Torture: …and it doesn’t work

April 25, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Posted in Bush Administration, Politics | 3 Comments

Those who come down on the side of torture usually defend it by claiming that in a situation where time is of the essence to prevent loss of life, torture will get you good information far more quickly than normal interrogation techniques. Interrogation experts disagree, and repeatedly said so to the Pentagon, the CIA and the Department of Justice during the Summer of 2002.

In July of 2002, long before Abu Zabaida was interrogated, and while the CIA was planning its new interrogation program, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) wrote a memo with a 2-page attachment.

The JPRA is an agency of the Pentagon that runs a program called SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape). It is the U.S. Government’s expert on torture. It has to be expert, because SERE teaches US military personnel how to resist torture.

JPRA forwarded the memo to the Pentagon’s Office of General Counsel, which sent it on to the CIA’s acting General Counsel John A. Rizzo and to the Department of Justice.

George Tenet, who was then CIA Director, briefed the National Security Council on the CIA’s proposed interrogation scheme, but did not discuss the issues raised in the attachment. “Slam-Dunk” Tenet provided no pros and cons, but described the program as being safe and effective.

It was neither. On August 1, the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department wrote a memo that authorized ten torture techniques, including waterboarding, for use against Abu Zabaida. They didn’t work: as former intelligence officials recently confirmed to The Washington Post, Zabaida lost control of his bladder during “enhanced interrogation,” but provided little useful information. And he still has difficulty controlling his bladder. No, it was neither safe nor effective, Mr. Tenet.

Why was it not effective? Well, if you’d like to read the attachment yourself, you can go to In a nutshell, torture is ineffective because the information you get is unreliable: as the attachment puts it, “a subject in extreme pain may provide an answer, any answer, or many answers in order to get the pain to stop.” (Emphasis mine.) Further, the subject’s physical and emotional responses to the pain will mask the responses that would otherwise be important clues to his veracity.

Torture is not only unsafe and ineffective, it’s counterproductive. According to the attachment, more than 90 percent of interrogations have been successful when the interrogators established rapport with the prisoner. That confirms my own belief, which is based on conversations with a number of police officers. And once you’ve “applied duress” to the prisoner, his resolve to resist cooperating will inevitably increase.

Further, our use of torture puts our troops and other citizens at risk. An adversary who uses torture would have no compunction about using it on our people if they’re captured or kidnapped. An adversary who is thinking about it but hasn’t decided may go ahead and torture our people because—after all—we used torture.

I have commented on the ethics and legalities elsewhere. But I think it’s important that we understand that the Bush administration ignored or suppressed information that did not match what it wanted to do. The result was in some ways worse than getting us into an unnecessary war, or failing to respond to a natural disaster, because it denied us intelligence that could have saved lives, and put our troops at additional risk. We must investigate; and where crimes have been committed, we must prosecute.


The torture in our past

April 22, 2009 at 7:07 am | Posted in Bush Administration, Obama Administration, Politics | Leave a comment

It’s not “enhanced interrogation,” it’s torture. It’s ugly, it’s immoral, it’s illegal, and as President Obama has said several times, we don’t do it.

That is to say, we don’t do it now. We used to do it: we did it at “black” CIA sites, at Abu Ghraib, at Baghram and Gitmo, and (via extraordinary rendition) at prisons in other countries. That’s not a theory, it’s established fact: the United States of America committed war crimes, broke the Geneva Conventions and associated treaties, and broke its own laws. The question is, what do we do about it?

We investigate, and—if the investigation reveals individuals who committed crimes—we prosecute the perpetrators. That’s not an option. It’s called the Rule of Law.

Of course justice ought to be tempered by mercy. I don’t think we ought to prosecute the grunts who actually did the torturing unless investigation shows them to have been aware (or uncaring) that their acts were illegal. Citizens of a country regarded as highly ethical, they were told that the acts of “enhanced interrogation” they were asked to perform were approved by their government; legal, necessary, and justified by the circumstances. They may have had doubts, but I think it’s expecting too much to ask them to refuse to carry out what they believed were lawful orders.

But the bigwigs? They decided to use torture, justified it, and wrote the policies that approved it. They must pay for their crimes.

It will be argued that torture works. Wrong. You may occasionally get useful information by torturing somebody, but most of what you get is useless, because the person you’re torturing will say anything, literally anything, to get you to stop. Interrogation is like sales: you establish rapport, and you persuade the subject that it’s in his or her best interests to tell you what you want to know. You tend to get very good, very useful information that way. Just ask the detectives on your local police force: they do it all the time.

It will be argued that torture is used by national officials who are under very great pressure to get good information before some terrible thing happens. Pressure? They’re supposed to be able to handle pressure: that’s why we hired them. In a nation of laws, they are supposed to be able to make the right decisions; the morally, ethically, and practically correct decisions—even under very great pressure.

If they don’t make the morally and ethically correct decisions we become just like our enemies. We turn into a nation whose actions help terrorist organizations to recruit members. We turn into a nation that has lost the moral high ground, and whose forces (and other citizens) are subject to the same treatment we give our enemies. A nation that deplores and prosecutes war crimes in others—while committing them itself.

That is unacceptable. The Attorney General, Mr. Holder, must appoint a special prosecutor. The prosecutor must be independent, highly respected, and ethically above reproach. He must be able to conduct an investigation in a highly charged environment, to navigate the shoals of political pressure, and determine the truth. Then he must prosecute those who ordered and justified the use of torture, because they violated the law. They caused the United States to violate treaties and conventions that it proudly helped write. They are criminals under U.S. law, and war criminals under international law.

I hope you’ll write your elected representatives, and the Attorney General, on this issue. I already have.

Obama OKs Wiretaps?!

April 19, 2009 at 12:26 pm | Posted in Obama Administration, Politics | Leave a comment
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He’s done a lot of good things. He’s taken the right steps (mostly) to get our economy going again. He’s made tremendous progress in mending relations with our allies—and in reassuring our enemies that we’ll talk with them and not just blindly swing a cudgel in their direction. But he’s made some mistakes—serious ones—that we cannot ignore.

The warrantless wiretapping mess is one. The Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP) is the program under which the National Security Agency has tapped the electronic communications and communications records of thousands of ordinary Americans—in many cases without a warrant. Not just foreign communications: purely domestic communications were caught in the dragnet, as were Americans’ communications with foreigners who had not the faintest connection with terrorism. That’s just wrong, and Candidate Barack Obama said so in ringing tones during the campaign.

But President Barack Obama has not only adopted the Bush policy, he has extended it!

During the Bush administration the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a suit against the NSA, seeking to stop the program. But the Obama Justice Department recently filed a motion to dismiss the suit, formally adopting the Bush administration policy, and extending it to give the government immunity from being sued over wiretaps—even if they are found to be illegal!

We have a right to privacy. It’s guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, which says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. And no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

If we can’t sue the government for violating our right to privacy we have no recourse. If we have no recourse…do we have a right to privacy? I’m not a Constitutional lawyer or scholar, but like you, I can read—and think. And I think that if this motion is accepted it means we have lost our right to privacy. If it can’t be enforced it does not exist.

The motion should be withdrawn. The TSP, which rests on a tottering tower of specious legal arguments designed to get around the Fourth Amendment, must be amended to preserve the rights of Americans. Those who designed, approved, and implemented the program should be investigated. If criminal acts are found, the perpetrators must be tried.

The problem is that President Obama feels he’s in a political bind. On one side are the people who voted for him because he represented change from the constitution-bending policies of the Bush years. On the other side is the intelligence community, whose support we need to fight terrorism. And there is this: no president has ever voluntarily given up powers that a previous president has acquired.

But the vast majority of the country is on President Obama’s side: we will support him in changing the TSP and the FISA so they no longer trample on our rights. The intelligence agencies are the tools of the president; they are not his master. If he acts fairly, prosecuting only those who have committed criminal acts, the intelligence community will come around. The intelligence community has just as much skin in the anti-terror game as anybody. More than some.

Barack Obama could be remembered as the consummate politician who did the right thing; the president who voluntarily gave up powers that his predecessor assumed in disregard or defiance of the constitution.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful legacy?

Burr scores again

April 17, 2009 at 9:05 am | Posted in Congress, Economy, Politics | Leave a comment

Senator Richard “Deservedly Anonymous” Burr (D-NC) made the national news for the second time in a month yesterday. His first appearance resulted from the fact that he had used his powers as a senator to hold up the nomination of Tammy Duckworth as an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Duckworth is a veteran of the Iraq war, a helicopter pilot who lost both legs in combat, became the head of the Illinois Veterans Affairs agency, and achieved a national reputation for the outstanding way in which she managed the department.

Senator Burr has never revealed why he blocked her nomination. Perhaps he doesn’t like women—or legless women, anyway. Maybe he doesn’t like helicopter pilots. Or maybe he was trying to fit in as a member of the Party of No.

Who knows? But it’s clear that the former lawnmower salesman isn’t really up on the whole banking thing. Speaking to the Henderson County, North Carolina Chamber of Commerce the other day, he talked about the way the economic crisis was unfolded last Fall. “On Friday night I called my wife, ” said Burr, “and I said, ‘Brooke, I am not coming home this weekend. I will call you on Monday. Tonight I want you to go to the ATM machine, and I want you to draw out everything it will let you take. And I want you to go to tomorrow, and I want you to go Sunday.'” (

Senator, for starters, if you were so worried why didn’t you tell your constituents? Nice of you to worry about your family’s assets, but how about the people who elected you? Don’t they deserve the benefit of your wisdom?

That would be the wisdom that made the Senator start a mini bank run. But as most of us know, bank runs are bad. They cause banks to fail. That’s one of the things that happened during the Great Depression, and one of the reasons we have a federal agency called the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or FDIC. Most people know that their deposits are insured by the FDIC, so that even if your bank fails you’ll get your money.

If Richard Burr were still the sales manager for Carswell Distributing, which sells lawnmowers, it wouldn’t matter so much. But he’s not. He’s a United States Senator. He’s one of the people who makes the laws under which we all live. He may have an impact on the way your kids are educated; on the health care you get (or don’t get, as the case may be); on the economic situation; and even on the foreign policies our country pursues.

If you’d like to tell Senator Burr what you think of his economic policy, here’s a link that will let you email him.

Will Congress pad the last “emergency” war funding bill?

April 15, 2009 at 9:21 am | Posted in Congress, Iraq, Obama Administration, Politics | Leave a comment

The late but unlamented Bush administration used emergency spending bills to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact is, these bills were a device to hide the cost of the wars by taking it off the budget. The Obama administration has vowed to provide more transparency in government, and says that the current bill—used out of administrative necessity—will be the last.

I hope so. But the current bill, although it is seemingly needed, may acquire additions to fund large weapons systems requested by the Pentagon—like more F-22 fighters and a refueling tanker for the Air Force. These are controversial projects, but even if they were obviously needed “slam dunk” projects, they should be carefully scrutinized on their own merits, not passed as an addendum to an otherwise necessary spending bill.

That seems obvious. But some powerful Democrats are talking about adding the fighters and tanker to the bill: Representative John Murtha (D-PA), chairman of the Defense Spending Committee and Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. They are strong supporters of the military weapons industry. They must be prevented from padding the bill.

Fortunately, opposition to the practice exists. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator John McCain (yes, that John McCain) is the ranking Republican on the committee. Both are working on improving the DOD procurement process, and neither looks kindly on the practice of adding weapons systems to emergency spending bills.

But they need help. I wrote to President Obama and to my representative and senators, and I suggest you do so too. An easy way is to use, but you can use the phone, snail-mail, or whatever means you like. Just do it: let your elected representatives know what you think.

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