Saturday, January 15, 2005

A Tortuous Debate, Part One: Stress Techniques and the War On Terror

Specialist Charles Graner, Jr., of the Army Reserves has been convicted and awaits sentencing; he was accused of being the ringleader of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Based on the testimony I have seen, Graner is very much a sadist. Regardless of whether humiliating photographs and 'posing' of prisoners constitute torture, a broad debate is taking place, one that is not limited to the pathetic displays we have seen plastered worldwide from Abu Ghraib.

Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales is accused of 'condoning' torture, or at least looking the other way, while serving as White House counsel, and Anne Applebaum, Heather Mac Donald, and Mark Bowden, among countless others, have written eloquently on the subject. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of the seemingly indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay that have stirred up so many cries of 'foul' by civil libertarians.

Hot stuff, indeed. The only place to begin is with questions. What is torture precisely? Is it ever justified? Is it or is it not United States policy to torture terrorists who have not been granted the status of enemy combatants subject to the Geneva Convention? If we permit 'limited' torture, what is the limit and who decides? Why is it that most elements of the left decry the idea of American 'exceptionalism', except when it comes to the conduct of our military?

Some background on the current controversies: the memo that has Gonzales in tight straits argues against tight legal constraints on 'extreme coercive activity', but as described in the Mac Donald piece and here, this has nothing to do with the military, but rather with the CIA, and only in jurisdictions outside the USA, to boot (of course, as is well known, one option is to avoid the tickly moral questions and dump the prisoner off on a nation less squeamish about legal details). What took place at Abu Ghraib was more than an embarrasment to our self-image; regardless of how extreme the treatment was, it was clearly illegal under military regulations. In the discussion that follows, then, we will take it as a given that any discussion of the legality or appropriateness of torture is, in the case of America, largely limited to the CIA.

Mac Donald writes of a 'torture narrative' that rose up from the filth of Abu Ghraib, and allowed the critics of the current administration to connect the dots as follows: 9/11 to Guantanamo to approval of torture of terrorists to prisoner abuse. In fact, says Mac Donald, though the Bush administration ruled in February 2002 that the Afghan prisoners were not enemy combatants subject to the Geneva conventions, it also recommended that the Geneva convention continue to be observed. This was the case, for the most part - the exception being that the interrogators began to use 'stress' techniques that they hadn't used before.

We began to use sleep deprivation, forced prisoners to stand for hours on end, engaged in vague intimations of worse to come, all in the name of increasing the uncertainty of the prisoners as to how far we would go. These techniques were used by the military, and as noted above, I have serious qualms about their legality, and the morality of putting the careers of our soldiers on the line in such a manner. Perhaps because of the CIA's long reputation of playing dirty, I don't really have the same misgivings if the same techniques are used by intelligence agents.

Even these small steps (and, of course, while not denying that smalls steps lead to larger ones quite often) were not taken at Guantanamo; the FBI instructed the interrogators there to avoid even covert threats of harsh punishment, on the grounds that they would cause severe mental anguish. Frustrated with their lack of success with the 20th hijacker, Mohamed al-Kahtani, the Gitmo interrogators requested permission to use the stress techniques mentioned above. Eventually, Rumsfeld approved limited stress techniques. (Critics of the use of even limited stress techniques often claim that torture doesn't work, anyway, so it's worth noting that Kahtani began to sing after the techniques were applied. Also worth noting is that Kahtani was the only prisoner at Guantanamo these techniques were used on).

The real firestorm broke in the summer of 2002. From the Mac Donald piece:

In the summer of 2002, the CIA sought legal advice about permissible interrogation techniques for the recently apprehended Abu Zubaydah,Usama bin Ladin�s chief recruiter in the 1990s... The CIA wanted to use techniques on Zubaydah that the military uses on marines and other elite fighters in Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape (SERE) school, which teaches how to withstand torture and other pressures to collaborate. The techniques are classified, but none allegedly involves physical contact.

In response to the CIA�s request, Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee produced a hair-raising memo that understandably caused widespread alarm. Bybee argued that a U.S. law ratifying the 1984 Convention Against Torture�covering all persons, whether lawful combatants or not�forbade only physical pain equivalent to that �accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,� or mental pain that resulted in �significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years.� More troubling still, Bybee concluded that the torture statute and international humanitarian treaties did not bind the executive branch in wartime.

Mac Donald concludes with a foreceful denunciation of the Abu Ghraib techniques as deplorable lapses in military discipline that had nothing to do with the raging debates over stress techniques at Gitmo and Afghanistan. She also essentially agrees with the Bybee memo in substance - she does not think the stress techniques we have discussed amount to true torture.

Mac Donald's convincing piece provides context to the wild accusations of widespread abuse of prisoners routinely hurled out at us by human rights organizations and 'progressives', but it doesn't answer some of the basic questions. To better understand the big picture, we'll turn to the Mark Bowden piece in Part Two.

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