Posts Tagged ‘torture’

Where to draw the line?

datePosted on 12:02, February 19th, 2017 by Pablo

Here are some thoughts for readers.

It is reported that former US Sen Scott Brown (R-MA) has been nominated by the Trump administration to be US ambassador to New Zealand. Besides a record that includes being a centrefold model, party to a sexual harassment lawsuit, and an undistinguished US Senator after a career in local politics in his home state, Mr. Brown is on record as saying that he supports the use of water boarding and other forms of torture. This is of particular note because Mr. Brown is a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts National Guard as a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) officer, that is, as part of the Army legal system. He should therefore presumably be familiar with Jus in Bello, Jus ad Bellum and other international conventions that, among other things, prohibit the use of torture in war and peacetime.

NZ is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture (as a war crime). It also supports the International Court of Justice, which prosecutes war crimes and crimes against humanity (which include torture).

Every country has the right to refuse to accept the credentials of foreign ambassador-designates.

So the question is: as a responsible member of the international community and a strong supporter of the rule of international law, should NZ refuse to accept Scott Brown as the incoming US ambassador? Or should it adopt a policy of diplomatic necessity and cast a blind eye on Mr. Brown’s support for state-sanctioned criminal acts in order to curry favour with the Trump administration?

And, as a sidebar: Inspector General of Security and Intelligence Cheryl Gwyn is currently undertaking a lengthy investigation into whether NZ, via the SIS and/or NZDF, was involved in the extraordinary rendition and black site programs run by the US under the Bush 43 administration (which involved the extrajudicial kidnapping and secret detention without charge of suspected Islamicists, several of whom wound up dead as a result of their treatment while in captivity). These  programs included the use of water boarding and other forms of torture as supposed interrogation techniques at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay (Camp Xray) as well as a network of black sites around the world (not all of whom have been identified yet and which it is possible Ms. Gwyn’s investigation might shed light on). Given this background, will the decision on Mr. Brown’s acceptability as the US ambassador be indicative of what we can expect from the government when it comes to her findings?

I would love to hear your opinions.

I have had a professional interest in torture since my days doing human rights work in Latin America. As part of that work I talked to victims as well as perpetrators of state terrorism and subsequently wrote professionally about its usage in Argentina. Later on I consorted with members of the US counter-intelligence community who were responsible for interrogations of suspected spies and other bad people. They helped me understand the difference between coercive (as opposed to passive or sympathetic) interrogations and torture. The combination of experiences made clear to me that torture is more about punishment and collective deterrence through fear than it is about timely and sensitive information-gathering.

When the US started using its “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11, descending into the medieval weirdness of Abu Ghraib and camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, I tried to make sense of it.

In recent years the US Congress and the CIA have conducted investigations into the enhanced interrogation program. The bottom line is twofold: enhanced interrogations did not work any better than “normal” interrogations in extracting valuable information from terrorism suspects; and the justifications for using them was specious and deceptive at best. The best way of garnering valuable intelligence, as it turns out, is through a combination of timely signals collections working in concert with old fashion human intelligence gathering on the ground.

Now along comes Donald Trump claiming that not only does torture work but that he would “do worse” to suspects than water boarding in order to extract information from them. By now it should be clear that he is a blithering idiot on foreign relations, military affairs, intelligence operations, and pretty much everything else when it comes to public policy, to say nothing of being a serial liar with the purest case of narcissistic personality disorder seen since Narcissus himself (and were it that he could only suffer the same fate).

Heck, he makes Al Gore’s claim about inventing the internet look like a child’s fib in comparison!

In any event, Trump is dangerously wrong.

In an interview with a NZ business publication, this is what I had to say bout Trump’s remarks.

Repost: The torture-terror doctrine.

datePosted on 11:07, December 10th, 2014 by Pablo

Release of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA “enhanced interrogation” program has once again brought to the fore arguments about the ethics and efficiency of torture when used as part of interrogations. The ethical question reduces to a lesser evil versus greater good argument: as a lesser but necessary evil torture is used to prevent a greater evil in defense of the public good. Hence, torturing someone who knows where a bomb with a fifteen minute timer is planted in a shopping mall is both necessary and good because it will save countless lives.  Torture of someone who is believed to have rigged a car bomb outside a Kabul hotel is seen as unfortunate but just if lives are saved.  The issue is one of tactical urgency, and the value is in the tactical intelligence obtained under duress: the location of the bomb.

However, even if torture might work in some instances in extracting real-time tactical intelligence that saves lives, it is of little use in obtaining strategic intelligence on longer-term of broader based events.  Given the cellular nature of irregular warfare operations, torturing someone to get information, for example, about Osama bin-Laden’s whereabouts is simply time and resource wasting. Instead, what is required is a long-term piece by piece build up of plausible scenarios based on the corroborated evidence provided by multiple sources. Torture simply cannot provide that. And as it turned out, it was old fashioned human intelligence “gumshoe” work that revealed bin-Laden’s hideout.

As for efficiency, the record on torture as an interrogation tool is poor. Hardened zealots would rather than die than betray their comrades. Innocents and weak-willed individuals will say anything to get the punishment to stop, which means wasting time and resources (and risking exposure) tracking down spurious leads.

So why did the US resort to torture after 9/l11? I have written a fair bit about this in the past but have a hunch that its use was much more about punishment than it was about obtaining information.

I have not written much about the subject here on KP. The one essay that addressed it centrally can be found here.  However, in 2005 I published an essay that explored the symmetry between torture and terror in post 9/11 US security doctrine as part of my late “Word from Afar” series in an on-line media outlet .  Although if written today I would make some modifications to the argument and the conclusions, the thrust would remain pretty much the same. Hence I have re-published it below:

“The Symmetry between Torture and Terror.”

(First published April 21, 2005 in

Revelations about torture of political prisoners held in US prisons in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Iraq and the lower fifty have sparked debate about what is permissible in grey area, irregular conflicts such as the fight against Islamicist terrorism. Brutalisation of terrorist suspects and sympathisers is allowed by a raft of post 9-11 legislation that also authorises their indefinite detention without charge and the practice of “extraordinary rendition” (whereby those suspected of involvement in terrorist activities are refouled to the country of charge or origin, to be detained, interrogated and juridically administered under local conditions).

President Bush explicitly stated in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks that the US would stop at nothing to locate, bring to justice or eliminate those who organized, sponsored, supported or in any way collaborated in the planning of those events, as well as previous assaults on US interests around the globe. He was roundly applauded at the time by the shell-shocked US public, and it was in that environment that the legal framework for handling terrorist suspects, along with the Patriot Act and Department of Homeland Security, were born.

Subsequent divisions over the use of torture in US detention centres have surfaced along the intersection of practical versus ethical considerations. Torture is considered to be a forced necessity imposed by the ungentlemanly nature of the opponent, or is seen as a moral indictment of the US approach to the “war on terror” that descends into the barbarism that it purports to fight. The subtext of the ethical debate swings both ways. Zealotry and unilateralism in the Bush administration are seen as evidence of both moral elevation or moral decay. Faith in the moral virtue of the current US leadership prevailed among its voting public in the November 2004 national elections (by 52 to 47 percent), something not that dissimilar from the vote totals received by Richard Nixon at the time of his re-election in 1972. Then and now it is comforting for the voting majority to know that the United States Government is legally justified in authorising acts that violate international conventions on the rules of engagement. For Nixon, legal justification of the secret extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia was grounded on such a means-ends rationale, and so it is with today’s US approach to the war against Islamicist irregulars and jihadis.

Politicians, jurists and pundits are left with the unhappy task of morally justifying inhumane acts committed against suspected enemies or ideological criminals. Myriad others have reason to wax indignant about the perversity of such arguments. Yet, beyond the pressing ethical dilemmas posed by the use of torture against suspects, there are very organic reasons for doing so. These reduce to a question of symmetry in war and the reciprocal utility of torture as a weapon.

Military planners prefer their wars to be symmetrical. Symmetrical wars are those in which opponents are arrayed along a roughly comparable range of force, with similar weapons and tactics. Although contested, the political objectives of symmetrical wars, as well as the strategic rationales used in their pursuit, are grounded in shared understandings of the limited utlity of war. Generally comparable military capabilities and comon expectations of combat and post-conflict behaviour define the physical boundaries of the armed engagement. That leads to the adoption of norms governing the behavior of belligerents, resulting in, among other things, the Hague Convention on Laws of Warfare and the Geneva Convention regarding treatment of prisoners of war. It is adherence to a general set of conventions regarding the conduct of combat operations within bounded levels of force that determines the difference between so-called “conventional” and “unconventional” or “regular” and “irregular” conflicts.

The use of force is conditioned in conventional or regular wars by its relative symmetry, which serves to reduce chaos (and the reach of combat) by providing rules of the game that serve as the ethical and legal foundation for the formulation of military policy and application of armed force in pursuit of political objectives. Incremental qualitative gains and relative quantitative advantages in weapons and troops constitute the physical parameters of war. Within those lines elements of comparative resource base, collective will and technological innovation determine military victory. Adherence to ethical guidelines for wartime conduct is expected of all belligerents.

Asymmetrical wars are those in which the military capabilities of opponents, defined as weapons systems, logistical infrastructure, troop numbers and other indexes of armed might, vary markedly. One side dwarfs the other, militarily speaking. Of itself, that is not what makes such wars unconventional. What does is the combination of ideology, interest and tactics used. If the ideological motivation of opponents is diametrically opposed (say, a choice between submission to secular infidels or defeat by medieval heathens), where the weaker actor is fighting for its national, cultural, religious or ethnic survival whiles the stronger actor is not, then the strategic rationales used by military adversaries will differ considerably. This brings in issues of pure and situational ethics, and the tactics used in pursuit of them.

Guerrilla wars are the highest expression of asymmetric wars. They are fought unconventionally by highly motivated volunteer irregular troops against conventional militaries (often those of nation-states or foreign occupiers, and in many cases paid professionals). In these types of war the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, symbolic versus military targets, and offensive versus defensive operations is deliberately blurred and often reversed by the weaker party (of which there is often more than one, which requires tactical, if not strategic coordination between them–an obvious Achilles Heel). For the weaker party contestation of territory is of secondary importance. What matters is cultivation of popular support and weakening of the opponent’s determination to continue to fight in pursuit of its political interests in a given geographic area. The Iraq conflict is a microcosmic distillation of that fact.

Conventional military planners prefer that force asymmetries be in their favour, understood as superior military technology, training, organization and tactics brought to bear within a given continuum of force on an enemy that agrees to play by the “rules.” For the irregular warrior, the object of the exercise is to use time, tenacity and psychological impact as instruments to wear down the will of the militarily superior opponent. Symbolic acts figure very highly in the guerrilla strategist’s tactical priorities, and terrorism against so-called “soft” civilian targets is central among them because it is designed to produce paralysing fear and a desire to acquiesce among the enemy’s support base. This extends the conflict outside the purely military realm into the area of social cohesion.

The firebombing of Dresden and atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed to do more than kill the thousands that they did. The bombings were designed to demoralise the German and Japanese human reserve and erode civilian support for continuing the war. So it is with suicide bombers in vehicles or on foot, even if they operate in wars that are undeclared. The difference is that in one instance a warring nation-state utilises terror by extending the non-military reach of conflict via conventional military means, whereas in the other case a non-state actor uses non-conventional methods to do the same thing.

Against an agile and elusive opponent who refuses to fight in conventional symmetry, a militarily superior actor is muscle-bound. Naval fleets, strategic airpower, armoured divisions and thousands of troops are of little use against terrorists operating in dispersed, decentralized fashion in and among civilian populations. If used, they are overkill when confronted by the networked cells that are the organizational latticework of transantionalised terrorism. Sometimes overwhelming force is simply too much force given the character of the opponent and the contextual circumstance in which she is engaged. Should the irregular, unconventional actor refuse to be drawn out into conventional symmetry, the only option for a stronger conventional actor is to engage on her terms. This is the realm of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC), which in US practice has evolved new features in the form of CIA para-military squads and contract interrogators not beholden to the rules of engagement governing military intelligence and police.

This is what lies behind the US resort to torture. Along with the deployment of special forces teams and CIA squads in areas in which Islamicists congregate, the US is attempting to get down to the level of its Islamicist opponents in order to bring symmetry to the conflict. The operative belief is that if Islamicists want to play “dirty” by terrorising civilians world-wide, then the US government will demonstrate that it can bring to bear all of its power and resources on those terms. It does so by using the legal, military, administrative and political assets of a superpower to expand the range of allowable state and para-state violence while justifying and institutionalising extra-judicial treatment of terrorist suspects. Legal vetting of the wording of a variety of coercive interrogation techniques that require cabinet-level authorisation is emblematic of the US approach in that regard.

That the US releases many suspected terrorists without charge is beside the point. The objective is symbolic and systematic, or phrased differently, to terrorise in return. Those subjected to the new standard of detention and interrogations who gain release will inform others. They will detail the cruelty as well as the seemingly endless bureaucratic procedures required to seek redress, and they will expound upon their fear. What will be impressive about their stories is the banality of the reciprocal evil practiced in pursuit of “freedom,” and the sense of hopelessness and despair they felt while in its embrace. That condition of atomised infantilisation, whereby the subject is physically isolated, punished and scared while being powerless and utterly dependent on the whim of the captor, is a state of terror.

Torture of Muslims in US detention centres may inflame passions amongst Islamicist hard -liners (defined as those who will commit bodies to the conflict given sufficient provocation). Their mobilisation is justified as an acceptable variant on the honey trap theme, whereby an attractant (or provocation) prompts passive al-Qaeda cells to attempt further terrorist attacks. At that point they can be identified and hunted down, although some will wreak damage before doing so. In the scheme of things, that is held to be an acceptable cost of victory.

More importantly, public dissemination of the torture-terror doctrine will serve to dampen the passion of other would-be jihadis, and deter many who thought to join the Islamicist cause. The point is to demonstrate to the unconventional enemy and its supporters that the superpower, as well as other states, can well fight irregularly and systematically as well, if not better. After all, the most common–and effective–type of terrorism in history is state terror, not that practiced by today’s Islamicists.

This explains the why of using torture-terror as a combat weapon against terrorism. What it does not address is the issue of objective. If the objective of using torture on terrorist suspects is to extract valuable strategic and tactical intelligence from otherwise uncooperative subjects, the results have been poor. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff amid the hundreds of desperate stories told under duress by US detainees has been a difficult process, with relatively little valuable intelligence garnered from it. Thus, as a information gathering technique torture has not been a panacea for the US intelligence community, and given media exposure has become a public relations liability for the US–at least in the West. However, an alternative objective might better explain the rationale as well as the pragmatic criteria upon which to choose it.

If the objective is to wear down the will of jihadis to persist in their global armed challenge while at the same time removing their recruitment base, the systematic use of legally-sanctioned torture-terror by the US may bear fruit. In the measure that it achieves symmetry, it raises the costs of the engagement to the jihadists. In the measure that it turns the tables and weakens the will of the Islamicist irregulars to continue to fight, it will prevail over the long term. In the measure that it prevails it re-establishes the relationship between the West and “the Rest,” especially the Muslim world. In doing so it reconfigures the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and elsewhere by extending the cultural boundaries of Western influence to the necessity of recognizing the need for symmetry in war. That, it seems, is the political syllogism underpinning the torture-terror doctrine.

Add Condi to the list

datePosted on 20:43, May 2nd, 2009 by Lew

According to this story, Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted involvement in a (technical) conspiracy to torture US terror detainees:

In little-noticed comments Thursday, the former White House counsel for President Richard Nixon John Dean said Thursday that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may have unwittingly admitted to a criminal conspiracy when questioned about torture by a group of student videographers at Stanford.
Rice told students at Stanford that she didn’t authorize torture, she merely forwarded the authorization for it. …
“She tried to say she didn’t authorize anything, then proceeded to say she did pass orders along to the CIA to engage in torture if it was legal by the standard of the Department of Justice,” Dean said. “This really puts her right in the middle of a common plan, as it’s known in international law, or a conspiracy, as it’s known in American law, and this indeed is a crime. If it indeed happened the way we think it did happen.”

Now, there’s a lot of ifs in there, and anyone with a more thorough knowledge of the issues in play is welcome to pour cold water on it. But to my eye, if this lawyer is right then it stands to reason that the Hat Trick of those at the top of the US torture agenda has now expanded to a Gang of Four.

Incidentally Pascal’s bookie, who ought to blog more often, makes a strong case in defence of Obama’s restraint on the torture issues in a series of comments at The Standard. The key point is the following:

[if Obama was too heavily involved] the story would become Obama v Bush, Dem v GOP. Rather than The Law v Criminals.

He’s right: if it’s to be done, it must be done right, and the taint of partisan politics mustn’t be admitted as a distraction. His role is to provide political and legal conditions within which such a prosecution can thrive of its own accord, not to drive the prosecution himself. He’s doing that; those who want Bush, Cheney, Gonzales and (perhaps) Rice to stand trial had best hold their tongues and show a little faith.


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.