There may not be much point in trying to relitigate the torture question from the Bush years, but every once in a while that era’s torture apologists come back around to make their case, and there is one vital question I’ve never heard any of them answer: How do the defender’s of “enhanced interrogation” (perhaps the most vulgar euphemism since “ethnic cleansing”) define torture? I’ll explain more in a moment, but this was prompted by an op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post about the film Zero Dark Thirty by Jose Rodriguez, a CIA officer who has defended the administration’s torture program on many occasions. Since I haven’t seen the film I can’t say anything about the way it depicts torture, but Rodriguez takes the opportunity to say this: “I was intimately involved in setting up and administering the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ program, and I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture.” And why aren’t the things the CIA did—which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and the use of “stress positions,” which are used to cause excruciating pain without leaving a mark—torture? Here’s the closest Rodriguez comes to an explanation:
Detainees were given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive — with Washington’s approval — some of the enhanced techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded. (The Justice Department assured us in writing at the time that these techniques did not constitute torture.) When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped — forever.
You see, they had a memo saying that what they were doing wasn’t torture, so there you go. And when the detainee became compliant, they stopped! It obviously can’t be torture if it ends when the subject is broken, right?
Here’s the question I’ve never heard someone like Rodriguez answer: Can you give a definition of torture that wouldn’t include waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation? I have no idea what such a definition might be, and I have to imagine that if they had any idea they would have offered one. Because here’s the definition of torture you’d think everyone could agree on: Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession. That’s not too hard to understand. The point is to create such agony that the subject will do anything, including give you information he’d prefer not to give you, to make the suffering stop. That’s the purpose of waterboarding, that’s the purpose of sleep deprivation (which, by the way, has been described by those subjected to it in places like the Soviet gulag to be worse than any physical pain they had ever experienced), and that’s the purpose of stress positions. The “enhanced” techniques that were used weren’t meant to trick detainees or win them over, they were meant to make them suffer until they begged for mercy.
So to repeat: If what the Bush administration did wasn’t torture, how would its apologists define the term?
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, January 7, 2013
Nobody asked Governor Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama about torture during Monday night’s “foreign policy debate”—but someone should have.
Because recently disclosed Romney campaign documents are raising new questions about the candidate’s position, and the recent appointment of a Spokane, Washington LDS bishop who in his professional life as a psychologist pioneered so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11 has raised new questions about whether Mormonism condones torture.
Washington newspapers are reporting that Bruce Jessen was called and “sustained” (or approved) to serve as bishop by his Spokane-area congregation in mid-October.
In late 2001, Jessen and James Mitchell (both clinical psychologists with no previous interrogation or intelligence training; both members of the LDS Church) were contracted by the CIA to develop “enhanced interrogation techniques” and to train interrogators during what one source describes as “brutal interrogations that effectively unfolded as live demonstrations.” Together, Jessen and Mitchell came to be known as the “Mormon mafia.”
Other LDS people involved in the development of Bush-administration torture tactics include Jay Bybee, who supervised and signed John Yoo’s 2002 “Torture Memo” effectively authorizing the United States’ use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in Iraq; and Timothy Flanigan, deputy White House counsel who participated with Alberto Gonzalez in Bush’s “War Council” and testified before a Senate panel that waterboarding and other torture techniques should not necessarily be “off-limits” and that “inhumane can’t be coherently defined.”
When dozens of religious leaders and organizations issued a 2005 statement calling on the Bush administration to rule out torture as anti-biblical, the LDS Church through a spokesman issued a statement “condemning inhumane treatment of any person under any circumstance.”
Romney, however, appears to be lining up with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and Flanigan.
Last month, the New York Times disclosed a September 2011 memo drafted by Romney’s advisors advocating the resumption of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” initiated under President George W. Bush but banned by President Barack Obama on his second day in office.
In a December 17, 2011 Town Hall meeting, Romney said, “I will not authorize torture.” But at the press conference after the Town Hall meeting, when a reporter asked him if he considered waterboarding to be torture, Romney responded “I don’t.”
Romney’s stance led one UN official to warn last week that his election would amount to “a democratic mandate for torture.”
While some LDS media observers have denied a pattern of Mormon involvement in torture, others in the Mormon community have called for closer consideration of this serious moral and ethical matter.
And it does matter. It matters because unlike in most contemporary American religious communities, Mormons are routinely expected to assess their own moral “worthiness” to participate in religious rites and to serve in their local congregations—including in positions of pastoral responsibility such as bishop (which both Governor Romney and Mr. Jessen have served). And moral worthiness in Mormon communities is now widely framed in terms of highly individualistic choices like payment of tithes, sexual chastity, and observance of restrictions on consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and coffee.
It matters because it points to grave underdevelopment in the public morality and political theology of contemporary Mormonism. As Mormon Studies expert Professor Patrick Mason has told RD, Mormonism has “no systematic theology” on issues like human rights or poverty or war. Its view of morality is “highly individualized.”
And the torture issue matters to the question of how Romney will govern. We’ve consistently seen that the candidate will be essentially values-neutral in his approach to foreign and economic policy and centered on defending and promoting the interests of large institutions that reward loyalty. The chain of command and tactical advantages matter more than time-honored humane ideals. That’s a disposition Romney has in common with Jessen, Mitchell, Bybee, and other Mormons who have been in a position not only to support torture but to develop and implement it.
Once again, the issue is not that Mitt Romney is unduly influenced by his faith. It’s that his faith has little influence when it comes to some extremely serious moral questions.
By: Joanna Brooks, Religion Dispatches, October 23, 2012
By near-universal account of those who condemn terrorism, the killing of jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki was a good thing. This was a man believed to be behind the attempted Christmas Day, 2009 bombing of a U.S. aircraft over American soil. It was a man U.S. officials say was trying to blow up American cargo planes by putting explosives into the packages on the planes, a man believed to have been hatching plans to poison fellow Americans.
Al-Awlaki was killed last week in Yemen in a drone strike, not only ridding the world of a dangerous terrorist, but depriving al-Qaeda of a powerful recruiter.
And Dick Cheney wants President Obama to apologize for it.
The irrepressible former vice president sees the killing as justified, to be sure. He’s just mad because he thinks Obama is hypocritical for criticizing what the Bush administration, in almost comically euphemistic terms, described as “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on imprisoned al Qaeda suspects. As Cheney told CNN’s State of the Union:
They’ve agreed they need to be tough and aggressive in defending the nation and using some of the same techniques that the Bush administration did. And they need, as I say, to go back and reconsider some of the criticisms they offered about our policies.
The self-centeredness of the comment is astonishing. A key al-Qaeda subject is killed, and Cheney is thinking about what it means for the reputation of the previous administration? If we’re demanding apologies here, why not demand apologies from the people who are screaming about the budget deficit now after voting for laws and wars that vastly increased the budget deficit? And the al-Awlaki killing doesn’t have anything to do with waterboarding. We don’t know whether al-Awlaki was found because of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” There are surely legitimate questions to be asked about whether and why a U.S. citizen should be targeted, either on U.S. soil or abroad. But hypocrisy isn’t the issue here.
Former President Bush has been gracious and quiet as his successor takes on the problems of the economy and national security. If Bush has disagreed with what Obama has done, he’s kept it to himself—something that is not only just good manners for a former president, but in the specific arena of national security, important to giving a sense of continuity in front of the international audience. How unfortunate that Cheney cannot behave in the same way.
By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, October 3, 2011
Conservatives have attempted to credit George W. Bush for President Barack Obama’s success in killing Osama bin Laden in various ways, from exaggerating the role of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” to praising Bush’s unsuccessful seven year attempt to do so.
Today, Ross Douthat offers the latest version of this argument: That killing Bin Laden constitutes “the most visible proof” so far of Bush-Obama continuity in matters of national security:
The death of Osama bin Laden, in a raid that operationalized Bush’s famous “dead or alive” dictum, offered the most visible proof of this continuity. But the more important evidence of the Bush-Obama convergence lay elsewhere, in developments from last week that didn’t merit screaming headlines, because they seemed routine rather than remarkable.
This is an odd formulation that ignores that the hunt for bin Laden predated the Bush administration — remember that conservatives accused President Bill Clinton of “wagging the dog” when authorizing missile strikes against al Qaeda in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Yet Douthat does not praise Clinton in making this argument about “continuity,” because doing so would acknowledge that any president, regardless of party, would regard it as part of his duty to defend American citizens from terrorism.
While there are indeed many examples of Obama continuing Bush-era policies to the frustration of liberals, killing bin Laden is not one of them. Rather, Obama’s focus on bin Laden represents a departure from his predecessor, who had decided shortly after 9/11 that bin Laden was “just a person who’s been marginalized,” just a small part of a much larger battle. As Michael Hirsh wrote last week, Obama rejected the Bush approach that “conflated all terror threats from al-Qaida to Hamas to Hezbollah,” replacing it with “with a covert, laserlike focus on al-Qaida and its spawn.”
During the 2008 election, Bush mocked Obama for asserting he would target bin Laden if he was hiding in Pakistan. GOP presidential candidate John McCain attacked Obama as “confused and inexperienced” for saying so.” It is a bit rich to regard the results of an operation that Bush and McCain would have opposed as “continuity” with the prior administration. There are a number of disturbing continuities between Bush and Obama on national security, but the singular focus on bin Laden isn’t one of them.
What is notable however, is that the major distinction between Obama and Bush that has formed the basis of GOP criticism of Obama — the President’s rejection of torture — has proven so decisively wrongheaded. Conservatives attempting to attribute successfully killing bin Laden to torture are merely attempting to take credit for what President Bush pointedly failed to do. Far from yielding the necessary intelligence, the two al Qaeda suspects who were waterboarded pointedly resisted identifying the courier whose activities lead to the U.S. discovering Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. The pro-torture argument ignores the obvious — that if torture was so effective, bin Laden would have been dead long ago. Bin Laden was found through years of painstaking intelligence gathering, not through the barbarous methods supported by many Bush apologists.
One cannot discount how shattering the Obama administration’s killing of Bin Laden has been to the self-image of conservatives who have convinced themselves of that the fight against al Qaeda hinges not just on torture, but on how many times the president says the word “terrorism,” or on Obama’s refusal to engage in juvenile expressions of American toughness.
While we’re far from the moment where terrorism ceases to be a threat, what torture apologists fear most now is a future in which al Qaeda is destroyed without the U.S. embracing the war-on-terror “dark side” that’s become central to their identity. Indeed, having rejected torture, Obama has nevertheless lead the country to its greatest victory in the fight against al Qaeda.
By: Adam Serwer, The Washington Post-The Plum Line, May 9, 2011
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