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“Trump’s Big, New, Stalinesque Idea”: A Concept With A Dark And Profoundly Un-American History

In a season full of comments we never thought we’d hear during a modern American presidential campaign, this one, spoken at the debate Tuesday night by of course Donald Trump, is arguably the most shocking: “I would be very, very firm with families. Frankly, that will make people think because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.”

It’s not the first time Trump has said it, but it hasn’t gotten the focus it deserves. This idea of punishing or somehow threatening the family members of criminals has a name. It’s called collective punishment. And it has a history, which as you’d imagine is not pretty—think, oh, Stalin, for starters. And finally it has a status in international law. Under the Geneva Conventions, collective punishment is a war crime.

Collective punishment can take and has taken different forms. It doesn’t have to mean family members. In many cases it has meant the relocation/eradication of entire villages in response to rebellious or perceived treasonous acts by a few. It might also mean a kind of generalized and indiscriminate violence visited upon a population. Scholars debate, but surely Southerners would all agree, that William Tecumseh Sherman engaged in collective punishment during his infamous March to the Sea. You know, the one through that state, Georgia, where in the latest poll Trump holds a 27-point lead.

But in many cases, it does refer to families. Trump’s antecedents here are chilling. The Nazis used collective punishment against Poles and others who harbored Jews. The website of Yad Vashem tells the horrifying story of the Ulma family, who hid a Jewish family on their farm in 1942. They got ratted out, and the entire family, including six living children and one more in utero, was shot.

But Stalin was the master of collective punishment. It was for a time against the law in the USSR to be a family member of a counter-revolutionary or obscurantist or what have you. Stalin said in November 1937: “And we will eliminate every such enemy… we will eliminate his entire lineage, his family! Here’s to the final extermination of all enemies, both themselves and their clan.”

In our own time, Israel is practicing a form of collective punishment every time it blows up the home, often in occupied East Jerusalem, of the family of a suspected terrorist or even in some cases a teenager who got caught throwing some stones at the military. North Korea has been known to imprison the family members of dissidents.

This behavior is covered in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which reads in its entirety: “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. Pillage is prohibited. Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.”

The definition of “protected persons” is a little complicated, and you can read it here, but it includes both citizens of a given country (“nationals”) and non-nationals who find themselves in the hands of a hostile power, which President Trump’s America would surely be to Muslim non-citizens, morally if not always legally.

So now comes the question: What does Trump mean by “very tough”? He probably won’t say. Let’s grant that he doesn’t mean execution. He’s not that crazy. In his mind, he might “just” mean detaining family members, putting the screws to them, seeing what they know. Obviously, under any number of circumstances, interrogation of family members of those who commit crimes is reasonable. It happens every day, hundreds of times across the country.

But Trump sounds like he’s talking about more than that. The way he appears to think about these things, it doesn’t seem at all far-fetched to imagine that he might envision, say, detaining the family of someone who commits a future terrorist act. You know, just to teach the others a lesson.

A Trump administration could probably find some antique (or not) federal law under which to do such a thing, and then fight the inevitable court challenges and see what happens. And if such a case landed before the right kind of Federal Society judge, well, it seems unlikely that any American federal judge could possibly justify such a thing, but in a country that actually elected Donald Trump president, who knows? And would the GOP really object? After all, we already have the precedent of Republican officials from John Yoo to Dick Cheney telling us that we don’t have to bother with all that Geneva twaddle.

It’s yet another new Trump low, and it raises the specter of a lawless government ditching norms that we’ve (mostly) stood by for decades. And if we ditch them, look out, because others will too. One doubts we will, but the mere fact that the front-runner for the Republican nomination is putting this stuff into the national discourse is horrible enough. And good God, what’s coming next week?

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, December 17, 2015

December 19, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Geneva Conventions, Joseph Stalin, War Crimes | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Stupid, Bone-Deep Republican Orthodoxy”: The Quack Science Behind Donald Trump’s Love Of Torture

Torture is utterly worthless for interrogation. This fact is now established beyond doubt, thanks to extensive scholarly investigation and specific investigations conducted by the Senate and independent groups.

And yet, vastly too many people, from the average citizen up to top political elites, still believe otherwise. Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson recently argued that torture should again become American policy.

Sadly, yet another work on the pointlessness of torture is rather timely. This time it’s Shane O’Mara, a Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Dublin College. His book is called Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation.

I have previously recounted Professor Darius Rejali’s argument against the utility of torture. He builds a comprehensive case, from simple mechanical problems with inflicting pain on someone to how it corrodes the professionalism of organizations that practice it. O’Mara, by contrast, restricts himself to the effects of torture on the nervous system, which are explored in extreme detail.

He does this through an exploration of the notorious Torture Memos, written by Bush administration lawyer John Yoo. The memos provide a view of the Bush administration’s original pro-torture case, as well as a reasonable approximation of the lay arguments in favor of torture. In O’Mara’s work, each memo section dealing with a particular torture technique is compared to a thorough investigation of the corresponding studies.

In each case, the memos are found to be utterly disconnected from the relevant scientific literature. The psychiatric and medical evidence is very complex, but it basically boils down to the same basic problem with using torture for interrogation, just manifested in different ways. Interrogation is the act of trying to induce a captive to recite the contents of his memory, but torture deeply damages the memory functions of the brain.

Memory is complicated and delicate, prone to faults and breakdown. Eyewitness reports are unreliable and easy to influence. More surprising, it is extremely easy to induce false confessions — and not only through torture. Simply hurting someone until they agree to to sign a confession they know to be false generally works well (as the Chicago police department could tell you). But it’s trivially easy to get people in laboratory experiments to actually believe they have committed crimes they did not do in reality, with well-placed suggestions and social pressure.

Extreme stress, such as that brought on by severe pain or drowning panic (eg., from waterboarding) directly damages an already shaky and unreliable memory system. Many experiments have demonstrated that “extreme behavioral stressors caused grave memory deficits: in particular, impairment in visuospatial capacity and recall of previously learned information,” writes O’Mara. Extreme heat or cold similarly disrupt brain function — and can even result in permanent brain damage.

Sleep deprivation can be even worse for memory function. Extreme lack of sleep — the memos state that prisoners can be kept awake for up to 180 hours — induces a state akin to a major psychiatric disorder. Victims become profoundly disorientated and incoherent, and often hallucinate vividly. That it might be problematic for an interrogation method to induce an inability to distinguish between reality and imagination seems not to have occurred to anyone: “The vast empirical literature showing these deleterious effects is uncited in toto in the Torture Memos.”

Worse still, there in an additive effect when such techniques are combined — sleep deprivation plus hypothermia is worse for brain function than either one in isolation, and so on. This, naturally, was the default approach to CIA interrogation in the Bush years.

Torturing for information is like trying to build a sand castle with a firehose, and it is patently obvious that Yoo (and by extension, the rest of the Bush torturers) did not do the slightest scholarly investigation of it. However, Yoo adopts a confident, expert tone, often stating categorically what the medical literature does and does not show (constantly getting it wrong), and citing all manner of empirical data — just none that are remotely relevant. It shows every possible sign of an amoral legal hack backfilling to justify a preconceived decision, and papering over his utter medical ignorance with bluster and citation of half-understood or straight-up fabricated evidence.

It’s a sad irony that a great deal of this evidence on torture comes from experiments on U.S. soldiers being trained to survive enemy capture — but there is virtually no science on actual interrogation practices. Indeed, ordinary police are given a mere handful of hours in interrogation instruction, while the CIA actively threw out the government’s best interrogators. Of all the trillions spent on the war on terror, it’s beyond disgraceful that none of it managed to finance a couple studies on quality interrogation.

At any rate, as O’Mara notes, the pro-torture case, from Yoo on down, rests entirely on folk wisdom — probably instilled by one of a hundred action movies or TV shows, where the tough hero saves the world from a nuclear explosion by a quick and easy application of brutal violence. Such portrayals are as immoral as they are unrealistic.

That brings me back to Trump. In his justification for bringing torture back, he inadvertently let slip one of the real lizard-brain motivators behind torture: a desire for retribution. “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing,” he recently said at a rally. This attitude is not just monstrous (recall that a great many people tortured by the U.S. were entirely innocent) but dangerous. It places the desire for vengeance against suspected terrorists above the need for quality interrogation and intelligence work. It’s stupid, childish, and bone-deep Republican orthodoxy.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, December 7, 2015

December 8, 2015 Posted by | Bush-Cheney Administration, Donald Trump, Torture | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Crossed The Line”: Even John Yoo Has His Limits

John Yoo’s reputation is well deserved. The conservative law professor at UC Berkeley is perhaps best known as the principal author of the Bush/Cheney “torture memos” – defending the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” – during Yoo’s tenure at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

And when it came to torture and national security, the conservative lawyer was largely in the “anything goes” category. But apparently, even Yoo has his limits.

As former Vice President Dick Cheney argued on Sunday that the CIA’s aggressive interrogation of terrorism suspects did not amount to torture, the man who provided the legal rationale for the program said that in some cases it had perhaps gone too far.

Former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo said the sleep deprivation, rectal feeding and other harsh treatment outlined in a U.S. Senate report last week could violate anti-torture laws.

“If these things happened as they’re described in the report … they were not supposed to be done. And the people who did those are at risk legally because they were acting outside their orders,” Yoo said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”

In an interview on C-SPAN, Yoo added, “Looking at it now, I think of course you can do these things cumulatively or too much that it would cross the line of the anti-torture statute.”

Just to be clear, this is not to suggest Yoo endorses or agrees with the torture report released last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee. On the contrary, it’s quite clear that he does not.

But as a political matter, his willingness to draw legal lines now, in light of the new revelations, creates an interesting dynamic.

We know, for example, that according to the CIA’s records, rectal feeding and hydration were forced on detainees without medical need.

According to former CIA director Michael Hayden, that wasn’t illegal and it wasn’t torture.

According to former Vice President Dick Cheney, that wasn’t illegal and it wasn’t torture.

According to Karl Rove, that wasn’t illegal and it wasn’t torture.

But according to John Yoo, this crossed the line. In other words, a variety of leading Republican voices haven’t just embraced torture as a legitimate tool, they’ve positioned themselves to the right of the torture-memo author who helped give the Bush/Cheney White House the green light in the first place.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 15, 2014

December 16, 2014 Posted by | Dick Cheney, George W Bush, Torture | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“All Were In The Moral Sewer”: Don’t Let The Bush Administration Off The Hook For Torture

There’s a new report out today from McClatchey on the CIA’s torture program based on that Intelligence Committee report. They got a closer look at it than journalists have before, so there are some more details. But there’s a danger in how this could be interpreted that will serve to let people who were complicit in the torture program off the hook, so we need to be careful about how we deal with this information. But first, here are their bullets:

  • The CIA used interrogation methods that weren’t approved by the Justice Department or CIA headquarters.
  • The agency impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making regarding the program.
  • The CIA actively evaded or impeded congressional oversight of the program.
  • The agency hindered oversight of the program by its own Inspector General’s Office.

And now to put this in context:

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel found that the methods wouldn’t breach the law because those applying them didn’t have the specific intent of inflicting severe pain or suffering.

The Senate report, however, concluded that the Justice Department’s legal analyses were based on flawed information provided by the CIA, which prevented a proper evaluation of the program’s legality.

“The CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” the report found.

Several human rights experts said the conclusion called into question the program’s legal foundations.

“Proper legal analysis” my ass. This paints a picture that is completely at odds with everything else we know about what was going on in the Bush administration at the time. The report would have us believe that Bush administration lawyers came up with a reasonable, well-grounded definition of torture that allowed the CIA to interrogate people in an “enhanced” way, but the CIA went rogue and tortured their prisoners. I’m sorry, but that’s a joke.

The truth was this: the administration wanted to torture people. Lawyers in the White House Counsel’s office, then run by Alberto Gonzales, wrote a series of memos justifying it, using positively laughable logic and arguments sending a clear message to any official who might have a prisoner in their custody that you could do just about anything you wanted to him, and we’ll back you up by saying it wasn’t really “torture.” For instance, the infamous “Bybee memo” argued that it’s only torture if you’re acting with “specific intent” to cause pain and suffering, and if the causing of pain and suffering isn’t the intent for its own sake, but rather that using the pain and suffering to extract information is your intent, then presto, you’ve only tortured with “general intent,” and therefore you haven’t actually tortured. Bybee also wrote that though the statute forbidding torture mentioned the infliction of “severe” pain, we could construe pain to be “severe” only if it rose “to the level of death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant bodily function.” In other words, if I take a pair of pliers and tear out your fingernails, then I haven’t actually inflicted “severe” pain on you, because you’re still alive, your organs are intact, and you can still use your fingers. And therefore there hasn’t been any torture.

And that wasn’t even the only one; there was another infamous memo from John Yoo arguing that, in effect, if the president orders it, it’s not torture. This is the kind of “legal guidance” the CIA was getting from the White House. So the idea that they just went too far and exceeded the legal justification for what they were doing is baloney. The CIA may have been lying about what kinds of intelligence the torture was yielding, and they may even have been lying about exactly what methods they were employing. But everything they did—every waterboarding session, every use of stress positions, every use of sleep deprivation, and even every impromptu beat-down that may have occurred—happened because George W. Bush, through the lawyers who reported to him, told the CIA that it was A-OK to torture prisoners.

Bureaucratic conflicts between agencies are certainly of interest to historians. But the last thing we should ever do is let a report like this make us absolve anyone of responsibility for the torture program. The President, the Vice-President, the lawyers, the CIA—they all dove into that moral sewer together.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April 11, 2014

April 12, 2014 Posted by | CIA, Torture | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Fighting Magneto And Dr No”: Dick Cheney Still Thinks He Was A Character On “24”

Dick Cheney felt moved to write an entire book about the heart troubles he’s had over the years, which I can understand. After all, we all find our particular maladies fascinating. What I don’t get is why anybody else would care, since we don’t tend to find other people’s maladies interesting in the least. If you’d let me, I’d love nothing more than to blather on about my various knee injuries, but since I’m not RGIII, I have the sense to know that you really don’t give a crap. Nevertheless, there’s apparently an interesting tidbit or two in Cheney’s book, including this reported by CBS News, which may validate what you already thought about him:

Cheney had [his defibrillator] replaced in 2007 and his doctor, cardiologist Jonathan Reiner, with whom he wrote the book, had the device’s wireless function disabled so a terrorist couldn’t send his heart a fatal shock. Some years later, Cheney was watching an episode of the SHOWTIME hit “Homeland,” in which that terrorist scenario was woven into the plot. “I was aware of the danger…that existed…I found it credible,” he responds to Gupta when asked what went through his mind. “I know from the experience we had and the necessity for adjusting my own device, that it was an accurate portrayal of what was possible,” says Cheney.

Did he also avoid sea travel, since the terrorists could use their nuclear-powered subs to send microwaves at him and fry his brains? What world was he living in?

The answer, in case you’ve forgotten, is that he and so many other Bush administration officials were basically enacting a fantasy in which the enemy—”the terrorists”—were not actually a bunch of semi-literate religious fanatics who got incredibly lucky one time with an extraordinarily low-tech attack, but were actually evil geniuses, had unlimited resources at their disposal, and could execute complex, highly technical schemes with multiple interlocking parts that enabled them to do things like get close enough to the Vice President to deliver him a fatal electric shock. And of course, we can’t close Guantanamo and house the prisoners now there in supermax prisons in the United States, from which no inmate has ever escaped, because they’re terrorists, and who knows what super-powers they might have developed in the fantastically well-equipped lab in their hollowed-out-mountain lair?  I joke, but do you remember Bin Laden’s mountain fortress? It was quite a remarkable feat of engineering—check out this conversation between Tim Russert and Donald Rumsfeld, going over all its amazing details. “A ventilation system!” marveled Russert. “The entrances large enough to drive trucks and even tanks!” Even computer systems and telephone systems. It’s a very sophisticated operation!” “Oh, you bet,” responded the Secretary of Defense. “This is serious business. And there’s not one of those. There are many of them.” You may also remember that the mountain fortress never existed. It was all made up.

Back in the real world, actual terrorists were struggling unsuccessfully to make their shoes or their underwear explode. So why did people like Cheney want so badly to believe they were fighting Magneto or Dr. No? I think it’s because they all wanted to be Jack Ryan or Jack Bauer. The more terrifying your enemy is, the more courageous and heroic you are. While Bin Laden was holed up in a house in Abbottabad watching DVDs of Three’s Company reruns, Bush and Cheney were imagining that their foe was so unstoppable that at any moment he could penetrate the Secret Service perimeter and kill them with death rays.

You may not remember, but there was a time when actual government officials talked about the television show 24 as though it were not absurd escapist entertainment, but a real representation of reality. Here’s a little  blast from the past :

According to British lawyer and writer Sands, Jack Bauer—played by Kiefer Sutherland—was an inspiration at early “brainstorming meetings” of military officials at Guantánamo in September 2002. Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial interrogation techniques including waterboarding, sexual humiliation and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer “gave people lots of ideas.” Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security chief, gushed in a panel discussion on 24 organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show “reflects real life.”

John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who produced the so-called torture memos—simultaneously redefining both the laws of torture and of logic—cites Bauer in his book War by Other Means. “What if, as the Fox television program 24 recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon?” Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking in Canada last summer, shows a gift for this casual toggling between television and the Constitution. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Scalia said. “Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?”

Well no, your honor, because Jack Bauer is a fictional character. We also don’t need to pass a law boosting penalties for using the Imperius curse on someone without their permission, because that isn’t real either.

There’s a practical side to this, which is that the more people thought 24 represented the reality of terrorism, the more willing they’d be to shrug their shoulders at things like vastly expanded surveillance and the use of torture. In the real world, “ticking time bombs” are so rare as to be essentially non-existent, and the torture policy (and even the actual torture techniques) were designed by people who knew virtually nothing about how to get information from a prisoner who doesn’t want to give it to you. But hey, on 24, not only did torture always work, it worked fast—60 seconds was about average—and everything a terrorist said under torture turned out to be true. How could you not use it?

This still matters because these fantasists built an infrastructure—legal, programmatic, psychological—that we still live with today. And they don’t seem to have regained their ability to distinguish between fiction and reality.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, October 21, 2013

October 22, 2013 Posted by | Dick Cheney | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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