I don’t mind being called an Obamabot. I mean, I’ve written a few columns about the guy that were brutal, tougher than anything Dowd’s written, especially at the time of the debt ceiling fiasco. But I understand the game, and it doesn’t bother me.
I have something I wish to make crystal clear, however. If it seems to you (I mean you, pumpkinface!) that I’m always excusing Obama, you’re misreading me. I am instead seeking to cast blame where it properly belongs. And that is almost always the Republican Party. I’ve said all this a jillion times before, but it is simply not a mainstream political party in the traditional American sense. It is a radical oppositionalist faction, way beyond the normal American parameters both in terms of ideology and tactics. And that needs to be pointed out, unfortunately, again and again and again.
Just today, Pat Toomey said of the background-check bill:
“In the end it didn’t pass because we’re so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.”
A helpful admission on his part, and a rare piece of Republican candor. But this is the case time after time after time. It’s not normal. It’s not–and I mean not remotely–”the same thing” the Democrats did under Bush. Today’s GOP is a complete historical outlier.
Yes, I’m sure there were many Democrats who didn’t want to hand Reagan or either Bush a political victory. But historically, that is one of a handful of legislative considerations, and not even the first. Probably more like the fourth, after votes and money and what’s right for the country. But today’s GOP has turned it into iron law. It is relentlessly destructive.
On the subject of Gitmo, which I wrote about yesterday: In normal America, when a presidential candidate says he wants to do X once in office and then wins the election by a significant margin, Congress usually does X. The opposition party always attaches strings and conditions and so forth, but they obey the will of the people. Democrats, enough of them, led by Tip O’Neill, put Reagan’s programs through. Same thing with Bush’s tax cuts. (Republicans did not grant Clinton the same courtesy, but as bad as they were then, they’re worse now.)
So in normal America, a deal would have been worked out whereby Gitmo would close. After all, remember, the Republican candidate in 2008 supported closing Gitmo too. It was the GOP’s position! And yet, once Obama as president wanted to do it, they killed it cold in 2009.
They have been blocking it ever since. Here’s a vote on the question of use of funds to transfer Gitmo detainees from last November, after Obama had been handily reelected. Every Republican present voted no. Every one.
That was on an amendment to the defense reauthorization. That passed, and Obama signed it. But he issued a statement to accompany the signing explaining that he was dead-set against the provisions I referred to in this morning’s post. Under the Constitution, of course, there is no line-item veto; a president either signs or vetoes an entire bill. This was a defense authorization, so he signed. But he made his position crystal clear. Here’s the letter for you to see.
I’m sure there’s more he could have done or could now be doing. But wouldn’t you get a little discouraged? Oh, fucking hell, he thinks to himself at 3 am. Yes, I want to keep this promise I made. But why should I bang my head against that particular wall again? If I’m for it, they’re against it. I won’t get one Republican vote.
He is, obviously, a flawed human being; aloof, a little superior, not especially warm (so it seems), and no, he doesn’t scare anybody. He has all of these flaws and more. Maybe a different human being could get Susan Collins or Rob Portman or Lamar Alexander to vote his way once in a while.
But I don’t really think so. Collins and Portman and Alexander and others are, I’m certain, a little ashamed of their party today, and of themselves. But they are afraid of the right-wing agitprop media and their hard-shell base (and of course the threat of a primary from the right). So they don’t have the guts to the right thing, and they likely never will.
So it’s not that I’m always straining to defend Obama, although I can understand how it ends up looking that way. I am trying to tell as many people as I can that this Republican Party is extreme and wholly against American norms and traditions. And I think any opinion writer who isn’t saying this over and over is, in ascending order of likelihood, lying, dense, or deceiving him or herself.
By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, May 1, 2013
It wasn’t torture that revealed Osama bin Laden’s hiding place.Finding and killing the world’s most-wanted terrorist took years of patient intelligence-gathering and dogged detective work, plus a little luck.
Once again, it appears, we’re supposed to be having a “debate” about torture — excuse me, I mean the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, that were authorized and practiced during the Bush administration. In fact, there’s nothing debatable about torture. It’s wrong, it’s illegal, and there’s no way to prove that the evidence it yields could not be obtained through conventional methods.
President Obama ended these practices. Torture remained a stain on our national honor, but one that was beginning to fade — until details of the hunt for bin Laden began to emerge.
According to widespread reports, the first important clue in the long chain leading to bin Laden’s lair came in 2004 from a Pakistani-born detainee named Hassan Ghul, who was held in one of the CIA’s secret “black site” prisons and subjected to coercive interrogation. Ghul was not waterboarded but may have been offered other items on the menu, including sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures and being placed in painful “stress positions” for hours at a time.
Ghul reportedly disclosed the nom de guerre of an al-Qaeda courier — Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — who appeared to have access to the terrorist organization’s inner circle. The CIA was able to deduce that Ghul was referring to a man they had heard of before, a trusted aide who might know where bin Laden was hiding.
Two of the highest-ranking al-Qaeda leaders who were taken into U.S. custody — operations chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded repeatedly, and Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was not waterboarded but was subjected to other harsh interrogation techniques — pointedly declined to talk about al-Kuwaiti. Ghul, however, described al-Kuwaiti as a close associate and protege of both Mohammed and al-Libi. CIA analysts believed they might be on the right track.
It was, of course, just one of many tracks that might have led to bin Laden. This and other trails went hot and cold until last summer, when al-Kuwaiti made a phone call to someone being monitored by U.S. intelligence, who then watched his movements until he led them in August to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was cornered and killed.
Torture apologists are saying, “See, it worked.” But the truth is that there’s no proof — and not even any legitimate evidence — that torture cracked the case.
It’s true, apparently, that Ghul opened up to interrogators after being roughed up in some fashion. It’s not clear that he was ever subjected to techniques that amount to torture, but let’s assume he was. The question is whether such treatment was necessary to get Ghul to talk.
And there’s no way to prove it was. Many experienced interrogators believe that torture is counterproductive — that it produces so much unreliable information that it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not. These experts believe that noncoercive techniques are far more effective because when the subject does begin to talk, more truth than falsehood comes out.
Torture apologists often concoct hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenarios to validate coercion, including the infliction of pain. But this was a real-world scenario of slowly collecting names, dates, addresses, phone numbers and other disconnected bits of information, over seven years, before finally being able to put them all together.
Would al-Kuwaiti’s name and role have been extracted anyway, from Ghul or some other detainee, without coercive interrogation? If the two al-Qaeda higher-ups hadn’t been subjected to harsh techniques, could they still have been led to cooperate with their questioners? Would they still have dissembled, tellingly, when asked about the courier who eventually led us to bin Laden?
I believe the odds are quite good that the CIA would have gotten onto al-Kuwaiti’s trail somehow or other. But I can’t be certain — just as those who defend torture and coercive interrogation can’t be sure that these odious methods made the daring and successful raid possible.
What I do know is that torture is a violation of U.S. and international law — and a betrayal of everything this country stands for. The killing of bin Laden resulted from brilliant intelligence work, for which both the Bush and Obama administrations deserve our thanks and praise.
There’s plenty of credit to go around — but not for torture. We should celebrate the victory of cherished American values, not their temporary abandonment.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 5, 2011
Did torture work? This is the question everyone is asking after Osama bin Laden’s death and the revelation that his fate was sealed by the identification of a courier whose nom de guerre emerged from the interrogation of top al Qaeda operatives who were known to have been subjected to waterboarding and similar techniques. “Did brutal interrogations produce the intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?” a May 3 New York Timesstory asked.
This is hardly the first time we’ve had this debate. In 2006, my team of interrogators in Iraq located local al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by identifying and following one of his spiritual advisors, Abu Abd al-Rahman. Eric Maddox, a U.S. Army interrogator, found Saddam Husseinby similar means, identifying his former bodyguards. It’s these little pieces of information that form the mosaic that gradually leads to a breakthrough. But how best to get those little pieces?
Current and former U.S. officials and their supporters have been quick to argue that “enhanced interrogation techniques” and waterboarding led to the identification of the courier’s alias, which started U.S. intelligence down the road to bin Laden. The day after the al Qaeda leader’s death was announced, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the House Homeland Security Committee chair, told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that “For those who say that waterboarding doesn’t work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information [from waterboarding] that directly led us to bin Laden.” John Yoo, the former U.S. Justice Department official who drafted the George W. Bush administration’s legal rationales for officially sanctioned torture, repeated the claim and praised“Bush’s interrogation and warrantless surveillance programs that produced this week’s actionable intelligence.” The torture bandwagon has started to kick into high gear. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In fact, the information about the existence of a courier working for bin Laden was provided by several detainees, not just waterboarded al Qaeda operatives Kalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi — we had one detainee in Iraq who provided information about a courier in 2006. The key pieces of information, however, were the courier’s real name and location. His family name was first uncovered by CIA assets in Pakistan through other sources. The NSA subsequently figured out his full real name and location from an intercepted phone call. Waterboarding had nothing to do with it.
Moreover, common sense dictates that all high-ranking leaders have couriers — and their nicknames do little to lead us to them. This is because many members of al Qaeda change names or take on a nom de guerre after joining for both operational security and cultural reasons. The names are often historically relevant figures in the history of Islam, like the Prophet Mohamed’s first follower, Abu Bakr. Think of it as the equivalent of a boxer taking on a nickname like “The Bruiser.”
Understanding these cultural nuances is just one critical skill interrogators must have to be effective. The other is an understanding of the social science behind interrogations, which tells us that torture has an extremely negative effect on memory. An interrogator needs timely and accurate intelligence information, not just made-up babble.
What torture has proven is exactly what experienced interrogators have said all along: First, when tortured, detainees will give only the minimum amount of information necessary to stop the pain. No interrogator should ever be hoping to extract the least amount of information. Second, under coercion, detainees give misleading information that wastes time and resources — a false nickname, for example. Finally, it’s impossible to know what information the detainee would have disclosed under non-coercive interrogations.
But to understand the question “Does torture work?” one must also define “work.” If we include all the long-term negative consequences of torture, that answer becomes very clear. Those consequences include the fact that torture handed al Qaeda its No. 1 recruiting tool, a fact confirmed by the U.S. Department of Defense’s interrogators in Iraq who questioned foreign fighters about why they had come there to fight. (I have first-hand knowledge of this information because I oversaw many of these interrogations and was briefed on the aggregate results.) In addition, future detainees will be unwilling to cooperate from the onset of an interrogation because they view all Americans as torturers. I heard this repeatedly in Iraq, where some detainees accused us of being the same as the guards at Abu Ghraib.
The more you think about, the less sense torture makes. U.S. allies will become unwilling to conduct joint operations if they are concerned about how detainees will be treated in U.S. custody (an argument made by the 9/11 Commission, among others). And future enemies will use our actions as justification to torture American captives. Torture also lowers our ethical standards to those of our enemies, an ugly shift that spreads like a virus throughout the Armed Services; witness the abuses of Abu Ghraib or the recent murders of civilians in Afghanistan.
Most importantly, we should be talking about the morality of torture, not its efficacy. When the U.S. infantry becomes bogged down in a tough battle, they don’t turn to chemical weapons even though they are extremely effective. The reason they don’t is because such weapons are illegal and immoral.
During the Revolutionary War, one top general made the point that torture was inconsistent with the fundamental beliefs of our founding fathers. “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to insure any [prisoner] … I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require,” he wrote to his troops in the Northern Expeditionary Force in the first year of the war. The general in question was George Washington. There’s a reason we pledge to believe in “liberty and justice for all” and not “liberty and security for all”: It’s because we place our values and principles higher than we place our security. When we cease to do so, we forfeit our right to be called Americans.
We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him. American interrogators safely guided us through World War II without the use of torture, fighting an enemy and interrogating prisoners every bit as brutal and dedicated as the members of al Qaeda. Our interrogators continue to prove time and time again that they are smart enough to outwit al Qaeda’s best and brightest. No one should ever doubt that we have the mental and ethical fortitude to win this war — and to do it without lowering ourselves to the level of our foes.
By: Matthew Alexander, Foreign Policy, May 4, 2011
The killing of Osama bin Laden provoked a host of reactions from Americans: celebration, triumph, relief, closure and renewed grief. One reaction, however, was both cynical and disturbing: crowing by the apologists and practitioners of torture that Bin Laden’s death vindicated their immoral and illegal behavior after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Jose Rodriguez Jr. was the leader of counterterrorism for the C.I.A. from 2002-2005 when Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other Al Qaeda leaders were captured. He told Time magazine that the recent events show that President Obama should not have banned so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. (Mr. Rodriguez, you may remember, ordered the destruction of interrogation videos.)
John Yoo, the former Bush Justice Department lawyer who twisted the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions into an unrecognizable mess to excuse torture, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the killing of Bin Laden proved that waterboarding and other abuses were proper. Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, said at first that no coerced evidence played a role in tracking down Bin Laden, but by Tuesday he was reciting the talking points about the virtues of prisoner abuse.
There is no final answer to whether any of the prisoners tortured in President George W. Bush’s illegal camps gave up information that eventually proved useful in finding Bin Laden. A detailed account in The Times on Wednesday by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage concluded that torture “played a small role at most” in the years and years of painstaking intelligence and detective work that led a Navy Seals team to Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.
That squares with the frequent testimony over the past decade from many other interrogators and officials. They have said repeatedly, and said again this week, that the best information came from prisoners who were not tortured. The Times article said Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, fed false information to his captors during torture.
Even if it were true that some tidbit was blurted out by a prisoner while being tormented by C.I.A. interrogators, that does not remotely justify President Bush’s decision to violate the law and any acceptable moral standard.
This was not the “ticking time bomb” scenario that Bush-era officials often invoked to rationalize abusive interrogations. If, as Representative Peter King, the Long Island Republican, said, information from abused prisoners “directly led” to the redoubt, why didn’t the Bush administration follow that trail years ago?
There are many arguments against torture. It is immoral and illegal and counterproductive. The Bush administration’s abuses — and ends justify the means arguments — did huge damage to this country’s standing and gave its enemies succor and comfort. If that isn’t enough, there is also the pragmatic argument that most experienced interrogators think that the same information, or better, can be obtained through legal and humane means.
No matter what Mr. Yoo and friends may claim, the real lesson of the Bin Laden operation is that it demonstrated what can be done with focused intelligence work and persistence.
The battered intelligence community should now be basking in the glory of a successful operation. It should not be dragged back into the muck and murk by political figures whose sole agenda seems to be to rationalize actions that cost this country dearly — in our inability to hold credible trials for very bad men and in the continued damage to our reputation.
By: Editorial Board, The New York Times, May 4, 2011
It’s official. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, will be tried by a military commission at Guantanamo Bay.
He will not be tried in Manhattan in the shadow of the World Trade Center. He will not be tried before the vast majority of the victims’ families. Nor will he be tried in any federal court. Instead, he will be tried offshore in a military commission process established in 2009 and yet to be tested. It is likely that he will be convicted of conspiring to plan and commit the attacks of 9/11 and that, he, along with his four co-defendants, the other 9/11 detainees at Guantanamo, will be given life sentences, if not the death penalty.
For those of us who have fought vociferously for the use of the federal court system to try terrorism suspects, the Obama administration’s decision is, on its surface, a defeat. The numbers make it clear: Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 174 individuals have been convicted of jihadi-related terrorism in federal court, an 87 percent conviction rate, according to the most recent figures from the NYU Center on Law and Security terrorist trial report card.
From the early 1990s on, the courts have learned how to handle the challenges of terrorism cases, from classified or tainted evidence to the relevance of al-Qaeda’s strategic and tactical goals. The abandonment of the hard-earned professionalism of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys is a loss.
But it is not a defeat for justice itself. It is time to give up our long-standing protest and consider the good that can come from these trials — even if they are held at Guantanamo, and even if they are conducted by the military.
In prosecuting Mohammed, we will be trying the individual without whom there presumably would have been no 9/11 attack; the fact that he is secondary to Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy does not reduce his guilt. In a sense, he is the Eichmann of the attack, and his trial is no less important than was that of Hitler’s operational director.
Trying Mohammed and his co-conspirators for a crime that took place 10 years ago can only be seen as a positive. It is unfair that the country has waited this long to bring to justice anyone directly linked to 9/11. If part of the purpose of trials is to bring closure to the open wounds that result from wrongdoing, then the trial matters more than the venue, the jurisdiction or even the system itself.
The country’s need for some sort of closure around the Sept. 11 attacks was illustrated in part by the fear of having this trial in Manhattan. Although it is likely that few victims’ families will now be able to watch the proceedings in person, they will know what is happening, and they will be able to achieve some sense of justice and begin to heal.
There is a further benefit. The details of the 9/11 conspiracy remain a mystery to much of the American public. The trial will turn mystery into fact.
At present, we know generally about bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s determination to harm the United States and the failures of U.S. intelligence. But we don’t know details about these five men and their step-by-step intersection with the attacks — details that were outlined in the criminal indictment that was unsealed in New York this past week. The indictment lists the sequence of activities that made up the attacks and highlights the criminality of the conspiracy. Presumably, those facts will be central to the evidence presented at trial at Guantanamo.
The 9/11 attacks were a carefully conceived and coldheartedly implemented plot of immense destruction. They were not the work of men with superhuman powers, as al-Qaeda terrorists are often portrayed. Better knowledge of the story will not diminish the magnitude of the harm, but it will probably diminish the powerful mystique that so often surrounds al-Qaeda. Reducing the organization to flesh-and-blood figures, to individuals rather than a vast and dangerous specter, will be hugely significant in teaching the country that, although al-Qaeda is an enemy that arguably perpetrated the worst crime in American history, it is not invincible.
Admittedly, there are numerous pitfalls that threaten the military commission system. These trials will differ from those in the federal system in several ways. They will rely on a panel of at least five military judges, and the evidentiary standards will not be the same as those in federal court, though it is unlikely that evidence attained by torture will be allowed. There will be broader allowances for hearsay, and access for families to view the proceedings will be more limited.
In addition, there are worries — which would come with any trial — about giving a platform to Mohammed and his ideological pronouncements. Even the possibility of the death penalty is problematic, as he has expressed a desire to be martyred. In addition, the judges must able to keep the defendants and the courtroom under control, and the track record of trials at Guantanamo has fallen well below standards for evidence, legal tactics and courtroom decorum.
The fact is that this trial is going to take place. It’s not ideal. I would have preferred to see the case in the civilian courts. But a military trial is far preferable to the perpetual limbo of indefinite detention without trial — the very definition of Guantanamo.
The trial of Mohammed and his co-conspirators will signify a step forward in the nation’s ability to counter terrorism in a rational fashion. Rather than assume that the proceedings will fall below the standards of federal courts, let’s expect wise judgment in place of retributive justice. Let’s look for an enlightened use of the leeway provided by the Military Commissions Act. Let’s hope that, despite the unique limitations and allowances of that law, the presiding judge will keep this trial as close to the federal standards as possible.
These proceedings, nearly 10 years in the making, are likely to set the precedent for how this country tries terrorism suspects. Although it is outside the federal justice system, this trial could begin to restore the nation’s confidence in its ability to administer justice to even the most vile criminals — a confidence that may one day return trials for detainees in the war on terror to the nation’s long-tested federal courts system.
By: Karen J. Greenberg, The Washington Post, April 8, 2011