11 December 2014

More important things I've written about before, torture version

So there was a report that came out. Not much new was actually learned. I think I could summarize my information from skimming through it and various stories thusly in the following three points.

1) Hummus is for eating, not for anal insertion. I may have to cut back on hummus consumption for a time as I'm actually mildly grossed out by that particular detail. That does not happen easily. The story in Training Day where a suspected thief gets off with a lighter sentence by licking peanut butter off his fingers from a stash of it inside his buttocks was funny (also because there's no way that would happen). This however was depraved. I cannot bring myself to marvel at our capacity of creativity when applied to destructive arts.

2) CIA lied to itself and high public officials. I'm not sure I find this a plausible truth really to accept at face value.

What seems more likely is one of two things happened:
a) the high public officials of both parties and up to and including the President/Vice President and Department of Justice all authorized it and then said "I don't want you to tell me exactly what's going on, so if asked, I don't have to lie". They were then only informed of what was going on around the time the Abu Ghraib story broke, probably because they were mildly alarmed and disgusted about what was going on there and were concerned about what else might come out later when the press got onto the the actual torture story.

b) Another possibility is that high public officials of both parties were informed and are now covering up when they knew what was going on in a sort of "we'll get you for this" treatment, trying to burn the idiots at the CIA who ran the thing without getting caught on fire themselves. Since the Bush team was in office administering the programme, they would get more blame as an added bonus for Democrats to release the story. They can also claim some variety of "bi-partisanship" because John McCain has been an avid anti-torture figure from the right and because several of now President Obama's current officials, including the CIA director, are implicated in the scandal. It's a win-win for them.

3) The main revelation was how the programme was administered and started in practical terms (legal terms we already knew years ago because of the release of the DoJ's and White House memos from Yoo and Bybee). What appears to have happened is the crack team selected to run it was paid a large sum of money and had no previous interrogation experience. Then didn't run any kind of background checks on their guards and interrogators, leading to a number of problems of depraved and sometimes sexual behavior well outside the grounds that were supposedly approved by the legal team. This was in conjunction with a sweep for "terrorists" that not only incarcerated hundreds of totally innocent people but apparently allowed dozens of them to be tortured, one of which to death.

That fact is hardly surprising, but given that again, we were told the use was restricted to high value targets with actionable intelligence (a dubious and questionable choice already), it should be very alarming that there doesn't appear to have been much work done to confirm the identities of the persons held in custody, and their status as potential terrorists with hazardous information. What that suggests, foremost, is that no attempt was even made to conduct regular interrogations on many of these individuals. They went straight to the torture chamber. And this happened without any clear and confirmed association that these might have been persons in possession of immediate information, of the classic 24-style "ticking time bomb" scenario so often depicted in Hollywood films. It is hardly surprising that it should not resemble in the slightest the actual practice. Script writers take pains to define our evil foes, their prospective acts of wanton destruction and to provide moral certainty of our actions by having them succeed in saving the day (there are exceptions). Actual intelligence is messy and uncertain and typically involves a lot of errors and educated guesses.

What most of these facts in #3 align with is not that torture as an approved and sanctioned program was a necessary and proper process with strict controls. But rather that torture was a systematic concept that easily ran amok once allowed into the system of intelligence and national defence at all (as one would predict, and as a reason why it is banned by international treaties to which we are signatories as Americans). It was haphazardly run and overseen. There were complaints from within the infrastructure about the value of information produced and toward the effect of these types of interrogations upon morale and sanity of interrogators themselves. The conduct of such practices quickly and extensively warped beyond the supposedly strict confines of manoeuvres designed to give the veneer of legality, as would be expected once the door was opened to allow it.

It is not relevant in legal terms that we either sought to justify these actions or even that should they have produced anything of value at all. They are strictly banned under any circumstances and for any reason, whether a country was directly assaulted, at war, or not. Which is why for many years public officials involved or defending the practice have taken pains to describe them with the Orwellian (and originally German) descriptor of "enhanced interrogation" rather than applying the title of torture to them as we have done in the past when conducted by others. Presumably less noble others than anointed Americans charged with the defence of freedom and decency (eg, our enemies the Chinese or Vietnamese or Soviets or Nazis, etc). The charge that they produced effective results should be weighted against the costs; which we are seeing now in the charges of international condemnation and public opinion upon the disclosure of these secrets. They can also be weighted against the alternatives of regular and approved forms of interrogation and manipulation of prisoners and suspects. Many of which appear to have been all but ignored in the haste to "break" these captive men.

Torture's primary historical utility is in getting people to tell you what you wanted to hear (ie, propaganda), such that the torture may cease, and not things that you do not already know and wished to learn (ie, intelligence gathering). Thus in any strategic sense, torture has historically offered little or no value to provide information and presents considerable risks and harms to torturers should it be discovered that captives were tortured and abused for intelligence purposes. Particularly when undertaken in a systematic way, under orders or instructions from commanders and leaders, rather than as some kind of one-off scenario that could be "excused" and dealt with (as was done with Abu Ghraib officers and personnel). It is also providing risk and harm when it is not condemned, when people are accepting of the offering of retributive violence against unarmed captives, including innocents who posed us no threat of harm in the first place and all on the pretext of acquiring information. And a risk where the officials involved face no repercussions and indeed are welcomed to offer their opinion freely. Not only to dissemble on this issue of what they had done and for which we might expect them to wish to try to defend themselves but on all manner of other topics as to our foreign relations they are granted respectability and gravitas rather than greeted with deafening silence and indifference where they wish to express themselves; to be shunned and stripped of social rank and titles rather than welcomed. These harms should have been much more carefully considered, in spite of any imagined or perceived threats to the security and serenity of the citizens of the nation, and the whatever propriety hard-earned over the history of the nation as it conducted itself abroad should not have been tossed aside in the need for vengeful assaults on human decency. That our enemies are brutal and presumed to be savage in the destruction of innocent lives is not an excuse for depravity, nor a call to conduct ourselves as savages. Standing back up taller in a moment of weakness should be seen as discouraging attack, by making us appear stronger and more formidable to our allies and enemies alike. Slinking lower to a moral standard makes us appear weaker and desperate, capable of abandoning our standards at the slightest push. Such an approach may win battles, but will lose many wars.

The reason it offers risk and harm for our public and political class to react so to these stories is that it presents the firm possibility that we would do it again, and continue our depraved status as a nation of torturers at risk to any moral standing we have as an ally and friend of those nations in search of establishing justice and peace. If but there were no restraints cast on us by our current leaders, we would do it again is the implicit promise of our reaction. Or that we would cooperate with allies who might do so at our behest rather than condemn such practices universally and unequivocally. It is not enough to place words upon paper and sign them. We have to practice the ideals behind those words. Those ideals carry meaning and value only so long as we wish to uphold them, and they lose value and credibility when we stray grievously from our established acceptable practices. They are not reinforced by pointing to lesser exemplars for their own brutality and abdication of human rights or decency. They are only reinforced by making ourselves strive to be ever stronger examples of such things.
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