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.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Seeing the Future

It's possible to see the whole transition from a government based on liberty to one which is based on secrecy, on what is done in the dark, on spying and torture, as a problem with power and being wrong. As this unfolds into a panorama, it envelops even the science and science fiction that are the mores and mythology of a forward looking society, and takes the beautiful mystery of the future and turns it into the dark substance of fear. And then the mechanism which causes Darius Rejali's inevitable descent for the democracy that succumbs to torture (Rejali, Torture and Democracy), and turns it into a grotesque neurological event.

I just got done watching Paycheck three times in a row, after watching Next seven or eight times. I thought about watching Minority Report, too, somehow Philip K. Dick's notion of the future, or more appropriately, the screenwriters and directors reincarnations of his stories into Hollywood thrillers, contain a strange future, that is malleable, but that changes in unpredictable ways, as Nicholas Cage says in Next, "Because you looked at it." When his heroes try to control the future, evil follows, when they learn to trust the future, they triumph. Since they are heroes, then, the movie ends when they have trusted the blindness of not knowing what will happen next.

Actually, perhaps seeing the future should be given the instinctual pull of a classic Freudian drive like sex. We require it, we need it, if it is offered to us, we will take it, neglecting much else to get it. Take it away, and we retreat into a scared shell. We are filled with it. Consider: A cup falls off your desk, and your hand snaps out to catch it. Your very real hand meets the very real cup in the very real present, but your perception of everything is old. Your vision system has taken milliseconds to interpret the scene, your brain has taken time to retrieve or formulate a reaction, and then your hand meets the cup -- by seeing the future by a few tenths of a second.

You converse with another person. The whole time you are talking, both yours and the other person's mirror neurons are mimicking what the other is doing, helping you to predict what they will do in reaction to your words. If the future goes blank, if you are totally at a loss to predict how the other will react to you, you become fearful and uncomfortable, usually. Denial of any form of information about your surroundings that you are used to having produces anxiety. Being granted even the slightest extra vision of the future is a tremendous advantage: When a dangerous situation occurs, those who are in it will frequently report afterward that "time stood still." It doesn't really, it does seem to move slowly. If one is trained to take advantage of this shift, one is functioning at normal speed and solving the problems involved with our limited abilities to predict the future instantaneously, with the advantage of a few tenths of a second. This training, which some practice in martial arts, for example, means an enormous difference of advantage.

Power perverts this already extremely strong desire for the future. Perhaps it is because the population is so high now, to get to the top of a sizable hierarchy, you have to have advantages and plans, and aggressiveness. And the loss of that position is so much more precious when it takes a lifetime to get there. If there is any accountability, and there tends to be in free and open societies, then a mistake will cause that fall. So where power is involved, there can be no mistakes. And this produces two perverse consequences: Any mistakes that do occur must be covered up completely or recast, and further mistakes must be prevented at all costs. The human way to do that is to know the future.

Isn't this what was bragged about, to Ron Suskind, that famous quote?
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
This is an exposition on the nature of the future and of power. The implication is that the actors create the present and the past, and that the "reality-based community" perceives the past. By controlling the present and past, the speaker is saying that they know the future, in this case because it is what they choose it to be. The speaker is alluding to the fact that this is complete power. Whereas knowing the future, even a little bit of it, with total certainty, confers an awesome power, controlling the future, in this case all of it, confers total power. The listener is left to believe they are powerless, and that they would not or could not understand the future. As much as this statement has been mocked, as much as the hubris to which it points has been pointed out, its equation of control over the future to power is as correct as it is shocking.

It lays out the formula for the special forms of mental torment involved in purely psychological, scar-less torture, too. Philip Zimbardo talks about the collapse of time perspective in the Stanford Prison Experiment (Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, pp. 243 ff.), that prisoners "magnified their focus on the awful present by talikng about the immediate situation and rarely about their past or future..." The lack of knowledge of the future becomes extreme with threats of death, or threats of being incommunicado ("no one will know what happens to you"), and reaches a psyche destroying level when the senses or social interaction are deprived. Ultimately, the mind shreds when there is no longer any sensory input, and all avenues to predicting what will happen next are robbed from the prisoner. The ultimate form of helplessness is in not being able to form any conception of the present with which the brain predicts the future to decide its next action. In infant animals, deprivation of the senses leads to loss of the senses, as different sensory organs compete for space in cortex. As animals mature, there are two processes that accompany sensory loss, the lack of synapse (connections between neurons) production, and the inability of the brain to prune connections it has made, a necessary process to weed out faulty ones and strengthen pathways that form useful memories. The brain invests nearly all of its memory energy in creating productive ways to predict bits of the future. As its ability to do so is impaired, it begins to lose that ability, a sort of future looking atrophy, if you will.

Consequently, the ability to predict the future is an empowering thing, the ability to control the future, or control the future of another, is power and control. In a world where this is all there is, information control becomes paramount. Secrecy is a form of control, it prohibits an opponent to form correct models of what will happen next, it prevents mistakes from having occurred. The grip on power is preserved if mistakes do not occur, mistakes are the incorrect prediction of the future. In this model, which perverts the desire to know the future into an obsession to control it, mistakes occur for two reasons: the perpetrator did not know the future with sufficient clarity, and, the opponent knew too much of the future and gained advantage.

Thus the intelligence officer being pressured to get more intelligence is made to feel that he or she has caused harm by failing to procure information. Leaks are blamed for anything from a lost initiative to a bungled war, because secrecy is paramount when control of predictions is the battle. As the price for being wrong increases, which it does with the exclusivity of the powerful position, the drive to know or control more and more of what will happen becomes extreme. No price is too much to achieve the predicted outcome, because faith in the prediction is the source of power.

And at the bottom of this information/power structure, the interrogator comes to hate the prisoner, which allows the descent into mistreatment. With each more abusive technique, the prisoner who doesn't divulge information is thwarting the objectives of the interrogator, preventing the intelligence from being collected, rendering those for whom the interrogator cares powerless and blind. Soon attempts to force information out become revenge. Soon confessions replace information as the desired reaction. Confessions are a form of the prisoner accepting the interrogator's reality, they confer power, the power to dictate reality. The punishments remove the power to control oneself. Breaking the prisoner becomes the goal.

There is a word for breaking a person or depriving them of all predictive abilities so that they cannot in and of themselves see what will happen to them. There is a word for it because it forces their psyches to turn all of the senses on full blast with an increase in adrenalin. There is a word for the practice of causing unreasoning fear and panic, that sense they have of not knowing what to do to remove themselves from either the pain or the uncertainty of the present. There is a word for depriving someone of their future to manipulate them. It's called terrorism. And people who practice torture, who order the destruction of one person's future to service their own control of the future, who derive power by controlling the future that rightfully belongs to others, are nothing more or less than terrorists.

I did go back and watch Minority Report. Agatha, the pre-cog, reminds people, she whispers and she screams, that people who know their own future have a choice. History's actors, then have more choice than most. And people who have a choice should be responsible for what they have chosen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Letter

We have collected over a hundred signatures, and the letter will be mailed to the Hague. Thanks to all who signed.

The following is a letter which will be mailed to the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. Below the letter there is a sign up for leaving your name, email, and location for adding your name to the letter. The list of names will be printed with the letter when it is sent. If you wish to keep your information private, please check the private box at the sign-in after clicking "sign letter" (your name will still go on the hard copy letter). Please leave any organizations or credentials you want included with your name in the comments field there. Note that the letter identifies we who sign as "Americans".

Please report any problems by emailing me.


Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Prosecutor
International Criminal Court
P.O. Box

2500 CM, The Hague

Dear Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo,

We are writing to you to ask that you undertake an investigation of the government of the United States of America for the crimes of torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The Rome Statute provides that only the Security Council or one of the signatories may bring such charges, but also provides that the Prosecutor may do so if he finds grounds to, after an investigation, and provides that anyone may request that the prosecutor begin such an investigation. It is under this latter provision that we make this request. We are, as informed American citizens, too well aware that the United States is no longer a signatory to the Rome Statute. However, we believe that even so, the investigation itself, together with its findings, may have the power to push the United States Congress into action, and we believe that it will satisfy a necessary prerequisite for other signatories of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment (CATCIDT) to begin investigations and prosecutions to which they are entitled if the United States refuses to do so.

Evidence that torture has been committed is plentiful, and your office has examined some of it before, and had found that in specific, for crimes committed during the Iraq War that you could not prosecute because, while “…any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court is “grave”, the Statute requires an additional threshold of gravity even where the subject-matter jurisdiction is satisfied.” You observed that under Article 8(1), “the Court shall have jurisdiction in respect of war crimes in particular when committed as part of a plan or policy or as part of a large-scale commission of such crimes”1.

Since that time, there has been further accumulation of evidence, and release of U.S. government documents and reports, committee hearings and testimony, and news reports, indicating that the commission of these acts was indeed part of a plan, and policy, that the plan carries at least the signatures of lawyers at the Department of Justice2 and the Department of Defense3, and of the Secretary of Defense4. Documentation exists from two news bureaus, ABC News5 and the Associated Press6, that the Principals group of the United States National Security Council, consisting of the Vice President, Secretaries of State and Defense, the Director of the CIA, the Attorney General, and the National Security Advisor, met in the White House and approved techniques amounting to torture for specific prisoners in great detail. When questioned about this report, the President of the United States acknowledged that he both knew of and approved these meetings7.

Since that time there has also been further documentation of evidence: we call to your attention, most recently, the report of the Physicians for Human Rights, Broken Laws, Broken Lives8, and the report by Human Rights Watch, Locked Up Alone9. We also call to your attention the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General report, A Review of the FBI's Involvement in and Observations of Detainee Interrogations in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Special Report10. There are many, many other sources, your office is no doubt aware of them, and we would be happy to do our part to find them for you as needed. The American Civil Liberties Union maintains a searchable repository of documents11 related to these matters obtained by Freedom of Information Act, as well.

The documentation flowing from the Office of Legal Council, and from the Counsel at the Department of Defense, leaves no doubt that these actions were planned and “approved”, that members of the government believed they were entitled to abrogate international treaties and redefine others, and that the procedures were generated and approved throughout the entire chain of command, with express approval for some of them by the President of the United States. There cannot be any doubt anymore that there are sufficient grounds for investigation and prosecution, given that the terms of Article 8(1) that the crimes were part of a “plan or policy” are satisfied by these documents, and this was the missing criterion before.

We would also like you to address the behavior of our government in the face of these credible allegations and reports. The United States Congress has repeatedly acted, by passing restrictions to the habeas corpus and to the War Crimes Act and Torture Act, in violation of their mandate under the treaties to investigate and prosecute, and can even be said to have shielded those who planned, and created policy, and committed these crimes from prosecution. The specific statutes are the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA), and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA). Habeas corpus is a constitutional matter, but it is also a treaty obligation: We remind you that forms of this fundamental right are written into the Geneva Conventions and the CATCIDT, as well as into other treaties to which the United States is party, and its attempted circumscription in U.S. statute is very much part of the insulation from prosecution for these crimes. We would also remind you that the military commissions formed on the basis of the MCA are proceeding to trial, and intend to use coerced testimony, in violation of the CATCIDT.

The Congress of the United States is the body that prosecutes “high crimes and misdemeanors” of the office of the President, by independent prosecutors and by impeachment. They have repeatedly failed to do so, and instead have passed the aforementioned acts. We believe that they are in violation of the provisions, Articles 5, 6, and 7, and Articles 12, 13, 14, and 15 of the CATCIDT, and Articles 129, 130, and 131 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 and Article 146 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which we believe require our Congress to effect such investigations and prosecutions with due respect for these treaties and with due haste. Therefore, we would ask that you further consider the role of the Congress in your investigation, and determine whether or not it has failed these obligations sufficiently as to indicate that the United States Government does not intend to prosecute war crimes in good faith.

We are American citizens, and it is painful to have to ask that our country be subject to the shame of having its government investigated for war crimes. We do recognize, however, that the only way for the United States to regain its good name, and it did once have a good name and still does in some matters of human rights and humanitarian law, is for those who have abused the power entrusted to them by the American people, and have perpetrated grave crimes on the citizens of other nations, to face justice. While we again acknowledge that the International Criminal Court does not have the power to do that, due to these same abusers removing our signature and refusing to ratify the Rome Statute, we feel nonetheless that an investigation and charges by your office will enable others to do what our representatives apparently cannot, and stop the downward spiral away from international law that our government is engaged in. There is ample reason to believe that the criminal abuse and torture continues, so this is something that must be done, and there will be consequences and victims if it is not done right away.

We thank you for your time and attention,

The Signing List is now closed

  1. Moreno-Ocampo, Luis. Letter Concerning the Situation in Iraq. The Hague, 9 February 2006, Page 8, paragraph 4, concerning Admissibility.
  2. Bybee, Jay S. (signature), written by John C. Yoo. Memorandum for Alberto Gonzales, Council to the President. August 1, 2002.
  3. Haynes II, William J., signed by Donald Rumsfeld. Action Memo. November 27, 2002.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Greenburg, Jan Crawford, Howard L. Rosenberg, and Ariane de Vogue. Sources: Top Bush Advisors Approved ‘Enhanced Interrogation’. ABC News, April 9, 2008.
  6. Jordan, Lara Jakes. Cheney, Others OK’d Harsh Interrogations. Associated Press, April 10, 2008.
  7. Greenberg, Jan Crawford, Howard L. Rosenberg, and Ariane de Vogue. Bush Aware of Advisors Interrogation Talks. ABC News, April 11, 2008.
  8. Hashemian, Farnoosh, et alia. Broken Laws, Broken Lives. Physicians for Human Rights, June, 2008.
  9. Locked Up Alone: Detention Conditions and Mental Health at Guantanamo. Human Rights Watch, June, 2008.
  10. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General. A Review of the FBI’s Involvement in and Observations of Detainee Interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq. May, 2008.
  11. American Civil Liberties Union archive, Torture FOIA: Other Key Documents.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The War Against Finding Out

The latest revelation from Jane Mayer, and there will probably be more, once her book is more widely read, is that a CIA source described a 2007 document from the International Committee of the Red Cross, in which the ICRC called the treatment of Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in 2003, "categorically torture." Journalists who say we already knew that are correct. But to each journalist who makes such a statement, the question must be posed, "So what?"

Does that mean it isn't news? Journalists frequently cover any leak of confidential information as news, just the fact that it got leaked is usually enough. When a member of a political elite writes what has come to be known as a "Kiss and Tell" book after leaving office, most of what is in the book is not new. Nevertheless, for a good week afterward, people discuss the one or two choice tidbits someone found and promoted, or they talk about the impact of the book, or they editorialize on the stance of the author or even the author's loyalty. None of that is news.

There is a reason for failing to cover these stories when they first come out, reasoning that it is not current to continue to talk about them after they come out, and then criticizing new and subsequent revelations as "not news." It is avoidance behavior. There is a great reluctance to cover stories that the government of the United States officially sanctioned torture in secret, signed off by the President and his highest level advisors. There is no reluctance to portray torture in films, videos, TV shows, or computer games. But as often noted here, the portrayal is very different from the reality. There is no reluctance of officials acting like they need to be tough enough to commit torture, and to imply that people who wouldn't are not up to the task of defending the nation. There is no reluctance to engage in endless political debate in the press about enhanced interrogation techniques and to use the word waterboarding as frequently as possible.

Too Big To Fail

So what is the reluctance? I've been told that torture doesn't sell, that it's a fringe issue. The makers of '24' would beg to differ. We get told the American people do not want to be battered with stories of what America has done wrong. There is some truth to that. But let's talk about the expression that was all over the news this morning, the day after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson came out with a plan for backing up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the latest evolution of the problem variously known as the mortgage lending crisis, the loan crisis, or virtually any term of endearment that precludes the use of the words "scandal" or "crime". Let's talk about "too big to fail".

What on earth does "too big to fail" have to do with the government's torture program, with torture in general, with anything at all about the issues of torture and human dignity?

Everything. The expression is used in financial news whenever it is being asserted that the rules of the "market" will be suspended because of the dangerousness of the situation, and the urgency of the need to have a solution. Because this is a torture blog, and because that way of framing the invocation of "too big to fail" clearly puts it into a class of arguments seen frequently in torture debates, we can call this the ticking bomb invocation. It will invariably be issued together with an invocation we will call the collegiality invocation: That only in extreme circumstances which have never been met in the current case, are the individual players to be held responsible. In most cases, complaints about these two invocations being raised will be dealt with using the complexity invocation: The situation is very complex, that is why it will be mentioned only briefly in the media (consumers don't like issues that cause their eyes to glaze over), and that is why, even if the invocations look totally inappropriate, unfair, or unjust, they are the right thing to do anyway.

But perhaps if we knew how many of these large problems were running simultaneously, how many of them have the same players, and the same time frames, and the tactics were compared in each crisis, we might shed some light on how big the problems really are, and what is preventing a solution to them. The current mortgage crisis has roots in free market ideology, that has been referenced in articles about it. Lenders were under no scrutiny as they made more and more risky loans, and financial players appear to have had no checks and balances on an industry that came up with more and more creative ways to package these things. Those who were supposed to be watching for problems, the bond ratings people, were not functioning properly, in part because the risk involved was being concealed by arcane financial instruments, but more fundamentally because there was a transmutation of a statistical tool -- diversification -- into a religious entity. Any risk therefore was ameliorated by diversification, and when combined with another tool -- slicing -- which purported to divide the loan bundles up by risk and charge based on security for the product. The net result was a system in which any amount of risk would only produce a corresponding set of slices, and all of it was available to create profit. Except -- if the market itself went bad. Diversification does not change the outcome when all of the values go down, only when some of them do and some don't. And at that point, the presumptions in the slicing mechanism are wrong.

Why was this being done? We hear from plenty of sources now that common sense was suspended. That usually indicates some pressing need, or some ingrown secrecy. The pressing need was the need for very high gains. The need to pretend that the economy was supporting large gains and that it was growing came from a lot of different sources, one in particular was the rapid inflation of costs in health care. When health care costs are rising in double digits, then investments used to pay them -- it is an insurance scheme, after all -- must also rise quickly. So the large funds that must invest to pay for this must also realize double digit gains. Simultaneously the portion of the economy that depended on consumption was rising. But consumers weren't seeing that kind of rise in their wages, which track various cost of living indices. So more and more nefarious schemes needed to be created to separate consumers from money they had in their material goods -- principally their houses, but also in other forms of getting them to borrow. This was done by selling them mechanisms for spending their equity, and borrowing to spend. So underpinning the whole system was a large and diverse marketing campaign to get the American public to do something that violated their common sense by promising them something that they could not have had otherwise.

One can go back into the roots of this whole problem, and come out with players who were dismantling the safeguards and long held beliefs about borrowing beginning in the 1980's. One can find the players in the Reagan administration who shifted the health care industry to a for profit industry and created the current interlocking network of managed care, insurance influence on medical practice, physicians joint ventures and most of all deregulation. These were supposed to be part of a solution to rising costs and became the problem (Barlett and Steele, Critical Condition). One can go back into the roots of the changes in lending practices and find the loosening beginning as the derivatives market started up. Technology created new ways of putting together complex sets of probabilities and new ways of betting (although people in the industry hate that word). That provided the tools that were later used for giving out mortgages on less than solid finances.

Technology also provides another interesting puzzle piece: Information about technology that is not common knowledge can make it impossible to understand what has been done without significant analysis. This might be known as the analysis hurdle. It was on full display during the FISA Amendment debate. The NSA was holding all the cards. The public did not know key elements of the debate, which leaked out slowly -- that databases were involved; that the minimization procedures, as applied to databases, for which they were not designed, left a big loophole; that the loophole had already been tested before the FISA court: rollbacks were not required by the court and there was precedent for it in that setting. Without that information the new bill might seem innocuous. With it, the new bill meant that databases on all information on the internet, including that on all Americans, could be compiled.

One can see the dot com bust as the cataclysmic event that caused the financial industry to squirm and lash around looking for a place to make the gains they had become dependent on after the crash of the companies that weren't anywhere near as solid an investment as they had seemed when they were lavished with funds. One can see the non-bubble, non-cyclical deep problems pushed to the side, the use of knowledge of a few short years since the 1960's passing for expertise, the applications of tools for one problem to solutions of another. The federal reserve working to create the housing market to solve that problem with no one looking at the big picture. One can see the same players recycle from crisis to crisis. Part of why this happens is something that we might call the expertise principle. This principle might say that whatever situation occurs in crisis, and by in crisis here we mean as news requiring expert commentary, the situation is a modification of previous situations. Many times this may be true, but when we are invoking the principle, it is because it is not.

Consequently, although my broker had predicted a market downturn around 2000-2003 well before the dot com bust, based entirely on non-cyclical information, the removal of money from bank accounts to the stock market was due to peak around then, that would have created a scenario that had not been seen before, and so it did not occur, because an expert cyclical business recessions would not be an expert. If the facts conflict with the asserted distribution of expertise, the facts are rejected. This is a subtle version of what might be called social framing, in reference to the cognitive variety that George Lakoff presents. In this version, we reject the facts because they do not correspond well to the social frame of where the expertise lies and who the players are, in Lakoff's version (George Lakoff, Don't Think of an Elephant), we reject the perception because they do not correspond well to the cognitive frame of how we believe reality to be constructed. When this produces enough dissonance to finally be undeniable, we get the denial of expertise invocation, in which history is presented as a case where the experts were uniformly wrong. The current classic example of this was the existence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. There is a denial of the existence of experts better than those usually heard from who said he didn't have them, even though there were such experts, who, in retrospect, had better credentials of expertise than those who were wrong.

All of these actions and invocations work together to change the public perception and prevent change in a system that has just shown a serious or unconscionable result. Even without malice of forethought, these forces will prevent serious inquiry into the causes of a catastrophe, because they preserve the social order. And a lot of information that never, ever comes out, a lot of players who never seem to suffer any consequences for their action. And above all, invocations of complexity, and the ticking bomb: Something must be done now, regardless of norms, standards, laws, or dire things will happen. The situation is too complicated for anyone to understand. While the situation was building, it was nothing to worry about because we had seen it before under the expertise principle, and once it broke, there was uniform surprise that anything like this could occur. And finally collegiality: The players are not accused of crimes, even if they occurred. The problems are re-cast as political differences, competing theories. We don't put people in jail for theories, we have free speech and academic freedom, and besides, it was a crisis, we had to do something, times were different, you have to understand.

No matter what your opponent, or your co-conspirator for that matter, has done, it does not rise to the level of action, because no one wants to feel that their own actions might be so judged - even if they themselves have done nothing wrong. Regardless of how egregious the behavior of a colleague on the faculty at many academic institutions, the discussion of terminating a tenured professor will turn entirely on the question of whether or not taking action will lead down a slippery slope that will eventually threaten all the professors on the committee discussing the tenure review. It would only be in the case of public outcry so loud that it might threaten them from the outside that such an action would be taken, no matter what the alleged action or how despised the perpetrator. Sometimes this is a good thing, it limits all process to strict procedures and written terms for which tenure may be overridden. Usually it never gets to a full examination of those procedures, the idea of doing such a review will get shelved well before people debate the fine points of the removal process.

The War At Home and the War Against The People

One more input, and then we are ready to go back to figure out why the torture debate is forming the way it is. The roots of the war in Iraq. It has been obvious for a while now that some of the arguments and motivations all around in this war have their roots in the Vietnam War, the perceptions of why it was fought and how it was fought, the perceptions about how it concluded and why. Depending on point of view, these perceptions vary greatly. Depending on how much time and attention has been devoted to any given point of view or course of subsequent action, reactions and perceptions vary from extremely simpleminded to extremely complex. The overriding action that is important for this analysis is the interdependence between the progress in the war and the public perception at home. There was even a name for it at the time: It was called the War At Home. Famously, Simon and Garfunkel's Seven O'Clock News/Silent Night has in the background, "[Former Vice President Richard] Nixon also said 'Opposition to the War in this country is the greatest single weapon working against the U.S.'" Combined with an influential book called The Selling of the President 1968, there were the roots of a conscious manipulation of public opinion using marketing tools to influence politics and policy, and the belief that part of fighting a successful war was to fight the war at home, and that the decision of whether or not an action should be undertaken should not be left to the people, or to their representatives, but made by a small number of people who have the expertise, and the guts, to make them, usually in secret. Such secret decisions are necessary because only those who have full contact with the situation, and access to secrets, can be trusted to act properly on behalf of the people. This is a version of the anti-bureaucratic principle, that people in desk jobs don't know. It was on full display during the testimony of Oliver North before the Iran-Contra Committee (Cohen and Mitchell, Men of Zeal).

But managing the War At Home in the modern era is not an invocation itself. It has taken on the importance of a war itself. The scandal broken by the New York Times about the military analysts, and their relation to the Pentagon, had specific references to a psyops campaign. It is a well conceived, large, and broadly targeted campaign where the battlefront is the War At Home. If one feels like one is the target, if one feels like the American people are the enemy in this campaign, that is not really an accident. To the extent that the American people are capable of developing a reaction to the Global War on Terror that would cause it to come to an end other than that planned by its proponents, those Americans are the target and the enemy.

What are the tactics? There is a corps of military analysts who make sure the story that comes out from the press is compatible with the strategic and tactical goals of the war. Simultaneously, the embedding program has worked to make sure the message coming out from the real war is the message that would be most beneficial to the proponents. If that cannot be done, then it is the job of the analysts to lessen the impact and to challenge all points of view until the correct interpretation of the news becomes the norm. At the strategic level, members of the administration will fan out to the Sunday morning talk shows to present the message, and the talking points will be disseminated, and experts from think tanks supportive of the effort will be booked onto shows to present the proper point of view. When things don't work this well, there are the occasional firings, as with Gina Gray at Arlington National Cemetery recently in the news. The tactics do the following: Build support for the war, if the war goes badly, narrow the context of the part which is going badly. The religious civil war becomes criminal gunmen from militias and an outlaw group, al Qaeda. During the narrowing, work to prevent the information from flowing, reduce the profile of the war in the news. Remove the subjects from the portrayal that lead to changes in public perception -- coffins of soldiers returning home, burials. The public should be comfortable with what is happening, if that can be achieved, it should drop from their radar, they should be ignorant. This is not incompatible with a government which derives its mandate from the consent of the governed because of the anti-bureaucratic principle that only those on the ground should make such choices, the rest don't understand.

So now it's time for the bulleted list of invocations, principles and tactics:
  • ticking bomb invocation
  • collegiality invocation
  • complexity invocation
  • expertise principle
  • analysis hurdle
  • anti-bureaucratic principle
  • social framing
  • War At Home
  • psyops campaign
Why is the torture debate going the way it is going? Begin at the bottom of the list. There are serious stakes for the administration and those who carried out, and are carrying out, the system of torture and abuse. These are major war crimes, and in the case of those creating, through plan and policy, the system, crimes against humanity. The perception that crimes were committed must not be allowed to stand. The war against the public finding out how bad the abuse was, the war to keep reports like the Physicians for Human Rights reports to a small audience, must be won. The campaign against the wrong public opinion is every bit as important to the Global War on Terror as was the torture regime itself. The tools are similar to the campaign on the Iraq War: focus the discussion on a very small part of the real detainee interrogation program, and a single tactic -- the high value detainees and waterboarding. When necessary, make the tactical move of appearing to come clean -- admit to a few waterboardings, but point out that this occurred in the context of the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when things were different. We were chasing a ticking bomb. Use the anti-bureaucratic frame, push the idea that experts did this, and they had no choice, and people not in that situation don't understand. Trust the analysis hurdle. The members of the media would have to go through extensive work to piece the picture together in anywhere near the detail necessary to understand your moves. Rely on the social framing: those saying the problem is much bigger or much worse than "enhanced interrogation" are saying something the public doesn't want to believe, and they are saying something that "none of the experts believed at the time".

Once the story is built this way, the psyops campaign has succeeded. The media can be relied on to invoke the expertise principle and pretend that we have seen this before, even though we really haven't. They can be expected to have, as their worst paradigms for comparison, Richard Nixon, and Joe McCarthy, even though Torquemada and Pol Pot might be more appropriate. Although occasionally someone will say it, almost never will any of these paradigms be reached or exceeded, which relegates the problem to the realm of the political.

At which point, the collegial principle will take over. No one wants this to turn into a criminal matter, because everyone believes that if a political matter turns criminal, we are headed down a slippery slope. The fact that it was a criminal matter to begin with, and that there is no slippery slope that really one can go down from torture, except possibly mass atrocity and genocide, gets lost for now. Time, for scandals, is like Carl Sandburg's Grass. And so we have predictions in the press that nothing will eventually come of the torture policy scandal. But it isn't a scandal, its a crime. But the truth seeps out from crimes and does not go away. But there are those, international prosecutors, investigators who refuse to quit, lawyers representing those tortured, who won't let the grass grow here. Specifically for those in Congress, for whom this isn't a scandal but an obligation, the belief that it is a political matter about which one should be collegial is currently strong. A wake up call is needed.

Notice: As soon as possible, we will be posting a letter that we wish to send to the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. We will be asking for an investigation, under Article 15 of the Rome Statute, which allows the Prosecutor to investigate at his discretion. We would like to add signatures to this letter,and will put up some method by which people can add their names. Alternatively, you may email the authors of this blog and ask to be added to the list.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Inspiring Torture

Today, people were shocked by the news. In the New York Times, Scott Shane had an article on the front page, China Inspired Interrogations at Guantanamo. I got a lot of questions about it, which surprised me. It surprised me because last week (and this) I have been wearing an orange ribbon around every where I go. I started last Monday. On Friday, the day after the International Day Against Torture, someone finally asked me what it was and why I was wearing it.

The person was, to be fair, looking for small talk (trying to distract me during a medical procedure). When I told her it was for the International Day Against Torture, and that it commemorated the entry into force of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, I got asked if this was a convention I had attended, and did I get the ribbon there? Sometimes, when you watch a lot of hearings, whose pace really is quickening, and see a lot of activity with human rights groups releasing their reports, and see at least a blurb in the paper about one or two of the reports, a feeling builds that its got momentum, and the tide is turning. And then someone who is in their early twenties, and is trying hard to do good for people, knows nothing about either the current situation with respect to torture, or the long history of the world trying to end it. It could be worse. A businessman told me that torture just wasn't on his radar. Umm, if you wait long enough, if America keeps to this path, it certainly will be.

But the article about the techniques coming from China struck some kind of nerve. It's hard to say why. There have been many articles that described the SERE techniques as having evolved from concerns about the brainwashing of POWs during the Korean War. Here's one from Daily Kos last year about the CIA that mentions where they came from. The two psychologists mentioned, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were also featured in this article on teaching SERE techniques at Guantanamo at Salon. This article, also by Mark Benjamin, specifically mentions the KUBARK manual, in the context of sensory deprivation, written in 1963 to summarize what had been learned by researching the Chinese tactics. And even the movie Conspiracy Theory (1997) mentions MKULTRA, another derivative of the study of the techniques that underlay brainwashing. That's if you don't want to talk about The Manchurian Candidate, which came out in 1962, and was based on tactics used on American POWs in the Korean War. Perhaps nobody realized that the Chinese were our adversaries in that war. That would be really sad, a bad day indeed for all the history teachers in the country. More likely, nobody read all those other articles? Or was the surprise over the never before in mainstream media print revelation that those tactics had never been designed to get intelligence, only confessions, and were used for false confessions by the Chinese? Since it is, as far as I can tell, really true that this little fact has never been in mainstream print before, let's hope this was the cause of the surprise.

Some of the outrage was caused by this "proof" that torture produces false data. Believe it or not, technically that is not true. The truth of a coerced confession depends on the truth of the statement itself, which is not a decision made by the prisoner who is confessing under torture. The statement is given to the prisoner by those forcing it, and the prisoner confesses it. So it may be true or false, and its veracity has nothing to do with the brutality of the method. Confessions simply are not a form of information collection. They are a form of propaganda, when the confession is broadcast, as it was during the Korean War, they are a form of intimidation, when people see how broken the prisoner is, or when the prisoner realizes that there is nothing they can do to stop themselves from giving in. But they are not a form of information extraction. Consequently, they don't stop ticking bombs, they don't keep troops from encountering IEDs or running into sniper fire, they don't provide intelligence at all.

Torture has a long history as a form of confession. In fact, that was its purpose in Roman times, and that was its purpose when used by the Inquisitors of the church. It was its purpose during the Cold War, along with the propaganda purpose mentioned above. There are certainly fears that it will be more. The fear that drove the research in the 1950's was twofold: That these techniques would be used to cause captured soldiers to give up sensitive information, and that they could be somehow brainwashed, have their psyches rewritten with secret instructions to cause harm after their release at a later date. Experiments and programs were conducted on both fronts: SERE was the result of efforts focusing on inuring soldiers to giving up sensitive information, and the sensory deprivation and MKULTRA programs were concentrated on seeing whether psyches could be rewritten. In the latter case, they learned that the old psyche could be forced to come apart, but had trouble actually writing a new one. Countless (because we still don't know who they all were) experimental subject disasters later, the latter project was given up, but the methods became part of the documents, like KUBARK, and they became part of the methodology drawn on by both the CIA and the U.S. military in their recent excursions into torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Mitchell and Jessen also had numerous other studies at their disposal, like the Milgram experiments and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

It could be argued that SERE is where the belief in the existence of an interrogation method including torture as its basis survives. The Chinese, and from descriptions the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War as well, seem to have used the methods as confession methods, not to save their prisoners souls, but to put them on display for propaganda purposes. It has always been the West that seems to have believed more in the value of torture for extracting information. It is in our movies, long before the series '24', but certainly perfected in that series. The concept of torturing information out of prisoners is even in comedy skits ("Sign zee papers, old man..."). But confession is what it most usually produces, and confessions are what American interrogators chiefly have got out of it.

That being the case, there is little reason for it, besides intimidation, propaganda, and revenge.