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“Macho Chest-Thumping Myth”: Sorry, Dick Cheney, Torture Doesn’t Work

I’ve written a couple posts now predicting that a Senate report on the CIA’s interrogation practices during the Bush years would show that the CIA’s foray into torture just didn’t work. Also, that the CIA lied about the effectiveness of waterboarding and other controversial techniques. Now we have a test of that prediction — not the Intelligence Committee report itself, which is still under wraps, but a bombshell in the Washington Post that quotes people with firsthand knowledge of the report. Lo and behold:

A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that the CIA misled the government and the public about aspects of its brutal interrogation program for years — concealing details about the severity of its methods, overstating the significance of plots and prisoners, and taking credit for critical pieces of intelligence that detainees had in fact surrendered before they were subjected to harsh techniques.

The report, built around detailed chronologies of dozens of CIA detainees, documents a long-standing pattern of unsubstantiated claims as agency officials sought permission to use — and later tried to defend — excruciating interrogation methods that yielded little, if any, significant intelligence, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed the document.

“The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives,” said one U.S. official briefed on the report. “Was that actually true? The answer is no.”

Importantly, the Senate report apparently also recommends no prosecution for these war crimes. That’s depressing, if not very surprising.

You might be wondering: How was I so prescient? In fact, I deserve no credit: that torture during the Bush era yielded no valuable intelligence was completely obvious from the beginning, despite what Dick Cheney might have you believe. All you had to do was pay attention to people who have studied torture carefully. Darius Rejali, a professor at Reed College, did just that in his masterpiece Torture and Democracy (see here and here). Rejali found that torture is good for two things: intimidation and extracting false confessions. As an intelligence-gathering mechanism, it’s much worse than worthless. You get no good intelligence, while what you do get is decidedly bad, including a corrosion of the legitimacy of security agencies and a weakening of the foundation of liberal democracy itself.

Micah Zenko makes a good point that the major issue when it comes to torture is that it is blatantly illegal, immoral, and unethical. He’s right that the rule of law — not to mention basic decency — ought to land every torturer in federal prison.

But it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that it is also ineffective. The ethos of the Bush-era CIA was “know-nothingism,” as Paul Krugman put it at The New York Times, “the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise.” These national security officials see themselves as the hard-headed tough guys who won’t let the pathetic moral qualms of liberal cowards keep them from doing the dirty work that keeps us safe. (This is a real-life version of Jack Nicholson’s famous “You can’t handle the truth!” scene in A Few Good Men.) Breaking the law, then, is a Badge of Seriousness, of a willingness to do what is necessary no matter the cost.

It’s critically important, therefore, to break forever this macho chest-thumping myth. Anyone who advocates torture shouldn’t be met only with moral condemnation, but also contemptuous jeers for being such a naive dupe. The members of the CIA torture cabal aren’t tough. They aren’t keeping us safe. They are a pack of incompetents who don’t know what they’re doing.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, April 1, 2014

April 2, 2014 Posted by | CIA, Dick Cheney, Torture | , , , , | Leave a comment

Torture Wasn’t The Key To Finding Osama bin Laden

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

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May 6, 2011 Posted by | 911, Dick Cheney, Foreign Policy, GITMO, Homeland Security, Ideology, National Security, Neo-Cons, Politics, President Obama, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Tortured Logic Of Enhanced Interrogation

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

May 6, 2011 Posted by | 911, Democracy, Foreign Policy, GITMO, Government, Ground Zero, Homeland Security, Ideology, Middle East, Military Intervention, National Security, Neo-Cons, Pentagon, Politics, President Obama, Right Wing, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Courage Of Convictions: The Tax Collector And The Republican

Congressional Republicans constantly remind us that principle is more important than principal. They are willing to shrink government at all costs. The latest example comes from the new budget agreement that has an impact on the IRS and tax collections.

Tax collection is one of the IRS’s principle functions as we are all reminded this time of year. There are some who not only refuse to cheerfully pay what they owe but actively take steps to avoid paying taxes they owe. As a result, some IRS employees have as their main job, identifying those people and taking steps to encourage them to pay what they owe.

In 2006, Republicans in Congress came up with a whole new approach that provided employment to the non-governmental sector, a group that is always favored by Republicans. (That is because Republicans know that those who work for the government tend to be lazy and inefficient whereas those in the private sector are hard working and productive. That is, of course, something of a generalization, since occasionally someone in the private sector will disappoint and prove to be lazy and/or unproductive.)

Because of the Republican belief in the virtues of the private sector (which is almost as fervent as its belief that in taking funds from programs for children and the poor it is doing God’s work), in August of 2006 it was announced that within a couple of weeks the IRS would turn over to private collection agencies 12,500 delinquent tax accounts of $25,000 or less. According to the New York Times, this new way of collecting taxes was thought up and put in place by the Bush administration. The plan had, like many plans do, an upside and a downside.

The upside was that the debt collectors were part of the private sector. Under the private debt collection system the collectors would collect $1.4 billion each year of which they could keep $330 million, thus lining the private sectors’ pockets by that amount instead of having it go into a government pocket where it would, in all likelihood, get lost. Although that seems like a win-win, in 2002 Charles Rossotti, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, had told Congress that if it hired additional IRS employees to handle collections, it could collect more than $9 billion each year at a cost of only $296 million, considerably less than the cost if the same work was done by private collection agencies. That came out to a cost of $.03 per dollar collected. According to the NYT, his testimony was correct but Congress didn’t want to swell the size of government by authorizing the hiring of additional personnel for the IRS. Charles Everson, IRS Commissioner in 2006, when the private debt collection program was implemented, agreed with Mr. Rossotti and said it was more efficient to hire more IRS personnel but Congress would not appropriate the funds it needed to do that. Congress’s reluctance is a perfectly sensible approach since if you want to shrink government you have to make sacrifices and in this case, the sacrifice is increased revenue.

In 2008 Democrats took control of both houses of Congress and in March of 2009 it was announced that the IRS had determined that IRS employees could do collection work more efficiently than the private debt collectors, just as Rossotti and Everson had said some years earlier, and there was no reason to continue the program. Senator Grassley, who was the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, was outraged. Ignoring the fact that the government would have more money if the IRS were responsible for collections, he said the IRS was caving in to “union-driven political pressure.” He would have rather seen the federal government lose money than take away business from the private sector. The last chapter in this saga, however, has not been written.

Now that the budget compromise had been reached here is one of the things that has happened. The White House had requested an increase in the IRS budget of approximately 9% which would have enabled the agency to hire an additional 5000 personnel. Many of those could have been used to collect taxes which would have helped reduce the deficit. Echoing what Messrs. Rossotti and Everson had said years earlier, Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, who testified before Congress in March, said: “Every dollar invested in IRS yields nearly five dollars in increased revenue from non-compliant taxpayers.”

Republicans have refused to authorize the hiring of additional personnel at the IRS in order to collect taxes. A release from John Boehner’s office said increased funding for the IRS had been denied as part of the budget agreement. This shows that the Republican majority has the courage of its convictions. The rest of the country can enjoy the benefits of living off the fruits of its follies.

By: Christopher Brauchli, CommonDreams.org, April 16, 2011

April 17, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Democrats, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, IRS, Jobs, Lawmakers, Politics, Public Employees, Republicans, Tax Evasion, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Unions | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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