Tag: memos

Does Transparency Inspire Terrorism?

The debate over the Obama administration’s release of the torture memos took an important turn during the past week, as reflected in discussions on the Sunday morning shows.

The economy was the lead story on Fox News Sunday, but in the second segment Chris Wallace led his questioning of Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) as follows:

The Pentagon now says that it’s going to release hundreds of photos of alleged abuse of detainees by U.S. personnel - this, after, of course, the release of the interrogation memos. Senator Bond, how serious is the threat of a backlash in the Middle East and the recruitment of more terrorists, possibly endangering U.S. soldiers in that part of the world?

Revelation! The idea that abusive practices on the part of the United States would draw people to the side of its enemies.

In the media, most of the debate up to now has centered on the tactical question of whether torture works, and to some degree the moral dimension. (Here’s David Rittgers on the former and Chris Preble on the latter.)

There’s an ineluctable conclusion from understanding that torture drives recruitment which endangers our soldiers: It is strategic error to engage in abusive practices. Abuse on the part of the United States adds heads to the hydra.

But wait. Wallace’s question may imply that it is release of the photos - not commission of the underlying offenses - that risks causing a backlash. This cannot be.

Given the governments they’ve long experienced, people in the Muslim and Arab worlds will generally assume the worst from what they know - and assume that even more than what they know is being hidden. Transparency about U.S. abuses cuts against that narrative and confuses the story that the United States is an abuser akin to the governments Arabs and Muslims have known.

Abusive practices create backlash against the United States. Transparency about abuses after the fact will dispel backlash and muddy the terrorist narrative about the United States and its role in the Middle East.

As the question turns to prosecution of wrongdoing by U.S. officials, such as lawyers who warped the law beyond recognition to justify torture, transparent application of the rule of law in this area would further disrupt a terrorist narrative about the United States.

Counterterrorism, Torture, and the Law

Over at The Wall Street Journal, Cong. Peter Hoekstra calls for an investigation into “what the Obama administration may be doing to endanger the security our nation has enjoyed because of interrogations and other antiterrorism measures implemented since Sept. 12, 2001.” Hoekstra implies, or at least clearly believes, that Obama’s renunciation of torture has made the country less safe. Rest assured, when the next attack occurs (and there will be another attack), Hoekstra and other supporters of torture will claim vindication, even though they won’t be able to point to direct evidence that torture would have averted the attack. It is equally impossible to prove a negative – why something does not occur – as it is to prove that an action not taken in the past would have prevented something in the present.

Similarly, former Vice President Cheney claims that the use of techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and cramped confinement enabled the U.S. government to stop future terrorist attacks, and he has asked the Obama administration to declassify the documents that supposedly prove it. Cheney has previously said that President Obama’s renunciation of torture increases the likelihood that future attacks will be successful.

Of course, Cheney has not asked for the declassification of all information obtained by torture. He presumably doesn’t want the American people to know the countless false positives, the fake leads, the purely bogus information offered up by those being tortured in a vain attempt to halt – or merely postpone – their severe discomfort. (Gene Healy documents a few of these in his recent column.)

Nor can Cheney or Hoekstra prove that the few kernels of useful information obtained under torture could only have been acquired under torture, and not by other techniques, techniques that were consistent with our laws, and that we employed in past conflicts. They can’t prove such claims, because they aren’t true.

In the end, however, this is not a question of whether torture works. Appeals to reason fail when people perceive a danger beyond what reason informs. After all, no reasonable person could logically conclude that terrorism poses an existential threat to the Republic, and yet that false belief continues to shape our conduct. We choose not to consider what has worked in the past because we perceive the past to be irrelevant.

That our actions are driven not by logic but by our fears – visceral, instinctual fears – is understandable. Vengeful actions, while not logical, can be justified in certain circumstances. Would the relatives of those killed in Oklahoma City have been justified in publicly stoning Timothy McVeigh? We could have given a rock – or better yet a piece of rubble from the Alfred P. Murah building – to one family member of each of those killed. The parents of the children killed in the day care center might have been handed particularly large chunks of concrete. Or perhaps the families of the 87 people killed in the Happy Land social club should have been allowed to burn alive Julio Gonzalez, the unemployed Cuban refugee who set the fire? And if we handed a machete to Mariane Pearl – or to Adam Daniel, the son Daniel Pearl never knew – and watched them chop off Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s head, no one would shed a tear. We might even call it justice.

That we do not resort to such tactics is one of the things that separate us from animals.

In the animal kingdom, might makes right. If the lion can catch the antelope, no higher authority can stop it from devouring his prey. No moral code teaches the lion that he should eat grass instead.

A conscience is not the only thing that separates us from the animals. When our moral compass fails us, when we are blinded by rage and a thirst for justice, law brings us back, or merely holds us back, from doing what our basest human instincts tell us is right and proper.

Since 9/11, many people have framed these laws as a mark of our weakness. Our enemies are not bound by any code, so why should we be? Lincoln suspended habeus corpus believing it necessary to save the Union. FDR approved the internment of Japanese-Americans on similar grounds. It doesn’t matter that neither measure was actually instrumental to saving the Republic from destruction; indeed, the evidence shows that they had no such effect. All that matters is that these men acted in good faith.

Thus is the torture debate at the center of our evolving concepts of executive power, with one side saying that the president is not above the law, and the other side saying that a president (and, actually, not just the president, but anyone in the executive branch) is immune from such laws when he or she believes them to be an impediment to his ability to carry out his duties. It isn’t exactly Frost/Nixon, “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” but it’s close enough.

It is not as high as some people might think, but still forty percent of Americans believe that torture is appropriate in certain circumstances, even though it is clearly against the law. Most of these same people presumably don’t believe that other laws – murder, rape, incest, and human slavery, for example – can be circumvented by presidential fiat. But terrorism is different, so the thinking goes, and fighting it requires us to discard troublesome laws.

The reality is exactly the opposite. Because a central object of terrorism is to induce advanced societies to come loose from their ideological moorings, we must strive even harder to adhere to them. Because terrorists attempt to trick or goad a government founded on certain principles to depart, if only for a moment, from those same principles, our leaders must resist the urge to do so.

On these terms, we haven’t been doing a very good job. We have been circumventing our fundamental principles for seven years, and many Americans think that we should – nay that we must – continue doing it…indefinitely.

It is a sad and sickening spectacle. If we continue down this path – if we cannot call torture for what it is, if we cannot restore an ironclad respect for the rule of law, if we cannot claw back some semblance of separation of powers, with a Congress willing to oppose White House power grabs instead of simply enabling them – then the terrorists will have won.

The CIA Is Not the Nation’s Security

Michael Hayden went on Fox News Sunday this week, fiercely objecting to the Obama administration’s release of Bush-era memos regarding “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He and three other former CIA directors objected to the release.

That common front might draw the memo release into doubt if it wasn’t a given that CIA directors are always going to defend the interests of the CIA.

Hayden trotted out the tired “war” on terror metaphor. This framing may be exciting to him and his colleagues, but it is strategic error to address terrorism this way, and the American public chose a presidential candidate last November who campaigned to emphasize hope over fear. Intoning about war did not help Hayden’s case.

The heart of his argument was that release of the memos would allow our enemies to train for “enhanced interrogation techniques” and that we would lose the benefits of those techniques. But a telling moment came when he shifted his argument:

There’s another point, too, that I have to make, and it’s just not the tactical effect of this technique or that. It’s the broader effect on CIA officers. I mean, if you’re a current CIA officer today - in fact, I know this has happened at the agency after the release of these documents - officers are saying, “The things I’m doing now - will this happen to me in five years because of the things I am doing now?”

Moving from tactical considerations to the “broader effect,” Hayden spoke of how the memo release would chill CIA activity. That’s not irrelevant, but it’s not the broader effect that matters: the strategic effect of using torture in counterterrorism activity. Like the myopic critic I wrote about in my post last week, Hayden is not focused on countering the strategic logic of terrorism, but on defending the interests of the agency he headed.

Chris Wallace showed a brief clip of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs criticizing “enhanced interrogation techniques” on a strategic level: “It is the use of those techniques … in the view of the world that [has] made us less safe.” Being a secretive torturer drives allies away from the United States.

Hayden didn’t get it, answering, “Most of the people who oppose these techniques want to be able to say, ‘I don’t want my nation doing this,’ which is a purely honorable position, ‘and they didn’t work anyway.’ That back half of the sentence isn’t true.”

Against the argument that the use of torture is strategic error, Hayden responded, “But it works!” Arguing its tactical utility does not meet the strategic case against torture.

And Hayden was well back on his heels when asked whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month.

Hayden is a fierce defender of the CIA. The CIA provides some elements of the nation’s security. But the CIA is not the nation’s security.

Obama and the Interrogation Memos: The Right Decision

President Obama’s decision to release Bush-era memos discussing “enhanced interrogation techniques” is the right decision. Critics, such as the one featured in this Politico article, fail to comprehend terrorism as a strategy. Thus, they are locked into counterproductive policies like secrecy and torture.

Let’s start with the strategic logic of terrorism: By goading strong powers into overreaction and error, terrorism weakens those powers and strengthens itself. Among other things, overreaction and misdirection on the part of the strong power draw sympathy and support to terrorists as it confirms the terrorist narrative that they are in a struggle against evil powers.

Torture or credible accounts of torture provide confirmation of a suspicion among relatively unsophisticated observers in the Middle East (once known as the “street”) that the United States is a colonist and an oppressor of Muslims and Arabs. Secrecy is a way in which such stories grow and multiply. The results of torture and secrecy are millions of people who believe, suspect, or worry that they and their culture are on the losing end of a battle for supremacy in the world. (We have some of those on the American street, too.)

From these millions emerge individuals and groups — eventually perhaps networks — who devote their creativity to developing and eventually mounting attacks on the United States and the West. (The path to terrorism is not simple or well-understood. Several panels in our January counterterrorism conference explored dimensions of this question.)

Just as important, non-participants in terrorism who are ideologically or physically nearby to inchoate terrorists decline opportunities to undermine the terrorism brewing around them. Terrorists are bad people with ugly ideologies, and their neighbors know it, but these neighbors will overlook all that if they see the United States as a wrongdoer. Because of secrecy and torture, the United States loses these natural allies and the security they would otherwise provide.

But what about the loss of enhanced interrogation techniques? “Publicizing the techniques does grave damage to our national security by ensuring they can never be used again,” says a critic, “even in a ticking-time-bomb scenario where thousands or even millions of American lives are at stake.”

The ticking-time-bomb scenario is a movie plot that evidently thrills some in the counter-terrorism community. But the chance of a significant weapon being acquired and used by terrorists is very small. The chance that U.S. authorities will know about it and know who to interrogate at just the right moment: pure fantasy. Such a moment would only arrive as the result of many, many failures on the part of U.S. intelligence and security organizations to protect our interests.

Even assuming that torture actually works, which is very much in dispute, the security given by having the sympathy of millions of people in the Muslim and Arab worlds is much, much greater than the security of having legal authorization to torture. The security of having world goodwill helps ensure that we never arrive at the ticking time-bomb moment.

If that’s frustrating to torture hawks, there are video games where they can avenge the 9/11 attacks over and over again. The rest of us will rue the failings that allowed 9/11 to happen while we work on sophisticated, strategic counter-terrorism that actually secures the country. Many in the intelligence and security communities have sophisticated views on counter-terrorism and are eager to get on with policies that aren’t counterproductive.

President Obama has made the right decision in releasing the memos — and not just right in some abstract legal or moral sense. It is the correct strategic decision for countering terrorism.

His critics’ focus on one or two trees — saplings like the “ticking time-bomb” fantasy — obscures the forest that would grow higher still should the United States persist in being a secretive torturer.