Thursday, September 07, 2006

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio..."

Larry Johnson:

According to Bush, secret prisons and torture have kept America safe. Not entirely true. While fessing up to the secret prisons, one of the critical things Bush failed to tell the American people was that CIA interrogators learned the hard way that torture was not an effective interrogation method. Books written by Jim Risen and Ron Suskind during the past two years provide compelling accounts that torture against people, particularly Khalid Sheikh Mohamad (KSM), was ineffective. Suskind recounts that KSM, one of the masterminds behind the 9-11 attack, was waterboarded--a technique designed to make you feel like you are drowning. Interrogators also threatened to rape and murder his family. KSM reportedly replied, "Do what you will, my family will be with God".
This, to put it bluntly, intrigued me; and since I haven't yet read Suskind's book, I went looking for more information.

As 2003 dragged into 2004, the executive branch became frustrated with the lack of actionable intel being prized out of jailed extremists. It was in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that, “with such prodding, the United States would slip into the deepest of ethical abysses.” In 2004, Mohammed was being held at a secret detention center in Thailand, where interrogators had for months been throwing the worst they could at him—waterboarding, sleep deprivation, death threats—and getting useless scraps in return. Then the message came down from Langley to do whatever was necessary. The result was Mohammed being told his two children (also in U.S. custody) would be hurt if he didn’t cooperate. The senior al Qaeda blithely responded that even if they died, they’d be in a better place. And so the White House’s chest-thumping bravado ran headlong into a cold, hard fact: standard interrogation procedures work by establishing a relationship with the prisoner, not by escalating threats, ala Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer on 24. The reason, as Suskind puts it, is simple: “Once you do something as horrific as threaten someone’s children, and it doesn’t work—there’s nowhere else to go.”
KSM, by the way, did "confess." He just held out for awhile:

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

"The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.
But remember: according to our President, it isn't "torture." It's "an alternative set of interrogation procedures." And that is the language Americans have adopted. Note how quickly this Newsweek article, which first reported on that "the Bush administration formally told the CIA it couldn't be prosecuted for any technique short of inflicting the kind of pain that accompanies 'organ failure' or 'death,'" adopts the label "torture lite." Apparently if we just ad an invented adjective to the subject, it's suddenly not "torture," and therefore not bad. This is the attitude Bush was counting on in making his announcement yesterday.

But does torture even work? Well, back to the ABC article:

It is "bad interrogation. I mean you can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture's bad enough," said former CIA officer Bob Baer.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and a deputy director of the State Department's office of counterterrorism, recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "What real CIA field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust … than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Nazis and the Soviets."

One argument in favor of their use: time. In the early days of al Qaeda captures, it was hoped that speeding confessions would result in the development of important operational knowledge in a timely fashion.

However, ABC News was told that at least three CIA officers declined to be trained in the techniques before a cadre of 14 were selected to use them on a dozen top al Qaeda suspects in order to obtain critical information. In at least one instance, ABC News was told that the techniques led to questionable information aimed at pleasing the interrogators and that this information had a significant impact on U.S. actions in Iraq.

According to CIA sources, Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi, after two weeks of enhanced interrogation, made statements that were designed to tell the interrogators what they wanted to hear. Sources say Al Libbi had been subjected to each of the progressively harsher techniques in turn and finally broke after being water boarded and then left to stand naked in his cold cell overnight where he was doused with cold water at regular intervals.

His statements became part of the basis for the Bush administration claims that Iraq trained al Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons. Sources tell ABC that it was later established that al Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.

"This is the problem with using the waterboard. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear," one source said.

However, sources said, al Libbi does not appear to have sought to intentionally misinform investigators, as at least one account has stated. The distinction in this murky world is nonetheless an important one. Al Libbi sought to please his investigators, not lead them down a false path, two sources with firsthand knowledge of the statements said.
And then there is Suskind's assessment:

After months of interdepartmental exchanges over the detainment, interrogation, and prosecution of captives in the “war on terror”... the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.
And apparently even the "confession" of KSM wasn't enough, because the CIA went on to threaten his family; and that's when they ran into a brick wall. When you are worse than your enemy, when you make life for your enemy unbearable, what does your enemy have to fear from you?

Perversely, it becomes a spiritual question. Torture is but one way of denying spirituality, that is, full humanity, to another person. If I deny you equality with me, I can treat you with impunity, if I like. When I do that, of course, my own hold on spirituality is forfeit. But on another level entirely, what do we do when our materialism runs headlong into a spirituality which doesn't recognize the limits of our concerns?

This intrigues me in part because of the vigorous rejection of even the possibility of spirituality by some in left blogistan (and so in the world). Such a rejection is clearly at work in this Administration. Unable to consider their enemies to be human beings, this Administration endangers the humanity of all of us. Surely being human is more than genetic characteristics, physical attributes, cultural consaquinity. Surely there is something more that joins us than genus and species. Even Sartre's anti-metaphysical existential ethics posits some kind of responsiblity for me when I choose an ethic which will apply to you (as any ethic must). The complete removal of both ethics and spirituality, however, leaves only a howling darkness, an abyss of the deepest blackness for which there is not only no bottom, but no edge to stand on. It seems to me to be the very definition of "hell."

We cannot look down into it, we can only fall. As NPR noted this morning, we have "detainees" in "limbo." It is no accident that ancient doctrine of the Catholic church is the very definition of a "no-place," a place between worlds, one of infinite and eternal detention. Why can't we release "detainees" from Gitmo? Because they haven't been charged with any crime, and yet we insist they be detained in their home countries. Under what authority, those countries ask? And so the limbo continues. More and more only medieval concepts seem to suffice to explain, or even discuss, our present situation. Ironically, the medievalists chose those terms to explain spiritual matters. Now we use them to reduce spirit to a negation. But the only spirituality we can deny, the only spirituality we can attempt to destroy, is our own. In that sense, Sartre's ethic is entirely right: when I choose, I choose for all humankind. But I can only choose for myself.

It is our choices that define us.

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