The 2012 campaign is now in full force. And it’s not because there have been several GOP primary debates, or that a Republican candidate has already dropped out of the race, or even because President Obama has interrupted his can’t-we-all-act-like-adults bit to criticize Congress.
It’s because a congressman has called for an investigation into a Hollywood movie.
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the director and screenwriter who made the Academy Award-winning film The Hurt Locker, are now at work on a movie about Osama bin Laden. This is not only understandable but predictable. Hollywood is in business to make money, and while Bigelow and Boal are surely many levels above the filmmakers who produce movies with men acting like frat boys and grown women paralyzed by inexplicable insecurity, this movie will certainly draw a crowd. But what House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King worries about is that the Obama administration is providing the filmmakers with classified information to help them make the film.
White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the concerns as “ridiculous,” and while we can’t know for sure, it does seem a little silly. The military operation itself required intense secrecy and protection of classified information to be successful. Why release classified information now? And why would the filmmakers need classified information? We know how it started, and we know how it ended—with bin Laden shot by a U.S. Navy SEAL. That’s a pretty good movie right there, and one Americans exhausted by the toll of two wars and a recession will likely flock to see.
The real question here is not whether classified information is being given to Hollywood, but whether King’s genuine concern is timing. The movie is set to be released before the 2012 elections, arguably giving the embattled president a public relations boost right when he may need one. But does a movie make the difference? It’s unthinkable that the Obama campaign will not remind people of the huge military success of killing the most hated man in America; they don’t need Hollywood to do it. There may well be many films whose sourcing and facts are suspect—those would be the mockumentaries undoubtedly being created under the loose campaign finance rules in place since the Citizens United case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, that’s something worth a congressional investigation.
By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, August 16, 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
“There is nothing radical or un-American in holding these hearings,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) claimed Thursday as he launched his McCarthyite probe of American Muslims. He could not have been more wrong. If King is looking for threats to our freedoms and values, a mirror would be the place to start.
Here’s why. Imagine a young man, a Muslim, who changes in troubling ways. His two best friends become concerned, then alarmed, as the young man abandons Western dress, displays a newfound religiosity and begins to echo jihadist rhetoric about the decadence of American society. Both friends suspect that the young man has become radicalized and might even attempt some kind of terrorist attack.
One friend is Muslim, the other Christian. Does the Muslim friend have a greater responsibility than the Christian to contact the authorities? By the logic of King’s witch hunt, he does.
The Homeland Security Committee hearings that King has convened are billed as an inquiry into “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response.” In other words, King suspects that the Muslim community is somehow complicit. Individuals of one faith are implicated; individuals of another faith are not.
As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslims in Congress, said in his moving testimony, King’s premise assigns “collective blame” to American Muslims. “Demanding a community response . . . asserts that the entire community bears responsibility,” Ellison said.
In his pugnacious opening statement, King noted that his plan to hold these hearings had been criticized by “special-interest groups and the media,” which he said had gone into “paroxysms of rage and hysteria” at the prospect. “To back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness,” he said. In case someone missed the point, King later said it was our duty to “put aside political correctness and define who our enemy truly is.”
King asserted that “this committee cannot live in denial.” He then went straight there – into denial – by paying no heed to the witness best situated to answer the committee’s question.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca testified in opposition to King’s premise, citing figures demonstrating that radical, extremist acts of crime are committed by non-Muslims as well, and that seven of the past 10 known terrorist plots involving al-Qaeda have been foiled in part by information provided by Muslim Americans. Baca said his officers have good, productive relationships with Muslim leaders and citizens. Law enforcement officials from other jurisdictions where there are large Muslim communities could have given similar testimony, had they been invited.
King is trying to peddle the hooey that moderate Muslims do not speak out against extremism. It took Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) to note the irony that among the committee’s witnesses were two devout Muslims – one Syrian American, the other Somali American – who were there to speak out, quite loudly, against extremism.
King, in effect, was demanding to know why he didn’t see what was taking place before his eyes. Perhaps he was distracted by the need to maintain constant vigilance for any hint of political correctness.
That’s really what King’s grandstanding is all about. The purpose of these hearings isn’t to gather information. If it were, officials of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security would have been asked to testify. In addition to inviting Minneapolis-based Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali American whose nephew was recruited by the terrorist organization al-Shabab, King could have brought in police from the Twin Cities to testify about cooperation by the Somali immigrant community.
King’s intent is theatrical, not substantive; he’s not trying to elicit facts, he’s inviting catcalls – and cheers.
It should not be so, but Islamophobia is a powerful force in American politics. There are those who will applaud King for associating the phrase “American Muslim community” with the phrase “who our enemy truly is.”
But decency is a powerful force, too. The hearing’s indelible moment came when Ellison broke down in tears. He was telling the story of Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a young Muslim who rushed into the World Trade Center to try to rescue victims just before the towers collapsed. His remains were found in the rubble.
Hamdani was not just a Muslim, Ellison said, fighting to choke out words that no one could dismiss as politically correct. He was “an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.”
By: Eugene Robinson, Op-Ed Columnist, The Washington Post, March 10, 2011
Rep. Peter King, the Long Island congressman who for years supported the Irish Republican Army as it waged a terror campaign to eject the British from Northern Ireland, says that track record has no bearing on his controversial decision to hold hearings this week on what he calls the “radicalization” of Islam in America.
The two examples are different, he argues, and the main reason is that unlike radical Muslims, the I.R.A. never launched attacks in the United States. (That made sense, since Irish-Americans were sending crucial material support to the I.R.A.)
“I understand why people who are misinformed might see a parallel. The fact is, the I.R.A. never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States,” King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told The New York Times.
Okay, so how about investigating the Roman Catholic Church, another religious community — like Islam — and one to which the Irish-Catholic congressman also professes great loyalty?
As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen pointed out on Tuesday, if Congress is going to start investigating religious groups whose members have attacked Americans, that could be bad news for the Catholic Church given the extent of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. (And Cohen’s piece was published hours before the latest shocker, the mass suspension of 21 priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia following a grand jury probe — the second since 2005 — of the sexual abuse of children by clergy in the city.)
Bill Donohue of the Catholic League jumped on Cohen — as is his wont — for citing an exaggerated figure of 100,000 possible victims of clergy abuse, noting, correctly, that the figure is more like 12,000 (though this crime is notoriously under reported). Donohue did not, however, dispute Cohen’s central premise about the problematic nature of King’s investigation of Islam, and a toll of thousands of children abused over five decades is hardly what the lawyers might call exculpatory evidence.
Little wonder that former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a Republican, onetime FBI agent and federal prosecutor, and devout Catholic, likened some bishops to the Mafia when he was named in 2002 to be the first head of a lay oversight board to keep the hierarchy honest in its abuse-prevention policies.
Such characterizations got Keating forced out by the bishops after a year in the post, and his resignation letter still minced no words: “To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church.”
Of course, a congressional investigation of the Catholic Church would be met with howls of protests from the likes of Donohue and most certainly Peter King, and rightly so.
The point is that the religious community that Muslims today most clearly resemble is the Roman Catholic Church, and it was thus as recently as King’s own youth, when John F. Kennedy barely won election due to concerns that one could not be a “good Catholic” and a “good American.”
Indeed, during the campaign Kennedy famously had to assure Protestant pastors that he would never take orders from the Vatican (a pronouncement many conservative Christians today now hold against Kennedy and his Catholic heirs in the Democratic Party — sometimes you can’t win for losing).
King’s hearing set for Thursday has been compared to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, while others speculated that they would be akin to holding congressional hearings on the role of Christianity in promoting violence against gays or abortion providers.
But the Islamic-Catholic analogy is most apt.
Like Muslims in America today, Catholics were seen as foreign-born immigrants who were subject to a foreign ruler, namely the Pope in Rome, who did not recognize religious freedom and democratic governance.
The latter charges were actually true, more or less, until the reforms of the 1960s, though American Catholics took little notice of such teachings, much as American Muslims would stare blankly if asked about the latest fatwa from some imam in Iran.
(In 1928, New York Gov. Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated as a presidential candidate, was challenged by a prominent Episcopal layman to explain how he could expect to uphold the Constitution if elected while at the same time accepting the teaching in papal encyclicals. “What the hell is an encyclical?” Smith reportedly asked. He still got creamed by Herbert Hoover.)
During the 19th century a major political party was founded to combat Catholic influence, and Catholic students were unable to attend public schools without having to imbibe Protestant teachings. Catholics were subject to outbursts of popular violence, and when the pope donated a stone for the construction of the Washington Monument in 1854, an anti-Catholic mob threw it into the Potomac River. Thomas Nast’s famous 1875 cartoon, “The American River Ganges,” showed St. Peter’s Basilica in the background with mitred Catholic bishops as crocodiles attacking the United States to devour the nation’s schoolchildren.
Such sentiments were all too common, as were efforts — as Paul Moses noted in Commonweal magazine — to stop the construction of Catholic churches in U.S. cities, almost a mirror image of the fierce arguments last year against construction of the so-called “ground zero” mosque, also known as the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan.
It was King, in fact, who had a key role in fomenting opposition to the Islamic center, saying early last year that it was “particularly offensive” because “so many Muslim leaders have failed to speak out against radical Islam, against the attacks” of 9/11.
Those arguments laid the ground work for King’s subsequent charges that American Muslims and their leaders are not cooperating with authorities to thwart terrorist plots and that 80 percent of mosques in America are controlled by radical imams. Even though King has provided no evidence for the charges — and the latest research counters his claims — he is going ahead with a hearing to “test” his hypothesis.
King continued his line of argumentation on the eve of the hearing, telling the Associated Press that radical Islam is a distinct threat that must be investigated regardless of whose sensibilities are offended.
“You have a violent enemy from overseas which threatens us and which is recruiting people from a community living in our country,” King said. He could have been talking about his own Catholic community in the 1800s.
It is also interesting to note that Catholics often reacted to such denigration by trying to prove they were more patriotic than the Founding Fathers which, as Notre Dame church historians R. Scott Appleby and John T. McGreevy have pointed out, sometimes led to excesses like Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist hearings of the 1950s.
That’s a historical parallel Peter King may also want to remember.
By: David Gibson, Religion Reporter, Politics Daily, March 9, 2011