Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

“Soft” Interrogation Yields the Best Results

My colleague Chris Preble sketches out some of the moral pitfalls that come with authorizing torture in his post.  Beyond that, history shows that utilitarian claims that torture has enhanced our safety are also mistaken.

While torture can in some instances provide valid intelligence, it can also produce false information motivated only by a desire to end suffering.  Successful interrogators from World War II to the modern day have used rapport and psychology, not brutality, to get inside the heads of their enemies.

The Air Force interrogator who helped bag Abu Musab al Zarqawi, writing under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander, says that the difference between an interrogator and a used car salesman is that the interrogator has to abide by the Geneva Conventions.  No torture there, and a good read to boot.

This theme is echoed in Kyndra Rotunda’s book Honor Bound:

I knew one CITF agent and one FBI agent who were Muslims, and both knew how to coax the truth from detainees’ lips.  One word captures their effective, secret ingredient to successful interrogations - patience.  They each spent hours visiting with the detainee, sharing tea, bringing gifts of dried fruits, and talking endlessly about family, Allah, and the Quran.

This should come as no surprise, since it is a repackaging of the techniques of World War II interrogator Hanns Scharff, “Master Interrogator of the Luftwaffe.”  Scharff treated downed Allied pilots humanely, gaining their trust and sympathy while gleaning significant information about Allied air power and advance warning of the D-Day landing.  The Allies wanted to prosecute him after the war for interrogating their pilots so effectively, but dropped the charges when they couldn’t substantiate him so much as raising his voice.  He came to the United States after the war and did mosaic art work at Walt Disney World.

So color me unsurprised when a former FBI supervisory agent says that we gained actionable intelligence by traditional interrogation techniques, and that torture backfired on us.

The release of memoranda authorizing torture will help prevent the U.S. from ever traveling this dark path again.  The U.S. has consistently taken the moral high ground in armed conflicts, contrasting our behavior with the savagery our enemies engaged in for decades.  The historical record shows that mercy, not might, is the key to successful interrogation.

Law Waves U.S. Flag at Pirates

Yesterday the U.S. House passed by voice vote a resolution praising the captain and crew of the U.S.-flagged ship Maersk Alabama that was seized by Somali pirates earlier this month. It was a riveting story that ended well for the brave crew and their Captain Richard Phillips, thanks to the work of Navy Seal sharpshooters. But one question that has yet to be adequately discussed is just what that ship was doing over in such dangerous waters off the coast of strife-torn Somalia.

The answer may surprise you: the U.S. government sent them there.

The ship and its American crew of 20 were delivering U.S.-government food aid to Africa. Under the Food Security Act of 1985, food aid sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development must in most cases be delivered by U.S.-owned, flagged and crewed ships. The law is one of several, including the Jones Act, that are designed to steer business to generally high-cost U.S. shipping companies.

The laws in that narrow sense have worked: While 95 percent of international cargo arriving in the United States each year is carried by lower-cost, non-U.S.-flagged ships, 83 percent of U.S.-sponsored food-aid cargo is carried by U.S.-flagged ships. [You can read a WTO critique of U.S. cargo shipping preference programs beginning on page 121 of its 2008 review of U.S. trade policy.]

Such laws are anti-competitive and cost U.S. companies and taxpayers millions of dollars a year in higher shipping costs. But the case of the Maersk Alabama reveals another unintended cost. Almost by definition, food aid goes to regions troubled by war, civil strife and oppressive governments. The Food Security Act essentially requires American civilians to be inserted into dangerous places, which creates yet another inviting target for pirates and another argument for a U.S. military presence.

The U.S. government could ship its official cargo at lower costs, and keep civilian American citizens out of harm’s way, by repealing all its protectionist, anti-competitive cargo preference laws.

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.

New at Cato

  • Will Wilkinson warns of problems with Obama’s budget on Marketplace.
  • Richard Rahn explains why the current tax system needs to be overhauled and replaced in The Washington Times.
  • In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Swaminathan Aiyar discusses the future of the dollar.

Bob McDonnell Wants to Scare You and Take Your Money

Though I’m not a Virginia resident or voter, nor a donor to politicians, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell (whose party affiliation I’m not aware of) has added me to his email list. His name is similar to a past roommate, and that affinity has caused me to open more of his emails than I ordinarily would.

Today’s is worth writing about: It’s a political candidate transparently trying to scare voters and use their fear for fundraising.

Dear Jim,

Terror suspects could be headed to Virginia…

With the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay the federal government must find new locations in which to house and try the roughly 240 terrorist suspects currently held 90 miles from our shores. Recent news reports indicate that the Department of Justice is considering transferring a number of the detainees to the Commonwealth of Virginia. One specific location: Alexandria. And other Virginia locations could be possibilities as well.

There are security details to be worked out when prisoners are transferred out of Guantanamo Bay, but the prisoners themselves are not dangerous as such. They’re prisoners, and they will always be under heavy guard. Terrorists are not radioactive, and they do not have lasers built into their eyes.

The problems with housing prisoners in the past have been over-the-top security precautions that make a great show but don’t necessarily meet actual security problems associated with housing terror suspects.

Bills have been introduced to bar detainees from being transferred to various states.

A precious few Americans have exhibited cool in this fear-of-detainees brouhaha. Alexandria Sheriff Dana A. Lawhorne is quoted in this Washington Post article, at least saying “he would do what he can: ‘You can’t run the other way when your country calls.’”

But McDonnell, the politician seeking a prominent leadership position in the state, would “lead” by pretending that captured terrorists are too big a security risk for Virginia. It’s shameful fear-mongering meant to capitalize on the ignorance and weakness of Virginians who don’t understand terrorism. The only links in the text of the email are to the fundraising page on McDonnell’s Web site.

McDonnell exhibits leadership malpractice with this kind of campaigning.

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a daily email from the Cato Institute. You can subscribe, here.

  • “Bright Lines and Bailouts: To Bail or Not To Bail, That Is the Question”: Vern McKinley and Gary Gegenheimer have a new Policy Analysis that discusses the failure of bank bailouts.
  • Nat Hentoff reports on Obama’s broken promises of transparency in the Washington Times.
  • In Tuesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, foreign policy analyst Benjamin Friedman discusses the record of Defense Secretary Robert Gates under Obama.

“Enhanced Driver’s License” Snake Oil

Here’s Michigan state representative Paul Opsommer (R) on the Department of Homeland Security’s “Enhanced Driver’s License,” which contains a radio frequency identification chip with a long read range:

Expect the Department of Homeland Security to tell you what a great thing they are doing by allowing you the ability to buy these RFID licenses. They create the problem, provide a solution that is the cheapest for them and most risky for you, and then expect you to like it. But RFID is not mandated by Congress, and if enough states stand up for themselves the policy will be changed. Michigan needs to say no and do just that.