Torture: The Plot Sickens

It is perhaps another sign of the decadence of conventional politics as the empire unravels, even as it – like the late Soviet empire – appears close to the zenith of its power. The most conspicuous players in the debate over torture that Obama apparently wanted to put behind us have become Nancy Pelosi and Dick Cheney, surely two of the least attractive political figures of our time, an era that does not want for candidates for that dubious distinction.

Nancy, of course, has been caught up in a "what did she know and when did she know it?" moment, fed by her own lack of candor and apparent surprise that members of the usually supine Washington press corps would actually ask pointed questions just because she has given contradictory answers over a number of days to the question of whether, as a ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, she knew full well that the U.S. was engaged in coercive interrogation as far back as 2002.

As for former vice president Dick Cheney, he’s become a one-man campaign to justify the torture (or enhanced interrogation, if you prefer) regimen pushed by the Bush administration. In several recent appearances, most recently on CBS’ Face the Nation, Cheney has argued that enhanced interrogation was key – he has come closing to making it the single factor – in preventing more al-Qaeda attacks following 9/11. He has also argued that in changing these policies President Obama has made the country much more vulnerable to a future terrorist attack.

Asked by Bob Schieffer if he had any regrets about pushing for, er, enhanced interrogation, he was forthright: "No regrets. I think it was absolutely the right thing to do. I’m convinced, absolutely convinced, that we saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives." Cheney has begun the process of requesting the release by the CIA of two memos that he says used to be in his files that document the plans and attacks that were foiled by the intelligence gained through enhanced interrogation.

Whether Cheney has seen too many episodes of 24 and actually believes this or whether he’s bluffing, I’m more than willing to join him in urging all the government documents related to torture – all of them, no matter how deeply classified – be released to the public so we can make as informed a judgment as possible. I suspect Cheney will be proven to be a blowhard and a misleader if not a conscious liar, but I could be proven wrong. I’ll take my chances.

My impression is that even the news stories about the four "torture memos" have not been as detailed and explicit about just what kind of methods the designated lawyers in the Bush Justice Department chose to define as non-torture as they might have been, so pardon me if I summarize some parts.

Of the four formerly secret memos recently released by the Obama administration, the earliest, written Aug. 1, 2002 [.pdf], by then-head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel Jay Bybee, which provided the first legal justification for enhanced interrogation, provides a fairly succinct description of the techniques involved. They were adapted from the U.S. military’s survival, evasion, resistance, escape (SERE) training program, which sought to prepare U.S. servicemen to prepare for possible harsh interrogation tactics if they were captured by enemy forces.

As Bybee put it, "These ten techniques are: (1) attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap (insult slap), (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) insects placed in a confinement box, and (10) the waterboard." The idea is to use them in escalating fashion, with the waterboard as the last resort. Some seem self-explanatory, such as the attention grasp (grabbing the face with two hands and pulling toward the interrogator, in part to let the detainee know that touching and grabbing are not out of order and just might be escalated). "Walling" is done by placing the detainee in front of a flexible thin plywood wall and pulling him forward then pushing him against the wall, sometimes repeatedly.

Wall standing involves placing the detainee four or five feet in front of a wall, pushing him forward and making him support all his weight on his fingertips without moving to induce muscle fatigue. Waterboarding, of course, is placing an individual head down on an inclined board, covering his mouth and nose with cloth, then pouring water over the cloth. This is said to induce panic and a sense of drowning, even though the subject may consciously know he is not drowning. Few people are said to be able to withstand it for more than a few seconds.

All the released memos, which carefully stipulated that they believed everything the CIA told the DOJ about safeguards and efficacy, declared none of these techniques to be torture under relevant U.S. statutes or the Geneva Conventions. Waterboarding, known at least since the Spanish Inquisition, has been considered torture when done by the other side for centuries, and after World War II the U.S. prosecuted some Japanese for employing it.

The waterboard was reportedly used on only three detainees. Abu Zubaydah, captured early on, was originally considered a top al-Qaeda leader but turned out to be a glorified gofer, albeit one who did have valuable information about the structure and personnel of al-Qaeda, including identifying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. He was waterboarded 83 times. Mohammed, or KSM, was waterboarded 183 times in the course of a month.

Did this enhanced interrogation lead to the acquisition of important information that helped to prevent further al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S.? Retired Adm. Lee F. Gunn, a combat commander who also served as the Navy’s inspector general (full disclosure: we were fraternity brothers in college, but I hadn’t spoken to him in decades), told me that "even if it were true that important and accurate information was acquired through torture, it has never been shown that the information couldn’t have been gotten from the traditional time-tested interrogation methods employed by the FBI and the military." Lee. Gunn is one of about 50 retired flag officers who have spoken out against the use of torture and inhumane treatment.

Lee told me his chief concern is for the welfare of U.S. troops who could be captured in this and future conflicts. If it is known that the U.S. engages in brutal practices, our enemies will have no qualms about using them on our service people. Abstaining from torture does not guarantee that our people who are captured will be treated humanely, of course, but using it almost guarantees that they will be tortured.

Other reasons for abstaining from torture have to do with the importance of increased cooperation with other countries in the ongoing conflict with extremist elements. Adm. Gunn told me that U.S. failure to abide by international conventions against torture and inhumane treatment – or to find clever legal arguments to skirt around the edges of requirements for humane treatment of captives – has damaged relationships with our allies in ways that he has observed personally.

There’s also the argument about America’s values. Lee Gunn reminded me that during the Revolutionary War – "a much more existential threat to the embryonic nation than al-Qaeda poses or is likely to pose" – George Washington discovered that some of his officers planned to treat British captives in the same brutal ways that the British had treated American captives. "You’ll treat them in a way that allows them no complaint," Washington ordered his subordinates. He wanted to establish norms of decency at the outset for this country, and while the U.S. has certainly strayed from those norms, one of our strengths is the reputation, and for the most part the reality, of living up to our values.

Finally, there’s pretty strong evidence that harsh treatment of prisoners by the U.S., mostly but not solely related to the photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, has given al-Qaeda a powerful recruiting tool. "You can treat 99 percent of captives humanely," Gunn told me, "but if you abuse just 1 percent, you’ve done yourself a great disservice in the war of ideas."

Against these anti-torture arguments is the claim that only through torture has the U.S. acquired the kind of intelligence that has allowed it to disrupt attacks. This argument is weak on a number of levels.

Of course the SERE training program was put together after the Korean War to help U.S. service people cope with the kind of techniques the Chinese Communists used on U.S. captives. Those techniques were designed to get not reliable intelligence but false confessions the Communists thought would be useful for propaganda purposes. If people under torture will say whatever they think will stop the pain, the reliability of what comes out is bound to be suspect.

In addition, several specific claims about the efficacy of torture have fallen apart under examination. For example, Abu Zubaydah was subjected to conventional interrogation until August 2002, when the first of the memos giving a legal rationale for enhanced interrogation was written. The impetus for enhanced interrogation came not from interrogators on the scene but from CIA headquarters, which was convinced Zubaydah knew more than he was telling. It turned out either that he didn’t or that torture (83 waterboardings) didn’t get it out of him. Conventional interrogation elicited a good deal of useful information from Zubaydah; enhanced interrogation elicited nothing more of significance.

People have talked about the enhanced interrogation of KSM being important in foiling a planned attack on the Los Angeles Library Tower. But that plan, which apparently never got beyond the visualization stage, was squelched in 2002. KSM wasn’t even captured until 2003.

The May 30, 2005, memo [.pdf] from then-head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel Steven Bradbury includes quotes from a 2004 memo (still classified) from CIA Inspector General John Helgerson that – on the basis of what has been released so far – seriously questions the usefulness, let alone the necessity, of enhanced interrogation. Early on, the FBI, the agency that knew the most about al-Qaeda in 2001, declined to participate in the CIA enhanced interrogation program because of concerns about harsh interrogation methods. FBI Director Robert Mueller told Vanity Fair that he doesn’t believe any attacks on the U.S. were disrupted because of coercive interrogation methods.

There’s nothing wrong with remembering the context in which enhanced interrogation techniques were authorized. The U.S. had suffered the most serious attack on its own soil in its history, and everybody expected another one soon. Intelligence on al-Qaeda was spotty at best. It is not hard to understand how top officials could choose to authorize whatever they thought might work, even if it was pretty extreme and even if its efficacy was questionable. Prosecuting such people for war crimes may not be the best use of physical and moral resources. But finding out what happened and why is essential.

The most troubling aspect of the controversy, however, is that even in light of strong evidence that torture is not only inhumane and un-American but it doesn’t even work, so many people are still eager to justify it. It is hard not to suspect sheer sadism as a motive.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).