Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: torture (page 2 of 3)

Links from June 12th

FBI interrogator vs Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney has said that torture extracted important intelligence from prisoners. Former FBI counterterrorism agent Ali Soufan says not so much:

One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.

Horrifying torture news of the day

What information did interrogators hope to get from prisoners at Guantanamo? Substantiation of the link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. McClatchy DC has the details:

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

“There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,” the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.”

Salon has more coverage of the Senate Armed Services report that the McClatchy article cites, reporting that planning for the use of torture began in 2001.

A PDF of the full report, which was declassified yesterday, is available for download.

Update: Dan Froomkin has a summary of what we learned from the report. Essentially, our government tortured prisoners for the purpose of creating propaganda to justify launching a war of aggression. Chew on that.

Impeach Jay Bybee

Think Progress has started a campaign to urge Congress to impeach Jay Bybee. Bybee is the author of the torture memo that I wrote about last week, and has since become a judge on the Ninth District Court of Appeals.

As far as I’m concerned, Attorney General Eric Holder should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate our use of torture, but there’s not much you or I can do about that. On the other hand, impeachment is a political proceeding, and we can all encourage our representatives to start impeachment proceedings. Impeaching Bybee would also start the ball rolling on a wider discussion of how torture was applied by the US government.

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.

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.

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.

The ticking time bomb

The New York Times asked a number of big name lawyers to suggest questions for Attorney General nominee Eric Holder’s confirmation hearings. UCLA professor and right wing blogger Eugene Volokh offers this question:

What may American military and law enforcement do to extract information from terrorists, especially in a “ticking time-bomb” case?

I’m going to go ahead and answer this for Holder. Hopefully he reads my blog.

The correct answer is to reject the hypothetical. First of all, I don’t know that the “ticking time bomb” scenario has ever occurred in the history of our nation. Let’s say that we do have special rules for dealing with terrorists in a ticking time bomb scenario. How do we apply these rules.

Not only must we capture a terrorist, but we must already have reason to suspect that the terrorist has sufficient knowledge of an impending attack. When does this actually happen? It’s far more likely that authorities attempt to invoke the time bomb rules whenever they capture a suspected terrorist and wind up subjecting them all to the “time bomb” treatment.

Chances are we will never have both the right captive and the knowledge we need to know that we have the right captive. In the end you wind up torturing all sorts of people, just as we do today. (Make no mistake, the essence of Volokh’s question is to see if he can get Holder to agree that torture is necessary in some cases.)

Here’s the real point, though. Let’s assume that we have captured a terrorist who has operational knowledge of an impending attack, and that we know this terrorist has such knowledge. So the task is to somehow get this terrorist to disclose what he knows, enabling us to prevent the attack.

In this situation, it does not matter what the terrorist says. They only need to buy time for the people who will be executing the attack. I learned this on an episode of 24.

In one episode, Jack Bauer captured a terrorist who knew about an attack that would occur at the top of the next hour. With 10 minutes left, he shot the guy in the leg, and he immediately spilled his guts. For some reason, he told the truth. But given that he only had to stall for 10 minutes to enable the attack to be launched successfully, he could just as easily have lied.

So I would propose that for any time frame short enough to qualify for the “time bomb” scenario, it is impossible to extract truthful information from all but the dumbest terrorists, regardless of the means used.

Ignore the question.

Update: Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn (this idiot) asked Eric Holder this question today. I’ll post the transcript when it’s available.

Update II: Here’s the transcript and video of Cornyn presenting his hypothetical to Holder.

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