Tag: torture memos

Waterboarding, Again

I have an article in today’s Los Angeles Times pointing out that waterboarding is dead as a tool for U.S. interrogators. So get over it. I also make the point that it died under Bush’s watch, so the next time Dick Cheney trots out a proposal to bring back waterboarding, he’s quarreling mostly with his old boss and not the current commander-in-chief. Over at the Washington Post, Allen McDuffee thinks this is unfair:

It may well be the case that Cheney has unfinished business with Bush over dropping the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, but it is at least a selective reading for Rittgers to suggest that Cheney’s words are not directed at Obama with the hope that they carry political consequences for the administration. It is unlikely that even Cheney himself would make such a suggestion.

Of course Cheney’s comments are directed at Obama, as a rearguard action intended to make it politically impossible to prosecute those that made waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques our policy. Mission accomplished.

Waterboarding died in 2004 when the Office of Legal Counsel withdrew the memoranda supporting it, with other nails in the coffin provided by the Detainee Treatment Act and the Hamdan decision. Bush didn’t make these changes by himself. The OLC withdrawal was Jack Goldsmith’s doing, and a signing statement on the DTA showed Bush’s reluctance to accept limits on his power. But accept them he did. On the same day that Bush issued an executive order finessing the Geneva Conventions Common Article 3 as applied to the CIA, his OLC issued legal advice on what enhanced interrogation techniques are still on the table. It’s no human rights wishlist (sleep deprivation, reduced calorie diet, and four slapping/holding techniques), but waterboarding is nowhere to be found.

Yes, Obama restricted the intelligence community to the Army Field Manual. Waterboarding was long gone by that point. It has been resurrected as a talking point in defiance of legal reality, good policy, and core principles, but will not and should not be American policy. Again, get over it.

How Much for a Schlub?

Over at The Corner, Rich Lowry put up a post on detainee interrogations that I responded to. Follow-up posts are available here and here.

Jay Nordlinger steps in to offer the view that, with terrorists, the difference between a “schlub” and a “monster” isn’t much. A pathetic radical can cause a lot of damage with just a little bit of luck.

This may be true, but there is a valuable ends-means calculation that must be considered (also addressed in Julian Sanchez’s post here).

How many times must we use coercive interrogation and get nothing, suffering the inevitable backlash in public opinion and enemy recruiting, for each intelligence success? If you are willing to torture a dozen/hundred/thousand men for each schlub, you will motivate a sufficient number of monsters to make a small tactical victory a pyrrhic one at best, and a strategic debacle at worst.

The big picture trends against torture, or any use of force that crosses the line between mutual combat and violating human rights, or the use of indiscriminate force. The attack on September 11, 2001 crossed that line, and we justifiably responded with military action. The use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT’s) crossed that line, and the enemy used it as propaganda fodder.

The British faced a parallel situation in Northern Ireland in 1971. After employing mass arrests that stoked the fires behind the IRA, the Brits employed “special interrogation techniques.” Former FBI Special Agent and successful terrorist group infiltrator Mike German covers this in his book, Thinking Like a Terrorist (citing Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA):

Among the methods used on the internees were the “five techniques”: placing a hood over the head; forcing the internee to stand spreadeagled against a wall for long periods; denying regular sleep patterns; providing irregular and limited food and water; and subjecting people to white noise in the form of a constant humming sound.

Sound familiar? Violence in Northern Ireland increased as a result of these practices. The Brits crossed the line again on Bloody Sunday when they fired into a crowd of peaceful protestors (possibly a response to IRA gunfire at British paratroopers). The tide shifted in favor of the IRA until they broke the unwritten rules of the game on Bloody Friday, detonating twenty-two bombs in Belfast that killed nine people. Tactically masterful, but a political disaster.

The Bush administration changed tactics in its second term in office, discarding EIT’s and moving away from physical coercion of detainees. This was a sensible decision, and there is no reason for the Obama administration to change course.

Cheney’s Worldview

Former vice president Richard Cheney gave his big address on national security (pdf) over at AEI last week.   He covered a lot of ground, but this passage, I think, tells us quite a bit about Cheney’s worldview:

If fine speech-making, appeals to reason, or pleas for compassion had the power to move [al-Qaeda], the terrorists would long ago have abandoned the field.  And when they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don’t stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along.  Instead the terrorists see just what they were hoping for — our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted.  In short, they see weakness and opportunity.

So we shouldn’t let the terrorists see us get “caught up in arguments” about  the wisdom of our foreign policy, about whether our country should go to war, about our country’s treaty obligations, about the parameters of government power under our Constitution?  What is this former vice president thinking?

Does it matter if Charles Manson appreciates the fact that he got a trial instead of a summary execution?  No.  It does not matter what’s in that twisted head of his.  Same thing with bin Laden.  The American military should make every effort to avoid civilian casualties  even if bin Laden targets civilians.  Similarly,  it does not matter if bin Laden scoffs at the Geneva Convention as a sign of  ”weakness.”  The former VP does not get it.  It is about us, not the terrorists.

An obsession with the mentality of the enemy (what they see; what they hope for, etc.) can distort  our military and counterterrorism strategy (pdf) as well.  Cheney wants to find out what bin Laden’s objective is and then thwart it.  I certainly agree that  gathering intelligence about the enemy is useful, but Cheney seems so obsessed that he wants to thwart al-Qaeda’s objectives — even if some pose no threat to the USA, and even if some of al-Qaeda’s  objectives are pure folly.  

If the CIA told Cheney that it intercepted a message and learned that bin Laden wanted some of his men to climb Mount Everest as a propaganda ploy to somehow show the world that they can lord over the globe, one gets the feeling that  Cheney wouldn’t shrug at the report.  Since that is what bin Laden hopes to achieve, the enemy objective must be thwarted!  Quick, dispatch American GIs to the top of Everest and establish a post.  Stay on the lookout for al-Qaeda and stop them no matter what!  That’ll show bin Laden who has the real power!  Farfetched, yes, but what about the costly nation-building exercise (pdf) in Iraq?  How long is that going to last?  Mr. Cheney did not want to address that part of the Bush-Cheney record for some reason.

In another passage, Cheney bristles at the notion that his “unpleasant” interrogation practices have been a recruitment tool for the enemy.  Cheney claims this theory ignores the fact that 9/11 happened before the torture memos were ever drafted and approved.  He observes that the terrorists have never “lacked for grievances against the United States.”  They’re evil, Cheney says, now let’s talk about something else.  The gist of Cheney’s argument — that no post 9/11 policy can ever be counterproductive — makes no sense.

Cheney’s controversial legacy will be debated for a long time.  And he’s smart enough to know that he may have very few defenders down the road, so he is wasting no time at all in making his own case.  The problem is that his case is weak and plenty of people can see it. 

For related Cato work, go here and here.

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.

Regrets over Bush Administration Torture?

Chris Preble has nicely detailed the reasons we should not torture.  The practice offers no guarantee of good information, harms America’s international reputation, and sacrifices the values that set this nation apart.

Now comes a report that Judge Jay S. Bybee, the head of the Bush adminsitration Office of Legal Counsel who signed off on the infamous torture memos, regrets his role in the matter.  According to the Washington Post:

“I’ve heard him express regret at the contents of the memo,” said a fellow legal scholar and longtime friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity while offering remarks that might appear as “piling on.” “I’ve heard him express regret that the memo was misused. I’ve heard him express regret at the lack of context — of the enormous pressure and the enormous time pressure that he was under. And anyone would have regrets simply because of the notoriety.”

That notoriety worsened this week as the documents — detailing the acceptable application of waterboarding, “walling,” sleep deprivation and other procedures the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation methods” — prompted calls from human rights advocates and other critics for criminal investigations of the government lawyers who generated them.

This regret could reflect convenient timing — after all, the torture stories have not exactly enhanced Bybee’s reputation.  But it might also demonstrate a sobering realization as to how his opinions were used or misused.  As a believer in human redemption, I’m going to play the optimist and go with the latter for now.