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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Different Episode of '24'

All facts are not created equal

A while back, I attended a medical symposium, and one of the lecturers gave a long accounting of changing medical research practices moving towards evidence-based treatments. Okay, don't get scared, your doctor is not treating you based on voodoo or divine inspiration. What the talk was about was a combination of changing standards, funding, and abilities that lead to a large body of scientific evidence that isn't all equally reliable. A study done a hundred years ago may have been an individual case study, or based solely on a couple of outcomes of a single doctor, without any sophisticated procedures in place for eliminating confounding variables, systemic biases, and a host of other plagues of good scientific evidence. Likewise a modern study may have been a pilot, or something undertaken in a small lab or with a small amount of funding, so it might not have the statistical significance of a large, well-funded, long term effort. So the doctor was speaking of going back through all the diagnostic procedures and treatments, and labeling each fact according to the level of evidence, lowest would be case studies, then small studies, then large statistical samples. This might, in some cases be a prelude to revisiting procedures, or it just might be used to inform the physician who is examining a patient about the possibilities for exceptions to what she has learned.

But it is very telling that what this approach admits is that not all evidence is equally truthful. In time, one would hope that algorithms for working with that evidence, be they human algorithms or machine algorithms, would approach the truth making necessary adjustments for the lack of certainty. More importantly, accumulations of evidence are especially susceptible to this problem, in that they grow by agglomeration, and the next fact acquired will often depend on the question asked, which in turn depends on what is the accumulated evidence so far. This is innate to humans, it is how they accommodate to their world, so it is impossible that it would be done otherwise. Periodic review, necessary to keep the accumulation clean, might as well be called peer-iodic review: it won't happen without impartial persons, without impartial protocols, or without public scrutiny, the information in the accumulation has been fitted together, and all seems therefore logically part of a seamless whole.

'24' with Innocent Prisoners

Panic and torture, therefore, quite literally destroy the truth. Many members of the forensics community, the intelligence community, the press, the intelligensia, and the blogosphere have opined that information gained by torture is unreliable. On this blog previously, I have put together a case that it produces confessions, not intelligence, that even when one believes one is listening to intelligence, one is not, one is listening to confessions, and those confessions are what the prisoner believes the torturer wants to hear. There is a larger sense in which torture is unreliable for intelligence. It is the ultimate corrupter of an accumulation of evidence, and therefore taints all the evidence in the collection, even that which was obtained by other means.

How would the ratings reflect on the following fictitious scenario for a season of the infamous dopamine/adrenalin show '24'? First hour, Jack Bauer is confronted with a terrorist attack in progress, that he can't avert. The terrorists use a biological weapon, say H5N1 in weaponized form. Simultaneously, he gets word that a bomb is lurking again in Los Angeles. He doesn't know what kind of bomb, he believes that the two events are related, he has the usual 24 hours to keep Los Angeles from being completely destroyed (Aw, come on, what's a good thriller without the famous shock waves emanating outward from Capitol Records?). Let's say that by the 4th hour, he has a suspect in custody in the bomb threat, and by this time there are 10 dead of the flu. So he lights into his guy about the bomb, and every second question is about influenza, and he wants to know names. He mentions a foreign terrorist organization over and over, having read somewhere that they are investigating just such a biological weapon. He really wants information about the bomb, but his prisoner, desperate to make the torture stop, decides to concoct a story about a plot to create a biological weapon to attack Newark, picks the name of a taxi driver he knows as a perpetrator, links it to the organization that Jack has mentioned, and says that's all he knows, he doesn't know about any nuclear devices in L.A.

Information goes out over the wire. The FBI confirms that it has been watching a group near Newark because of a SAR from a local bank. There isn't a suspect with the same name that was mentioned, but a slightly different name is linked to one of the people who donated to the group that had the SAR. They pick up the head of the group, and Jack Bauer gets his brother, Harry Bauer, to do the deed on the new suspect. Meanwhile, they put out an APB for the person with the slightly different name, and all of Newark goes on alert. Intelligence operations are launched, and epidemiologists are brought in to figure out how the 10 cases of bird flu could have originated in Newark, and all passengers on flights between Newark and Chicago are searched and tested for flu. One tests positive, and is taken into custody. Information about a bomb threat in Los Angeles is modified, because of data taken by Harry Bauer, who tortured his suspect and got ties back to the original suspect, confirming that everything the original suspect said during torture is true, and gave all the details after being grilled on Los Angeles and the bomb threat, of a nationwide plan, originating in a cave in Uzbekistan, to launch H5N1 bird flu in Los Angeles using a modified fuel-air bomb that will spray aerosol bird flu and create poisonously infected "colloidal smog" by reacting to the sunlight. Interpol is alerted in Uzbekistan, the Uzbekis begin to round up the usual suspects, who under harsh treatment themselves, admit that they bought 100,000 contaminated chickens with money from the Newark charity, but only for Uzbeki soup kitchens.

By this time, everyone who has been tortured is guilty, a large conspiracy has been revealed, there is confirmation from "independent sources", and there are dead people. The fact that none of the burgeoning plot and scenario has any basis that cannot be traced back to torture, or to hypotheses formed on the basis of information linked to torture, has not occurred to anyone collecting intelligence, or attempting to defeat the terrorist attack on Los Angeles. At this point, they locate the taxi driver, and he is a man who has overstayed his tourist visa by 3 years, and hails from Uzbekistan. It is learned that he had a license to practice medicine back in the old country. He is located and chased down in a manhunt, arrested at gunpoint, and is shipped back to Los Angeles on a Gulfstream jet with tail numbers N950-???, stripped, shackled, hooded, and with an anal suppository. In actuality, he knows nothing about the whole plot, is scared for his family now that he has been busted on what he thinks is an immigration charge, and his family sees his picture on the news, "Terrorist Kingpin Arrested, Flu Bomb Imminent".

What will happen now? He is the nexus. There is no way for him to carry on the forensic chain letter, his ignorance will be interpreted as Manchester Manual training, and any admission will be checked, and if it comes up dry, he will now be asked again. If the bomb doesn't go off on schedule, the terrorist network is still in existence, confirmed independently by Uzbekistan, and potentially dangerous "suspects" with Uzbeki names begin to fill federal databases and watch lists. Three months later, after severe sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation, he begins to crack, and admits to a series of crimes he's been asked about. He names names. The cycle begins again. As more links are formed in what may have been a very clean database to begin with, more and more of the database is corrupted by the tortured confessions. They go back to this man, over and over again to get more information, over a period of years. Finally, during one interrogation, someone gets furious at their frustrations with being unable to keep their country safe, and the man is beaten to death. Two years later, the 10 cases of bird flu are attributed to an immigrant from West Africa who was sick when they boarded a plane, but hadn't exhibited symptoms yet. A story that a great threat was averted circulates, an investigation over the death of the taxi driver finds that everyone acted in what they thought was the best interests of national security, and papers write about how it was a different time then.

True confessions in a place where truth does not exist

Notice how, in this fiction, the corruption spreads through the facts, changing them to support theories derived from torture. Notice how the torture becomes focussed on gaining intelligence about those changed facts. Notice how confessions -- answers to questions the prisoner believes are already known and will assert his cooperativeness -- are mixed inexorably with intelligence. It's hard to overemphasize this: The prisoner is giving facts that will prove his cooperation, not his reliability. Cooperation stops torture, and the prisoner has only one goal. Confessions are always a sign of cooperation. Embellishments are meant to convince the torturer that the prisoner is cooperating. Embellishments become the subjects of the next interrogation. So the plot can only grow larger. The urgency can only increase. The torture must become harsher. The torturer and his accumulation of fact must separate from reality over time, there is no force pushing in any other direction. When the nexus is captured, it is impossible to presume innocence, because it is impossible to re-anchor the process in reality. It is impossible to know how many changes to the fabric of the case have been made from each wrong fact, so it is impossible to return to a state of null suspicion. With no reality, there can be no innocents.

In the end, there is no database that has touched tortured information that still represents the truth. And in the end, the most harshly tortured person will always be one who is at the nexus, but is innocent.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Refoulement of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui

One of the psychological coercions that many of the former Guantanamo inmates, and other inmates have alleged that U.S. interrogators subjected them to has been the sounds of a woman screaming, which they are usually told is their wife. They are often told she is being subject to abuse, including rape. Moazzam Begg, a former prisoner of both Guantanamo and of Bagram, in Afghanistan, related (Begg, Enemy Combatant) that he at some point decided it was not his wife he heard at Bagram, at a later point he decided it wasn't a tape, either, but a woman prisoner. The United States has repeatedly denied that there are female prisoners at Bagram, nevertheless, in early July of this year, Yvonne Ridley, a British correspondent, and an activist for Cage Prisoners, made a plea to free the prisoner known only as "Prisoner 650", whom she cast as "The Grey Lady of Bagram", in reference to her ghost detainee status.

As usually happens with any story like this, it continues to get stranger, and the U.S. government's behavior continues to become completely inappropriate. A short while later, also in July, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a respected human rights group in Asia which tracks abuses in Central, South, and Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, put out an urgent appeal, in which they linked the Grey Lady and Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani Ph.D. who went missing in early 2003, along with her three children, and has long been believed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others, to be in secret detention in United States custody.

Then suddenly, the United States, which had maintained that it didn't know her whereabouts, even though there were assurances to her family by Pakistani authorities that she was in custody, did an about face, and claimed that she had been arrested in Ghazni, Afghanistan, southwest of Kabul, carrying bottles of liquids supposedly for making explosives, with a copy of, or xeroxes from the Anarchist's Arsenal in her purse, and her eldest son (currently 12). We note in passing, just for completeness, that the Anarchist's Arsenal is available from Amazon books. Allegedly, American officials, consisting of U.S. military and FBI agents, arrived to question her, and she allegedly grabbed a gun that had been put on the floor near her (she was allegedly behind a cloth screen), and began yelling and shot twice, allegedly at the Afghani officer, and yelled "Allah Akbar" and "Get the fuck out of here." The U.S. military shot back and supposedly wounded her in the chest (although she now has a wound in the lower abdomen), after which they wrestled her to the ground, which supposedly required several American males to do, she was finally subdued when she passed out from her injury. For completeness, and also because it came up in court, she weighs less than 50 kilos.

Yes, court. She was then supposedly treated in Afghanistan, extradition was approved by the Afghan government, and she arrived in New York City to be arraigned in court on charges of attempting to kill a U.S. federal officer, on August 3rd. She was apparently too weak to do this, she answered affirmatively when asked if she understood the charges, but then shook her head "in disbelief". The judge made a remark at the speed with which she was extradited, saying that he couldn't get a person extradited from the Bronx to Manhattan in that time. A bail hearing was set for August 11th. Her lawyers asked for medical treatment, claiming that she was "oozing", and that she was exceedingly weak (the new photo of her does not look at all healthy, she looks emaciated and her skin color is not good, her nose has been broken at some point). The judge ordered medical care for her as well.

Support for her case has been building all week in Pakistan and elsewhere, articles openly disbelieving the FBI story and calling for her fair treatment in court have been published in Britain, across the Middle East, in India and Pakistan. Rallies have been called in Pakistan in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. The widely distributed story is that she is indeed the Grey Lady, that she has been tortured, and raped repeatedly, and held for 5 years in Bagram. AHRC published an assessment of her photograph, calling her dehydrated, and alleging a broken and badly set nose, and offered information that she is believed to have had a kidney removed for some reason while in captivity. Human rights organizations have not backed down from their contention that she has been held in Bagram or at a black site. The FBI for its part is contending that she has not been in custody. Her family has contended for years that her mother was told of her detention by a Pakistani official on a motorcycle who came to her house, informed her of the arrest, and warned her not to talk publicly about it. They believe the person was from the ISI.

The protests in Pakistan charge General Pervez Musharraf with selling her to the Americans. It has taken the dislike of Musharraf, whose position is more than precarious right now (the U.S. government went from maintaining a stance of backing following Pakistani law, and leaking doubts that the coalition government could really impeach him to pleading with the Pakistani government for him to be retired with dignity) to new heights, with banners that read, "How many dollars is one Pakistani?" , and while the flags being burned are American, the slogans are in anger at the Pakistani government's collaboration with a nation which they believe disappears and tortures their countrymen, and now their women, and their distinguished scientists (Dr. Siddiqui has a bachelors degree from MIT in biology and a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from Brandeis University, Separating the components of imitation, 223 pages, 2001., on visual memory and imitation of visual cues). The case is also being picked up by the Pakistani lawyers' movement, since the judiciary was sacked by Musharraf last November largely to avoid having to produce some of the 500+ "disappeared" persons into court, as ordered. Many feel that the United States was behind the sacking, and that the U.S. currently opposes restoration of the Judiciary, especially Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudry, who had ordered the "disappeared" prisoners charged or released, and above all brought into court to face their charges.

All of which brings us to today's hearing. Aafia Siddiqui was due in court in New York this afternoon for a bail hearing. When the hearing convened, she was wheeled into court in a wheelchair, and her lawyers asked that she be given immediate access to a female doctor. I don't have more complete information than that, yet, but my guess is they also asked for appropriate food, a copy of the Koran, facilitation for prayers, and filed a complaint about a requirement for a strip search every time she meets with anyone from outside the prison. The reason I believe these are the other requests is that she was granted a visit from the Pakistani consulate, and he asked for these things in a letter to her lawyers on behalf of the government of Pakistan.

Torture and harsh treatment have now reached our shores, even before any of the Guantanamo detainees have been able to appear in U.S. courts (that is if Congress doesn't pass yet another circumscription of habeas corpus again). Siddiqui had not seen a lawyer until just prior to her arraignment because of the search requirement, which violates her sense of privacy as a Muslim woman (she asserts), and seems an odd requirement for someone who is already in custody, except that it parallels treatment of al-Qahtani at Guantanamo (Philippe Sands, The Torture Team), and of numerous prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Denial of medical treatment started for this American government with the "high-value detainee" Abu Zubaydah in 2002, Jane Mayer quotes the President of the United States as having asked "Who authorized putting him on pain medication?" (Mayer, The Black Sites, p. 143). Abu Zubaydah had been shot 3 times and fallen off a roof as a result).

The prosecutor in court today claimed the reason that Aafia Siddiqui had not seen a doctor yet in 6 days since the judge had ordered medical care was that it was a "complicated situation", because Ms. Siddiqui was a "high-security risk" (Withholding medical care is a violation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, whether or not the prisoner is considered combatant or civilian). For a point of reference, after Abu Zubaydah was captured, the government felt he needed to be kept alive at all costs because he had such important information, that they immediately flew a Johns Hopkins surgeon from Washington, D.C. to either Pakistan or Thailand, to do the operations needed to keep him alive so he could be "interrogated" (Mayer, The Black Sites, pp. 142,ff.). Another reference point, just to put things in the starkest terms, Ms. Siddiqui has supposedly had some of her intestines removed as a result of the wound, she is already missing a kidney (relevant where septic shock is concerned), and it is unclear whether it is just sepsis or whether she may be bleeding internally. Should we inquire of John Yoo as to whether or not that constitutes pain consistent with organ failure or death? It would under the protocols from which those tests were lifted. There is now a new allegation that Aafia Siddiqui may have suffered brain damage at some point. She has, herself, said she was imprisoned, and tortured, but is now not talking about it on advice from her lawyers, but one comment that got out first was that she had trouble describing where she was held except that it was very small.

There are many things about this case that are very hard. The reputation of the United States when it comes to detention is such that it matters very little to other countries at this point whether or not American authorities are at all capable of telling the truth, it is assumed they are not. Allegations of rape of a woman, when added to any other charge leveled at a foreign government are about as incendiary as any, and have been for thousands of years. Her children have not been accounted for by U.S. authorities no matter what story of custody is believed, and that is unacceptable under international law. Pervez Musharraf now stands accused of illegal refoulement, of human trafficking, and of sending his countrymen and women into the hands of the U.S., whose agencies, the military, the FBI, and the CIA, are all assumed to be, unless proven otherwise beyond all doubt, and that seems unlikely, agents of torture, abuse, and defilement.

There is a limited time left for the Americans to quit their current arc of medical mistreatment and do what the need to in order that Aafia Siddiqui regains her health. It has now become a full diplomatic matter, since the Pakistani government has made public pleas for a fair trial at the very least, and is requesting that she be returned to Pakistan and her children restored to her. U.S.-Pakistani relations are having their bumps already right now, and with 584 U.S. soldiers dead since the conflict began in Afghanistan, the United States cannot afford to lose more diplomatic face in that region. So at this point, it matters very little what Dr. Aafia Siddiqui may or may not have done. For the record, her colleagues (those who remember her at MIT and Brandeis) no more believe she is al Qaeda than those of Bruce Ivins believe the FBI right now.

What thousands of people around the world do believe, in her case, is that she is the Grey Lady of Bagram, prisoner 650, whose screams were heard by multiple independent sources, who was said to have lost her mind from repeated rape, for some time, whose children are missing, that the U.S. does not want her to have a fair day in court, and that she is the victim of many American war crimes, including torture, rape, and disappearance. If she also dies from want of medical care, it will be seen as murder, no matter what the U.S. government decides to call it.

One of the consequences of a reign of terror is that nobody believes the country of the perpetrators anymore. For a test of this, how much of what I have written here, did anyone see on American TV?