Archive for ‘USA’ Category

On the Torture Memos

datePosted on 20:29, April 23rd, 2009 by Pablo

At long last the paper trail authorizing the use of coercive interrogation techniques, to include tortures such as water boarding ( a simulated drowning technique) has been made public. The bottom line is that it reveals that high level Bush administration officials, to include John Ashcroft (Attorney General at the time), John Yoo (Deputy Attorney General), Alberto Gonzalez (White House counsel, later Attorney General) Dick Cheney (Darth Vadar) and Condoleeza Rice (Nurse Ratched), should be indicted for criminal offenses under both US and international law. What is worse, their authorization of criminal acts–no matter how Mr. Yoo’s convoluted legal arguments may wish to paint them as something less than torture and permissible under doctrines of Executive authority anyway–flew in the face of expert opinion that torture is an unreliable method for extracting reliable intelligence and could, in fact, be counter-productive both legally and practically. There are several layers to the story, so I shall briefly run through them.

The techniques used were derived from the SERE school practices. SERE is a program run by the US military to simulate the conditions of a prisoner of war camp in which US aviators and special forces operators might find themselves. It is modeled on 1950s Chinese prison camps. Under controlled conditions, SERE operators subject US personnel to what they admit are “torture techniques” (such as water boarding) in order to teach the US personnel how to resist coercive interrogations. Thus, the Bush White House and Justice department took techniques that were capable of being overcome by determined prisoner resistance and authorized their use, without fully exploring their history or the controlled circumstances of their SERE application, on suspected jihadis whose idea of glory comes in the form of martyrdom. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is just arse-backwards.

In fact, once SERE camp administrators heard of the (mis) application in 2002 they wrote memos to the Defence Department protesting against the use of SERE techniques. They explicitly warned about the unreliability of the confessions extracted and the risk of accidental death. These memos were ignored by the Rumsfeld cronies who ran the Pentagon at the time and were apparently never passed onto the White House and Justice Department (or if they were, they were ignored). What is important to note is that the people who pushed for the use of these techniques were Republican ideologues who had no actual experience with interrogations. Most interrogators are US military counter-intelligence personnel, who are fully aware of the legal and practical pitfalls of using torture to extract confessions. These include the unreliability of the information extracted, the uselessness of such information for strategic intelligence purposes, the problems of garnering actionable information from atomized cells in a decentralized guerrilla network like al-Qaeda–in other words, the complete disutility of using SERE-type techniques for anything other than immediate tactical purposes (if that). Since these forms of punishment were being meted out in “black sites”  thousands of miles away from the battlefields of Iraq (Abu Ghraib was more of a test case rather than a systematic application of the Yoo doctrine) and Afghanistan (although the prison at Bahgram Air Force Base outside of Kabul is reported to contain a “black site’), or in Guatanamo, even the tactical intelligence obtained was mostly unactionable. Hence, professional interrogators such as Special Forces counter-intelligence officers did not conduct the interrogations, but instead were replaced by CIA operatives or private contractors. The can of worms that opens almost defies belief.

In a nutshell:  the Bush administration authorized unproven and unreliable torture techniques against the advice of those who were best informed about the use and results of those methods, then replaced seasoned interrogators with civilians and private contractors to do the dirty work. Presumably this was to gain some of distance on any potential legal repercussions down the road. When one looks at the results of the Abu Ghraib case, where two enlisted soldiers served short jail sentences, two field officers were reprimanded and demoted and one flag rank officer demoted and  forced to retire, it easy to see how Bush administration officials believed that they would never be held responsible for anything that happened in the “black sites.”

Bush administration defenders claim that the coercive interrogation program obtained results in the form of preventing terrorist attacks but are unable or unwilling to offer a single instance of such a success. They claim that revealing the torture memos jeopardizes current and future intelligence operations and demoralizes the CIA. The answer to these claims (other than to laugh when Dick Cheney makes them), is to say 1) provide a single shred of evidence that an attack was prevented by the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture; 2) prove that any information obtained that was useful could not have been obtained using other (non-torture) techniques. Let us be clear: getting the names of other cell members, or of liaison contacts, or of the early outlines of a terrorist plot is not “actionable” intelligence that could not have been obtained by other means (say, by good human intelligence in the field). Arresting some of the Guantanamo detainees was enough to disrupt the most grandiose of al-Qaeda plots, so once their role was ascertained and their backwards linkages traced, use of torture was just vengeance, not intelligence-gathering. If the claim is going to be made that the use of terror was efficient, i.e., that it actually prevented an imminent attack, then it needs to be supported with proof. After all, the “informants” are not going anywhere so need not fear retribution and whatever intelligence penetration of terrorist networks has occurred should not be vulnerable to exposure if the truth of the matter is revealed (otherwise it is simply shoddy workmanship on the part of US intelligence and its allies).

The best way to verify such claims is to grant immunity to interrogators and lower-level CIA and military officials who oversaw coercive interrogations in  order to find out not only whether the techniques were as necessary as the Bush defenders say there were, as well as their results. More importantly, the main purpose of the grants of immunity is to determine the chain of command responsible for authorizing the use of torture, and on what grounds. The last point is important because as it stands, the Bush administration will hide under the doctrine of “plausible deniability” where subordinates get blamed for the physical acts but no evidentiary link can be conclusively made to the orders of high level officials. That deception can be countered with a “due obedience” approach whereby legal immunity to lower-ranked officials is exchanged for their testimony on who gave the orders and how did they do so (as well as how they tried to conceal those orders).  That is the key to getting indictments of Bush administration officials. John Yoo and his chief lieutenants, in particular (the former now happily ensconced as a Law Professor at UC Berkeley, of all places, the latter now anxiously realizing that private legal practice does not afford them any cover in the face of a federal indictment), need to be held to account because they apparently took an untoward interest in specific techniques and were the keenest to authorize their use. Getting these toadies to turn under the threat of imprisonment could in turn be the key to finding out what exact roles were played by Cheney, Bush and Rice in opening the Pandora’s box embedded in the torture memos.

Of course, being a cautious and pragmatic person, Barack Obama may pull the plug on any prosecutions in the interest of political security (his own and of the Democratic Party). If so, it will be up to the International Criminal Court to seek the truth of the matter, so that even those who rule a seemingly unassailable superpower realise that they too are not above basic standards of human rights and international justice. I shall not hold my breath waiting for either to happen. What is certain is that, until something dramatically different is revealed to counter what is known so far,  from a moral-ethical as well as an efficiency-practical standpoint, the US use of torture in the fight against terrorism has been a failure more than a success.

Explaining the Opening of Diplomatic Dialogue

datePosted on 00:47, April 22nd, 2009 by Pablo

There has been much blather about Obama kow-towing to Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega at the recent Summit of the Americas conference, as well as his overtures to Cuba and Iran. At a minimum, his opponents accuse him of sending the wrong message (apparently it involves “legitimizing” governments that have already been majority elected by their own constituents), and at the worst he is labeled a “socialist” and a “traitor” to the US ideals. The drumbeat of hatred in disloyal opposition is stoked by conservative media outlets, who openly incite the ideologically inclined to physically act upon their irrational fears.

Notwithstanding that type of beat-up, and partisan idiocy aside, there is no reason to be alarmed. US broaching of diplomatic dialogue with various adversaries is a tried and true aspect of conventional diplomacy. Henry Kissinger was a major exponent of the approach, so it is no less useful for US President Obama and Secretary  Clinton to do so. 

As a proven diplomatic tactic, one that the Clinton re-treads who run Obama’s foreign policy apparatus clearly subscribe to, the offer to thaw relations between the US and Cuba, Iran and Venezuela is a “tit-for-tat” strategy designed to gauge the intentions of the opponent. Derived from game theory, it simply states that you open with a cooperative move, then replicate the opponent’s response. If the opponent responds with a cooperative gesture, then continue the iteration. If they opponent responds in an uncooperative fashion, then respond in kind, and only change when the opponent changes the tone of its response. In other words, always replicate the opponent’s move.

As the stronger actor, the US is advantaged by such a strategy, as it puts the other side in a quandary vis a vis domestic constituencies and its own rhetoric (Iran is the current case in point). If there are internal contradictions within the political structure of the opponent, such a strategy is designed to expose them.   For example, the US (under Reagan of all people!) told General Pinochet that they would prefer that he not stand for the presidency of Chile under his rigged constitutional referendum in 1988, and offered several inducements (personal as well as political) for his cooperation. He refused, so the US responded by publicly announcing that, in the interest of US-Chile relations, it would prefer that he did not assume the presidency even if he won.  The conservative coalition that backed him splintered over the offer. He consequently lost the referendum and his hand-picked successor lost the 1989 election that restored democracy to Chile. The point is that Reagan and company wanted a conservative post-authoritarian elected government untainted by the name “Pinochet.” When he showed his megalomaniac tendencies and his support base fractured, Chileans got a left-center, pro-market government instead. Win-win on all counts from a post-Reagan US perspective.

I use the Chilean example only because I am personally familiar with it, but the general point is this: a willingness to talk after periods of estrangement is a diplomatic tit-for-tat opening. It puts the ball in the opponent’s court and gives (US) politicians room to delineate their subsequent moves. Exploiting media opportunities to show “friendliness” is symbolic sop thrown out to soften the opponent’s constituency, and can only be undermined by resistance from one’s own constituency (which is why Fox News and its Republican lapdogs are barking so ferociously about it).  Watching local and international media spinmeisters weave their interpretations (however governments may succeed in controlling interpretations), both sides can measure the external and internal consequences of their respective responses, and carry on accordingly. That gives them a degree of separation from political responsibility in the event of failure.

Closer to home, the question arises: does New Zealand understand the utility of a tit-for-tat strategy when dealing with places like, say, Fiji? If not, MFAT should read the above, and the vast literature that underpins it.

Blog Link: On Denuclearization.

datePosted on 13:24, April 16th, 2009 by Pablo

In the comments thread on my earlier post about whether the US was in decline, as well as in the comments thread on Obama’s Prague speech over at kiwiblog, and during an interview on Jim Mora’s show, I found myself correcting people with regard to US strategic doctrine. That got me to thinking about Obama’s promise to pursue global denuclearization. I decided to write up my thoughts as this month’s Word from Afar column at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0904/S00148.htm. The bottom line is that there are many reasons to believe that the promise, while apparently sincere, has many obstacles to overcome, and not all of them are located in Iran or North Korea.

Another American Century, or an Empire in Decline?

datePosted on 22:11, April 3rd, 2009 by Pablo

In my professional life  I read as a matter of course the debates about so-called US “hegemony” and whether or its “liberal” view of its role in international affairs will continue for the forseeable future (in this context “liberal” refers to the American idealist tradition of trying to re-make the world in its preferred image, whatever that may be. It is an overarching view that supercedes neo-conservative, neo-realist, constructivist or institutionalist approaches to the international engineering project). I think that the issue is worth consideration by a broader audience.

Some believe that, as the sole military superpower and core economic cog in the global system of finance, production and exchange, the US, albeit over-extended by the military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and beset by its financial market melt-down, remains unassailable in its position of dominance in world affairs and will continue to be so for at least the next 30-50 years. If anything, the debacles of the W. Bush administration are seen to have taught US political elites the need for a more sophisticated, broad based approach to both foreign policy and state regulation of  markets as well as domestic political representation, all of which have their crystalisation in the presidency of Barack Obama. For this view, the American capacity for self-renewal in the face of adversity is boundless, which is why it will continue to dominate world affairs in the 21st century.

Others think that the US century has past, and that the emergence of China, in particular, spells the end of its hegemonic position in the world. There is still a decade or more to run before it is eclipsed by the PRC, but in this contrary view the US’s days as the pre-eminent international actor are numbered, particularly given the emergence of other powers (India, Brazil, Russia, the EU, perhaps Australia, Iran and Turkey) and US inability to curb its consumption, dependence on fossil fuels and adherence to nationalist-conservative ideologies as the bulwark against the “socialist” tendencies of Obama and his purported ilk. Mired in arguments about gay marriage and abortion, viscerally fearful of (dark-skinned) immigration, beset by domestic “culture wars,” the US is seen as a self-absorbed, narcissistic giant about to be toppled by a global community sick and tired of its arrogance, ignorance, bullying and meddling.

I am of two minds on this. For all its military misadventures the US can still do what no other country or combination of countries can do when it comes to projecting force. Guerrilla wars may bog it down but will never threaten its core interests. Likewise, although its economy is stagnating, it still dwarfs any other regional, much less national market and still has a dramatic repercussive effect on all other markets in the global commodity chain. It may be somewhat bowed, but it is as of yet unbroken.

On the other hand, its cultural vacuousness, its myopia, its clear signs of decline on all fronts relative to a decade ago suggest that the US is, in fact, slipping from the position of superpower to that of just another major power amongst others, and that it can do nothing to prevent the international system moving from the the unipolar configuration of the immediate post-Cold War era to something that although as of yet unclear, will certainly be multi-polar in a decade or so.

Which leads me to ask three questions: 1) at the point that the US feels itself being eclipsed (should that occur), will it wage a last ditch war (or wars) to prevent that from happening, and if so, will these conflicts go nuclear (which is where the US arguably has its most decided military advantage in terms of delivery platforms as well as array of warheads)? 2) will the world be a better place in the event that it does cede its preeminent role to rising powers? 3) what is the “proper” class, environmental or otherwise “progressive” line to take on this?

`progress’ in Afghanistan

datePosted on 18:12, March 10th, 2009 by Lew

deadafghani

WikiLeaks has published four internal NATO briefing documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan – including the Master Narrative which sets out the operational and strategic and symbolic parameters which guide ISAF’s media posture.

This guidance document is designed to assist all those who play a part in explaining the situation in Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, but especially those who deal with the media.

You can get the documents here. Interesting and revealing stuff but possibly more mundane than you might expect. If I get time over the next few days I’ll post a few observations (and if anyone else wants to do so, be my guest). In an epic security fail, the documents were distributed using Microsoft SharePoint, and protected with the absurd password `progress’.

What significance the image of an ISAF sniper posing with the corpse of an Afghan, you ask? This is the amazingly political choice of image on the WikiLeaks editorial which announced this particular leak – saying it’s misleading doesn’t go far enough, it’s an outrageous association to make. But it’s also the polar opposite of the media agenda which these ISAF documents explicate, and in that regard it’s a crafty bit of work.

(Via Bruce Schneier.)

L

Commander-In-Chief

datePosted on 21:50, March 1st, 2009 by Lew

How about this for a photo:

85132251LM001_OBAMA

He’s telling them the Iraq war is over in 18 months – later than the campaign promises, and with more of them in-theatre than expected, but sooner and fewer than the alternatives.

Do they believe him? Do they approve? Does it register?

(Hat-tip: BAGnewsNotes.)

L

Very sadly ironic, indeed

datePosted on 11:32, February 19th, 2009 by Lew

DPF has just blogged on the murder of Aasiya Hassan. He comments on the irony of an apparently reformist Muslim beheading his wife in a way resembling an honour-killing. The irony he doesn’t seem to see is that he is guilty of doing the very thing he claims is a problem, when he says

The problem is when people apply a stereotype to all individuas in a group, rather than treat people as individuals.

The fact is that murders, like suicides and like rapes, are committed by people from all strata of society, from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and by and large for the same sorts of reasons. This includes honour-killings, which occur frequently enough (and are tacitly accepted as being `provoked’, attracting less opprobrium and lesser sentences) in western cultures as well – just using different methods, and not formally defined as such. We call them by the more appealing handle `crimes of passion’. Such acts are committed using methods and technologies which are readily available to the murderer, both in a physical sense of I-can-get-my-hands-on-it and in the cultural sense of that’s-just-how-it’s-done. Middle-class [Anglo-American] people tend to use poisons and firearms; working-class [Anglo-American] people knives or blunt objects or nooses, and so on. That a Muslim man, wronged in his marriage, might resort to beheading is as obvious as saying that he might have shot her if he was a white middle-class American. But DPF implicitly privileges some murder methods over others, and implies that Hassan might have avoided the stereotype by choosing another method, as if the method – not the fact of the killing – was the important thing.

David is appealing to the symbolic nature of a beheading to demonstrate that the stereotypes about Muslims are well-founded, rather than treating this murder as an individual case, as he preaches.

This is a bone thrown to the wolves of the KBR, but unusually, this one does not make David look sensible by comparison.

L

Edit: Added [Anglo-American] above to distinguish the generalisation somewhat.

Pen propaganda

datePosted on 12:22, February 17th, 2009 by Lew

Uniball: your first line of defence.

(Link)

A cracking example of someone trading on their TV reputation as someone lacking credulity in order to make you more credulous.

(Via Bruce Schneier, who points out that they haven’t even got their facts right, conflating checkwashing with identify theft.)

L

The Moment

datePosted on 13:49, January 21st, 2009 by Jafapete

Today, the United States of America showed the world—and, more importantly, itself—a glimpse of its promise. History, hope and a sense of unity filled the land. It was difficult, even on the other side of this vast country, not to feel caught up in “The Moment”.

It’s forty years since Richard Nixon and the Republicans began their campaign to divide and conquer this country, feeding off and fueling feelings of envy (the “silent majority”), suspicion and ignorance (the “southern strategy”). The divisions are a long way from healing. Not surprisingly—maybe because they know nothing else now—the G.O.P. remain wedded to the negative.

But one thing that I’ve observed talking to many Americans over the past few months is that there is a desire to come together as a nation. Perhaps that doesn’t extend too far into the more backward, rural areas, but it is palpable in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

There is a great deal of hardship and adversity here right now, much more so than most kiwis could comprehend, inured as we are to a benign, helping society. A friend who worked on the L.A. Times as a journalist has had to take on a second job to meet a “budget gap” that arose through illness. She’s seventy. The daily roll call of jobs lost is frightening.

Obama’s speech today was a masterful mix of hard-edged realism and inspiring rhetoric. (Text here) It wasn’t his most eloquent in my view, but it was effective.

Obama began by dwelling at length with the crisis with which the USA finds itself confronted, going further by alluding to “sapping of confidence across our land” and the need to “restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

Opponents of his efforts to save the country from economic catastrophe were put on notice in no uncertain terms…

“We come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things… …What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

The simple reliance on the market to set things right was rejected…

“Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”

On international affairs, there is promise of a new, smarter approach, informed by an understanding that bullying is not the only, or even always the best, way to achieve the US’s goals. There’s an understanding of the interconnectedness of the various elements of the intractable “problem” that the Middle East presents, that you cannot have peace without a measure of prosperity for all.

The statement that, in the international arena the USA is “ready to lead once more” was not the only repudiation of Bush 43’s policies. Obama presaged a return to action consistent with US Constitution (and, one hopes, international conventions):

“Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

Gone was the over-blown rhetoric about bringing US-style democracy to the rest of the world that saturated Bush 43’s speech four years ago.

Obama certainly has his work cut out for him. But with so much goodwill, so much talent, and such determination, he is the one who can meet the challenge. One thing is very clear. The United States has turned a corner. And for that we should be grateful.

Update: over at the Standard, Eddie posts on what Obama means for kiwis.

At the movies in San Francisco

datePosted on 09:07, January 7th, 2009 by Jafapete

For a crusty old lefty, there’s no place better than San Francisco to spend some time. SF’s inclusive, emancipating social values, oddly out of place in hyper-capitalist, dog-eat-dog U.S.A., warm the heart. Where better to see Milk, the biopic about the martyred gay activist and SF city politician?

Inevitably, the taxi ride to the cinema merged into the experience. Driving through the Tenderloin in the half-light of early evening, we passed the soup kitchen on Ellis St. For more than a block, the poor and homeless queued silently, two or three deep, abject and despairing. In jarring contrast with this grim spectacle, we pulled up to the cinema in a former Cadillac dealership on Van Ness, resplendent with its restored opulence. Plus ca change?

Milk is deeply moving, not least because of its authenticity. Sean Penn’s almost too-perfect mimicry of Milk’s mannerisms is reinforced by a supporting cast that includes members of the original group of associates. It’s a really well-made movie, and Penn’s and Josh Brolin’s performances are the stuff of Oscars. I’ve never seen raw archival footage integrated into a non-doco so seamlessly. The ending, operatic and defiant, is a paean not just to Harvey Milk, but to the movement that he inspired. In the wake of Prop 8, the movie is eerily apposite, but provides a timely reminder that the forces of reaction can be overcome, though not without set-backs.

By chance, the walk down to the Van Ness MUNI Station afterwards took us right past City Hall. A group of Sherriff’s deputies came swaggering out, brimming with the confidence of authority and the lethal firepower attached to their belts. Plus ca change indeed.

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