Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More Torture Revelations

You may recall that in December, the Senate Armed Services Committee released an executive summary containing the key conclusions of a report the committee authored on the treatment of terrorist suspects in American custody, specifically, the use of torture against those suspect detainees. This evening the Committee has released the full report, which provides more detail than ever about how the methods of torture used against detainees at Guantanamo Bay (and later against detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan) evolved and proliferated. I haven't yet read the full report myself (it totals 232 pages) but already the report is being processed by various media outlets. Time has a relatively short (but informative) summary here, which is as good a place to start as any. But for the best break down of the report I recommend Spencer Ackerman, who explains exactly how officials at the Pentagon "reverse-engineered" techniques first developed to train U.S. military personnel to resist torture, techniques which they then went on to apply detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Throughout it all, it becomes clear that senior Bush administration officials were well aware of what was going on. Says Democrat Carl Levin of the report's conclusions:

“The record established by the Committee’s investigation shows that senior officials sought out information on, were aware of training in, and authorized the use of abusive interrogation techniques,” Levin said. “Those senior officials bear significant responsibility for creating the legal and operational framework for the abuses. As the Committee report concluded, authorizations of aggressive interrogation techniques by senior officials resulted in abuse and conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.”

Coincidentally (I presume) the NY Times published an article today which reveals the apparent thoughtlessness with which senior officials of the Bush administration approved these various torture techniques, without-amazingly-ever being quite aware that many of these techniques were descended from methods that the Chinese used to extract false confessions from American prisoners during the Korean War:

Overwhelmed with reports of potential threats and anguished that the agency had failed to stop the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Tenet and his top aides did not probe deeply into the prescription Dr. Mitchell so confidently presented: using the SERE tactics on Qaeda prisoners.

A little research on the origin of those methods would have given reason for doubt. Government studies in the 1950s found that Chinese Communist interrogators had produced false confessions from captured American pilots not with some kind of sinister “brainwashing” but with crude tactics: shackling the Americans to force them to stand for hours, keeping them in cold cells, disrupting their sleep and limiting access to food and hygiene.

“The Communists do not look upon these assaults as ‘torture,’ ” one 1956 study concluded. “But all of them produce great discomfort, and lead to serious disturbances of many bodily processes; there is no reason to differentiate them from any other form of torture.”

Worse, the study found that under such abusive treatment, a prisoner became “malleable and suggestible, and in some instances he may confabulate.”


One former senior intelligence official who played an important role in approving the interrogation methods said he had no idea of the origins and history of the SERE program when the C.I.A. started it in 2002.

“The agency was counting on the Justice Department to fully explore all the factors contributing to a judgment about legality, including the surrounding history and context,” the official said.

But it was the C.I.A. that was proposing the methods, and John Yoo, the Justice Department official who was the principal author of a secret August 2002 memorandum that authorized the interrogation program, was mostly interested in making a case that the president’s wartime powers allowed for the harsh tactics.

In other words, the OLC gave the CIA exactly what they wanted, which was basically permission to employ whatever techniques they thought they needed to against the detainees. I think it's appropriate to excerpt this snippet from Brian Tamahana's post regarding the circular reasoning of the OLC memos:

Here is the circularity in the analysis: Time and again the OLC memos conclude that the use of these interrogation techniques do not amount to the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental suffering (the torture standard) based upon the CIA’s own finding that these techniques don’t cross that line. But that is precisely the legal question the CIA (purportedly) is posing to the OLC: Do the interrogation techniques violate the anti-torture statute?

Presumably, the OLC cannot answer the legal question by relying upon the CIA’s own determination that these techniques do not violate the torture statute. That is, however, exactly the analysis in the torture memos. This circularity is explicit in the following passage (March 10 memo), opining on the combination of sleep deprivation with other techniques:

This possibility [that sleep deprivation reduces pain tolerance] suggests that use of extended sleep deprivation in combination with other techniques might be more likely than the separate use of the techniques to place the detainee in a state of severe physical distress and, therefore, that the detainee might be more likely to experience severe physical suffering. However, you [CIA] have informed us that the interrogation techniques at issue would not be used during a course of extended sleep deprivation with such frequency and intensity as to induce in the detainee a persistent condition of extreme physical distress such as may constitute ‘severe physical suffering’ within the meaning of sections 2340-2340A.

To summarize the above passage: the OLC concluded—as a legal matter—that the CIA’s combination of techniques does not violate the torture statute based upon the CIA’s assurance that it combines the techniques in a way that does not violate the torture statute. It doesn’t get more circular than that.

Of course, this was all possible because the conclusion was already pre-ordained; the OLC's job was merely to find a way to "legalize" it all. The Bush administration "knew" that torture would work, so there was really no need to debate the issue; especially not with CIA Director George Tenet running around claiming that Al Qaeda was getting ready to deply biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. They just needed the methods, and they needed somebody to say that it was legal to employ them. And they got both, without too much trouble, and without any messy inquiry into whether the approved techniques were actually useful in getting real information out of detainees (as opposed to just convincing them to say whatever the interrogator wanted to hear)or whether there was actually any legal precedent that argued against the use of torture.

I think it's also interesting to note from both Spencer Ackerman and the NY Times' stories how eager some SERE interrogators and psychologists were to get in on the action, only to balk at the various methods being employed in the coming months and years. But the genie was already out of the bottle at that point, and the methods they had helped to devise were already being employed in places as far away as Abu Ghraib and Bagram and, presumably, the CIA's secret detention facilities the world over.

If this can be easily summarized in anyway, it would be to say that Pentagon staffers, members of the military, and agents and contractors for the CIA and the DOD, put much thought, time and consideration into the exact methods of torture they would employ against recalcitrant detainees. Senior members of the Bush administration on the other hand, did not. And thus were terrorists suspects being detained indefinitely in various facilities and black sites around the world tortured in the name of national security. 

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