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Posts Tagged ‘torture’

Fred Hiatt’s Most Shameful Moment

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

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I’ve basically been at the point where very little that shows up in The Washington Post, especially on the Op-Ed page, surprises me anymore. I’m not really sure how Fred Hiatt views his job responsibilities, but it’s been clear for some time that the practical impact of whatever it is Hiatt thinks is that conservatives can expect to tell pretty much any lie they want and have it published by Hiatt. That extends to regular columnists like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, and to guest submissions from Repulican politicians like Sarah Palin and Sen. Lamar Alexander. I imagine that Hiatt views this as “presenting all sides,” but of course all that is doing is muddying the waters for the readers, especially when the writers are telling verifiable lies. Whatever it may be, the Post has not been a publication primarily concerned with informing its readers for quite some time.

But when Hiatt actually hired Marc Thiessen to write a weekly column, I suspected Thiessen would actually find a way to drag the paper lower. Thiessen is a former Defense Department speechwriter whose only real claim to fame is having written an entire book vociferously defending the use of torture. Indeed, Thiessen is the guy who argued that torturing Muslim detainees was absolutely necessary so that they could achieve compliance with their religious beliefs in talking to interrogators. Thiessen’s premise has been the subject of fierce push back from actual Army interrogators, but he’s a moral monster who likes the idea of being able to brutalize people, if only by proxy, so of course that doesn’t make much difference. Before being hired by Hiatt, Thiessen’s most prominent interaction with the Post was taking to its pages to claim that the waterboarding of Khalid Mohammed had thwarted the plot to bomb the Library Tower, even though that plot had been foiled before KSM was even captured, a fact that was noted by The Washington Post’s sister publication, Slate. This, of course, hasn’t stopped Thiessen from repeating the claim.

Today, however, Thiessen and Hiatt have outdone themselves with what may be the most despicable thing I’ve ever seen run in a major newspaper. Thiessen is defending Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol’s attack on Justice Department lawyers who had represented suspected terrorists detainees in the past, a position that basically no one in the conservative legal community has yet stood behind. Here’s Thiessen:

Would most Americans want to know if the Justice Department had hired a bunch of mob lawyers and put them in charge of mob cases? Or a group of drug cartel lawyers and put them in charge of drug cases? Would they want their elected representatives to find out who these lawyers were, which mob bosses and drug lords they had worked for, and what roles they were now playing at the Justice Department? Of course they would — and rightly so.

So right off the bat, we already have a mischaracterization. “Mob lawyers” are most often members of the criminal organization themselves, albeit somewhat at a distance. They aid and abet the operation’s illegal activity, and are actively sympathetic to the business. So right at the outset, Thiessen is constructing a comparison designed to make the reader think of the lawyers as actively sympathetic to terrorists, something, incidentally, that even Cheney and Kristol won’t openly claim they’re doing.

Yet Attorney General Eric Holder hired former al-Qaeda lawyers to serve in the Justice Department and resisted providing Congress this basic information.

Again, Thiessen chooses to call the attorneys “al Qaeda lawyers” instead of “lawyers who represented suspects,” in order to plant the impression of people actively working for al Qaeda, as opposed to lawyers fulfilling what they believe to be a civic duty to provide a defense for the accused.

Yet for raising questions, Cheney and the Republican senators have been vilified. Former Clinton Justice Department official Walter Dellinger decried the “shameful” personal attacks on “these fine lawyers,” while numerous commentators leveled charges of “McCarthyism.”

Of course, what Thiessen doesn’t note is that the condemnation of Cheney and Keep America Safe has been basically universal, with such noted liberal luminaries as Ted Olsen and Ken Starr leading the pitchforked mob. The response to Cheney has not been one of partisan rancor, but rather legal professionals of all political persuasions responding to an attack on fundamental principles of their profession and the American legal system.

Where was the moral outrage when fine lawyers like John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Jim Haynes, Steve Bradbury and others came under vicious personal attack? Their critics did not demand simple transparency; they demanded heads. They called these individuals “war criminals” and sought to have them fired, disbarred, impeached and even jailed.

This is where the column really goes off the rails, because while Thiessen is very good at selecting his words and rhetorical framing (he isa speechwriter, after all), the fact that he’s looking for a ridiculous premise at the outset leaves him grasping for a comparison that is just so self-evidently absurd that any self-respecting, non-propaganda outfit would have squashed this column immediately. To wit, it should be clear that there’s absolutely nothing similar about the accusations Liz Cheney is directing at the attornies in question and what Yoo, Bybee, & co. did. Cheney is asserting that, because an attorney represented a detainee accused of a certain crime, that must mean that they’re sympathetic to those people and the cause of which they’re accused, and therefore we can’t trust them to hold jobs in the Justice Department. Yoo, Bybee, etc., on the other hand, are accused of actually breaking the law in facilitating and implementing the use of torture. Calling this an apples to oranges comparison would be giving it too much credit.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Some defenders say al-Qaeda lawyers are simply following a great American tradition, in which everyone gets a lawyer and their day in court. Not so, says Andy McCarthy, the former assistant U.S. attorney who put Omar Abdel Rahman, the “blind sheik,” behind bars for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

And this is the giveaway. Whatever McCarthy may have to say, that Thiessen has chosen to quote him and describe him in this manner exposes the column as abject dishonesty, propagand in its most undiluted form. For one thing, there’s the fact that McCarthy is a raving lunatic, birther, and all around radical too extreme even for Rich Lowry and most of the other writers at The Corner to stand. But even more basic than that, McCarthy is the originator of the “al Qaeda seven” attack. For Thiessen not to disclose that, and especially to paint McCarthy as simply some sort of detached expert on the question, is an indescribale breach of ethics, a blatant attempt to mislead, not persuade, readers, and so unbelievably ham-fisted and obvious that I can’t believe for a second that no one at the Post noticed it.

The entire column is nothing but a string of lies, false equivalencies, and misrepresentations. Thiessen quite transparently wrote this with the intent of misleading the reader. There’s simply no other way anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes following the issues in question could interpret the article without straining credulity to the max. It also, I should hope, represents a low point, thus far, in the moral degeneration of the Post. And at this point, I think we can safely say that the Post is into the territory heretofor occupied by The New Republic; where the overall direction of the publication’s management begins to tain everyone involved in the publication. In the same way I feel that Jon Cohn, Jon Chait, Michelle Cottle, and the other wonderful writers at TNR nonetheless have to carry the stain of working for Marty Peretz, at this point Ezra Klein, Steve Pearlstein, Eugene Robinson, and any other decent employee of The Washington Post nevertheless has to live with the stain of association with Fred Hiatt, Marc Thiessen, Charles Krauthammer, etc, so long as they accept a paycheck from Kaplan.

Greenwald has more.

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On Pelosi

Friday, May 15th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I really don’t know what Nancy Pelosi knew about the Bush torture regime, and to be honest, I’m not even entirely sure what it would mean if she were briefed about waterboarding in October of 2002. The meeting was reportedly so secretive that members of Congress weren’t even allowed to take notes, so I imagine it would have been a violation of the law for her to have said anything about what was discussed. On the other hand, it’s really rather ridiculous that anyone is getting worked up over someone having the gall to suggest the CIA might have lied to Congress. I mean, it’s not like the CIA doesn’t have a fairly distinguished history of…lying to Congress. But Republicans throw out some attacks on Pelosi, and all of a sudden journalists are more concerned about Pelosi “attacking” the CIA than whether or not…the CIA lied to Congress and broke the law by torturing detainees.

The press corps is going to be the death of us all.

Obama Backtracks on Photos, New Torture Information Released

Friday, May 15th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I’m late to this (damn finals), but obviously the big news of the past couple of days is that the Obama administration will not, in fact, be releasing photos of Bush administration approved torture they had previously indicated they were going to release. I had previously applauded the decision to make the photos public, so my initial reaction was to join the chorus condemning the administration for this reversal, but the more I think about it, the more I’m not so sure.

To with, the only particularly convincing rationale I’ve heard for the decision is that it wasn’t so much about quashing “anti-American sentiment,” so much as it was avoiding enflaming Iraqis. With the rather large caveat that I have no way of knowing whether or not this is true, I guess this makes some pretty good sense to me. With national elections scheduled before the last US troops are set to leave the country in 2011, I do think it would be wise to avoid anything that is going to cause a disproportionate backlash among the citizenry so long as American troops remain in the country, not necessarily because it puts the troops in any increased danger (I think these claims are rather dubious) but rather because it would likely make the political situation unteneable for some time in that country. Assuming this really is the rationale, I suppose I can live with it for the time being, provided that we get more answers in the interim, or that the pictures are released after the last of US troops leave Iraq.

In other news, Robert Windrem reports on what could be a devastating wrinkle in the torture regime in The Daily Beast:

*Two U.S. intelligence officers confirm that Vice President Cheney’s office suggested waterboarding an Iraqi prisoner, a former intelligence official for Saddam Hussein, who was suspected to have knowledge of a Saddam-al Qaeda connection.

*The former chief of the Iraq Survey Group, Charles Duelfer, in charge of interrogations, tells The Daily Beast that he considered the request reprehensible.

He also claims that much of the information in the 9/11 commission report was based on information gained from torture.

This is an important revelation for two reasons. First of all, the typical conservative rational for why the Geneva Conventions are inoperable to terrorists (they’re “illegal combatants”) presumably don’t apply here. An Iraqi intelligence official would presumably have been a uniformed member of a duly constructed state military body, and would almost certainly have been a POW recognized under Geneva anyway you slice it, making Cheney a war criminal any way you look at it. Secondly, this is after the invasion. There’s no “ticking time bomb” logic in play for looking for an al-Qaeda/Iraq link after we’d already invaded Iraq. Rather, this was Dick Cheney looking to extract information that would confirm the political reasons put forward for the war. He was looking for false confessions plain and simple.

Also, not for nothing, but where the hell is George W. Bush (you know, the commander in chief) in all of these decisions?





The Rule of Law is No Excuse

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Tyler Cowen ruminates on the potential downside of torture prosecutions:

At many blogs (Sullivan, Yglesias, DeLong, among others) you will find ongoing arguments for prosecuting the torturers who ran our government for a while.  I am in agreement with the moral stance of these critics but I don’t agree with their practical conclusions.  I believe that a full investigation would lead the U.S. public to, ultimately, side with torture, side with the torturers, and side against the prosecutors.  That’s why we can’t proceed and Obama probably understands that.  If another attack happened this would be all the more true.

I’m not really sure I agree with this or not, but on that note, I definitely don’t agree with the counterargument put forward (earlier) by Greenwald:

But leave aside the question of whether prosecutions would produce good or bad outcomes.  After all, the notion that the law can and should be ignored whenever we think doing so would produce good results or would constitute good policy was the engine that drove Bush lawlessness. 

This is just ridiculous. At best, it’s a dystopian outlook where outcomes are of no consequence, at worst, it’s the flip-side of the “I was just following orders” defense, wherein “I was just applying the letter of the law” becomes a way to shirk responsibilty for whatever outcomes your choices yield. You can imagine a police officer who decides to hold up someone rushing to the emergency room using it to defend himself when someone dies waiting for him to finish writing a speeding ticket on the side of the freeway. Obviously the torture question is a bit more serious, than that, but at the same time, assuming that Greenwald would agree that rushing to the hospital is a legitimate excuse for taking some leniency with traffic laws, and that police officers should be sensitive to such mitigating circumstances, then he would be admitting that discretion in applying the law is a fundamental part of a nation of laws. Or does Glenn think that local police actually should write citations to people mowing there lawns in shorts between the hours of 5 P.M. and 8 P.M. Monday to Friday?

The question then isn’t so much whether discretionary authority exists, but what circumstances make it proper to decline to prosecute. In particular it seems the question is whether the unlikelihood of earning a conviction, or the likelihood of producing a bad outcome in the larger society, is a legitimate reason to decline to prosecute someone. With regards to the former, I think the answer has to be yes. Especially considering double jeopardy protections, if a prosecutor thinks that someone has committed a crime, but feels that a conviction is unlikely, I would argue that he has a  duty not to bring charges, because doing so would prevent action if and when a conviction was more likey (assuming he’s right on both counts). The latter is a bit of a stickier question, but I would imagine there are some circumstances in which the potential cultural outcome is so dire as to compel the use of discretion, although such situations are certainly rare.

But what’s most troubling is Greenwald’s apparent lack of concern for the outcome of actions. Greenwald could certainly disagree with the premise that prosecutions are likely to produce bad outcomes, but I haven’t seen him make those arguments. Rather, I’ve seen him make arguments like the one above, that the question is completely irrelevant. Greenwald should respond to Cowen, and clearly articulate whether he agrees with Cowen’s conclusion or not. If he doesn’t, that’s certainly fair, and Greenwald can make that argument (and again, I’m not really sure if I agree with Cowen or not). But if he does, I don’t see how a logical person can rectify calling for an action you believe will produce bad outcomes. At best, it belies someone who is far too attached to rigidity, and unable to process exigent circumstances or concerns. At worst, David Broder is right, and Greenwald just wants vengeance against political opponents, consequences be damned. And I don’t want David Broder to be right.

They Like It, They Really Like It

Monday, April 27th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

E.D. Kain, on torture apologist conservatives:

Beyond that, it seems very foolish – very short-sighted – for torture apologists to continue this charade.  It may seem necessary now, to many of them, to rewrite history or clean the slate or whatever – but in the end can this really be anything more than political suicide?  Maybe for the architects – the Cheney’s and the Yoo’s – it makes sense.  They face a real (if unlikely) chance at prosecution.  When the media finally starts using the word “torture” instead of “harsh interrogation tactics” and all of this comes spilling out – the pictures, the video recordings, etc. – is this the side you want to be on?  Standing over there in the spotlight with Cheney and Bush and Bybee and Yoo?

History is merciless.

There’s certainly a seemingly obvious incentive here for the conservative movement, and the Republican Party, to use the opportunity presented by the release of the torture memos to put some distance between themselves and the Bush administration, and many commentors have noted this. On the other hand, I’m not sure people aren’t overestimating this factor. It’s not, after all, the case that we really are just now learning all of these things, and movement conservatives are still reflexively defending all things Bush. This discussion has been ongoing since roughly 2002, and most of the “apologists” have been vigorous defenders of these “enhanced interrogation techniques” since day one. In other words, they’re not just defending Bush & Cheney, they’re defending themselves, and their own positions.

On the other hand, I think it’s time to start admitting the obvious; a lot of these people are just sadists who think that torture is good for its own sake. This is the mentality that’s on display every time a torture defender forgets the “ticking time bomb scenario” or something else they saw on 24 and veers into the realm of “well these are bad people, so who cares if we smacked them around” territory. This is a branch who feel that the detainees deserve everything they get, or worse, and so for them, torture is an end in and of its own right, a sick sort of catharsis. Consider Andy McCarthy, a man the conservative movement regards as a serious legal mind:

“As far as mental suffering is concerned, that involves at least the creation of a fear of imminent death,” said McCarthy. “While it’s a favorite talking point that people were waterboarded 180 times … it undercuts the fear that there was going to be imminent death. After the first or second time you get the point that there’s no death to be feared here.”

I’m hardly the first to point out that this makes no sense. After all, if the detainee does come to learn that he’s in no danger whatsoever from waterboarding the more he endures it, and presuming McCarthy accepts the notion that waterboarding does not induce “severe pain and suffering,” wouldn’t waterboarding someone 183 times in a month (just over 6 times a day, or once every 4 hours) be about the most ineffective thing you could possibly do? Wouldn’t the “interrogation technique” become ineffective by about day 3?

There’s simply no logical conclusion to be drawn from this, other than that Andrew McCarthy and the rest of the right’s torture apologists do, in fact, approve of the use of torture in general. That they realize the nature of American politics won’t let them say that in so many words doesn’t make it any less true. The interesting question is not why the right continues to defend the torture regime they whole-heartedly approved of all along, but how the American right got to this point in the first place.

Torture Used to Find Al-Qaeda/Saddam Link

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

No one could have predicted:

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

“There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,” the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.”

It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 — according to a newly released Justice Department document.

“There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder,” he continued.

Of course, pointing out that the most common use of torture over the years, from the Inquisition to Stalinist Russia, was to elicit false confessions. Because while torture isn’t necessarily any more effective than good interrogating for getting accurate information out of people, imposing increasing levels of extreme physical pain on people until they say what you want them to is a great way to get people to, well, say what you want them to. Whether it’s true or not. The question at this point is whether Cheney and Rumsfeld were simply looking for confirmation of the things they “knew,” or if they were actually looking to extract false information from detainees to justify an aggressive war in Iraq. The fact that the inability to garner this information, even by torture, doesn’t seem to have phased the pre-conceived belief tells you all you need to know about the run-up to war; the administration wanted a war with Saddam from day 1, and nothing was going to stop them. Also, given that Rumsfeld seems to have reconciled the discrepancy by concluding that the torture didn’t work, one is left to wonder why, exactly, the torture regime was furthered.

It’s worth pointing out that this has been a very bad week for the Bushies. Revelations that they went to extraordinary measures to quash any official dissent from the legal opinions espoused in the OLC significantly undercuts the notion that the OLC opinions were issued in good faith, and senior policy makers simply acting on the legal advice they were getting. As does the reminder that the FBI strenuously objected to the interrogation methods, to the point that FBI director Robet Mueller directed FBI personnel to have nothing to do with it. Even worse, the Senate Armed Services Committee report on the matter is a brutal demolition of the Bush administration’s various line, and paints a portrait of a group of sadists who were determined to torture from the very beginning, and who took a number of actions that seem to demonstrate they knew what they were doing were legally dubious.

If you’d asked me about the matter on Monday morning, I would have said that I thought the biggest hurdle to action was that getting convictions in the matter would be extremely difficult, if not downright unlikely. After reading the SASC report, and given the plethora of information that was brought back to the front of the story yesterday, however, today I’d have to say that, on the whole, it’s exceedingly obvious that senior administration officials were engaged in serial lawlessness, human rights abuses, war crimes, etc. Prosecute them. Now.

But hey, Dubs didn’t get any oral in the Oval Office. Which is good, because otherwise we might have had to impeach him or something.

Why Does The Washington Post Print Obvious Inaccurate Information?

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Putting aside the laughability factor of treating the writing of a former Bush chief speechwriter credulously, Marc Thiessen’s Op-Ed in yesterday’s Washington Post contained a number of blatantly inaccurate claims, the most blatant of which being the contention that the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed provided the information that led to the foiling of a terrorist plot to attack the West Coast. But, as Sully catalogues, the plot was alleged to have been foiled in 2002, while KSM was not captured until 2003. In other words, it’s simply not possible for Thieseen’s claim to be true.

I think that getting worked up about Bush administration officials and staffers telling abject lies is rather pointless. On some level it would almost feel weird if they weren’t lying. But the real question here isn’t why Thiessen decided to write a column full of outright lies to defend his former boss, it’s why The Washington Post agreed to print something full of egregious factual inaccuracies. To be sure, these aren’t debateable points. It’s not Thiessen’s opinion that the torture of KSM yielded information that stopped a plot a year or so before KSM was captured. If Thiessen does, in fact, believe that statement is true, then Thiessen is ignorant of the facts in question, and the statement is still completely inaccurate. What’s not clear is why the Post editors, who are presumably paid to, you know, edit, apparently didn’t bother to do even a rudimentary fact check on Thiessan’s claims, or if they did, why they decided to print a piece they knew contained a number of flase contentions.

Obviously this isn’t anything new for the Post, but that pretty clearly doesn’t make it any better. The simple fact of the matter is that Fred Hiatt has turned the Post into the pre-eminent mainstream outlet of neoconservative propaganda in the country, and the people above Hiatt in the organization have allowed him to do it.

The Torture Memos

Friday, April 17th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Having read through the Office of Legal Counsel memos pertaining to torture under the Bush administration, I’m downright shocked by how banal it all is. The particulars didn’t really get me, indeed, it’s almost shocking how much of this we already knew. What is deeply disturbing, as several others have already pointed out, is how utterly dry the language and “reasoning” is. This is a cold, detached, nearly inhuman endeavor to justify inflicting torture on other people, and it almost reads like they’re arguing the statutory implications of some obscure corner of the tax code or something.

I’ll leave interpreting the memos themselves to someone else because, frankly, the content is rather dull to me (as I said, there’s really nothing in them we didn’t already know). Personally, I’m more interested in the question of prosecutions now. President Obama, as everyone has pointed out by now, reassured everyone yesterday that there would be no prosecutions of CIA operatives who were involved in carrying out the acts, and I think that’s the right call, on a number of levels. From a practical standpoint, I really don’t see how you’re going to win a conviction against a lower level operative. Their defense would almost certainly be centered around the OLC’s opinion, and the idea that these were guys who just wanted to defend their country, and wanted to stay within the law, but were lied to about the legality of various actions by a group of lawyers and politicians (incredibly unpopular politicians at that) is going to be a hard sentiment to overcome in a jury trial.

But from a moral/ethical standpoint as well, I don’t really think it’s right to prosecute the operatives. It’s easy to say they should have known better but, really, should they have? Yes torturing another human, even if it’s to “defend your country,” seems very bad, and seems like the sort of thing someone couldn’t possibly do without knowing it was wrong, but consider, for a second, that we train millions of young people to kill other human beings if necessary to defend the country, or even just to carry out a mission. And certainly, in that narrow context, very few people regard that as a bad thing. And yes, we expect that military personnel should refuse to carry out an obviously unlawful order from a superior, but the military operates in a world, and under a governing code, of much less ambiguity than the CIA. This is what, to me, makes the OLC’s actions especially pernicious; CIA operatives who are genuinely unsure of the legal boundaries at which they operate should be able to trust that the legal opinions they’re getting are good ones, designed to protect them as much as anything else. On some level, these people are victims of John Yoo as well, having been exposed legal liability, and having to live with their actions for the rest of their lives. There’s also a certain amount of discomfort, for me, in punishing non-legal experts for not knowing that the advice they were being given from lawyers who had reached a very high level of authority, and so presumably are very smart people with a very deep understanding of the law, was not, in fact, legitimate.

On the other hand, I very much hope that as many policy makers as possible are prosecuted and convicted for this sordid affair. That said, I think that’s a much more difficult task than many people are allowing. For one thing, prosecuting high level political officials is going to be difficult any time, as it’s going to be extremely hard to find a jury that’s largely unbiased by their own political opinions. Moreover, the policy makers can hide behind the OLC as well; after all, we established the OLC and the taxpayers provide a salary to its staff in order for them to give legal advice to the President and other policy makers, so if said policy makers can’t actually expect that they can rely on the OLC’s opinion regarding any given policy’s legality, what’s the point of even having the office, right? This is obviously bogus, but at the same time, it seems to me that overcoming it in a court of law would be exceedingly difficult.

Which brings us back to John Yoo, who seems, to me, to be the keystone to the whole enterprise. If it can be established that Yoo’s memos were written in bad faith, that is, that he knew the opinions were utter bullshit and was writing them, with the knowledge of senior policy makers, simply to facilitate policies he knew to be illegal and to cover for senior policy makers, then it becomes possible to snare everyone else as well. The question then, is how do you prove bad faith in the writing of a legal opinion? It seems like an incredibly hard thing to do to me, which is why I hope there are smarter people than I working on this sort of thing somewhere. But I think the last thing you want to do is rush into this sort of prosecution. The last thing you want is an acquital, which would be a tacit endorsement of the policies in question and, because of double jeopardy, would likely mean the guilty parties would get away with it forever.

Update: What A.L. said. More A.L. please, much less Glenn Greenwald.

Republicans Blackmailing Obama to Protect Torture Regime

Monday, April 6th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Scott Horton is reporting, at The Daily Beast, that 2 Obama nominees are being held ransom by Senate Republicans in an effort to prevent the Obama administration from releasing Bush administration Office of Legal Counsel memos concerning the legality of torture and other Bush administration policies:

Senate Republicans are now privately threatening to derail the confirmation of key Obama administration nominees for top legal positions by linking the votes to suppressing critical torture memos from the Bush era. A reliable Justice Department source advises me that Senate Republicans are planning to “go nuclear” over the nominations of Dawn Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh as State Department legal counsel if the torture documents are made public. The source says these threats are the principal reason for the Obama administration’s abrupt pullback last week from a commitment to release some of the documents. A Republican Senate source confirms the strategy. It now appears that Republicans are seeking an Obama commitment to safeguard the Bush administration’s darkest secrets in exchange for letting these nominations go forward.

This is, as far as I know, a fairly unprecedented move. Both Republicans and Democrats have filibustered nominees for the federal bench, and whether you agree with that in theory or not, there seems to at least be some solid rationale for it, in so much as the Judiciary is a seperate branch and appointees serve life terms. But broadly speaking, both parties have traditionally deferred to the right of the President to staff the executive branch with the people he prefers, short of criminality or gross lack of qualification anyway. Some nominees invariably get caught up in some scandal or another, as Congressional opposition seeks the customary scalp, but for the most part, and especially considering the highest profile positions, Congress is traditionally highly deferential regarding executive branch appointments.

There’s a couple of ways to go with this. The first is to note the bizarre logic for this, if Horton’s reporting is accurate. Are Senate Republicans really willing to make John Yoo the hill they die on? Even the Bush administration OLC repudiated Yoo’s memos before they left office. Wouldn’t a logical response for the post-Bush GOP be to try to put Bush behind them as forcefully as possible? And I’d also be remiss if I didn’t note the irony of the party who, for the last 7 years, heartily embraced a broad reading of the unitary executive theory now deigning to encroach on an area that is pretty explicitly the perogative of the President. If the executive branch wants to release executive branch documents, who exactly is Congress to stop them? I rather doubt that Republicans would approve of President Obama threatening to withhold funding for Congress unless Jon Cornyn released all of his emails with his staff, or something similar. And, personally, I don’t even see much of a reason not to publish OLC opinions as a rule, but that’s probably best left for another time.

On the other hand, it’s worth asking why these executive offices are even subject to Congressional confirmation in the first place. It’s one thing to require the Secretary of State to be confirmed by the Senate (although I don’t agree with it), but it just seems bizarre that the State Department’s legal adviser needs to be approved by Congress. Ditto for the President’s economic advisers. The Congress doesn’t really add much to the equation, in my opinion, and it doesn’t really strike me as “co-equal” that the President is required to get his subordinates, down to the advisory level, approved by Congress. So far as I know, Congressional advisers do not require Presidential approval, so maybe it’s time to balance out the equation.

Does It Count If It’s Not Screaming Pundits? Actual Interrogators On The Torture Ban

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

Music to Your Humble Author’s ears. From an article on HuffPo:

Interrogators are lauding President Obama for signing an executive order that will shut down secret CIA prisons and place the use of coercive interrogation techniques completely off limits.

“[The order] closes an unconscionable period in our history, in which those who knew least, professed to know most about interrogations,” said Joe Navarro, a former special agent and supervisor with the FBI.

“Some die-hards on the right — who have never interrogated anyone — are already arguing that forcing interrogations to be conducted within army field manual guidelines is a step backward and will result in ‘coddling’ dangerous terrorists,” retired Colonel Stuart Herrington, who served for more than 30 years as a military intelligence officer, said soon after the order was signed. “This is a common, but uninformed view. Experienced, well-trained, professional interrogators know that interrogation is an art. It is a battle of wits, not muscle. It is a challenge that can be accomplished within the military guidelines without resorting to brutality.”

The way interrogation works is largely misunderstood by the general public and some senior policy makers, according to Navarro, Herrington and other intelligence professionals.

“Interrogation is not like a faucet that you can turn on – and the harder you turn, the more information will pour out,” explains Herrington, who conducted a classified review of detention and interrogation practices in Iraq for the U.S. Army.

I wrote an article about the origin of our “enhanced interrogation techniques” last year, but long story short: The techniques were “reverse-engineered” from SERE, a military program that teaches select soldiers how to resist torture. The problem is, the torture used in the program is based on Communist Russia and Chinese methods designed to elicit false confessions. So, bad news all around.

As everyone within radio range of Earth in the last month has heard, President Obama signed an order prohibiting any torture by American personnel or on prisoners in American custody (keep in mind, though, this does not make extraordinary renditions to third-party countries like Egypt for torture illegal). Now that torture in America is once again illegal-a phrase I never thought I’d type-and whistleblowers are safe from retribution, actual military and intelligence interrogators are emerging to side with the President as the Right screams bloody murder about it.

Like this fellow here:

Getting a suspected terrorist to talk is much more subtle than what one typically sees in the movies or on TV. A new book, How to Break A Terrorist by Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym), provides an inside look at how interrogation can yield more information if it is done humanely.

Alexander developed the intelligence that led U.S. forces to al-Zarqawi, the former chief of Al Qaeda in Iraq. While some were using abusive techniques to try to crack detainees, Alexander used a smarter, more sophisticated approach. He learned what the detainees cared about and then used that information to get what he wanted.

And this guy:

Another recently published book, Mission: Black List #1 by Staff Sergeant Eric Maddox, shows how the author, an interrogator stationed in Tikrit, developed the intelligence that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein. Maddox was hunting one of the most wanted men in Iraq. Like Alexander he did not try to “break” detainees by beating them up; he talked to them.

Maddox was an information junkie who patiently interrogated hundreds of detainees and slowly pieced together a picture that led him to Saddam. He also intuitively understood that, if possible, you want the detainees to not only answer your questions, but also tell you which questions to ask. He induced a detainee who was a close friend (and former driver) of one of Saddam’s closest confidants to join his “team.” The former driver joined Maddox in interrogations. Detainees “broke” the moment that Maddox and the former driver started interrogating them.

Indeed, this is exactly what the FBI has been saying since literally 9/11 plus one, that interrogation is an art and information obtained under torture is not reliable. FBI agents walked out of interrogation permanently at the brand-new Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo shortly after they started, knowing that any association with torture would destroy the Bureau’s credibility in the courtroom for years to come.

And they were right. Ironically, this is the dilemma that now faces the American government with the GTMO detainees, because of the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to give them the minimal level of Geneva protections.

24 Is Not Real

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

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Responding to Andrew Sullivan responding to him on the issue of torture, Reuel Marc Gerecht writes:

I take it from your post that if you had been confronted on 7 September 2001 with a captured Khalid Shaykh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah and you knew that a major, mass-casualty terrorist strike was about to go down in the United States, and you had plenipotentiary authority for the nation’s security, you would not have used any physically coercive techniques against the gentleman? 

This is the “24 scenario,” and it’s why I both refuse to watch a second of the show and think it’s done great, perhaps irrevocable, harm to our nation. Put simply, in 24 Jack Bauer can capture someone who knows something beat the information out of them, and go on to be the hero who saves the day. But he can do that because it’s a scripted work of fiction. Superman can fly in comic books, movies, and on television, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone go jump of the Empire State Building because Superman flies on teevee.

Similarly, real life doesn’t work quite so well as the scripted world of 24. And you can see that in the essence of Gerecht’s framing; the entire premise is predicated on knowing things. You know an attack is imminent. You know the person you’re interrogating knows something about it. And, presumably, you know how to differentiate between good information and bad information.

And in this vein, I think the people who have been pushing back against torture the most have really taken the wrong path. Yes it’s a great moral evil, and yes that ought to be enough, but in the aggregate it’s also just bad policy. I mean, imagine you’re torturing someone who really doesn’t know anything about what you’re interrogating for. He keeps telling you he doesn’t know anything, but you keep on torturing him. How exactly does this end? Is the interrogator just supposed to magically know where the point at which he must be telling the truth comes? What if he does the logical thing and responds to the increasing or enduring torture in response to truthful answers by making something up because he thinks you want to hear it? Do we go out and act on that erroneous information, or do we imagine that our interrogators will just know he’s lying? If it’s the latter, doesn’t that sort of negate the utility of torturing?

But even presuming that the subject really does know something, and that we do know this, how are we supposed to figure out what information is good? Using Gerecht’s scenario, imagine we had Abu Zabaydah on September 7th, tortured him, and he’d told us there was going to be a terrorist attack on September 11th in which a Penske truck full of explosives would be detonated  in the middle of the Lincoln Tunnel. Would we have acted on that information, and if we did how would that have prevented the 9/11 attacks? Or, in that vein, what if he told us exactly what was going to happen on 9/11, but the interrogator dismissed it as far too fanciful and continued to torture him looking for the “real” plot?

All of which is to say that torture isn’t simply a moral evil, it’s very bad policy that can’t be expected to yield good information on a regular basis. Just because it works on teevee doesn’t mean it will work in the real world.

A Word About Torture

Monday, September 1st, 2008

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The United States tortures people. Time to just accept it. The endless wrangling over what the word “torture” means for the last seven years has become a largely pointless semantic debate. The administration legally redefined what “torture” means (has to cause lasting damage, like organ failure or death) so the principals can keep a straight face when telling the media that we don’t torture anyone, but it’s time to face facts. Call it “enhanced interrogation techniques” or whatever you want, the intent is clear.

Here’s how I know: There is a program that soldiers and Marines go through called SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) training where they are waterboarded, put in stress positions, berated, put in sensory deprivation, etc., in order to build their resistance to enemy interrogation. And after 9/11, when looking around for what new harsh interrogation techniques they could use against enemy combatants (having thrown the classic interrogation approach out the window), the administration decided to “reverse-engineer” the SERE techniques.

The crazy part? SERE was developed after the Korean War, because of the captured pilots who were used in Communist propaganda films, confessing to crimes and so forth. They were mentally broken but not physically abused in any way, and it looked bad, and the idea was of SERE was to specifically counteract these Manchurian Candidate-type techniques. So the fact is, America is basically using Communist Chinese torture methods on their prisoners to break them mentally and physically.

A perfect example of how insane this has really gotten is Jose Padilla. Padilla, an American citizen arrested on American soil, was declared an “enemy combatant” and locked in a naval brig for more than three years. According to a court brief filed on behalf of Padilla in 2006, he was kept totally isolated in a windowless cell in an otherwise empty brig, spent most of his incarceration sleeping on a steel bunk with no mattress, was placed in “stress positions” for hours at a time, was hooded and shackled, the temperature of his cell was kept below freezing for hours, threatened with execution, and given “truth serum” drugs among other things.

Who can claim that is not torture? Have we really become so existentially terrified of the Evil Terrorist Threat that we are literally willing to use techniques that the Soviets and ChiComs pioneered? What does this say about “American values” in the new millenium?


by Tommy Brown

“The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.”

-Niccolo Machiavelli

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