tortured Abu Zubaida for the propaganda value.

This is not to say Abu Zubaida was not a player in the world of Islamic terrorism. He was, and there are good arguments for not releasing him, assuming he’s still sane.

But Abu Zubaida had strained and limited relations with bin Laden and only vague knowledge before the Sept. 11 attacks that something was brewing, the officials said.

Oh, I so miss the days when Ari Fleischer would tell us those cute stories about plots to take apart the Brooklyn Bridge with a chainsaw.

Anyway, Scott Horton, publius, and Marcy Wheeler all have insightful things to say about this mess.

There’s not much reaction from the Right yet, and I doubt there will be. There’s a story flying around that Joe Biden’s daughter was caught snorting coke, so you know the righties will be all over that for the next several days. It’s proof that liberals are bad parents, you know. The one rightie reaction I have seen dismisses the WaPo article as hearsay, and adds,

Once again we have a string of wild assertions made by the Washington Post via some “anonymous officials” and unrevealed “documents.”

Of course we are supposed to believe these anonymous sources over Mr. Zubaida’s own claims. (The Post helpfully notes that he has memory problems, due to a head wound.)

I’m assuming the writer has unique knowledge of what “Mr. Zubaida’s own claims” are that contradict the WaPo story.

But obviously this is just the Post once again beating the drum for show trials about the (entirely legal and ethical) interrogation of terrorists.

And we know the interrogation is legal and ethical, because we say it is!

It really is too bad that the terrorists Flight 77 hit the Pentagon instead of, say, 15th Street.

See, the problem is that the Washington Post wasn’t happy enough during the Bush Administration. Indeed, many of us were insufficiently happy and should have received political re-education and maybe some harsh interrogation until we were happy.

Spanish Inquiry on Torture

Marlise Simons, New York Times:

A Spanish court has taken the first steps toward opening a criminal investigation into allegations that six former high-level Bush administration officials violated international law by providing the legal framework to justify the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an official close to the case said.

Yep, it took a Spanish court to do what our government ought to have done by now. No excuses.

The six are (list taken from dday at Washington Monthly):

  • former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
  • John Yoo, the Justice Department attorney who authored the infamous “torture memo”
  • Jay Bybee, Yoo’s superior at the Office of Legal Counsel, also involved in the creation of torture memos
  • David Addington, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and legal adviser
  • Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy
  • William Haynes, the legal counsel at the DoD

Dday also says,

I would call this a big deal. As the report notes, Garzon indicted Augusto Pinochet, which led to his arrest and extradition. This would not immediately lead to arrest and trial, but it would certainly confine the six officials to the United States and increase the pressure for stateside investigations. Spanish courts have “universal jurisdiction” over human rights abuses, under a 1985 law, particularly if they can be linked to Spain.

Scott Horton at Harper’s explains,

The case was opened in the Spanish national security court, the Audencia Nacional. In July 2006, the Spanish Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a former Spanish citizen who had been held in Guantánamo, labeling the regime established in Guantánamo a “legal black hole.” The court forbade Spanish cooperation with U.S. authorities in connection with the Guantánamo facility. The current criminal case evolved out of an investigation into allegations, sustained by Spain’s Supreme Court, that the Spanish citizen had been tortured in Guantánamo.

The Spanish criminal court now may seek the arrest of any of the targets if they travel to Spain or any of the 24 nations that participate in the European extraditions convention (it would have to follow a more formal extradition process in other countries beyond the 24). The Bush lawyers will therefore run a serious risk of being apprehended if they travel outside of the United States.

Again, this should have been done by our government already.

Pardons and Prosecutions

Mark Benjamin writes in Salon that Dubya might issue a blanket pardon for anyone in his administration involved in torture. Meanwhile, advisors to Barack Obama are pushing for a nonpartisan commission to investigate torture in the Bush Administration.

It is said (nothing is official) that the plan is to do painstaking investigation of torture before coming to any conclusions about prosecution. As much as we’d all like to see Dick and Dubya in stocks asap, that’s probably sensible.

But then there’s the blanket pardon thing. Benjamin writes,

Constitutional scholars say a pardon of this kind would be an unprecedented move — the prospective pardon of not just individuals but entire categories of people, perhaps numbering in the thousands, for carrying out the president’s orders , which the White House has argued all along were legal.

Those scholars agree, however, that Article II of the Constitution gives Bush much latitude: There is no authority that can stop the president from doing so if he wishes, and there is no outside check or balance to revisit such a decision, however controversial it may be. “The president can do with pardoning power whatever he wants,” explained University of Wisconsin Law School professor Stanley Kutler. “It is complete and plenary unto itself.”

To complicate matters further, Charlie Savage writes for the New York Times that there is precedent for former presidents to continue to keep matters in their administrations secret. The precedent was set by Harry Truman —

When a Congressional committee subpoenaed Harry S. Truman in 1953, nearly a year after he left office, he made a startling claim: Even though he was no longer president, the Constitution still empowered him to block subpoenas.

“If the doctrine of separation of powers and the independence of the presidency is to have any validity at all, it must be equally applicable to a president after his term of office has expired,” Truman wrote to the committee.

Congress backed down, establishing a precedent suggesting that former presidents wield lingering powers to keep matters from their administration secret. Now, as Congressional Democrats prepare to move forward with investigations of the Bush administration, they wonder whether that claim may be invoked again.

In the years that followed, the precedent has been cited twice — by presidents Nixon and Reagan.

Savage again:

Topics of open investigations include the harsh interrogation of detainees, the prosecution of former Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama, secret legal memorandums from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and the role of the former White House aides Karl Rove and Harriet E. Miers in the firing of federal prosecutors.

This could take some time.

Speaking of pardons — the Dems seem to be moving toward pardoning Joe Lieberman for his reprehensible behavior during the recent election. I suspect the primary reason for this is mathematics — without a 60-vote majority, the Dems need every possible warm body in Congress on their side. I understand this, even though I don’t especially like it.

I just wish Tweety and the other bobbleheads would stop saying that Lieberman campaigned for McCain on “principle.” There was nothing “principled” about helping the Right spread poison. I don’t know what Lieberman’s problem is, beyond harboring the Godzilla of egos, but an excess of principle doesn’t seem to be holding him back much.

That said, I pretty much agree with Glenn Greenwald when he says —

It is worth remembering that the Democrats who are going to exert dominant political control are the same ones who have provoked so much scorn — rightfully so — over the last several years, and particularly since 2006. This is the same Democratic Party leadership which funded the Iraq War without conditions (and voted to authorize it in the first place); massively expanded the President’s warrantless eavesdropping powers; immunized lawbreaking telecoms; enacted the Patriot Act and then renewed it with virtually no changes; didn’t even bother to mount a filibuster to stop the Military Commissions Act; refrained from pursuing any meaningful investigations of Bush lawbreaking; confirmed every last extremist Bush nominee, from Michael McConnell to Michael Mukasey; acquiesced to even the worst and most lawless Bush policies when they were briefed on them; and on and on and on. None of that has changed. That is still who they are.

It is who they are, which is why we have to stay active and keep pushing for change, or there will be no change.

At the same time, keep in mind that anyone who claims to know what President Obama will or won’t do once he is in office is an idiot. We’ve had one such person in the comments already, and of course Obama haters who pose as liberals — you know who they are — are already writing off his administration.

It’s fair to say that anything one hears in the news now about what the Obama Administration will or will not do on any issue is speculation, including the investigations mentioned at the top of this post. People who are in a position to actually know anything aren’t talking — well, except maybe for Rahm Emanuel. This is standard behavior for a presidential transition. The President-elect should not be running a shadow government while someone else still is president, whether we like him or not.

Reporters are picking up hints and clues and speculation and writing about them as if they were official pronouncements from the President-Elect’s office, and the usual jerks are using these speculations to bash Obama before he’s even taken office. Oh, and if you tell them to get a grip on reality, you must be part of a cult.

I’m all in favor of criticizing Obama or any other politician when criticism is due. However, relentless bashing of anyone for something he hasn’t done and may not even be thinking of doing says more about the basher than the bashee.

Update: While I’m at it, Dear Lambert

Obama’s fans labored so hard to elect somebody when they didn’t know what he was going to do. The real reason they have to wait, I hazard, is that since they established no policy standards for him in their own minds, they have nothing to hold him accountable for.

Lambert, dear, electing “somebody when they didn’t know what he was going to do” is what Americans have done for every single presidential campaign since Washington. One never really knows what they will do until they do it. This would have been equally true if Hillary Clinton were the president-elect and not Obama. One of the reasons some of us were skeptical of Hillary Clinton during the primaries is that her actual record of accomplishment doesn’t exactly match her claims and promises.

The Obama campaign had exhaustive policy proposals on the campaign web site, so it’s not as if we didn’t know what he proposed. And if he betrays our trust, especially on matters like health care and Iraq, many of us will be bitterly disappointed and will criticize him copiously. However, bashing Obama for things he hasn’t yet done, hasn’t had a chance to do, and has not expressed any intention of doing (see above about what’s appearing in the news), is what we call “pathological.” Get help.


I would like to believe our country didn’t used to behave this way. Scott Shane writes in today’s New York Times:

The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of “coercive management techniques” for possible use on prisoners, including “sleep deprivation,” “prolonged constraint,” and “exposure.”

What the trainers did not say, and may not have known, was that their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.

The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.

I say I would like to believe that our country didn’t used to behave this way. I was brought up thinking that everything we stood for was, um, against this. Maybe I was naive.

(Of course, you know what righties will say. It’s not torture. It used to be torture when Communists did it, but now it isn’t because it’s us doing it.)

See also “Truth Is Out on CIA and Torture” and the Talking Dog.

They Tried It at Home

Yochi Dreazen reports for the Wall Street Journal that three young men in New Mexico tried out waterboarding to see if it is torture.

In a nutshell, these three guys were debating whether waterboarding is torture, and one of them suggested they try it out to see. So they filled a 2-liter Coke bottle with water, grabbed a small towel, and headed out to the desert. Then one guy was tied down while another guy poured water on his face. The third guy, I assume, made the video.

Mr. Larroque, who will move to Uganda in February to begin his Peace Corps work, says it was clear from the beginning that he would be the one waterboarded. Mr. Toulouse, who is studying psychology in Canada, didn’t want to be the subject. Mr. Gaspar, who works as a waiter in Albuquerque, participated reluctantly.

“I just didn’t like the idea of waterboarding my best friend,” Mr. Gaspar says. “It seemed a little outside the realm of Saturday-night antics.”

That left the question of where to do the waterboarding. Mr. Larroque, who wanted to film the experiment, proposed doing it in Mr. Gaspar’s house, where the lighting would be best. Mr. Gaspar vetoed the idea. “My fiancée would be a little unhappy with me if she found a huge puddle of water in the house with Jean-Pierre passed out next to it,” he recalls reasoning.

They all survived.

Control Freaks

Charlie Savage writes in today’s Boston Globe:

The Bush administration is pushing to take control of the promotions of military lawyers, escalating a conflict over the independence of uniformed attorneys who have repeatedly raised objections to the White House’s policies toward prisoners in the war on terrorism.

The administration has proposed a regulation requiring “coordination” with politically appointed Pentagon lawyers before any member of the Judge Advocate General corps – the military’s 4,000-member uniformed legal force – can be promoted. …

… Retired Major General Thomas Romig, the Army’s top JAG from 2001 to 2005, called the proposal an attempt “to control the military JAGs” by sending a message that if they want to be promoted, they should be “team players” who “bow to their political masters on legal advice.”

It “would certainly have a chilling effect on the JAGs’ advice to commanders,” Romig said. “The implication is clear: without [the administration’s] approval the officer will not be promoted.”

Some familiar names crop up:

The JAG rule would give new leverage over the JAGs to the Pentagon’s general counsel, William “Jim” Haynes, who was appointed by President Bush. Haynes has been the Pentagon’s point man in the disputes with the JAGs who disagreed with the administration’s assertion that the president has the right to bypass the Geneva Conventions and other legal protections for wartime detainees. …

… One of Haynes’ allies on the Bush administration legal team, former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, recently coauthored a law review article sharply critical of the JAGs’ unwillingness to endorse the legality of the administration’s treatment of wartime detainees.

Yoo, who wrote a series of controversial legal opinions about the president’s power to bypass the Geneva Conventions and antitorture laws before leaving government in 2003, called for some kind of “corrective measures” that would “punish” JAGs who undermine the president’s policy preferences.

Yoo’s law review article did not specifically discuss injecting political appointees into the JAG promotions process, and Yoo said in an e-mail that he did not know anything about the new Pentagon proposal. But several retired JAGs said they think the proposed change is an attempt by the Bush administration to turn Yoo’s idea into a reality.

Meanwhile, Bush is threatening to veto a bill that would ban the CIA from using waterboarding and other forms of torture, all the while claiming that the U.S. doesn’t torture people. A former employee of a Boeing subsidiary says an executive bragged “We do all the extraordinary rendition flights … the torture flights.” And the Justice Department is stonewalling Congress over the destruction of CIA videotapes.

BTW, Bush is claiming ignorance of those tapes; Larry Johnson argues persuasively that Bush probably was treated to a personal screening.

And I’m not exactly holding my breath waiting for Congress to act.

See also: Mark Benjamin, “Inside the CIA’s notorious ‘black sites.'”

Moral Relativism

After years of hearing the right-wing decry the ‘moral relativism’ of ‘liberals’, I was at a loss for the proper description of Rudy Giuliani’s approach to waterboarding.

Linda Gustitus, who is the president of a group called the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, began her question by saying that President Bush’s nominee for attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey (who happens to be an old friend of Mr. Giuliani’s) had “fudged” on the question of whether waterboarding is toture.

“I wanted to ask you two questions,’’ she said. “One, do you think waterboarding is torture? And two, do you think the president can order something like waterboarding even though it’s against U.S. and international law?’’

Mr. Giuliani responded: “O.K. First of all, I don’t believe the attorney general designate in any way was unclear on torture. I think Democrats said that; I don’t think he was.’’

Ms. Gustitus said: “He said he didn’t know if waterboarding is torture.”

Mr. Giuliani said: “Well, I’m not sure it is either. I’m not sure it is either. It depends on how it’s done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it. I think the way it’s been defined in the media, it shouldn’t be done. The way in which they have described it, particularly in the liberal media. So I would say, if that’s the description of it, then I can agree, that it shouldn’t be done. But I have to see what the real description of it is. Because I’ve learned something being in public life as long as I have. And I hate to shock anybody with this, but the newspapers don’t always describe it accurately.”

It depends on who does it?

It depends on the circumstances?

I have to see what the real description of it is?

So, suppose, just for the sake of argument, that US forces were trying to pacify a foreign land, which was plagued by a fanatical insurgency, and we needed to get information from suspected insurgents or sympathizers? American lives are being lost to brutal attacks, and even the friendly locals may be turning around and supporting the insurgents when our backs are turned? Would that be appropriate circumstances?

Towards the end of 1900, the Americans declared martial law. To combat guerrilla warfare, they launched a scorched-earth “pacification” campaign. Every Filipino was viewed as an enemy regardless of whether he or she took up arms. Entire towns were held responsible for the actions of guerrillas. Mere objection to the Americans was termed treason. Villages sympathetic to the guerrillas were burned and people indiscriminately killed. Torture was systematically used to elicit information from suspected guerrillas or their sympathizers. One form of torture was the “water cure” treatment where the victim was forced to drink excessive amounts of water after which he was stomped on the stomach. One U.S. soldier bragged in a letter that Americans were shooting Filipinos “like rabbits.” Even though the U.S. War Department imposed blanket censorship, these atrocities became widely known because American soldiers wrote to their families and relatives in the U.S. and related stories of abuse. Some of these letters were eventually published in American local newspapers, highlighting the brutality of these “pacification” campaigns, leading to Congressional investigation, public outrage, and considerable embarrassment for the White House.

Part of the strategy was the introduction of “reconcentration”, a policy of hauling thousands of Filipinos (whom Americans referred to as their “little brown brothers”) into concentration camps to flush out the guerrillas among them and to cut their material support to the resistance movement. In the process of reconcentration, whole towns suffered from starvation and disease. Villagers were taken from their sources of livelihood and were not decently fed. Worse, living conditions were less than adequate, with people confined in overcrowded camps without proper sanitation. Camps then became breeding grounds for the spread of deadly diseases such as cholera.

The guerilla war for independence did not immediately end with Aguilnaldo’s capture on March 23, 1901; the insurrection lasted until July 1902. In the end, it took over three years to “pacify” the Philippines. More than 120,000 American soldiers served in the Philippines, 4,200 of whom died. It was estimated that 25,000 Filipino rebels and 200,000 civilians also died.

Since Rudy wants to know the details, perhaps he should hear about how it was previously done by American forces:

Riley, a sergeant in the Twenty-sixth Regiment, the son and brother of reputable men well known in Northampton, wrote home on November 25, 1900, as follows:

Arriving at Igbaras at daylight, we found everything peaceful; but it shortly developed that we were really “treading on a volcano.” The presidente, the priest, and another leading man were assembled, and put on the rack of inquiry. The presidente evaded some questions, and was soon bound and given the “water cure.” This was done by throwing him on his back beneath a tank of water and running a stream into his mouth, a man kneading his stomach meanwhile to prevent his drowning. The ordeal proved a tongue-loosener, and the crafty old fellow soon begged for mercy and made full confession…. The presidente was asked for more information, and had to take a second dose of “water cure” before he would divulge.

Of course, experts like Torquemada had a more refined technique, apparently unknown to ‘reputable men well known in Northampton’:

The methods of torture most used by the Inquisition were garrucha, toca and the potro. The application of the garrucha, also known as the strappado, consisted of suspending the criminal from the ceiling by a pulley with weights tied to the ankles, with a series of lifts and drops, during which arms and legs suffered violent pulls and were sometimes dislocated. The toca, also called tortura del agua, consisted of introducing a cloth into the mouth of the victim, and forcing them to ingest water spilled from a jar so that they had impression of drowning. The potro, the rack, was the instrument of torture used most frequently.

In modern parlance, I think they call garrucha a “stress position”.

Still, it may be there have been some refinements in modern times. If one is to believe the biased liberal media, it has been discovered that actual ingestion of the water is no longer necessary for the psychological effect of drowning. Perhaps Rudy believes that covering the face with cellophane makes the process something other than torture. Not surprisingly, Human Rights Watch disagrees:

The Convention Against Torture prohibits practices that constitute the intentional infliction of “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental.” The federal torture statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2340A, similarly prohibits acts outside the United States that are specifically intended to cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”

Waterboarding is torture. It causes severe physical suffering in the form of reflexive choking, gagging, and the feeling of suffocation. It may cause severe pain in some cases. If uninterrupted, waterboarding will cause death by suffocation. It is also foreseeable that waterboarding, by producing an experience of drowning, will cause severe mental pain and suffering. The technique is a form of mock execution by suffocation with water. The process incapacitates the victim from drawing breath, and causes panic, distress, and terror of imminent death. Many victims of waterboarding suffer prolonged mental harm for years and even decades afterward.

Waterboarding, when used against people captured in the context of war, may also amount to a war crime as defined under the federal war crimes statute 18 U.S.C. § 2441, which criminalizes grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions (in international armed conflicts), and violations of Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions (in non-international armed conflicts). Waterboarding is also an assault, and thus violates the federal assault statute, 18 U.S.C. § 113, when it occurs in the “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States,” a jurisdictional area which includes government installations overseas. In cases involving the U.S. armed forces, waterboarding also amounts to assault, and cruelty and maltreatment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

John McCain has his own opinion:

“All I can say is that it was used in the Spanish Inquisition, it was used in Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, and there are reports that it is being used against Buddhist monks today,” Mr. McCain, who spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, said in a telephone interview.

Of presidential candidates like Mr. Giuliani, who say that they are unsure whether waterboarding is torture, Mr. McCain said: “They should know what it is. It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture.”

But of course, according to Rudy that’s all an exaggeration. It all depends on the circumstances.

See Digby and the Anonymous Liberal for more.

(cross-posted from Ratiocination.)