Reverting to Form

by , September 10, 2006

Well, you can say this for President Bush. Even in the midst of a clearly politicized action designed to show candor and that he is changing and evolving as the threats from terrorism evolve, he stays remarkably close to the concepts that have guided him since September 12, 2001. Push for power and keep the reins of power centralized in as few hands as possible. Push the limits of decency and constitutionality to the outer limits. Use the attacks and America’s response for partisan advantage whenever possible. Don’t pay attention to carping critics.

In some ways the speech the president gave Wednesday in the White House about terrorist suspects was the speech he should have given five years ago. Get Congress to authorize military commissions or tribunals to try suspected terrorists? Check. See to it that the lines between extreme interrogation tactics and outright torture are carefully drawn so those in the field don’t step over the line? Check. Make sure policies fit the Geneva Convention on detaining prisoners? Check.

It would have been a fine idea to put all these mechanisms in place shortly after the attacks of 2001, when it became clear the United States was going to engage terrorists. Getting Congress on board by way of authorizing military commissions and defining how they operate would have helped to build support for aggressive prosecutions of prisoners. Clear policies on prisoner treatment might have helped to avoid confusion by guards and interrogators and later embarrassment for the government.

The trouble is that instead of engaging Congress and the public early on, the Bush administration operated almost exclusively by executive order and with as much secrecy as possible. Its lawyers (none of whom had done actual interrogations) wrote memos that blurred the distinction between legitimate interrogation tactics and torture, creating confusion in the field that led to deaths of prisoners in Afghanistan and huge embarrassment at Abu Ghraib.

And the current charm offensive, once you get past the charm portion, masks an effort simply to continue and validate the failed policies the administration has been pursuing since the get-go.

Abstract Torture

What is striking to me is that most of the enthusiasm for torture – pardon me if that’s an overstatement, but it applies to some circles – came almost exclusively from abstract thinkers without direct experience in interrogation rather than those with practical experience. We had intellectuals and quasi-intellectuals conjuring up worst-case scenarios – would you use torture if you knew the guy had information that could prevent an attack scheduled in a half hour? – more appropriate to a late-night college bull session than a serious discussion of likely scenarios in the real world. Pardon me if some of the conclusions – of course you would and you know it! – tended toward the ghoulish and even the vicariously sadistic in my view.

In my slot at the Register I have occasion to talk to a wide variety of people with practical experience, including retired cops and military interrogators. Every one of them told me the most likely outcome of using tactics verging on torture was that the detainee would tell the interrogator anything he thought the interrogator wanted to hear rather than the truth. The truth might sometimes come from torture, but it’s far from guaranteed and in fact rather unlikely. The most extreme tactic any of them had used was making the prisoner stand naked while being questioned, which several claimed was effective.

So why the widespread enthusiasm for using torture or at least going right up to the borders of outright torture? I’m afraid it doesn’t speak well for the civility and decency of a disturbing number of Americans.

Concrete Abuses

Besides composing memos that undermined the relatively clear guidelines in the Army Field Manual on acceptable interrogation techniques, the administration rounded up the usual Muslim suspects in the United States and kept them confined for months before acknowledging that few had anything to do with terrorism and releasing them or deporting them on minor immigration violations. It shipped captives to Guantánamo and simply kept them there, not classified as POWs but without charges filed and no access to lawyers.

All this “energy in the executive,” unchecked by Congress and only admonished much later by the judiciary, eventually and perhaps inevitably led to abuses and embarrassment. So now the administration is in need of, as Dahlia Lithwick in Slate put it, “a big fat legal do-over.” In addition, coming forward with demands that Congress act 60 days before the midterm elections also carries the perception that much of this is done for political rather than national security reasons.

What is striking is that beyond acknowledging that the CIA really does maintain secret prison facilities abroad, which administration flacks had previously half-heartedly denied, most of the administration proposals amount to asking Congress to rubberstamp the kinds of policies that got the administration in trouble in the first place.

For example, the Supreme Court, in its Hamdan decision earlier this year, ruled that the military tribunals the administration proposed were impermissible not just because they had to be authorized by Congress, but because they proposed to operate in secret and to deny suspects the right to see the evidence that might be used in secret against them. And yet on Thursday the House Armed Services committee held a hearing on a bill that would allow such information to be kept secret from the accused. It was left to experienced military lawyers and prosecutors, like Maj. Gen. Scott Black, the Army’s Judge Advocate General, to argue that “I believe the accused should see that evidence” in the interest of basic American fairness.

Once again, the practical experience of those who have actually participated in or overseen military justice was ignored in favor of what seems to me a variety of abstract bloodthirstiness.

Advocates of blurring lines – between interrogation and torture, between secret trials and fair trials – argue that the terrorists wouldn’t cut Americans such breaks. True enough. But those of us who advocate special efforts to be fair and transparent do so not because we expect terrorist to reciprocate but because we are Americans who believe in civilized behavior and the special role of this country as an example of how to succeed while doing things right.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration doesn’t seem to share that vision of America.

Remembering 9/11

In the current atmosphere, reinforced by the cynical efforts of the administration to try again to frighten people into voting Republican, it is not easy now to remember the feeling that swept over our country just less than five years ago. Our country, our people, had suffered a devastating and destructive attack by a shadowy but malignant force whose motivations we struggled to try to understand.

In the aftermath, however, we were, at least for a time, all Americans together, all determined to figure out who (the why could wait) and bring them to justice, all determined that this attack would not only not destroy this great country but make it stronger. The rest of the world shared our pain, our sorrow, our anger, our determination.

It couldn’t last, of course. A country as large and diverse as the United States could not stay unified forever. Besides, unity is an overrated virtue, especially in a country founded on individualism and freedom. Since politics is inherently grounded in opposition to the other, it was no doubt inevitable that this period of unity would revert to partisanship. The polarization of the present day is troubling in its own way, however, if only because it feeds the illusion that there are only two choices in public life when in fact there are thousands of alternatives potentially open.

Those who fly are reminded each time they board a plane of what the terrorists have done to a society whose primordial instinct is to be free and trusting and open. Small towns across America have shiny new fire trucks in tribute to the American tendency to throw money randomly at a perceived problem. 9/11 didn’t “change everything,” but it changed a lot. The government has more power and Americans have less freedom. I’d still like to think, however, that the spirit of freedom remains.

We live now with our leaders’ failure to understand that the terrorists don’t hate us so much for who we are, with our vaunted freedoms and occasional license, but for what our government does in other parts of the world. The invasion of Iraq compounded the perception that Uncle Sam seeks not so much vindication against those who harm us as domination of other parts of the world.

Attacking the Wrong Targets

Instead of concentrating on those who attacked us the government sought to settle an older score, adding a thin veneer, hardly plausible even at the time, of terrorism-related justification. Now Iraq has become a recruiting tool for jihadist terrorists and a sand trap for the military, consuming resources and lives in a cause that is difficult to define, making the definition of victory ever murkier.

To be sure, there is evidence that deploying financial, special forces and other military and law enforcement tools has degraded al-Qaeda into an outfit that inspires and assists in rather than carries out terrorist activities. Yet it may be more dangerous in that role, as the threat becomes more dispersed and capable of striking societies – as London and Madrid now know all too well – from within as well as from without.

Osama bin Laden may not be the master coordinator, but he is still alive and at large, provoking mischief and misery.

Are we safer now? It is a plaintive question without a clear answer. Government agencies, private businesses and ordinary households have increased security in ways both wise and foolish. But we live with the knowledge that in a country as open as ours, with so many tempting targets, a determined terrorist can and probably eventually will find a way to do damage.

We also know, however, that America, with all its divisions and occasional hostilities, is remarkably resilient. And so long as we stay true to our highest ideals of liberty, justice and compassion, hostile forces may be able to hurt us, but they can’t destroy us as a country.

Read more by Alan Bock