From Cullen Murphy writing in the Atlantic: Torturer’s Apprentice. Well-written, but heartbreaking, commentary on how little separates our enlightened selves from our Medieval ancestors.
Archive for the 'torture' Category
Kevin Drum, in Lying About Torture, Part 2:
A few days ago, Jonathan Bernstein pointed out that former Bush/Rumsfeld speechwriter Marc Thiessen was continuing to claim that the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed in 2003 helped foil a terrorist plot to crash an airplane into a Los Angeles skyscraper. This was obviously a lie. Why? Because the cell leaders of the LA plot were arrested a year before KSM was captured.
Apparently this kind of crude, low-rent deception isn’t limited to Thiessen. It turns out that the same sort of clumsy lying was also part of the CIA’s classified “Effectiveness Memo,” which the Bush administration relied on to bolster its legal case for torturing terrorist suspects.
Sigh. If there’s a better summary than “crude, low-rent deception” to describe the Bush administration’s whole approach to the justification of state-sponsored torture, I’d like to hear it.
Besides being a cool musician, Matthew Good is also a cool blogger, one deeply concerned by a lot of the same things that deeply concern me. Here he is doing his best to follow the logical thread of the Obama administration’s arguments on Guantanamo detainees. In particular, he’s looking at the subset of detainees who are deemed “too dangerous to release,” but who cannot be charged, presumably because the only evidence the government has against them was obtained by torture: The 47.
Of course, detainees are not viewed as ‘prisoners of war’ by the US, rendering the application of the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions moot. So given that US law doesn’t apply, and international law doesn’t apply, one has to ask the question – would simply eliminating them be breaking the law?
Given the vast ambiguities used to justify their detention, the answer to that question is rather straightforward – the law isn’t applicable. If they can be detained indefinitely without legal recourse, then they can be killed without legal recourse. They aren’t prisoners of war, according to the United States they have no legal rights, so the law doesn’t apply. That said, if they are as dangerous as the Justice Department claims them to be, eliminating them wouldn’t be in breach of anything being that nothing applies. In the end, the only thing standing in the way of that option is negative publicity.
When you get right down to it, the issue really is that simple. I think this might actually be a worthwhile avenue for the opponents of state-sponsored torture to take: Tell Obama to put up or shut up. If the rule of law means anything, then charge these guys or let them go. And if the rule of law doesn’t mean anything, then just kill them already, quickly and cleanly, rather than a little at a time by locking them away with no legal recourse for the rest of their lives.
Keith Olbermann makes good on his Hannity bet, sort of, by pledging to pay $10,000 to a veteran’s charity in honor of Mancow Muller, a conservative radio personality who apparently thought waterboarding was no big deal, and had it done to himself live on air. Josh Marshall talks about it in From Olbermann, including this part:
I must confess that when I see Hannity or the rest of these guys saying it’s no big deal and it’s not torture, I kind of figured they’re playing semantic games and essentially saying ‘I don’t care what we do to evil Muslim terrorist bad guys.’ Hang them from them toes, waterboard them, whatever, who cares? I don’t agree with that. It’s hideous. But I understand it. But here it turns out they’re just completely ignorant, just haven’t been paying attention. Just in the purest factual sense have no idea what they’re talking about.
I’d say that about sums it up.
Some high-profile assertions of falsehood that have been floating around lately, and that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention:
From former Colin Powell aide Lawrence Wilkerson: The truth about Richard Bruce Cheney.
Likewise, what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002–well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion–its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida.
So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney’s office that their detainee “was compliant” (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, “revealed” such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.
So, let’s make sure that when we’re discussing the pros and cons of state-sponsored torture, we use real-world scenarios. It’s not (only) a question of whether we would be willing to turn a blind eye to government officials using torture to uncover the details of a ticking-bomb plot and save thousands of innocents. It’s a question of whether we would be willing to turn a blind eye to government officials using torture to extract false confessions of a connection between al Qaeda and Iraq in order to build political support for an invasion.
Are those really the sort of ends you want to use to justify these particular means?
And from Nancy Pelosi, who apparently is fighting back against those seeking to implicate her: At every step of the way, the administration was misleading the Congress.
I’m not at all sure I trust Pelosi’s claims of innocence here. I think we need to get the facts out into the open about just who said what (and who did what), when. And it seems increasingly likely to me that eventually we’re going to get some approximation of that. Not fast enough to make me happy. But eventually.
A well-argued short item by Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker: Interrogating Torture. It makes the case that so far, we’ve held the lowly Abu Ghraib foot soldiers to be responsible for their actions, while letting those who created and implemented the policies they were following get off scott free.
Which is wrong.
I can’t find any particular part of this essay by Gary Kamiya to excerpt — the whole thing is too awesome to lend itself to summarizing: America’s necessary dark night of the soul.
I think Kamiya’s argument is a compelling response to Obama’s “we need to look forward” position. Yes, we have many other crucial matters we need to deal with. Yes, Obama does not have limitless political capital. Yes, there are many powerful people on both sides of the aisle who are implicated in the bad things that happened over the last eight years, and who can be expected to be about as cooperative in the investigation as the Sunni insurgents were in the reconstruction of Iraq.
This investigation will not happen because Obama wants it; he doesn’t want it. It is not in his interest. Neither is it in the interest of the current Democratic leadership in Congress, nor that of congressional Republicans. It will not come from the people represented by the blue line in this recent Pew Research graph, nor from those represented by the red line.
It will come from those of us represented by the avocado green line:
It will not be easy. It will not be pretty. But only once we’ve dragged this sordid, festering truth out into the sunlight will we be able to see it for what it really is, and move on.
Sean Hannity says waterboarding is not torture, and is an appropriate tool for the US government to employ against suspected terrorists. In case you haven’t noticed, Sean Hannity is also something of a jackass.
Charles Grodin was challenging Hannity on the issue on Fox last week, and asked whether he would consent to be waterboarded.
“Sure,” Hannity said. “I’ll do it for charity … I’ll do it for the troops’ families.”
It wasn’t exactly clear how serious the conversation was, since Grodin joked, “Are you busy on Sunday?” and Hannity laughed.
“I’ll let you do it,” Hannity said.
“I wouldn’t do it,” Grodin said. “I’ll hand you a towel when you come out of the shower.”
Olbermann’s offer was quick. Besides the $1,000 per second, Olbermann said he’d double it if Hannity acknowledges he feared for his life and admits that waterboarding is torture.
More, if you’re interested, in this AP article: Olbermann presses Hannity on his waterboard offer.
For the record, I think Keith Olbermann is also something of a jackass, albeit a different kind of jackass than Hannity.
If you get tired of waiting for Hannity to follow through on his offer, there are plenty of other firsthand accounts of waterboarding online. One of the more interesting ones I’ve read lately is by Scylla, a politically conservative user of The Straight Dope: I waterboard!
Refreshing to have a president who can respond at a press conference without needing to pause for tens of seconds while he listens to Karl Rove whisper instructions in his surgically implanted earpiece, isn’t it?
I’m kidding. Sort of.
Anyway, I thought Obama’s responses last night to Jake Tapper, Mark Knoller, and Michael Scherer’s questions about torture, torture, and state secrets (respectively) were pretty interesting. The full transcript of the press conference is here: News conference by the president, 4/29/09. Here are the interesting-to-me bits:
THE PRESIDENT: …Jake. Where’s Jake? There he is.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. You’ve said in the past that waterboarding, in your opinion, is torture. Torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?
THE PRESIDENT: What I’ve said — and I will repeat — is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don’t think that’s just my opinion; that’s the opinion of many who’ve examined the topic. And that’s why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do — not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.
I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day, talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, we don’t torture — when the entire British — all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And the reason was that Churchill understood you start taking shortcuts, and over time that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.
And so I strongly believe that the steps that we’ve taken to prevent these kinds of enhanced interrogation techniques will make us stronger over the long term, and make us safer over the long term, because it will put us in a position where we can still get information — in some cases, it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world, is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.
At the same time, it takes away a critical recruitment tool that al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have used to try to demonize the United States and justify the killing of civilians. And it makes us — it puts us in a much stronger position to work with our allies in the kind of international coordinated intelligence activity that can shut down these networks.
So this is a decision that I am very comfortable with. And I think the American people over time will recognize that it is better for us to stick to who we are, even when we’re taking on a unscrupulous enemy.
Okay. I’m sorry.
Q — administration sanction torture?
THE PRESIDENT: I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that the — whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.
Q Thank you, sir. Let me follow up, if I may, on Jake’s question. Did you read the documents recently referred to by former Vice President Cheney and others, saying that the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques not only protected the nation, but saved lives? And if part of the United States were under imminent threat, could you envision yourself ever authorizing the use of those enhanced interrogation techniques?
THE PRESIDENT: I have read the documents. Now, they haven’t been officially declassified and released, and so I don’t want to go into the details of them. But here’s what I can tell you — that the public reports and the public justifications for these techniques — which is that we got information from these individuals that were subjected to these techniques — doesn’t answer the core question, which is: Could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques? And it doesn’t answer the broader question: Are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques?
So when I made the decision to release these memos and when I made the decision to bar these practices, this was based on consultation with my entire national security team, and based on my understanding that ultimately I will be judged as Commander-in-Chief on how safe I’m keeping the American people. That’s the responsibility I wake up with and it’s the responsibility I go to sleep with.
And so I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe, but I am absolutely convinced that the best way I can do that is to make sure that we are not taking shortcuts that undermine who we are. And there have been no circumstances during the course of this first hundred days in which I have seen information that would make me second-guess the decision that I’ve made.
THE PRESIDENT: …Michael Scherer of TIME.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. During the campaign you criticized President Bush’s use of the state secrets privilege. But U.S. attorneys have continued to argue the Bush position in three cases in court. How exactly does your view of state secrets differ from President Bush’s? And do you believe Presidents should be able to derail entire lawsuits about warrantless wiretapping or rendition, if classified information is involved?
THE PRESIDENT: I actually think that the state secret doctrine should be modified. I think right how it’s over-broad. But keep in mind what happens is, we come into office, we’re in for a week — and suddenly we’ve got a court filing that’s coming up. And so we don’t have the time to effectively think through what, exactly, should a overarching reform of that doctrine take. We’ve got to respond to the immediate case in front of us.
I think it is appropriate to say that there are going to be cases in which national security interests are genuinely at stake, and that you can’t litigate without revealing covert activities or classified information that would genuinely compromise our safety. But searching for ways to redact, to carve out certain cases, to see what can be done so that a judge in chambers can review information without it being in open court — you know, there should be some additional tools so that it’s not such a blunt instrument. And we’re interested in pursuing that. I know that Eric Holder and Greg Craig, my White House Counsel, and others are working on that as we speak.
So, as I said, interesting stuff. For analysis, I suggest lefty attack-weasel Glenn Greenwald: Obama’s pretty words on secrecy and torture last night. From the other side of the question (if not the other side of the political spectrum), I also found the following pre-press conference pieces by Clive Crook to be worth chewing over: Obama’s needless fight over torture and More on torture prosecutions.
On the conservative side, I’m not aware of anyone grappling with the reality of what’s going on to a similar degree, but I also haven’t really been looking. Does anyone have any sources to suggest? I’m not interested in Fox News, or Rush, or Dick Cheney; I feel pretty confident that I already know their take on this, and have given them all the attention they deserve. But if there are principled conservatives engaging with the issue in an honest way, I’d be interested in reading what they have to say. Thanks.
This is awesome news: Suit by 5 ex-captives of CIA can proceed, appeals panel rules.
Lately I’ve been noticing a couple of people (shcb in the comments here, and my boss’s boss at work, who is the nicest guy in the world, but who suffers from an incurable delusion that Fox News really is fair and balanced) going around saying that the Bush administration’s use of torture produced lots of actionable intelligence and saved lots of American lives.
How do they know that? I mean, other than by the Bush administration itself claiming it to be so? Apparently they know it in part because of a December 2007 ABC interview with former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Kiriakou got a lot of play in the right-wing media, and his claims about how fast Abu Zubaydah broke under waterboarding and how he immediately began providing information that “disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks” are an article of faith among the defenders of torture’s efficacy.
Kiriakou’s information always seemed suspicious, in that it was weakly sourced (Kiriakou apparently wasn’t present at the events he described, and didn’t offer any documentation or corroboration), while other CIA sources (like those Ron Suskind used for his book The One Percent Doctrine) offered contradictory accounts.
Now, with the release of the torture memos, we have a way to test some of Kiriakou’s claims. And guess what? They don’t hold up.
Kevin Drum has details: Torturing Abu Zubaydah.
Kiriakou’s testimony was immensely influential at the time, but it’s pretty clear now that he was wrong: unless the CIA continued waterboarding him just for sport, Zubaydah didn’t break after a single session. Or ten sessions. Or fifty. And if Kiriakou was wrong about that, what are the odds that he was also wrong about the “dozens of attacks”? Or about the fact that waterboarding was responsible for any actionable information at all?
Ron Suskind, on the other hand, hasn’t been contradicted at all. As near as I can tell, his reporting has stood up almost perfectly in the face of subsequent evidence. If you want to know what really happened to Zubaydah, his book remains the gold standard for now.
That’s the key phrase: “If you want to know what really happened.” As near as I can tell, the reason why shcb and my boss’s boss continue to get their information from demonstrated liars is that they don’t want to know what really happened. They already know what happened. All they want now is confirmation, and some authoritative-sounding evidence they can use to undercut their opponents. If that’s all you’re looking for, the right-wing media is a perfectly adequate source.
Just when I’d pretty much decided that the LA Times was useless, they run a front-page article today by Greg Miller that hits the sweet spot of my current obsession with torture justification: CIA reportedly declined to closely evaluate harsh interrogations.
While we’re on the subject, I liked this item by Hilzoy: My Allegedly Vengeful Heart.
There are a number of important questions about the Bush administration’s use of torture: Was it, in fact, torture? (Clearly yes. Anyone who maintains otherwise gets flagged by me as someone whose views can be safely ignored in the future.) Was it moral? Was it legal? Was it effective? Note that these last three questions are orthogonal. It’s possible to imagine something being any combination of moral, legal, and effective.
The effectiveness question seems to be the one the Bush supporters want to focus on at the moment. I don’t blame them; I think it’s probably the one question out of the three where the pro-torture position has any chance at all.
So let’s talk about the effectiveness of torture. Here’s Rachel Maddow interviewing Lawrence Wilkerson on the question of Dick Cheney’s recent claims that his use of torture produced actionable intelligence and, on balance, saved lives:
McClatchy’s Jonathan S. Landay reminds us of what it was like when we had real journalists. From Report: Abusive tactics used to seek Iraq-al Qaida link:
“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.”
It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly – Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 – according to a newly released Justice Department document.
I’m all for looking forward, and not spending political capital on partisan fighting. But looking forward, I don’t want to live in a country that lets torturers who committed Spanish Inquisition-style barbarity in pursuit of political cover for their lame policy choices get off scott-free.
Nate Silver at 538.com talks about the flip side of my whining about Obama’s position on the state secrets privilege and torture: What Would a “Bipartisan” Obama Look Like? (Hint: A Lot Like the One We’re Seeing). From his conclusion:
What I don’t think Obama can be accused of, however, is breaking any promises. In fact, he basically telegraphed his strategy with the whole Rick Warren thing: make a show of appealing to conservatives here and there, and perhaps avoid issues that are symbolically important to the left but which drain one’s political capital, while all the while continuing to push forward the core elements of a conventionally Democratic (but hardly radical) agenda. Very little about the Administration’s strategy has been surprising.
On some level, I do wonder about that. By drawing a line in the sand with respect to state-sponsored torture, and demanding, in effect, that Obama sacrifice his effectiveness on other issues in order to take a largely symbolic stand against something abhorrent that he’s not actually engaging himself, am I being unrealistic? In the final analysis, will I be forced to acknowledge that Obama’s approach was right, and my demands, while ideologically more pure, were wrong?
I don’t actually know. But in the meantime, I’m clinging to my hatred of torture, and my whining about Obama’s protection of those in the Bush administration who perpetrated it. It’s comforting to feel some actual certainty about something, even when, as now, I’m not actually completely certain.
Just in case I was thinking of backsliding on the “Obama is an evil bastard for protecting torturers while continuing the Bush policy of asserting limitless executive power via the state secrets privilege,” well, no such luck.
From Zachary Roth, writing at TPM Muckraker: Expert Consensus: Obama Mimics Bush On State Secrets. And from Dan Froomkin: Obama’s State Secrets Overreach.
This really is a big deal, at least to me. As far as the overweening unitary executive stuff goes, I’m with Rush: I hope Obama fails, and will do whatever is in my power to make him do so. Here’s the response I sent today when Obama for America emailed to ask me to send more money:
Subject: Re: Under attack
Date: April 9, 2009 12:40:06 PM PDT
> Will you make a donation of $25 or more before the Monday deadline?
No. I’m profoundly disappointed by the Obama administration’s use of the state secrets privilege to protect torturers in the Jeppesen case. I’m still happy he won the election, but I’m ashamed of his actions in this area, and I certainly will not be contributing any more money to his political operation.
Send me another email when his actions warrant my support. Until then, the answer is no. Shame on him — and shame on you, to the extent you would work for someone who lets a self-serving political calculation stand between him and doing what is right about torture.
Knarlyknight reminded me that I’d meant to post a link to this recent article by former Colin Powell aide Lawrence Wilkerson: Some Truths About Guantanamo Bay. It’s a good round-up of some of the more depressing aspects of the situation. Nothing particularly new, but it’s good to see the truth get some more attention.
I was also, perversely, kind of happy to see that Dick Cheney was making news this past weekend by bad-mouthing Obama’s (partial) retreat from the worst aspects of the Cheney-Bush anti-terrorism policies. I was happy about that because I’ve decided that what’s going on with Obama’s go-slow approach to exposing the extent of the illegality and awfulness of the Cheney-Bush torture policies is not that Obama is objectively pro-torture or anti-civil rights per se. It seems much more likely to me that Obama is as outraged by the Cheney-Bush crimes as anyone. But Obama is, above all, a pragmatist. He knows that the Republican political strategy is to make as much heat and light about any perceived attack on the previous administration as they can. Any exposure by Obama of war crimes committed by Cheney and Bush can be spun by the Republican machine as Bush Derangement Syndrome. “Oh, that Socialist, terrorist-loving Obama!” we’ll hear 24/7 from Rush and Fox News. So it’s in Obama’s political interest to downplay that stuff. It doesn’t do him any good, politically speaking, to expose what a bunch of bastards the previous administration was.
Bush has been playing it smart, acting low-key on this stuff. But no one ever accused Cheney of playing things smart and low-key. He’s been going after Obama with both barrels. Which I think is great: I hope it works. I hope Gibbs and Obama get peppered with questions at every news conference about whether the administration is, in fact, soft on terrorism, whether they are, in fact, letting hardened killers (who Cheney and Bush had quite rightly been keeping bottled up in Guantanamo) back on the streets, where they can kill Americans.
Because that’s the only way I can see that Obama could be put in the position where it’s in his political interest to come out with the truth about Guantanamo. If Cheney is going to come after him anyway, and try to paint Obama as soft on terrorism, then Obama would have an incentive to explain to the public just how awful the previous administration had been.
Maybe that’s naive of me. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.