Friday, January 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty and torture

Apparently, the movie Zero Dark Thirty has brought up the issue of torture again - specifically, the issue of America torturing prisoners of war. (I'm still absolutely astonished that I have to talk about this. After all, when I grew up, torture was something the Nazis would do, or the Communists, not us.)

Now, I haven't seen the movie - I'm not a big movie fan - so I don't know anything about that. Does Zero Dark Thirty imply that torture had something to do with finding Osama bin Laden? That's not true, and the Senate plans to investigate whether or not the CIA deliberately misled the filmmakers, just to justify their own actions.

Or does the movie show that torture doesn't work? I don't know, because I haven't seen the movie. But note that more Americans will probably get their knowledge of 'history' from movies like this than from anywhere else. It's a sad state of affairs, but these are important questions.

One of the first lines in the movie is, "He has to learn how helpless he is." That's a reference to the Bush-era torture goal of "learned helplessness," or making captives feel that they are physically and psychologically dependent on their captors. - Business Insider

No, I don't plan to discuss the movie. But it's bringing America's experiment with torture back into public consciousness again, and that's a very good thing. In particular, I want to point to this article from NBC News about "the methodical, legalistic, and bureaucratic process that led to the use of waterboarding" and other torture techniques.
The process of developing a “menu” of interrogation techniques that could be used on suspected terrorists began in the spring of 2002, and moved quickly -- even feverishly – at first.

The CIA, which lacked interrogation expertise, needed to develop a plan for questioning alleged al-Qaida terrorist training camp operator Abu Zubaydah, the first major jihadi captured after the 9-11 attacks.

Wounded in a shootout in Pakistan at the end of March 2002, Zubaydah was initially interrogated by FBI agents. But CIA agents soon joined the questioning and the bureau withdrew its agents by June out of a concern that the agency’s interrogators had crossed the line. (That suggests that Zubaydah’s harsh treatment began even before enhanced interrogation techniques were approved in August 2002, since the 9-11 Commission’s final report included references to at least five CIA interrogations between late May and early July.)

“Interrogation wasn’t a big deal till we got a big deal guy,” said one former intelligence official who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity. “We had reporting from prior to 9-11 as well as afterward that Abu Zubaydah might well know about future operations. So … we get him in our clutches…we figure we might need to do something to find out what he knows.”

Yes, the CIA moved "feverishly" to develop a torture plan,... and the Bush administration moved feverishly to try to justify it. After all, we hadn't needed torture in World War I or World War II. We hadn't needed torture in Vietnam or even during the Cold War. But I guess those weren't dangerous times, huh?

Bush administration hysteria caused a feverish leap to torture, just as they'd leaped to war in their "war on terror" rhetoric. (You know, maybe I'd better be more worried about that "war on Christmas"! I'm likely to find myself on the receiving end of this stuff, if Republicans get back in power.)

And let's remember that the FBI withdrew from this. Torturing prisoners crossed the line for them (to their credit). They didn't, however, stand up and blow the whistle. Maybe we shouldn't expect that, I don't know. But when things like this happen, someone has to act - even if it's career suicide - or else they continue.

Of course, that would take extraordinary courage, but I don't think that was the problem. No, the problem was most likely that they couldn't be sure they were doing the right thing. I sympathize, I really do. Most people would do the right thing if they were just certain it was right. (Unfortunately, people will also do the wrong things, the worst things, if they're absolutely certain they're right.)

Finally, re. this "do something to find out what he knows," let's never forget that it didn't work. By all accounts, we didn't get much, if any, useful information from torture. Other techniques were much more productive. It's not that torture would be justified if it did work, not at all. But when it doesn't even work,...

I don't want to make too much of that, because torture is counterproductive in so many other ways. But it's certainly worth keeping in mind. Torture and threats of torture always work in movies and television, because they're fiction.

In real-life, you can torture a man enough that he'll tell you anything you want to hear. Of course, that won't mean that it's true, but only that he thinks it's what you want to hear. They used to torture suspected witches, too, so that they'd give up their 'accomplices,' who would then be tortured to get even more names. But none of it was actually true.
In late July, Dr. John “Bruce” Jessen, then a senior psychologist at the Defense Department agency that administered SERE training, was sent to the CIA “for several days” to discuss the techniques, according to congressional investigators.

Immediately after the assignment ended, Jessen resigned from the Air Force and, along with another recently retired colleague, Dr. James Mitchell, founded Mitchell Jessen Associates.

The business -- co-owned by seven individuals, six of whom either worked in the SERE program as employees or contractors – quickly signed a contract with the CIA, a deal that provided the two men with $1,000-a-day tax-free retainers, according to ABC News.

Torture as a money-making scheme - imagine that! Well, it's the Republican ideal, isn't it, to privatize everything? I guess it's real patriotic to make money from your nation's irrational fears, isn't it? And this was a psychologist! Indeed, there were several psychologists involved. Had they forgotten about the Hippocratic Oath? Shades of Josef Mengele, I guess.

The thing is, if nothing else, this is a serious conflict of interest. Was this about defending America, about defending the Bush administration (as we'll see below, Dick Cheney wanted to torture Iraqi officers, because they'd invaded Iraq based on a lie and they needed to find something to justify it), or about making money?
By July 22, John Yoo, then deputy assistant attorney general in the DoJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, had prepared his eventually famous secret memo to Alberto Gonzalez, then counsel to President George W. Bush. In it, Yoo suggested that the Geneva Conventions don't apply to terrorism cases. Furthermore, he wrote, international law “lacks domestic legal effect, and in any event can be overridden by the president.”

Yes, if you want to do something - even torture - and you need to justify it (as noted above, they'd apparently started torturing their prisoner already, certainly enough to cause the FBI to leave), you can always find some bureaucrat who'll give you that justification. (And if not, you can just hire a different bureaucrat.)

This is why we have laws. This is why we don't let the president - or the vice-president - just do whatever he wants to do. And when these things are secret, they can justify anything to themselves. So this is why the light of open government is so critical, too.

No, we don't have to abide by the Geneva Conventions, not unless we want to, right? We don't have to abide by the treaties we've signed, the agreements we've made. And the president can do anything he wants in any case, can't he? Isn't the president above the law?

Honestly, as shameful as all this was, it's almost equally shameful that no one was ever held accountable for it. No one was ever convicted of a crime, or even charged with one. We swept it all under the rug, so that, the next time something like this comes up, there won't be any reason not to do it again.
Zubaydah described to the Red Cross an experience mostly faithful to the technique prescribed in the Bybee memo, albeit less clinical:

“I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited.”

He continued: “The bed was then again lowered to horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die.”

Nashiri said he had the same experience, except the water used was cold.

“Injuries to my ankles and wrists also occurred during the waterboarding as I struggled in the panic of not being able to breathe,” he told the Red Cross.

I won't comment about this - I don't need to, do I? - except to note that America has considered waterboarding to be torture for more than a hundred years, whenever it was applied to our people. Oh, and I should note that Khalid Sheik Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times!
According to both former intelligence officers and Iraqi Survey Group officials, the Office of the Vice President Cheney wanted to use enhanced interrogation techniques on a recalcitrant Iraqi intelligence officer who they believed had information on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

I mentioned this above. Once you start justifying torture, where do you stop?

The Bush Administration had wanted to invade Iraq from the start, long before 9/11 gave them the political power to do so. (It's kind of like Republican feelings about Iran, today.) Of course, they didn't have a reason for it. (But just look at all that lovely, lovely oil!)

Even 9/11 didn't give them an excuse, although they tried very hard to connect Iraq to al-Qaeda. (Polls even long after the invasion showed that most Fox 'News' viewers thought Saddam Hussein had had something to do with 9/11! Yeah, their misinformation campaign was that effective.)

So they came up with 'weapons of mass destruction' to justify what they wanted to do. "Don't let the smoking gun become a mushroom cloud!" Remember that? Of course, it wasn't actually true. As the UN had been telling us - since they'd been searching Iraq for WMDs ever since the Gulf War - there weren't any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, not anymore. And Saddam Hussein hadn't been trying to get nukes, either.

After the invasion, after Bush's 'Mission Accomplished' photo ops, that became a political problem. So Dick Cheney's idea was to torture Iraqi prisoners of war until they could find something - some reason to retroactively justify the war the neocons had always wanted to wage (but not to fight, not themselves, and not to pay for, either).

Thankfully, we didn't do that. There were still enough decent people around to object. But it's what Cheney's people really wanted to do. And once you start torturing prisoners for any reason, where do you draw the line?
“The torture displayed in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was the result of systematic legal and policy reasoning at the highest levels of government,” said Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and author of “The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days.” “Which techniques, how they would be applied, and with what specific legal authorities were all part of the detailed, cold, bureaucratic trail that methodically removed torture from the realm of illegal and forbidden and placed it in the realm of national policy.”

That should scare you. And if you're an American, that should shame you. There's a lot more I could say about this. Was information the real purpose behind torture? And how does that fit with the Abu Ghraib scandal, where low-level soldiers were encouraged to break the will of prisoners? (And those were POWs, not just nebulous 'terrorists.')

I hope that Zero Dark Thirty is reasonably accurate, because that's the only way we Americans ever seem to learn history. But whether it is or not, at least it's getting us to think about such things again. We should never forget this sorry chapter in American history, in American politics, in American hysteria and irrational fear.

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