Torture Should Be Accounted For

Torture is among the most heinous crimes known to humankind. It should never be excused, it should never go unpunished. It is not about who the tortured are, or what the tortured know. It is not about what they have done, what they believe, or whether they would do the same. It is about who we are, and how human beings should be treated. It is about our humanity, that is all.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Practical Compassion

It's been a busy week again. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has launched its Torture Awareness Month, and they have churches across the U.S. displaying banners against torture. If you live in any sizable population area, there is a good chance there are churches near you that are participating (we have 4 in the area around where I am). For details, lists of churches and how you can participate, please go to their website.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on interrogation methods, centered on the report from Glenn Fine about the FBI relation to them. In testimony, John Cloonan, a former FBI interrogator, revealed that the FBI had obtained usable intelligence from Ibn al Sheikh al Libi by establishing rapport, before he was subjected to harsh methods by the CIA. In the case of al Libi, the harsh interrogation was done by the Egyptians, and the committee also heard testimony on the legal fig-leaves used to pretend that the U.S. did not know what type of interrogation al Libi would undergo if they handed him over. A synopsis of the hearings in three parts is here, here, and here, at Firedoglake. The prepared statements of all the witnesses are available here. Interestingly, the hearing was interrupted. Apparently Mitch McConnell tried to call numerous votes to keep the hearing from proceeding, a tactic which failed when Harry Reid moved to recess the Senate.

The testimony from Mr. Cloonan is very damning, and is largely corroborated by the report that Mr. Fine and Ms. Caproni were presenting. Ms. Caproni also testified that she was denied access to information about the interrogations -- she is Counsel to the FBI. One wonders whether an investigation into all details of the interrogation policies of the U.S. government is possible, given that the lead investigating branch of the Department of Justice can find itself disallowed from accessing information. It doesn't seem possible that the FBI could not have the proper security clearance to look at government documents.

What Mr. Cloonan paints is a picture in which rapport building has produced intelligence from even so called high-level targets, like al Libi, and probably would have from Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, had it been used, but in which the preferred course was abuse and torture, with the result that the information was never obtained. I have remarked before on this blog that the so-called intelligence that people have claimed to have got from prisoners during the "War on Terror" by torture has amounted to confessions on facts that were obtained through alternate means and forensics. What emerges is a picture in which there are tactics that work that are not used, and tactics that don't work that are used, chiefly because those making the decisions believe something about the various tactics that is 180 degrees opposite to the truth.

What emerges from George Lakoff (Don't Think of an Elephant!), and from Glenn Greenwald (Great American Hypocrites, and his blog on Salon), and others who have tried to analyze the emotional or metaphorical process behind such thinking, is that there is a belief that if one doesn't act tough, one can not defeat these terrorists. Torture is the ultimate in acting tough, rapport building is the ultimate in what George Lakoff calls the nurturant parent model. In order to maintain a belief system that the terrorists are evil without question, that model can not be allowed to succeed, and the model that advocates toughness, harsh tactics, and "a dunk in the water" must be shown to be expedient, even if the results are not forthcoming.

That would certainly explain the metatorture. When thousands of prisoners are kept in temporary pens exposed to the harsh elements in Afghanistan, the reason can not be because they all have useful information, and they are waiting in line in some interrogation backlog. If the motive is punishment, as it was in some instances at Abu Ghraib (according to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez), or the motive is to instill fear, as Gerald Gray claims about the abuse, on what to do with the prisoners can be that imprecise. The immediate objective is the mistreatment itself, all that is needed is to make sure it happens.

Be very careful about what is claimed here: The reason for the abusive treatment is to prove, either to themselves or to the rest of us, several things:
  1. The abusive treatment works.
  2. The people we are dealing with are so evil that it is the only language they understand.
  3. The United States has a right to do so, either because of sovereignty or justice.
  4. That those who do not believe in the treatment are dangerous.
Jack Cloonan's testimony and the FBI report address points 1, 2, and 4, with force. The abusive treatment doesn't work, not just because the information obtained under duress is unreliable. Such treatment can often cause the subject to stop talking. And he made note of the fact that all prior information on Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was that the man liked to brag, and was proud of what he did. To the interrogators at the FBI, that looks like a gold mine, just let him brag. Point 2, that those who do not believe in cruel or torturous treatment are dangerous because they are refusing to get the intelligence or permit someone to get the intelligence that will save the nation is frequently repeated, and we will probably hear it a lot during the election season, regardless of John McCain's expressed views on torture, as rumors and whispers fill the air. It rests on the premise that anyone who can't take the final step over the line to the dark side is unwilling or unable to do everything in their power to defeat America's enemies. When it is being used, remember to watch the metaphors and frames. People rarely come out and say that the tactic will work, only that you are a coward for not trying everything. If it does not work, it is not a matter of bravery, is it?

Point 2 is exceedingly complex, and will not be defeated easily. The people who make this argument are attempting multiple things at one time: They are attempting the ultimate in dehumanizations, that the person we are dealing with is so evil they are not human, deserve no rights, must be silenced, must be held secretly, everything other than what are the inalienable rights of a human being. They are attempting to assert that there is a language for talking to such walking demons, and it is the language of pain, humiliation, and psychological destruction. They are attempting to finish that argument off by asserting that they know which are the demons and which are the humans, often without much information (say, for example, only that they have paid a reward for them to the Pakistani ISI). The point man on this dehumanization policy has always been Douglas Feith. He began working on it under Reagan, as has been documented here before, by pushing for the U.S. not to ratify the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, which would have detailed the rights and responsibilities of non-state actors in conflicts of various international and non-international character.

He was joined by others, but the final set of work involves no ratification of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which would have dictated that the U.S. comply with the additional protocols because they had been signed, even if we didn't enforce them because they had not been ratified. It involves no ratification of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. It involves a general reluctance to sign or ratify any treaties out of the U.N. be they on land mines, on cluster bombs, or the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A full list of the U.N. treaties and the status of the U.S. is online, there are a lot of gaps.

As the Torture Awareness Month continues, and the International Day Against Torture approaches, it is worth questioning something very basic about American foreign policy. Would someone who wished to repudiate the dehumanizations and abominations of a policy, based on invocation of extreme evil and finding places beyond the law, also be willing to take a fresh look at those gaps? As Scott Shane reports on Jack Cloonan's testimony in the New York Times,

“Gaining the cooperation of an Al Qaeda member is a formidable task, but it is not impossible,” Mr. Cloonan said. He said he saw Qaeda operatives who had pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden “cross the threshold and cooperate with the F.B.I. because they were treated humanely, understood what due process was about and were literally seduced by our legal system, as strange as that might sound.”

That being the case, how much easier would it have been to seduce away the whole war on terror, had the status of the terrorists been clearly delineated by the 1977 Additional Protocols? Is it really true that ratifying them would be wrong because it would give unwarranted status to terrorists, or is it rather true that in a world in which mistreatment is universally wrong, as the Christians say, even unto the least of my brethren, such terrorists would have been easily found, interrogated, and brought to justice in a court of law? All indications are that compassion even to the worst of the worst isn't just good behavior, it's effective police work and good policy.

1 comment:

Jim White said...

From Cloonan's opening statement:
I am reminded of a conversation I had with an aide to Bin Laden. He told me al Qaeda believes in the “sleeping dog” theory. The Sheik is very patient and the brothers will wait for as long as it takes for the dog to nod off before they attack. I believe we cannot relax our vigilance in the hope that Bin Laden will forget. There are 3 questions I would like this committee to ponder. Has the use of coercive interrogation techniques lessened Al Qaeda’s thirst for revenge against the US? Have these methods helped to recruit a new generation of jihadist martyrs? Has the use of coercive interrogation produced the reliable information its proponents claim for it? I would suggest that the answers are “no”, “yes” and “no”. Based on my experience in talking to al Qaeda members, I am persuaded that revenge, in the form of a catastrophic attack on the homeland, is coming, that a new generation of jihadist martyrs, motivated in part by the images from Abu Ghraib, is, as we speak, planning to kill American and that nothing gleaned from the use of coercive interrogation techniques will be of any significant use in the forestalling this calamitous eventuality.
Cloonan's statement here makes it quite plain that the violence we have waged on prisoners will come back, in an amplified form, on us. When Jeremiah Wright pointed out a similar thought regarding the attacks of September 11, he was ridiculed as a hater of America. John Cloonan is a retired special agent of the FBI with extensive experience in interrogation of terrorists, and he comes to the same conclusion, but with it sadly pointing to further attacks to come.
Much work lies ahead to reverse the damage that America has done to itself.