Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Official Torture Policy

Many torture apologists make much of the fact that official policy regarding "enhanced interrogation" meant tactics that didn't cause permanent damage. Waterboarding probably won't kill you. Sleep deprivation, stress positions, use of insects. You'll survive.

As awful as this logic is, the fact of the matter is the real techniques were not limited to these methods. We know from Nazi war crimes trials that when official policy permitted the above, in reality these methods would be frequently extended. Take the case of Manadel al-Jamadi. He was strung up by his arms from behind. The door closed. An hour later he was dead. Sabrina Harman was told by her superiors that he died of a heart attack, but she was skeptical, so she took some photos. She found evidence that he was beaten savagely and realized she was being lied to.

Maher Arar was shipped to Syria where he claims he was confined to a coffin size box and whipped with cables, among other torture methods. Binyam Mohamed says that he was cut with scalpels and razor blades across his penis and chest.

It gets worse. It is beginning to look like KSM's children were tortured to encourage his cooperation and to get information from them. They were younger than 10. His are not the only children tortured.

The al-Jamadi case is supported with photographic evidence. The rest are unproved. We do know that at Guantánamo the evidence is intentionally destroyed. We know that the video of José Padilla's interrogation has been "lost". We also know that Bush lawyer John Yoo won't answer the question when he was asked if the President had legal authority to bury someone alive.

This was all done to keep us safe, right? It was used to prevent further attacks, not extract false confessions, right?

What has happened to conservatives, who used to be pessimistic of expanded government power?


HispanicPundit said...

The argument that "harsh interrogations" do not work is debatable, see here.

And the slippery slope argument doesnt work here. There are alot of powers that we have deemed dangerous for a government to have (a standing army, for example) that we have decided acceptable because of the risk of not granting those powers. If individual soldiers go too far and actually perform torture, they should be punished.

Regarding my torture test: I didn't say I wouldn't want to quit in the middle, I probably would. But my point is that given $1,000 (okay, maybe $10,000) I would sign a contract allowing someone else to forcibly waterboard me for say, 30 seconds. I wouldn't do that for other real forms of torture, like cutting off my arm or any other form of physical pain.

And as I said before, sleep deprivation, drowning, and other mental games are all standard procedure for special forces training...and many of our soldiers willingly put themselves through such a test. If its good enough for our special forces, its good enough for Al Qaeda, IMHO.

With that said, I am not sure where I stand on waterboarding - I can see arguments on both sides. Its clearly very close to the line of where I would draw the torture line. The only real difference between your point and mine is that you see your side so clearly right - I am not that sure. Its a tough choice.

Jon said...

I don't think I argued that it doesn't work, did I?

The fact that our special forces undergo something willingly is in no way relevant to whether or not an action would qualify as torture. Some people have willingly set themselves on fire as part of a protest. If I did it to someone unwillingly it would be torture. At least as far as the law is concerned. Does the law say that it's not torture if someone else did it willingly? Nope. It's irrelevant.

You're a braver man than me if you underwent 30 seconds forced for $10,000. I couldn't do it.

Jon said...

BTW, your should know that your defenses are the same as those used by the Nazi's. No permanent damage. Things like sleep deprivation, exhaustion exercises, food rationing. These defenses failed in court, and the court sentenced them to death. Do you want to stand with the Nazi's or the founding fathers? I know, that sounds like silly rhetoric, but is it false? Which side of history do you want to be on here?

Jon said...

One more, HP. Read this description of a waterboarding experience.


HispanicPundit said...

The fact that our special forces willingly undergo the same treatments you call "torture" means alot - it means that your threshold for torture is so low that you would have to conclude that our special forces are also tortured by the military. It helps shed light on the current semantics discussion we are having. To willingly undergo true torture would be seen as an act of lunacy, or fanaticism at the least. But if we have instances where people undergo "harsh interrogations" for financial or personal gain, and its accepted by our society in one instance, why shouldn't it be acceptable in another? Especially during a time of national security.

Regarding the Nazi's: if this is all the nazi's had done, then we wouldnt be having this discussion. In other words, the main reason the nazi's are considered the scum of the earth is not because they waterboarded, sleep deprived etc, prisons, it is because they murdered, in mass numbers, innocent people. Two very different things. Hitler was a vegetarian and a lover of the arts. Does that mean that I should dislike vegetarians as well? Of course not...same goes for waterboarding.

Regarding your article, this took me by surprise:

"I'll put it this way. If I had the choice of being waterboarded by a third party or having my fingers smashed one at a time by a sledgehammer, I'd take the fingers, no question.

It's horrible, terrible, inhuman torture. I can hardly imagine worse. I'd prefer permanent damage and disability to experiencing it again. I'd give up anything, say anything, do anything."

If this is true, then yes, I would classify waterboarding as torture. But again, this is hard for me to accept. I just cant fathom how any mental game, knowing a priori it is a mental game, can be more scary than real physical harm. I cant.

I do trust Hitchens and others. Which is why this topic gives me pause. But I am still undecided on this whole thing.

Jon said...

HP, you know I love you, but you're just not dealing with the things I say, and you're repeating what is already refuted. The willingness of others is not relevant as far as the law is concerned.

Additionally, I'd bet people are willing to let drops of water fall on their head. But after a few days suddenly that's torture, which is why we call it Chinese water torture. That's how stress positions operate. You can stand for a few hours in an awkward position, but after a few more hours it's torture. Special forces go through it because they attempt to acclimate themselves to torture conditions. They may be captured and be forced to undergo such things. KSM was waterboarded 183 times in one month. Had he been trained under controlled conditions to deal with it perhaps he could have emerged from that without being a head case, but not having had the training he may be on the verge of insanity now (I don't know, but it's possible). If I was a special forces guy I would want to be waterboarded under controlled conditions, so if in the event I was capture I'd have a chance. This is not lunacy, and it doesn't mean waterboarding isn't torture.

Have you read 1984? The breaking point for Winston Smith eventually is that his government knows him so well that they know exactly what his greatest fears are. In his case it is rats. They place a cage around his neck so his head is on the interior, and that cage is shared with a hissing rat that may in a moment be released to make its way over to Smith's head where it can bite him. A bite from a rat won't kill you. It probably won't cause permanent damage. But this is the moment he betrays everyone, including the love of his life. And in the end he loves Big Brother. Just like Padilla now defends the actions taken against him.

So what's torture for one person may not be torture for another. Some eastern monks learn to feel no pain with mental techniques. They might be able to stick a needle right through their hand. They do it willingly. But if I do it to you it's torture.

Nobody is saying the Nazi's aren't hated for multiple reasons. I'm saying they were tried and convicted of multiple crimes. Among them was "enhanced interrogation" that was a lot like the Bush policy. The defense in the criminal trial was a lot like yours, and the courts didn't buy it. You're right. Hitler was a vegetarian. This doesn't mean it is wrong. But the courts did say the Nazi's were wrong to use non-lethal interrogation methods. Do you disagree with the courts in this case? I know you don't disagree with them on genocide, but perhaps you do disagree with them here. So you side with the Nazi's in this case.

Here's an extensive review on whether or not torture works. The conclusion here in this report done in 2006 is that it doesn't.

HispanicPundit said...

Okay, one by one.

You write, I'd bet people are willing to let drops of water fall on their head. But after a few days suddenly that's torture, which is why we call it Chinese water torture.But your missing my point here. I am arguing that what our special forces go through is equivalent, if not HARSHER, than what you define as torture. In other words, they are not just letting "drops of water fall on their head" - they are going the whole way...it would be equivalent to them letting drops of water fall on their head for days...and they wouldn't be able to do that, even willingly, why? Again, because that is real torture. No human being can withstand it.

When dealing with the word torture, we are dealing with semantics. There is no real way to define what is and what isn't torture. Sure, we can define the extremes, but the areas in between say, gently talking to a person vs chopping off their arms, is the gray area. People are going to disagree. This is why I bring up the special forces training and you bring up the nazi convictions. We are trying to appeal to outside standards to make our case. Both of our examples are relevant.

You write, "Special forces go through it because they attempt to acclimate themselves to torture conditions. They may be captured and be forced to undergo such things."...not initially. Initially they go through it to see if they will break. Its a test, and a "harsh" test, but one human beings willingly put themselves through. Some even multiple times.

Yes, I have read 1984 - great book, btw.

So let me get this clear: your definition of torture, aside from physical pain, is any emotional pain that may terrify the person? DO you realize how subjective and arbitrary that is?

Regarding the Nazi's: Yes, if I accepted waterboarding and sleep deprivation as an acceptable form of "harsh interrogation" I would have to conclude that the courts were wrong in that one particular court ruling. Just as you would have to conclude that our special forces are tortured, if you believed that waterboarding and sleep deprivation was torture.

Regarding the efficacy of "harsh interrogations": I dont buy it. You can not in one hand argue that it is torture that will make a guy spill his guts out in one hand and in the next hand argue that it doesnt work. Both are mutually exclusive. The link I provided earlier also argues the contrary.

Jon said...

I don't think I'm missing your point. You are repeating a point already refuted. I've already talked about willingness, and how torture law is independent of the fact that others go through it in a different context. I talked about driving needles though the body, and how it makes no difference that others have subjected themselves to that willingly. It would be torture if I did it to you. You just go right back to your same point that special forces do it willingly, as if you entirely missed all that I've already said.

You repeatedly make the point about semantics and gray areas but you haven't responded to my point that I'm sticking with the legal definitions. What's wrong with using terms as they are defined in the law? And what about the point that the U.S. has prosecuted torture as defined in the law repeatedly? The reason things are suddenly so gray and mysterious is the torture apologists want legal justification for doing what was illegal recently.

Fine, the special forces have additional reasons for subjected themselves to waterboarding under controlled conditions. Should I make the point about willingness again?

So let me get this clear: your definition of torture, aside from physical pain, is any emotional pain that may terrify the person? DO you realize how subjective and arbitrary that is?I've made it clear that my definition is the legal definition, which is the only relevant definition in this context. Will repeating it do any good? We'll see.

As far as if it works, it's not really my argument that it doesn't, though from what I can see so far I would bet that it doesn't work as well as traditional methods. That's the conclusion of the report. We now know that Zubaydah confessed the links between Saddam and al Qaeda that Bush wanted to hear. He did it falsely. He said whatever he thought would end the waterboarding, whether true or not. But that's a different debate.

HispanicPundit said...

Well your just moving the question one step back: I thought the whole point of this discussion is what the law should be. If your whole point is that the Bush broke the written law, then yes, I will probably grant that. But your point is really much more than that, isn't it?

Jon said...

Yes, we are arguing about what should qualify as torture, not just what the existing law is. Your argument is that because our special forces undergo these things willingly this doesn't qualify as torture. I've responded with illustrations showing willingness does not mitigate things. I've shown that existing law makes no such distinction. I've shown that in the past the U.S. has not regarded that as a relevant distinction in that we've prosecuted people for doing these things, despite the fact that our special forces go through it willingly. I don't see that you've responded to any of this except to repeat your claim that special forces undergo it willingly.

I've shown that in a book like 1984 what is torture for one person may not be torture for another. So the fact that special forces go through it is not relevant.

Remember my post on abortion and equality under the law? Following the rule of law has sub-optimal results in the short run. Not everybody is equal in reality. But long term this is the system that maximizes happiness. So what should we normally conclude when a group of people decides they want to suspend the rules that we've adhered to for so long? Is that good for America? Sounds like your view is you concede the law prohibits what Bush did, but now you want to have a debate on what the law should be. Now is not the time for that. You need to first have the debate, then if you can persuade people that you are right, then at that time you change behavior. To defend a President that subverted the law by retro-actively changing the law is a very dangerous move. Kind of a complete disregard for liberterian ideals as far as I'm concerned.

HispanicPundit said...

I'm not sure he subverted the law. Of course you say so, and I am sure you have arguments showing so, but many intelligent people disagree. John Yoo argued otherwise. Alberto Gonzales argued otherwise. Others did the same. They may be right or you may be right, thats not really my point. My point here is that arguing legalities is one thing...my focus here is on what the law should be.

So given that question: how do you define torture? What is the considered "harsh interrogation" and what is considered "tortured"? Spell it out for me. NOt what the law says...but what the law should say.

Jon said...

You're not responding to the willingness issue, so I'll assume you concede that point.

I think the law is fine as written. It ought to be exactly what it is. I've provided the links. I have decades of American history that thought those definitions were fine. Do you think Bush suddenly had an epiphany and realized these definitions were wrong, or do you think he did what a lot of people did when the get government power, they tried to expand it and act like limits didn't apply to them?

Not that his motives weren't good, but that's the way government growth always happens. People think they know better, so they think suspending the law in this one instance can do more good. I say in the long run it doesn't.

HispanicPundit said...

I read your links, and this is about the clearest there is. Which is to say, not very clear at all. Let me reiterate my point, in case you missed it: I agree that we should not torture people. The question we are discussing here is what is torture. So pointing to the torture law, where it argues against "torture", without really defining it, is not giving me much.

So let me ask my question more clearly: What is the worst the US could do before it is crossing the torture line? In other words, give me an example of something you would classify as "harsh interrogations" as opposed to torture. You've already made clear that you don't think sleep deprivation or waterboarding count...so what does? I am sincere here...I am really curious at what you would respond. Because frankly, from your responses above, ISTM you've ruled everything out short of not providing TV's in peoples cells.

HispanicPundit said...

Link didnt come through above, this is how the first sentence should read: "I read your links, and this is about the clearest there is. "

Jon said...

I think that law is clear. You can't cause intentional pain. That's what's in the Geneva Convention. That's the U.N. Convention on Torture. That's what we've been adhering to for decades if not longer.

You can ask questions, but they don't have to answer. So you do the work. You learn Arabic. You ingratiate yourself. From what I can tell so far this is the best way to get good intelligence. Abu Zubaydah gave us nothing useful under waterboarding, but useful stuff with traditional methods.

HispanicPundit said...

Thats the alternative I have trouble with as well.

Oh and, of course you know your belief that "From what I can tell so far this is the best way to get good intelligence. Abu Zubaydah gave us nothing useful under waterboarding, but useful stuff with traditional methods" is also highly debatable and counterintuitive. Not saying its wrong - it may be right, but Ive seen enough people making the counter claim to know that the data is not definitive.

Jon said...

But if you don't know if it works, why not default to the position of the founders rather than the Nazi view? Why not default away from unbridled government power and act like the liberterian you claim to be. I've given you detailed studies that it doesn't work. I've shown that Abu Zubaydah's interrogators said it wasn't useful. I've shown that we did extract false intelligence because of these methods. Sure, some Sean Hannity or O'Reilly types will dispute it and say it works. If you aren't sure though, why not default to a position of a liberty lover and skeptic of big government?

HispanicPundit said...

First, I am not a libertarian. I lean libertarian, but I would not classify myself as a libertarian. I am a Republican. In other words, I believe in small government but strong military. National defense is an area where I think the government has a significant purpose (in addition to being a social conservative).

Second, absent persuasive data stating otherwise, I believe that "harsh interrogations" do work. Its kinda like the death penalty, it just makes sense that it works. Sometimes they get too much information yes, but they also get information that originally didn't want to be shared. After all, if the procedure is as frightening as you claim it is, wouldn't it make more sense to believe it does work? I grant that there is a possibility it doesn't work, but in the presence of conflicting data, I assume it does. And because I care about national defense, I grudgingly approve.

I sent you an email of an O'Reilly video sent to me by a friend reading our exchange. The video claims that FOUR former CIA directors said waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques saved American lives. In addition, former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer was on the show stating the same thing. If you read his Wiki page, you will see that he is clearly no friend of Bush. In fact, Wiki writes,

Osama bin Laden stated in his September 7, 2007 message:

"If you want to understand what's going on and if you would like to get to know some of the reasons for your losing the war against us, then read the book of Michael Scheuer."

This doesnt mean he is right, but it does show exactly what I claimed before: the data is inconclusive. So absent conclusive data, I go with my hunch: it works.

HispanicPundit said...

I did more searching around on the internet on waterboarding and I have to admit the more I read about it the more I come to the conclusion that you are right: it is torture. I probably was very naive to have said I would do it for $1,000...though I was being sincere at the time. But from the articles I have read, I am pretty sure that after experiencing it once, I probably would pay $100,000 to not have to experience it again.

But this leaves me with more questions than answers. As I said, I really am undecided on this issue. Anyway, I found a post that I think reflects my current(incoherent) views:


HispanicPundit said...

Link here.

Jon said...

I think you told me before you're not liberterian, but I guess I forgot.

As far as whether or not torture works, I'm not dogmatic in my view. I suspect it doesn't work as well as traditional methods, but I'm open to being wrong here. But I think it's important to keep in mind what the argument is here. Over at Volokh he's arguing against those that say torture NEVER works. It NEVER extracts true information. That's a straw man. Nobody is saying you can never get true information by torturing. The issue here is one of alternatives. With torture you are told what your prisoner thinks you want to hear. The challenge is to sift that and distinguish what is true from what you think he's simply telling you to make the torture stop that he would think you want to hear.

Obviously you're going to get some truth, but the question is, can you get BETTER, more reliable information from traditional methods. Zubaydah's interrogator says this is what happened in his case.

So let's lay out our costs and benefits. I'll start with the costs. It's entirely possible that our torture methods extracted false confessions that contributed to an unnecessary invasion of Iraq. This is a $3 trillion disaster. I understand there was more than one reason for an invasion, but did this play a role? It may have.

As I explained here, torturing has handed al Qaeda their #1 recruiting tool. This has resulted in the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of American soldiers. Torture is directly responsible for dead Americans. There's no doubt about that.

Our moral standing suffers. It's hard to quantify that cost. How does it affect us when the world knows that our signature on a treaty doesn't mean much? What is a crime one day is legal the next, without any debate, simply because a President needs to suspend the law for our own benefit. Our integrity is severely damaged. Remember what you used to think of only despotic countries, like Iraq and Saudi Arabia? That's now how the world sees us. We're not different. Being viewed this way is not good.

The world is a more dangerous place in that now other foreign countries on the margins that were hesitant to torture may start doing it knowing that we've set the precedent. We are an extremely influential country.

Since it's almost inconceivable that Bush or other higher level officials that approved these violations of U.S. and international law will be punished, we've also created an American government and an executive that really is above the law. They know, just like they knew when Nixon was pardoned, that no President is ever really going to be punished no matter what he does. We've further entrenched that mentality. Is Obama going to weaken the Presidency and prosecute Bush? Absolutely not, because it weakens him, and the closer he can get to carte blanche the happier he will be. We've moved further from the liberterian ideals of the founders.

Now let's look at the benefits. Some CIA people said it worked. Keep in mind that the CIA was pretty much on their own in advocating torture. All 4 branches of the miliatry opposed it. The FBI opposed it. We re-built that wall of separation between the FBI and CIA that people talked about that contributed to 9-11 because the FBI couldn't be party to interrogations because they didn't go along with the torture. The bottom line is that some people think this was helpful, though it's not clear it would be MORE helpful than traditional methods. Is this benefit worth the costs I list? I don't think it's even close.

HispanicPundit said...

I think it works more than you give it credit. But I grant most of your other costs as well. Which is why now take the same view as the author of the link I provided in the comment before this one does. It seems to strike the best balance out of all of them.

Jon said...

As I said though, I think your article engages in a straw man of the argument. I wonder what you'd think about this position.

HispanicPundit said...

Good article. I liked how the author really wrestled with the topic. In fact, I think if you dont find this topic difficult, you either dont fully understand it or you are an idealist, similar to pacifists, in which case you should be ignored.

Regarding the "history and tradition" section...its not very persuasive to me. I dont really hold Europe or most of the other developed countries in that high regard for it be. There are many things that makes the United States unique among developing countries - and most of those things I would consider good. So I have no problem being different. Being similar to despots is definitely a bad thing though, but again, argument is weakened by my appreciation of being different than other developed countries.

But in general I agree with the author: waterboarding should be extremely rare and used only in the most extreme circumstances.

Great discussion...you idealist you.

Unknown said...

Yeah, you're right about this being a difficult question. I think I pretty much share his position. Don't grant the government the authority to torture (i.e. don't have torture as an official policy). But if it's me in a room with KSM and I think if I waterboard him I prevent an attack, I probably do it. But I'm breaking the law. And I have to face the consequences. A jury may acquit me or maybe I'll be pardoned. What I won't do is I won't torture people willy nilly. There isn't going to be an Abu Grhaib. Because when torture is the official policy (and I know you may not agree with my definition of torture), what you really get is people abusing the authority.

Jon said...

Whoops. My sister in law was logged in there. But it was really me.