Sunday, June 03, 2007

Not asking, not telling

Not since the disastrous French colonial war in Algeria has a democratic country been engaged in a deep internal debate about torture—or, "enhanced interrogation techniques," to use the clinical euphemism that's currently in vogue. The first Guantanamo detainees have been in military custody for over five years, with yet another suicide in recent weeks, and the crimes at Abu Ghraib were revealed early in the Iraq war, yet the debate in the U.S. continues.

Unfortunately, and to our national shame, it's an exaggeration to say that there's a "debate" at all: there's little evidence of any controversy outside the Beltway, raising profound questions about the state of U.S. political culture these days. If I had to guess, I'd say that the general attitude on the subject may be summarized by a phrase from an altogether different controversy: "don't ask, don't tell." The Administration, it would seem, is tacitly authorized to take whatever action George Bush deems suitable to protect the country (as noted in earlier posts here and here).

To the extent that there has been any debate at all, there's ample evidence that it was most intense within the Pentagon, between the civilian and military leaderships:
Speaking publicly for the first time, senior U.S. law enforcement investigators say they waged a long but futile battle inside the Pentagon to stop coercive and degrading treatment of detainees by intelligence interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Their account indicates that the struggle over U.S. interrogation techniques began much earlier than previously known, with separate teams of law enforcement and intelligence interrogators battling over the best way to accomplish two missions: prevent future attacks and punish the terrorists.

In extensive interviews with, former leaders of the Defense Department’s Criminal Investigation Task Force said they repeatedly warned senior Pentagon officials beginning in early 2002 that the harsh interrogation techniques used by a separate intelligence team would not produce reliable information, could constitute war crimes, and would embarrass the nation when they became public knowledge.

The investigators say their warnings began almost from the moment their agents got involved at the Guantanamo prison camp, in January 2002. When they could not prevent the harsh interrogations and humiliation of detainees at Guantanamo, they say, they tried in 2003 to stop the spread of those tactics to Iraq, where abuses at Abu Ghraib prison triggered worldwide outrage with the publishing of graphic photos in April 2004.


It was two years before the photos emerged from Abu Ghraib, the Pentagon cops said, when they began arguing that coercive or abusive interrogations would not serve war-fighting or justice.

Despite this internal debate, the techniques of torture had already been studied in depth for decades by the Pentagon—but only to teach soldiers how to resist torture, not to practice it:

"Many of the controversial interrogation tactics used against terror suspects in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo were modeled on techniques the U.S. feared that the Communists themselves might use against captured American troops during the Cold War, according to a little-noticed, highly classified Pentagon report released several days ago. Originally developed as training for elite special forces at Fort Bragg under the "Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape" program, otherwise known as SERE, tactics such as sleep deprivation, isolation, sexual humiliation, nudity, exposure to extremes of cold and stress positions were part of a carefully monitored survival training program for personnel at risk of capture by Soviet or Chinese forces, all carried out under the supervision of military psychologists. (1)
So the techniques of presumed communist torturers were assimilated by the U.S. military and eventually re-emerged in the protocols for treatment of detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that untrained and understaffed U.S. guards improvised techniques, perhaps inspired by Jack Bauer and other government operatives in shows like "24:"
The report, completed last August but only declassified and made public on May 18, suggests that the abusive techniques stemmed from a much more formal process than the Defense Department has previously acknowledged. By 2002 the Pentagon was looking for an interrogation paradigm to use on what it had designated as "unlawful combatants" captured in the "war on terror." These individuals, many taken prisoner in Afghanistan, were initially brought to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo, although others were subsequently hidden away in CIA secret prisons or turned over to U.S.-allied governments known to practice torture. That same year, the commander of the detention facility at Guantanamo began using the abusive "counter resistance" techniques adopted from SERE on prisoners at the base, and according to the Pentagon report SERE military psychologists were on hand to help.

The use of some "enhanced interrogation techniques" has apparently, for now, been limited:

In response to fallout over the well-documented cases of prisoner abuse — which included prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation (visual and auditory), forced removal of clothing, exploiting prisoners phobias (notably fear of dogs), and threats against family members — the Pentagon began scaling back the use of SERE tactics in 2002 and eventually banned them altogether. The Army Field Manual, which serves as a primary guide for U.S. military interrogation, now specifically rules out the use of a variety of SERE-founded techniques including water-boarding, a form of simulated drowning, as well as the use of dogs.

But critics remain concerned that the Pentagon's clean-up has not gone far enough. In the letter to Secretary Gates, dated May 31, 2007, the non-profit Physicians for Human Rights cites an appendix of the current Army Field Manual that "explicitly permits what amounts to isolation, along with sleep and sensory deprivation." The letter, signed by retired Army General Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and former senior medical commander, and Leonard Rubenstein, the organization's executive director, also points out that the current Field Manual remains "silent on a number of other SERE-based methods (including sensory overload and deprivation) creating ambiguity and doubt over their place in interrogation doctrine."

If the latest Republican presidential debate is any indication, the more restrictive policy on torture could be short-lived. The candidates, notably excepting John McCain in a rare moment of lucidity, fell over themselves to prove who could be toughest on future detainees. The current policies are ambiguous at best:

Even assuming that Pentagon reforms have succeeded in cleaning up the worst excesses of U.S. interrogations, a number of experts have grave doubts that current policies are either workable or effective. Members of the Intelligence Science Board, many of whom serve as consultants to the Pentagon, have recently argued that U.S. interrogation policy involves a grab-bag of outmoded techniques, many dating from the 1950s, that ignore lessons learned from law enforcement and lack cultural sensitivity to Arab and other foreign prisoners. The kind of insensitivity, critics might now add, that we once assumed only our worst enemies would show their foreign prisoners. (2)
The de facto standard for the treatment of detainees was best revealed by George Bush in his memorandum of February 7, 2002. He declared that the U.S. would treat unlawful combatants "humanely and to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva" [my emphasis]. As events have demonstrated, the final authority on "military necessity" is George Bush and no one else.


(1) SERE techniques were designed to "replicate harsh conditions that the Service member might encounter if they are held by forces that do not abide by the Geneva Conventions." [Quoted from page 23 of the 131-page secret report (2006) by the Defense Department's Inspector General, of which a heavily-redacted copy is available online. Its purpose was to evaluate the DoD's investigations into detainee abuse.]

(2) There's a succinct definition of torture, along with a statement of the moral and policy reasons not to practice it, on page 4 of the DoD report.

PHOTO: Hooded Iraqi prisoner chained to a railing at Abu Ghraib (from Wikipedia Commons).

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