Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Harsh Interrogation

This ABC News report contains much of relevance to the current torture debate. It needs to be borne in mind in reading what follows that ABC very probably would like to put the worst construction on what they've uncovered, but if their aim is to make the CIA's methods look morally indefensible they don't succeed. Here are excerpts of the article with commentary:

Nov. 18, 2005 - Harsh interrogation techniques authorized by top officials of the CIA have led to questionable confessions and the death of a detainee since the techniques were first authorized in mid-March 2002, ABC News has been told by former and current intelligence officers and supervisors.

They say they are revealing specific details of the techniques, and their impact on confessions, because the public needs to know the direction their agency has chosen. All gave their accounts on the condition that their names and identities not be revealed. Portions of their accounts are corroborated by public statements of former CIA officers and by reports recently published that cite a classified CIA Inspector General's report.

"They would not let you rest, day or night. Stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down. Don't sleep. Don't lie on the floor," one prisoner said through a translator. The detainees were also forced to listen to rap artist Eminem's "Slim Shady" album. The music was so foreign to them it made them frantic, sources said.

Okay. We can agree that forcing someone to listen to Eminem is unkind, but it scarcely rises to the level of torture. What about the other methods the CIA uses?

The CIA sources described a list of six "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" instituted in mid-March 2002 and used, they said, on a dozen top al Qaeda targets incarcerated in isolation at secret locations on military bases in regions from Asia to Eastern Europe. According to the sources, only a handful of CIA interrogators are trained and authorized to use the techniques:

Note that these techniques have been used on only a dozen of the top al Qaeda detainees. They are not used indiscriminately, nor are they used by untrained personnel.

1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

2. Attention Slap: An openhanded slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard openhanded slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

Of these, only the last three can be considered to cause extreme pain or suffering and how much suffering they cause is completely up to the detainee. This is an important point. Unlike abuse carried out as retribution, punishment or for the amusement of the abusers, the detainee has complete control over how much of this treatment he must endure.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

"The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

Maybe, but do they believe they're actually being drowned or do they only feel like they're being drowned? If the latter then it's not a mock execution. The prisoner doesn't have to think he's going to be killed in order to be unable to withstand the treatment.

The techniques are controversial among experienced intelligence agency and military interrogators. Many feel that a confession obtained this way is an unreliable tool. Two experienced officers have told ABC that there is little to be gained by these techniques that could not be more effectively gained by a methodical, careful, psychologically based interrogation.

Where's ABC's substantiation that "many" feel this is an unreliable tool? They cite the opinion of two officers who so believe. Very well, but how many others are convinced that the information gained from these dozen or so terrorists was reliable? Moreover, if other techniques are effective in extracting valuable information then why does the CIA go to the trouble and legal risk of employing less effective methods?

According to a classified report prepared by the CIA Inspector General John Helgerwon and issued in 2004, the techniques "appeared to constitute cruel, and degrading treatment under the [Geneva] convention," the New York Times reported on Nov. 9, 2005.

This raises an important question. Exactly what constitutes cruelty? Surely it's not just a matter of inflicting severe pain on someone. If it were, then surgeons in Civil War field hospitals would have been cruel. They were not so regarded, of course, because they were trying to accomplish a long term good. For an act to be cruel the actor must be motivated by a desire to hurt or degrade another simply to punish, amuse, exact retribution, or to vent his own frustrations. Any of these motivations would make the administration of pain cruel and thus evil, and any agent of the government who acts upon such motives should face punishment.

The motivation to save lives, however, is in a completely different moral category. If there is adequate reason to believe that the detainee is withholding information that could prevent the loss of life then inflicting severe pain or discomfort in order to elicit that information is not "cruel" as long as it is reasonably assured to work, and as long as there are no more effective or reliable methods available.

The cruelty of an act also depends on the amount of control possessed by the prisoner as we discussed above. A detainee who is powerless to stop the administration of pain is in a much different position than one who has complete control over how much he wishes to endure. If the pain is inflicted in order to obtain lifesaving intelligence from a terrorist who otherwise refuses to yield it, and the treatment stops when the terrorist gives up that intelligence, and the terrorist knows it will stop when he gives up that information, then the treatment is not intrinsically cruel.

It is "bad interrogation. I mean you can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture's bad enough," said former CIA officer Bob Baer.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and a deputy director of the State Department's office of counterterrorism, recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "What real CIA field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust ... than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Nazis and the Soviets."

I leave it to the professionals to determine the extent to which harsh methods are reliable. My only concern is to make the case that, if they are, they are not immoral, or at least not necessarily so. It would be helpful to know how effective conventional techniques have been in gaining significant information from top al Qaeda people. ABC doesn't tell us, but they do say that Kalid Mohammad was pleading to be able to divulge what he knew after only two and a half minutes. That seems pretty effective.

One argument in favor of their use: time. In the early days of al Qaeda captures, it was hoped that speeding confessions would result in the development of important operational knowledge in a timely fashion.

However, ABC News was told that at least three CIA officers declined to be trained in the techniques before a cadre of 14 were selected to use them on a dozen top al Qaeda suspects in order to obtain critical information. In at least one instance, ABC News was told that the techniques led to questionable information aimed at pleasing the interrogators and that this information had a significant impact on U.S. actions in Iraq.

The use of the conjunction "however" in the above paragraph implies that what follows is somehow contrary to what precedes it, but the content of the "however" paragraph is completely irrelevant to the preceding paragraph. Is ABC just sloppy or is it trying to discredit the argument that there are advantages to the use of "harsh measures" without having to do the heavy lifting involved in actually refuting it?

According to CIA sources, Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi, after two weeks of enhanced interrogation, made statements that were designed to tell the interrogators what they wanted to hear. Sources say Al Libbi had been subjected to each of the progressively harsher techniques in turn and finally broke after being water boarded and then left to stand naked in his cold cell overnight where he was doused with cold water at regular intervals.

His statements became part of the basis for the Bush administration claims that Iraq trained al Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons. Sources tell ABC that it was later established that al Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.

"This is the problem with using the waterboard. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear," one source said.

However, sources said, al Libbi does not appear to have sought to intentionally misinform investigators, as at least one account has stated. The distinction in this murky world is nonetheless an important one. Al Libbi sought to please his investigators, not lead them down a false path, two sources with firsthand knowledge of the statements said.

This is an example of one of the weakest of the arguments in the torture debate. The fact that questionable information was acquired on one occasion is hardly reason to think the practice is generally unhelpful. Nor is it a reason, eo ipso, to refrain from harsh measures. After all, any interrogation technique is going to yield some unreliable information. What we need to know is the overall quality of the information gleaned from all detainees who were subjected to the treatment. Was it all unreliable? If not, the salient question becomes how reliable does it have to be in a given circumstance to warrant the use of harsh measures.

When properly used, the techniques appear to be closely monitored and are signed off on in writing on a case-by-case, technique-by-technique basis, according to highly placed current and former intelligence officers involved in the program. In this way, they say, enhanced interrogations have been authorized for about a dozen high value al Qaeda targets - Khalid Sheik Mohammed among them. According to the sources, all of these have confessed, none of them has died, and all of them remain incarcerated.

While some media accounts have described the locations where these detainees are located as a string of secret CIA prisons - a gulag, as it were - in fact, sources say, there are a very limited number of these locations in use at any time, and most often they consist of a secure building on an existing or former military base. In addition, they say, the prisoners usually are not scattered but travel together to these locations, so that information can be extracted from one and compared with others. Currently, it is believed that one or more former Soviet bloc air bases and military installations are the Eastern European location of the top suspects. Khalid Sheik Mohammed is among the suspects detained there, sources said.

The sources told ABC that the techniques, while progressively aggressive, are not deemed torture, and the debate among intelligence officers as to whether they are effective should not be underestimated. There are many who feel these techniques, properly supervised, are both valid and necessary, the sources said. While harsh, they say, they are not torture and are reserved only for the most important and most difficult prisoners.

ABC belatedly acknowledges here what they elided above - that although one or two officers think these measures are not effective, "many" others think they are. Although ABC expatiates on cases like al Libbi's where the results are questionable, they don't bother to give us specific examples of cases where the intelligence gained from these techniques has saved lives. Is that because there are no such cases, is it because the information is classified, or is it because they just don't want to tell us about such cases? They should at least tell us which of these possibilities explains their silence.

According to the sources, when an interrogator wishes to use a particular technique on a prisoner, the policy at the CIA is that each step of the interrogation process must be signed off at the highest level - by the deputy director for operations for the CIA. A cable must be sent and a reply received each time a progressively harsher technique is used. The described oversight appears tough but critics say it could be tougher. In reality, sources said, there are few known instances when an approval has not been granted. Still, even the toughest critics of the techniques say they are relatively well monitored and limited in use.

Two sources also told ABC that the techniques - authorized for use by only a handful of trained CIA officers - have been misapplied in at least one instance.

The sources said that in that case a young, untrained junior officer caused the death of one detainee at a mud fort dubbed the "salt pit" that is used as a prison. They say the death occurred when the prisoner was left to stand naked throughout the harsh Afghanistan night after being doused with cold water. He died, they say, of hypothermia.

According to the sources, a second CIA detainee died in Iraq and a third detainee died following harsh interrogation by Department of Defense personnel and contractors in Iraq. CIA sources said that in the DOD case, the interrogation was harsh, but did not involve the CIA.

Every effort should be made to prevent these sorts of incidents, of course, and if they occur through negligence or wantonness they should be met with discipline appropriate to the case just as any careless shooting of civilians by troops should be disciplined. But the fact that there have been a relatively few deaths (compared to the 82,000 people who've been detained since 2003) no more discredits the use of harsh interrogation than does the tragic deaths of a small number of civilians at checkpoints discredit the procedures followed by the military at these locations.

The ABC report is useful in describing exactly what sorts of interrogation practices are permitted by the CIA and what the limits of those are. Whether other agencies work under similar strictures and whether they are as closely monitored we can't say, but it seems that the images that the word torture usual connotes -- electric shocks, fingernail pulling, savage beatings, mutilations, etc. -- are not acceptable treatment for detainees in our custody. For that we can be grateful.

WFB @ 80

Anyone who looks back on his life and seeks to identify the influences which led him to the place he presently finds himself will probably be able to point to a half dozen or so people, in addition to his parents, who exerted a strong push on his life in at least one of its aspects.

There are those who help shape one's character, one's ambitions, one's religious, philosophical, and political views, and so on. In my own life there have been several such men, some I knew personally and others whom I never formally met but whose influence I nevertheless soaked up through their written work like leaves soak up sunshine.

One example of the latter is William F. Buckley. When I was fresh out of college in 1969 I stumbled across Mr. Buckley's Firing Line television show. I was just beginning to develop an interest in political affairs, having somehow managed to scoot through college in the ideologically charged 60's with hardly a political thought in my head to show for it.

I was impressed with all the things about Buckley that impress everyone who watches him - his wit, his breadth of knowledge, his mastery of the language, his ability to articulate conservative ideas with an eloquence and charm that disarmed his opponents - but most of all I was impressed with his demeanor. He was never rude or overbearing. He never got nasty or raised his voice. His colloquies with his guests were always marked with courtesy, good humor, and unfailing graciousness. In those early years of my adulthood he was an exemplar of how political disagreements should be debated and how discourse should be conducted.

Although I possessed none of his gifts, I subliminally decided that I wanted to be like him anyway, to the extent that I could. I read his books and National Review, the magazine he founded in the 1950s, and found myself wishing to learn all the things I should have learned in college but was too busy being a jock to trouble myself with. I regretted, having fallen under his sway, that I had squandered so many years and opportunities that could have been devoted to the cultivation of a fuller intellectual life.

Eventually, my interests evolved in various directions and followed channels not closely related to politics, but those other pursuits were always in some sense a product of the appetite he had stimulated in me for learning. He had given my appreciation for what Hannah Arendt calls the "life of the mind" a spark, a sturdy kick start, and I have always been grateful for the richness that that has added to my life.

I heard Bill Buckley give a lecture a few years back, and I wanted to tell him after his talk how much he has meant to me, but he was surrounded by adoring fans and besides, I thought, he probably hears stories similar to mine all the time anyway. I've regretted not taking the opportunity then, and I thought I'd write him and tell him what I wanted to tell him that night, but I somehow never got to it. I suppose I assumed that WFB has always been around and always will be. There'll be other opportunities.

Now I see that his 80th birthday is the 24th of this month, and I realize that if I don't do it soon it might never happen. That would be an omission I would deeply regret, so as Mr. Buckley approaches this milestone in his life I've resolved to contact him and tell him what he has meant in mine.

Happy birthday, Bill.

Just Go Kill Yourselves

Well, if you are a Republican and you tend to support the current administration you might wish to know that there are certain precincts in the Left-wing blogosphere in which you are quite unpopular. One of these is Democratic Underground where one ranter goes on at great length telling us how much he hates us, what loathesome creatures we are, what morans (his spelling) we all are. He finally concludes by urging us all to kill ourselves.

Perhaps this represents the Left's new strategy for winning in 2008.

Anyway, not everyone on the Left is this sick, of course, but judging by the comments he received on his post, many of them are. They're evidently consumed by a hatred so vile and irrational that it seems demonic. Don't take my word for it. Read it yourself and tell me that this guy and the people he speaks for are not quite simply stark, raving lunatics.

Thanks for the tip to Michelle Malkin.