It never seems to go away. Just when you think the whole "issue" or "debate" has been resolved, you realize that, no, it hasn't, and we are still at square one . . . that is attempting to figure out whether torture "works". Or rather we are confronted yet once again with that same threadbare stalking horse of "torture as US state policy", since supposedly we as Americans are only driven by fear of the "existential threat" we are told exists.
The stalking horse of torture doesn't go away since the actual goal remains. If the American people are willing to allow people to be tortured, maybe to death, as a matter of state policy, then the establishment of a police state cannot be far behind imo. Thus torture - which is not a means of intelligence collection, but a method of brutal domination - is a stalking horse for a police state.
In fact that is why police states use torture. It is all about domination - not "Tell me what you know", but rather "Tell me what I want to hear".
Barry Gewen, an editor for the New York Times Book Review, penned this article for World Affairs Journal's May-June issue. Gewen claims to be presenting a "balanced" argument, but his conclusion, (surprise! surprise!) is that "torture works" and that we need to establish some mechanism for "harsh interrogations" when the situation arises, as it will given the existential threat we face. This of course, the realistic view as opposed to "anti-torture absolutists".
While reading the piece, you come to realize, that Gewen is actually from a different planet, let's call it "planet Cheney", since the things that he claims as fact are simply laughably false and crude falsehoods, at least on this planet Earth.
For instance, he writes:
Eventually, every discussion of torture arrives at the question of the ticking bomb. We are all familiar with this scenario. Law enforcement or military officials capture a terrorist who knows that a nuclear bomb is about to go off in a major American city. Isn’t the president morally obligated to use torture against such a person in an effort to prevent mass murder?
The anti-torture camp hates the ticking bomb scenario. One law professor, Stephen Holmes, calls it “a utopian fantasy.” Another, David Luban, says it’s “an intellectual fraud.” But in truth it’s not that hard to imagine a situation in which the head of Homeland Security rushes into the Oval Office and tells the president that police are “pretty certain” a bomb is set to explode, and they’re “fairly confident” they have a man who knows where it is. And it’s probably the case that any president—whether George W. Bush or Barack Obama—confronted with such a choice would approve the use of torture rather than risk a catastrophe. And almost certainly a majority of Americans would support the decision.
People can imagine a lot of things, especially when they are told they are dealing with an existential threat, although how exactly Al Qaida's "crotch bomber" is an existential threat is never explained. In fact four of the most serious terrorist attacks - 9/11, London, Madrid and Mombai - all happened with no ticking bombs at all, but with the case of 9/11 intelligence reports which were ignored by the same people who later instituted state torture . . . In fact there are no ticking bomb instances in history of the type that Gewen imagines.
It is here that we get to the actual contradiction to Gewen's whole ticking bomb argument. If we ever do have a ticking bomb situation chances are it will be the result of someone on the inside volunteering the information to US authorities, that is just another of what historically has been our best source of human intelligence information: a "walk in". Here we see the conflict with torture, since if we torture our detainees, who is going to come in and take the risk of being tortured for their troubles?
The ticking bomb is only one of Gewen's dubious arguments. He also cites examples of Gestapo and French Algerian "successes" with torture without considering that both those sides lost the conflict they were involved in, and that in the case of the Gestapo the US executed Gestapo officers after the war who had been involved in torture. Gewen, with his planet Cheney perspective, furthermore has no problem with throwing in US successes in regards to torture in the very next paragraph:
Mark Bowden’s 2003 Atlantic Monthly article, “The Dark Art of Interrogation,” puts forth a veritable catalogue of examples of effective torture, provided by people Bowden interviewed personally. A Marine captain who had served in Vietnam told him of attaching electrical wires to the testicles of a Vietcong soldier to make him reveal possible ambush sites. “The minute the crank started to turn,” the captain said, “he was ready to talk.” After the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the CIA used torture to track down the perpetrators; an agent Bowden spoke to had no doubts about its effectiveness. And the former chief interrogator for Israel’s General Security Services told Bowden that with “sufficient duress” even the hard cases will likely break.
The first case is the infamous Vietcong testicles attached to a TA-1 field telephone story, which I heard as a young Marine Corps officer back in the early 1980s. First, this involves tactical interrogation of enemy/believed enemy troops before they have been turned over to any POW collection point. Second, these were the isolated and illegal actions of Marine Corps infantry in the field doing their own adhoc interrogation, not strategic interrogation where most of the horrendous instances have taken place. Was it effective in revealing possible ambush sites. Possibly, but it was a loser as in actual intelligence collection. Orrin DeForest, who ran a JIC in Vietnam and was probably our most successful Humint collection officer in Vietnam, not to mention recruiting and running our most successful spies, rejected torture as an option and reported any incidents he came across.
The argument that the CIA was successful in "tracking down the perpetrators" of the embassy and Marine barracks bombings due to their use of torture is unproven, at the least. If we consider the example of Ayatollah Fadlallah, the recently deceased Lebanese cleric, the CIA claimed he was connected with Hezbollah, but many experts think that his connection was complex and that his responsibility for Hezbollah's actions non-existent. Perhaps Gewen considers the CIA's reported involvement with a carbomb aimed to assassinate Fadlallah in 1985 that killed 80 people a torture "success". As to Israeli "success" with torture, I'll leave that particular rock unturned.
Gewen doesn't stop there in his pro-torture argument though, and goes back even further in American history to argue that we've a long history of turning the thumbscrews:
Ideals are one thing, the reality of American history quite another. There is, in fact, a well-established American tradition of torture. The definitive text on it is Torture and Democracy by Darius Rejali, himself an opponent of torture. He sees “a long, unbroken, though largely forgotten history of torture in democracies at home and abroad.” What the torture techniques of democracies have in common is that they leave no lasting marks on the victims, no proof. Rejali calls this “clean torture.”
Electroshock began in democracies, and it was in the United States that interrogators first used rubber hoses to administer beatings that left no bruises. Sleep deprivation and stress positions (the “third degree”) were once common practices of American police.
It’s not only the police who have tortured or used other harsh methods. The U.S. military has, too. During the war in the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century, American troops employed the “water cure,” a forerunner of waterboarding. During the Vietnam War, torture was probably even more extensive. Whatever its professed ideals, the United States has tortured in the past. It has tortured in the near-present. And should needs arise and circumstances dictate, it will probably torture in the future.
One could argue I suppose that lynching is an American national pastime, but that would be absurd, wouldn't it? As to police brutality, using attack dogs and high-pressure water hoses against civil rights demonstrators and the films showing it have been part of our national shame since the early 1960s and those images did much to end segregation in the South. Torture, when exposed has always been rejected and seen for what it is, brutal domination of the strong over the weak. The same holds for the instances of the Philippine War of 1899-1902, when the torture became known, the government attempted at least to hold the perpetrators accountable. Theodore Roosevelt rejected torture and promised to hold those who had implemented it accountable. In fact, "the US" has never "tortured in the past", rather prior to Bush, the incidents of torture were considered crimes or the actions of allies who didn't understand actual US interrogation methods. Actions of individuals do not make for national policy.
How did this all come about? According to Gewen:
The sense of panic that gripped the country after September 11 may have been even greater inside the White House. Threats of additional attacks were flooding in. No one knew anything. And because anything seemed possible, Bush administration officials promised to do whatever was necessary.
Their language became extreme, reflecting the extremity of the situation. All that mattered, as Attorney General John Ashcroft told Robert Mueller III, the head of the FBI, was stopping the next attack. In a meeting of intelligence officials in March 2002, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, declared: “There’s nothing we won’t do, nothing we won’t try.” The president himself told Bob Woodward: “Whatever it takes.”
This crisis attitude continues to echo in Dick Cheney’s many comments in the current torture debate, and in the statements of other pro-torture absolutists. Where national security is concerned, all is permitted. Public safety trumps any other consideration.
Dick Cheney was hysterical! Planet Cheney was in horrible danger! Perhaps, but if he is referring to this planet, how does Gewen explain some simple facts:
1. If the source of all this danger was Al Qaida, how come more was not done to deal with Al Qaida? The Taliban government was overthrown, but bin Laden got away because we failed to close off his escape route at Tora bora, not to mention allowing the Pakistani ISI to fly out hundreds of their and Al Qaida's operatives from Kunduz before we captured the city.
2. After Afghanistan, the focus switched to Iraq which had no connection with 9/11 at all. Iraq was the main focus throughout the rest of the Bush administration.
3. Our policies only increased Al Qaida's appeal among certain Muslims.
4. Much of the panic in Washington in the fall of 2001 was the result of the Anthrax attacks which the administration attempted to pin on Iraq, not Al Qaida, but was actually the work of at least one American with access to US biowarfare labs.
Rather than hysteria, we have cold calculation and manipulation by Cheney/Bush.
Still, what's all this handwringing about waterboarding all about? Where not there limits in place? According to Gewen:
In fact, the Bush administration, even as it pushed for total freedom of action, did prescribe limits on interrogations. The CIA had precise—even punctilious—rules on how long a prisoner could be doused with water, how loud the noise could be that was piped into a prisoner’s cell, and exactly how long a detainee could be kept in a box. Waterboarding, although it has become central to the torture debate and rouses the strongest passions, was used on only three prisoners, and not at all after 2003.
Here Gewen implies that there were only three cases of torture. In fact government reports list at least 100 people died while being interrogated by us, some of them tortured to death, which would not include any of the three high-profile prisoners. From an intelligence perspective, the top four Al Qaida prisoners who were tortured all came up as a bust. As to the CIA's "rules" . . .
Doctors, psychologists and other professionals assigned to monitor the C.I.A.’s use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other “enhanced” interrogation techniques gathered and collected data on the impact of the interrogations on the detainees in order to refine those techniques and ensure that they stayed within the limits established by the Bush Administration’s lawyers, the report found. But, by doing so, the medical professionals turned the detainees into research subjects, according to the report, which is scheduled to be published on Monday by Physicians for Human Rights.
The data collected by medical professionals from the interrogations of detainees allowed the C.I.A. to judge the emotional and physical impact of the techniques, helping the agency to “calibrate the level of pain experienced by detainees during interrogation, ostensibly to keep it from crossing the administration’s legal threshold of what it claimed constituted torture,” the report said. That meant that the medical professionals crossed the line from treating the detainees as patients to treating them as research subjects, the report asserted.
Medical personal were there to make the torture more effective, not really to implement "limits" which were seen as illegal in any case since the Bush administration revoked all the memos covering these actions before they left office.
What about Abu Ghraib?
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that the abuses of Abu Ghraib were not “the tip of the iceberg” (as Human Rights Watch has called them). No one approved of them; they had nothing to do with official American policy. The Pentagon lawyer who first promulgated the rules for harsh interrogations, which included nudity, stress positions, and the use of dogs—the very things we saw in the photographs—was horrified when she learned about Abu Ghraib and called it “anarchy.” No one defended what happened at Abu Ghraib then and no one defends it now—which is why it has no place in the torture debate, except as an illustration of how incompetent leaders can let matters get out of hand.
Conditions were different at Guantánamo Bay military prison, where oversight was firmer and rules closely followed. If the reports of government investigators can be believed, interrogators there adhered almost completely to the authorized guidelines. Of twenty-four thousand interrogations conducted there over a three-year period, only three cases of substantiated abuse were uncovered, and they involved only high-value detainees. In all three cases, the interrogators were disciplined for excesses. We have to be clear: Guantánamo is not Abu Ghraib.
The US Senate disagrees:
The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of “a few bad apples” acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.
In all Gewen makes the Dick Cheney argument, stretching the truth here and avoiding unpleasant details there, putting the torture argument in as favorable a light as possible. The most important point though that Gewen misses is the intelligence perspective. He fails to quote even one intelligence officer on the record as statig that this is the way to go, that torture can save us from the ticking bomb. The reason for that is simple, no Humint intelligence collection officer I have ever met or heard or read has ever thought that torture worked.
I admit that in this post I failed to explain why torture has been used as a stalking horse and who or what is behind it. In the comments section I introduced three quotes: two from William Pfaff's recent The Irony of Manifest Destiny, and the final one from Carl Schmitt's The Concept of the Political.
These quotes introduce three elements which have come together since 2000 to bring us to this point in time in our nation's history. My intention here is not to provide a total picture of our current political reality, that would be beyond whas it humanly (at least for me) possible. The nature of our political reality, as part of the larger social reality, in the US is simply too complex to describe. Rather, as is my approach I present an ideal type consisting of three major trends/tendencies that for me adequately explain our situation. This does not mean that some ideal type could not explain it better.
My intention here is to provide readers with this ideal type and allow them to answer for themselves whether mine, or the "nothing really has changed" view better describes what we see going on around us. Ideal types are not expected to exist in reality, rather they are deliberately constructed to have sharp contrasts. The question then comes for the reader as to how well the ideal type corresponds to what they observe, using at least a couple of opposing ideal type provides the analyst with this ability, with one ideal explaining one situation better, while the other better explains something else.
If one of the ideal types that a group of "openminded" analysts are using is increasingly seen as far from the observed reality, then a radical change has in fact taken place.
It is my view that a radical change has taken place. It dates back to the 2000 election. To understand this change one can think of it in terms of three associated socio-political groups.
The first is a narrow foreign policy elite that has given up on internal democracy as expressing traditional American values and sees it as a impediment to the achievement of their policy goals. Public opinion is fickle and the people tired quickly of wars and expensive schemes. The American public is kept in place by a highly refined "total propaganda" system (in Ellul's terms) which transmits and reinforces the accepted narrative, but attacks or dismisses any competing narrative. This in spite of the fact that a competing radical right narrative is promoted to keep the public divided.
The second is the economic element, or rather what the economic element has become. I called this the "MBA view of the world" to emphasize the fact that all questions come down to that of efficiency. Torture, too, becomes basically a question of whether it "works", not one of ideals or values or cynically betraying both. What we have is the conquest of capitalism by finance. All questions come down to efficiency and the laws of the market which dominate life. Any action that does not break down to ends-means rationality, is by definition, irrational. This affects how we look at our wars - fighting against "democracy" and "the fruits of the market" are simply the actions of madmen, fanatics, "people who wish to change our way of life". Also, the US, like Goldman Sacs is simply too big to fail, no matter how many parasites it has to carry. Essentially we have this group seeing war as economic opportunity with the duration of the war influencing the ever growing ranks of interested economic parties feeding at the government trough.
What first comes to mind regarding these two groups is that they have been in development for some time. They date back to the Vietnam war in the first case and to the 1950s in the second (if the "MBA" film clip is any indication). Both would have remained containable but for the emergence of the last group which has been the radical catalyst.
The third group consists of two somewhat like-minded elements which share certain radical attitudes. The first is the elite associated with Cheney/Rumsfeld and other former Bush I, Reagan and Nixon/Ford officials. They saw Nixon's resignation as a personal defeat, supported Reagan's Iran-contra machinations and the 1992 Defence Planning Guidance initiatives. The second is the neo-conservative movement which equates Israeli interests as being unquestionably also US interests and sees the US as the best guarantee of Israeli security/ambitions. I used a Carl Schmitt quote to describe their view of the political. What we have are three very divergent groups who remain in unstable alliance due to a complexus of interests that are at the same time both contradictory and ambiguous. The confusion of their war aims is reflected by the confusion of their wars . . .
We have lost the ability to act strategically.
In strategic theory terms, wars are waged by states in line with policies/interests/political tensions of opposed political communities. While the total overthrow of an enemy state, the remaking of his political identity is theoretically possible, in reality very few such wars would be waged due to the resources (material, moral, time) necessary to achieve such radical goals. Prior to 2000, the only war of this type initiated by the US was our involvement in the First World War and we lacked the interest and resources to see it through to the achievement of its stated goals. The 1919 peace which followed became a continuation of the war by other means resulting in a fragile political realignment which lasted barely 20 years and plunged the world into an even bloodier conflict.
Schmitt, writing in 1932, defined the political as being able to make the friend/enemy distinction. Wars of this type would be by definition include the radical policy goals mentioned above. Schmitt was of course not only a political theorist, but also a lawyer with political ambitions, who served the Nazi government for a time after their coming to power. He is an unsavory character, but a very interesting theorist who accurately read the politics of his time. In fact his description of the political covers the ideological conflicts of the 20th Century to a large extent, explaining their unrelenting and violent nature.
So Cheney and the neocons reserve for themselves to right to designate who the enemy is. This is the source of their concept of sovereignty, what gives their political view meaning. There will be no compromise with this enemy. Since he is the negation of what they see themselves as, he will have to be either neutered or eradicated. Liberal democracies - following both Schmitt and Leo Strauss - are poorly equipped to deal with such an enemy, since "they are always too ready to compromise".
Obama wishes to see himself as "the great uniter", who was able to bring Cheney and the neocons "back into the fold", thus the constant whitewashing and legitimizing of the actions of 2000-2008. There is no chance of this of course, since Cheney and the rest know exactly who their friends are and who their enemy is . . .
Torture is simply the stalking horse for what is indeed our most profound political question . . .