Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: human rights (page 2 of 3)

How America discarded its moral compass

As I’ve watched the “torture debate” unfold over the past few weeks, and in particular as I read the highlights of the speeches by President Obama and Dick Cheney yesterday, I realized how stunted our country really is, and I realize the degree to which this is the direct result of cowardly leadership in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Here’s America in 2009:

We live in a country where most people believe that our prison system is not adequate to safely incarcerate international terrorists.

Where our law enforcement agencies are not to be trusted to compile evidence that can be used to convict terrorists.

Where our court system can’t be trusted to discern which accused terrorists are guilty and which are not.

Where our intelligence agencies are incapable of successfully interrogating detainees without resorting to medieval torture techniques.

Where the regulations that govern how enemies taken prisoner on the battlefield are to be treated are seen as out of date and useless.

Where our intelligence courts are believed to be so slow and inefficient that they cannot be allowed to supervise wiretaps.

And most importantly, that the Constitution is too restrictive to enable us to effectively fight terrorists.

The immediate aftermath of 9/11 was an opportunity for real leadership. Of course people were angry and scared — they were right to be. But a real leader would have championed our institutions and our values and prosecuted a war that was in keeping with those values. Instead the Bush administration chose to openly devalue the Constitution in many ways and to secretly ignore it in most of the others.

Not long after 9/11, Jim Henley wrote that terrorists are a threat to Americans, but that we are the only people who can destroy America. I took that to heart.

I knew from the beginning that building the facility at Guantanamo to incarcerate prisoners was an awful idea. Everybody knew why we were doing it — because its location could provide legal cover for questionable activities. Everything that has followed flowed from that. It set the precedent that the Bush administration was going to pay lip service to the letter of the law but trash the spirit of the law. That loopholes would be sought, invented, and exploited wherever possible. That everything meaningful related to the war on terror would be kept secret from the American people.

And now, nearly eight years later, people have been conditioned to believe that the things that we were taught make America great are outmoded concepts. Or perhaps more accurately, that we should still believe in those things and do our best to ignore the fact that they were abandoned long ago.

When we elected Barack Obama, I believed he would be a champion for the Constitution. He has not been. And what I worry about is that it was foolish to hope for a champion for the Constitution. Any such person faces a tidal wave of opposition from people who have accepted the devaluation of American ideals by the Bush administration and its defenders.

It’s only now that I’m really seeing the degree to which the things that I really do cherish about America have been debased. Everybody knows that the government has abandoned the values of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence when it was expedient over the years, but it’s only in recent times that we see such widespread belief that it’s not even wrong to do so.

Reading the Jay Bybee memo from August 1, 2002

I am a notorious skimmer, but I decided to read the torture memos in full. I started with the Bybee memo, issued on August 1, 2002. In it, Office of Legal Cousel attorney Jay Bybee responds to a CIA request to torture Abu Zubaydah. The CIA’s argument is that the threat level to the US at the time of the request is higher than it was before 9/11, and that Abu Zubaydah is unlikely to disclose any additional information absent torture.

The request is for permission to use ten techniques, which are listed as follows:

(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 techniques are described in explicit detail, with careful guidelines for how they are meant to be applied. We needn’t guess whether the interrogators stayed within these bounds. The recently released Red Cross report on torture holds the answers.

At that point, there are several pages of arguments that the interrogation techniques that were to be applied have not driven more than a few people subjected to them as part of SERE training crazy. This evidence is later used to argue that the interrogators are operating in good faith in trying to avoid violating anti-torture legal statutes.

Next there’s a psychological profile of Abu Zubaydah. In short, he is described as exactly the kind of person who needs to be tortured.

Bybee then goes on to explain his legal rationale for arguing that applying the techniques listed does not constitute torture. He lists five criteria that an act must meet to violate a particular statute against torture. The first three criteria are inarguably met. That leaves the last two — that the interrogator intended to inflict severe pain or suffering and that they did, in fact, inflict severe pain or suffering.

Bybee decides to consider physical pain and mental pain separately and argues that examples of torture that inflict “severe pain” are, and I quote, “severe beatings with weapons such as clubs” and “the burning of prisoners.” Since in his opinion none of the acts meet those standards of pain, he argues they are not torture. After going over each proposed technique one by one in terms of the amount of pain caused, he argues that pain and suffering are the same thing, and thus chooses to ignore the fact that most of the techniques on the list are designed to inflict suffering. (One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers demolishes this argument.)

Next he turns to mental pain. The statute lists four criteria for acts that can cause prolonged mental harm. He focuses on whether or not any of the techniques alone or in combination can, from a reasonable torture victim’s point of view, be thought to constitute a threat of severe physical pain or suffering, or death.

Again, Bybee goes over each of the techniques and explains why they do not constitute a threat of severe pain or death. He’s careful to let them know that they can’t threaten him while they’re committing the acts, or that will violate the statute. Eventually he gets to waterboarding, which presents a problem because it is intended to produce the sensation of imminent death by drowning, and is therefore a predicate act that meets the criteria for torture. However, Bybee gives this technique a pass because it can be argued that waterboarding does not inflict “prolonged mental harm”.

Bybee then acknowledges that if you used several of the techniques in rapid succession and perhaps verbally threatened Abu Zubaydah at the same time, it would constitute a threat of severe physical harm or death. However, even that, in Bybee’s estimation, is not a violation of the statue because it wouldn’t cause prolonged mental harm (just as is the case for waterboarding alone).

At that point, he turns to the question of intent. His argument here is that as long as the interrogators don’t believe that they are going to cause severe harm or suffering, they’re in the clear. So even given the legal risks that accompany making someone believe they’re going to drown, the interrogators will not violate the statute because they don’t intend to cause severe pain or suffering. In this case, wishing really will make it so.

The memo is amazing to read, because it is, essentially, a long argument that the techniques in question do not create the very effects for which they are designed. The entire purpose of each of the techniques is to inflict pain or suffering, with the specific goal of forcing the subject to disclose information. In discussing whether stress positions cause severe pain, Bybee writes, “Any pain associated with muscle fatigue is not of the intensity sufficient to amount to ‘severe physical pain or suffering’ under the statute, nor, despite its discomfort, can it be said to be difficult to endure.” If it’s not difficult to endure, how could it possibly be an effective interrogation technique?

Likewise, in discussing placing an insect in an unlit, confining box with Abu Zubaydah, Bybee writes, “An individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe physical pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box.” Of course, as is made clear elsewhere, Abu Zubaydah was to be told that the insect is a stinging insect. I find it difficult to imagine that anyone placed in a dark, coffin sized box with a stinging insect would not expect severe physical pain.

I really think that people should read these memos and ask themselves if this is the kind of power we want to see the government granting to itself. These memos take on these issues in the most detached and legalistic terms. The results were a regime that was much more savage, unconstrained, and persistent than they are imagined to be by the lawyers who cooked up the legal justifications for them.

The torture memos

The Obama administration released the infamous OLC torture memos today in essentially unredacted form. The ACLU has published them online.

If there was ever a day to read Glenn Greenwald’s blog, this is it.

Here’s one notable paragraph, written in 2005 by Steven Bradbury:

Each year, in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the United States condemns coercive interrogation techniques and other practices employed by other countries. Certain of the techniques the United States has condemned appear to bear some resemblance to some of the CIA interrogation techniques. In their discussion of Indonesia, for example, the reports list as “psychological torture” conduct that involves “food and sleep deprivation,” but give no specific information as to what these techniques involve. In their discussion of Egypt, the reports list as “methods of torture” “stripping and blindfolding victims; suspending victims from a ceiling or doorframe with feed just touching the floor; beating victims [with various objects]; … and dousing victims with cold water.” See also, e.g., Algeria (describing the “chiffon” method, which involves “placing a rag drenched in dirty water in someone’s mouth”); Iran (counting sleep deprivation as either torture or severe prisoner abuse); Syria (discussing sleep deprivation and “having cold water thrown on” detainees as either torture or “ill-treatment”). The State Department’s inclusion of nudity, water dousing, sleep deprivation, and food deprivation among the conduct it condemns is significant and provides some indication of an executive foreign relations tradition condemning the use of these techniques.

That paragraph points to the following footnote:

We recognize that as a matter of diplomacy, the United States may for various reasons in various circumstances call another nation to account for practices that may in some respects resemble conduct in which the United States might in some circumstances engage, covertly or otherwise. Diplomatic relations with regard to foreign countries are not reliable evidence of United States executive practice and thus may be of only limited relevance here.

Update: Worth noting is the fact that Jay Bybee, the author of one of the torture memos released today, now has a lifetime appointment to a seat on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Obama abandons habeas corpus

One of the biggest reasons I supported Barack Obama was the stand he was willing to take as a candidate against the worst excesses of the Bush administration in prosecuting the war on terror. As such, it is incredibly disappointing to me to see that as President, he is not living up to the principles he espoused before the election.

Glenn Greenwald reports on the Obama administration’s embrace of the Bush administration’s assertion that the prison at Bagram air base in Afghanistan is somehow different than Gitmo, and that detainees held there do not have the right to habeas corpus.

What are folks like Marty Lederman up to over there? If the Obama administration persists in these policies, I’d hope to see some very public resignations sooner rather than later.

Links from March 16th

A soldier’s recollection of Gitmo

The Guantánamo Testimonials Project has the written testimony of a US military policeman who was stationed there at the beginning. I expect many more such stories will be told over the next few years:

At 0700 hrs the next day I reported like I was told, and was placed in 1st platoon. Then I was told that we would be deploying to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within the next 24hrs. It was not until later that afternoon that we were told that we would be starting and running a detainee facility, not an EPW (or Enemy Prisoner of War) camp. We were told that a detainee camp had never been ran before, and that this would be the first time in history this had taken place since these people would not fall under the Geneva Convention.

There’s tons of awful but enlightening information in the interview. For example, it makes it clear that the infamous “IRF” teams were used not to bring out of control prisoners under control but rather to punish the noncompliant:

As far as IRFing, when I was there, it went somewhat in this order: (1) The block guards would have a problem with a detainee (not listening, maybe saying something, or not following rules). The guards would then contact the duty officer for that shift. We were told “If you were working a block and was having a problem with one of the detainees, and you couldn’t handle it, or get it under control, you should call the duty officer,” who was usually a E-7 (Sergeant First Class) or a 0-1 or 0-2 (First and Second LT). They would come to the block, assess the situation, and make the decision whether to take “comfort items” away or call the IRF team into play. If the latter, then (2) The duty officer would come to the block with an interpreter and tell the detainee to do whatever he was told to and, if not, the IRF team would be called upon. (3) Once the IRF team was called upon and arrived on the block there was no “I am sorry I will do it” from the detainee; the IRF team was going to enter that cage and hog tie that detainee.

Reading the interview what stands out to me is not just the horrible treatment we’ve inflicted upon detainees, but the burden the government placed on the troops who have served in Gitmo and elsewhere. One principle of leadership I believe in is that you should never ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. I can’t help but wonder whether most of the officials who designed and implemented the detention policies after 9/11 would be willing to personally subject prisoners to the treatment that they prescribed.

Links from January 23rd

I’m going back to packaging up my del.icio.us bookmarks daily and posting them here.

  • The Black Triangle is an article from 2004 about game development found by Jason Kottke. It describes the disconnect between programmers and users, where users are unimpressed by seeing something relatively simple on the screen, and developers are thrilled at the huge amount of work that into getting that simple thing onto the screen. I’ve found it’s never a good idea to show customers the Black Triangle. It always comes later in the process than they’d think and often freaks them out.
  • waferbaby: The Setup. Interviews with people about their computer setups. I can never read enough of these.
  • New York Times: Gazan Doctor and Peace Advocate Loses 3 Daughters to Israeli Fire and Asks Why. The horrific cost of war.
  • Dr. Saturday: Australian Rules’ blood’s worth bottling. A proposed playoff structure for college football. A more interesting approach
  • Going.com: Newspapers Covering Obama’s Inauguration. A huge collection of newspaper front pages from President Obama’s inauguration. And yes, it still feels weird to type “President Obama.”
  • CSS Newbie: The EqualHeights jQuery Plugin. I’m always looking for better ways to set columns to equal heights on a Web page.
  • Glenn Greenwald: Mohammed Jawad and Obama’s efforts to suspend military commissions. When anyone questions whether the United States tortures people or tortures the wrong people, you can forward them the story of Mohammed Jawad, a teenager captured in Afghanistan who was coerced to confess to killing US soldiers with a grenade. The military prosecutor in his case petitioned that he should be released and ultimately resigned rather than prosecute him.

A great day for America

Today’s Executive Orders signed by President Barack Obama alone justify having voted for him. With a few signatures, he has ordered Gitmo closed, shut down other secret detention sites around the world, and ordered US interrogators to no longer torture detainees. Truly a great day for America.

Glenn Greenwald notes that there are still a lot of people who think this is a bad idea.

Torturers must be prosecuted

Glenn Greenwald runs through the applicable laws and statements and comes to the inescapable conclusion that the Obama administration is required by the Constitution to investigate and prosecute people who tortured and ordered people to be tortured under the Bush administration. I still wouldn’t be surprised if no charges were ever brought.

No longer tantamount

Dahlia Lithwick and Phillipe Sands write about how the Susan Crawford interview from today’s Washington Post changes the debate about torture. We now have a Pentagon employee stating unequivocally that the United States tortured a detainee, and that torture has prevented us from being able to mount a successful prosecution for his crimes. Now the question is what the Obama administration will do about it.

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