Democrats & Liberals Archives

Tough Questioning

What’s the price of taking shortcuts, in the hope that we’ll be able to race the terrorists to the next target?

Which brings us back to the unbalanced Abu Zubaydah. "I said he was important," Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" "No sir, Mr. President," Tenet replied. Bush "was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?" Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

Answer: When unreliable means like torture are employed, it can very easily impose an opportunity cost. Every innocent person we convince to confess is another person we'll be wasting our time on when a real suspect would have been a much better use of our time, efforts, money, and manpower. And torture is great for convincing innocent men to say what the people in charge of their interrogation want them to say.

Don't tell me Americans could never be wrong. Don't tell me we couldn't pick up the wrong people. After all, there's a reason we use the term "suspect" in our terminology- it denotes somebody who we think might have committed the crime.

As long as we can be wrong, torture is wrong, too, because torture is all about getting the victim to agree that you are right, whether you're wanting to be right about them volunteering information, or whether you, like John McCain's captors, are simply wanting them to agree that you're right to force an erroneous confession out of them. Your victim will be in no condition to gainsay you, should you be forcing them to cop to something that you only think they did, or were doing.

Torture, above all other things, is about making people suggestible, about breaking down their will and their resistance. The problem is, resistance is sometimes a good thing. If somebody gets in your face, accusing you of something you didn't do, and you're not some complete weenie on the subject, you'll shout right back, or at least strongly insist that they're lying or mistaken.

Will the guy you just Waterboarded correct you, gainsay you?

The Republicans mistakenly believe that this is about being tough enough to use all available methods. They mistakenly believe that they can gain valuable information most quickly the way children get money back from a piggy bank: by breaking the hard, tough barrier in the way.

Torture, though, could probably be more likened to breaking a Ming Vase to regain its value.

The mind of the interrogations suspect is exactly what you want to keep intact, because that mind, even when its owner lies to you, has a discernable pattern to it. Memory, as my old Neuroscience professor and others like him, is a reconstructive effort.

It's not unlike a JPEG. With a compressed image on the web, you get huge images at minimum storage cost. The way you do it is you use mathematical formula to condense regular information into smaller, more compact stand ins, breaking what might be a several megabytes, into a few tens of kilobytes.

With memory, we compress things as well. We know the places that we live- we don't need to remember that again. We know the people that we know, we don't need to remember them again. Most of what we need to remember new are the small facts, the subtle organizations of data, the parallel considerations. But these are not hard-locked, invulnerably pieces of information. After all, we can be wrong, so we reinterpret or forget information. But nothing prevents that from being wrong, either. So we remember many things, and sort things out, one thing against another.

The torturer can, through the breaking of a person's will, force them to to lie about what they know to be true, or worse, force them to reconsider what they already laid down in memory, "correcting" the person's memories to fit the theories of the investigators, who will then use the newfound discoveries to coordinate and justify the efforts of many agents at taxpayer expense.

It's not that it's impossible to get facts that are true from somebody you're torturing. It's just impossible to tell whether you're getting pain induced conflations and confabulations, or genuine information. That uncertainty itself is enough to be a problem. Do you think people who are forced to follow up dozens of false leads are going to be eager to chase down the new information? And even if they are, are they just wasting their time?

Even if you can get good information, there's an open question as to whether normal investigative methods couldn't get the same information, and get it better. What's more, we should consider something else as well: there probably is a good reason we have not seen so many terror investigations put people in jail under the Bush Administration: under our legal system, and that of other countries, this information would be rightly rejected.

We reject such information precisely because it empowers the government to extract any confession or testimony they like from anybody.

Notice what's happening here? The part of torture that makes it unjust, beyond the pain and suffering, is the power it gives the government, the power no government should have: to write it's own justifications, make up its own stories, cover up it's own crimes. Torture is not about dominating a body, but dominating minds, hearts, and souls. No liberal nor conservative, no green or Libertarian party member should find the prospect of such judgment lying in the hands of government desireable.

Only those who believe that unrestricted control of others is a desirable goal can support torture. It will become obvious, of course, to those who favor the use of torture against terrorism, that there should be no distinction between terror suspects who are citizens, and those who are not, at least in practice. It wil become obvious, of course, that protecting the public from criminals means making sure that those arrested for the crime cop to the charges brought. It will become obvious to them that subversive groups should be kept in check, even if just unofficially, and that such radicals should not be tolerated.

So much becomes obvious when the need to have government fully empowered, regardless of available evidence, to act against the threats it perceives comes to be recognized.

Such is the catechism of authoritarian rule. At its heart festers a certainty of what is right and wrong, morally and factually, that for all its intensity ensures no such correctness in fact or the behavior undertaken. We live under a system where the government is moderated by the need to offer proof of crimes, evidence of what possible wrongdoing is to be investigate. The government is otherwise restrained.

A substantial part of the freedoms we reserve lies in our freedom from the unwarranted (both literally and otherwise) attentions of our government. That freedom serves two parallel purposes: it keeps government from wasting its time on the wrong people, and it also serves to keep the wrong people from ending up essentially being run over by their government.

Some maintain that this is a luxury that can be given up in times of crisis, that in those time we should avail ourselves of more specious and uncertain information and tactics. While its arguable one shouldn't concentrate on an arbitrary level of airtightness in a case, when your object is to intercept and pre-empt attacks, I believe that a certain level of restraint and discipline is necessary to keep us from going down the wrong paths, not merely morally, but factually as well. The alternative enervates and frustrates our pursuit of the enemy in the end, and worse, as already has been observed, serves to give our nation, its intelligence agents, and its law enforcement personnel black eyes.

Some may argue that the media exposure of these practices do that. But the real question is, why would it be such a problem? In no small part because expectations of us are high. But lets be honest: nothing remains hidden forever, and a policy of denial more often defers and adds interest to the consequences, rather than eliminates them. We cannot torture and expect this to remain secret. We cannot take such actions and hope not to be tarnished by them.

If you want what's best for this country, what's best for its citizens, what's best for its freedoms, what's best for its safety and what's best for its reputation, you simply cannot support torture, because it betrays each one of these values in its own way.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at April 23, 2009 3:00 PM
Comment #280872

Republican Congressmen ask “What is this, a Banana Republic?” Unfortunately, they aren’t protesting the treatment you might think such a question regards.

I was driving my way from work today, and they had on one of the few Armed Forces interrogators who resisted the use of harsher methods.

He explained that many of the methods used in SERE training were methods used by the Soviets, Chinese and the Nazis for forcing compliance and brainwashing captives and prisoners for propaganda purposes. In other words, tactics meant to brainwash and punish people, and therefore valueless for getting actual, good information.

We got to wonder, is that part of what the allure of all this torture stuff is, for those on the right that support it? Get those evil terrorists under your control! Force them into submission!, break their will, make them feel pain for all the people they’ve killed!

The tactics we describe, and which have been aired out in the media work marvellously to that end. In the end, though, our goal is to unravel their network. If we get our jollies punishing these barbaric sons of bitches, but fail to get reliable information to prevent their plans from unwinding, then what victory have we won? If we drag our reputation down to where our’s equals theirs, what good will that do us?

Now we know these people would not be so charitable in our direction, but truthfully, is that the standard we are to rely upon? Whether we’re being as vicious, ruthless, and sociopathic as al Qaeda? We’ve got a long, terrible road down to hell if we choose to try and compete with these folks on that level.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 23, 2009 11:25 PM
Comment #280876

While I understand your reasoning for not wanting to lower ourselves down into the moral morass that torturing puts us, I think there are a few flaws in your logic.

First, until we start beheading people for disagreeing with us, we will be hard pressed to earn the same despicable reputation as them. Waterboarding is hardly even in the same league as beheading. Yes, it scares the hell out of a person, and it is widely accepted that info fresh from the mouth of the terrorized is often unreliable, they still go back to their rooms with nothing but nightmares to deal with. They can still pray, and see, and hear, and feel and eat, and drink and sleep. IMHO while waterboarding may not be the most effective method of gathering time-sensitive intelligence, it is hardly equal by any fair measurement of being considered a “vicious, ruthless, sociopathic” competition with al Qaeda.

Thank you for labeling terrorists “barbaric sons of bitches,” for a moment you seemed rather enamored of their rights.

I think the support for waterboarding comes from people who believe that the life of someone who wants to kill people for being infidels is less valuable than one innocent life that terrorist might take, or contribute in taking. Most normal church-going conservatives that I talk to aren’t angry people at all, they’re actually pretty laid back and happy-go-lucky. But if you sign up for the IMDP (Infidels Must Die Program) the sympathy meter twitches out and slides down to zero.

So the question isn’t about an angry, we’ve-got-to-make-them-feel-pain, force-them-into-submission-for-their-crimes attitude, as much as a “I don’t really care about their barbaric feelings or fears, so if you can scare even one shred of useful information about something that might save a life, so be it. It’s not like you’re cutting off their hands or heads.” But again, that’s just my observation based on the people I’ve talked to.

I’ve read a few threads on this blog now, and your posts seem to be mostly about railing on against conservatives rather than pointing out what a great job the president and his administration is doing. That would make sense if you were commenting on the red side and poking holes in the theories of conservatives, but you’re on the blue side and most of what you write articles about is bashing conservatives. Why not spend your time and talents supporting your side’s positions?

Surely you have lots of positive things to write about…

Posted by: adlib at April 24, 2009 2:09 AM
Comment #280879

Republicans are like keystone cops over this torture issue. Boehner called the SERE training, training in torture tactics. He admitted waterboarding is torture. His step n fetch it later said Boehner misspoke.

The timeline of documents now prove Republicans are lying their asses off regarding waterboarding torture producing valuable intelligence. The valuable intelligence was obtained BEFORE the torture was authorized by the White House, through non-torture means, as one FBI interrogator of the time now admits.

The SERE Training manuals refer to the waterboarding and other methods of abuse as preparation for resisting when tortured.

If waterboarding was so damn successful, why was it implemented 183 times on one detainee? Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

Condoleeza Rice authorized torture months BEFORE the legal memos were drafted to provide allegedly illegal sham cover for its usage.

Republicans are now claiming that what happened at Abu Ghraib was torture and harmed America’s image, but, what took place with waterboarding Abu Zubayda and M. Kalik was not torture because the conditions were different with a doctor available to rescusitate the detainee in the event of drowning.

They are defending the indefensible, all in the name of what? Protecting the high public opinion of the Bush administration or the GOP during that administration? That takes a real lack of intelligence on Republican Congress person’s part. It does demonstrate however, remarkable loyalty to defend the worst in their Party, to the point that loyalty is a vastly higher priority than good governance or policy for America.

Is it any wonder voters finally woke up and gave their majority rule the boot? Yet, they still talk about a comeback. That must be an odd form of GOP humor.

Posted by: David R. Remer at April 24, 2009 2:48 AM
Comment #280884

Let me deal with some of your questions and comments here:

First, until we start beheading people for disagreeing with us, we will be hard pressed to earn the same despicable reputation as them.

We don’t have to sink as low as them, or corrupt ourselves with the same actions, to put ourselves in a worse position than we are now, or were before, and things can get pretty ugly before we reach al-Qaeda’s level.

They can still pray, and see, and hear, and feel and eat, and drink and sleep.

If you can list these without being ironic, you need to go and research just what exactly enhanced interrogation is.

Thank you for labeling terrorists “barbaric sons of bitches,” for a moment you seemed rather enamored of their rights.

We give brutal rapists, serial killers, treacherous con artists who cheat old ladies, and drug dealers who get our children addicted to drugs their civil liberties so we can, with the due process of the law, ensure that the guilty are the ones to truly suffer for their crimes.

Al-Qaeda criminals wish to die young as martyrs. I want them to die as old fat, bald men in cells, or else have renounced their jihad. I don’t mind them resting in graves out on the battlefield, if they should be so stupid as to raise a gun to one of our soldiers. But if we capture them, I want them to face our civilization and be defeated. If we can use good interrogation methods to crack the over-hyped al-Qaeda toughness, that’s a victory for us. If we can prosecute them in a court of law, that’s a victory for us. If we can send them to prison, get them extradited from other countries to be tried, those our victories for us.

The Bush Administration has taken the understandable desperation of the first days, and the compromises that are understandable in those circumstances, and made the mistake of institutionalizing that panicked sense that if we don’t shed every moral scruple in our fight against al-Qaeda, that we will lose.

In short, what Republicans are currently defending is a permanent inferiority complex regarding the terrorists, a permanent fear that unless we match their psychopathic lack of restraint, break their toughness with ours, that 9/11 will be a recurring nightmare.

We have to realize that no matter what we do, another terrorist attack might just happen. I mean, lets not forget that while some can claim that America remained safe for the remainder of the Bush Administration after 9/11, folks can say the same thing about the Clinton Administration.

We have to then realize that only by following reliable facts, true information, do we stand a good chance of tracking these people down. Paradoxically, in the rush to find these people, patience may be an important virtue, for in the zeal to find our enemies at all costs, we may overburden ourselves with useless, even false information, at the expense of finding that thread of intelligence that will guide our way out of the Labyrinth to our goal. We must be diligent, but we also must be efficient.

I’ve read a few threads on this blog now, and your posts seem to be mostly about railing on against conservatives rather than pointing out what a great job the president and his administration is doing. That would make sense if you were commenting on the red side and poking holes in the theories of conservatives, but you’re on the blue side and most of what you write articles about is bashing conservatives. Why not spend your time and talents supporting your side’s positions?

Let me tell you what I see: a constant escalation of rhetoric and ideological conflict, with the main goal being to frustrate the President’s and the Democrat’s agenda.

I believe at this point, there’s little need to convince most people of the rightness of the Obama Administration’s policies. I believe there is a need to knock down the poisonous rhetoric that’s being used to attack Obama, to expose the lies and half-truths that are being told, to even mock the foolishness, and question the judgment of those who are suggesting that Obama’s administration, unopposed, will take this country to hell in a handbasket.

Yes, I bash conservatives. It’s what I bash them for that you should pay attention to.

A member of the party of Lincoln is suggesting that Texas might be justified in exiting the union.

Members of the conservative press nitpick such a trivial thing as a present from the President to the Queen of England, a present it turns out she wanted and which did not break protocol.

Republicans insist on inflation fighting measures in the midst of a crisis where the main problem runs in the opposite direction.

Having criticized the President’s Budget, they proceed to rush out what amounts to a brochure, with their centerpiece remedy to our fiscal problems being yet another big tax cut for the rich (one bigger than any since the Great Depression), which in 2011 alone would drain 300 billion in revenue from the budget. One would expect that having spotted the mote in the President’s eyes, they wouldn’t show up to a press conference with wood beams in theirs.

They rail and fume at the Democrats for filibustering just a handful of federal judges, and then turn around and use their filibuster at a record setting pace, to frustrate the will of the majority, and now they’re fighting bitter battles in court and suggesting do-over elections in order to maintain their power to prevent legislation and appointees from coming to an up and down vote.

If the Republicans want to have policy debates of substance, then we can do that. But if what they want is essentially for us to consider the mandate we’ve gotten for change merely a nominal one, if what they want is simple for Democrats to continue the Republican status quo just because, then that’s another story altogether. They don’t get to dictate terms to the rest of America.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 24, 2009 10:39 AM
Comment #280938

Looks to me ,after checking out CNN talk shows this AM, that the Reps have finally figured out that they lost the election and need to cooperate. The tone of the Rep talking heads was,all of a sudden, one of respect and cooperation.Even Rollins was talking about the need for health care reform, for example. Its about time but at least they are finally getting the message. This should”trickle down” to their minions pretty shortly and we may be able to move forward with less rancor. Seeings as the one thing Rep partisans are good at is doing what they are told, we might even get more responsible and less hate filled entries on Watchblog, one hopes.

Posted by: bills at April 25, 2009 11:58 PM
Comment #280983

Hers an article that explains how the Reps went so wrong about to

They became aparathciks. If they followed orders they were advanced.You might look to see what Paul Krugman has to say about it.

And that, I think, is why the Republicans have fallen apart so completely since losing the election. Careerism is what held the party together; an environment in which the party no longer has the patronage to reward all its loyalists, and may not even be able to protect apparatchiks who broke the law, destroys the whole system.

If one can’t see the parallels to Hitlers Germany,one is not looking very hard.

Posted by: bills at April 27, 2009 7:27 AM
Comment #281003

bills, you linked an index to Krugman. Which column or editorial were you referring?

Posted by: gergle at April 27, 2009 2:15 PM
Comment #281006

Some may erroneously argue that an American hostage’s family should dictate policy in the treatment of a person, criminal, terrorist with information on that hostage scheduled to be killed by a time certain. But, fortunately, we live under a government ruled by law, not the passions of men in the heat of rage, fear, or sympathy. The Oxbow Incident days should be long behind us. Regretfully, some would still bring back mob lynchings if they had their drothers. But, they are a minority who fail to appreciate the strengths of our Constitutional rule of law, not kings or men, system.

Posted by: David R. Remer at April 27, 2009 3:39 PM
Comment #281011

Sorry, Crusader, amabo is not permitted to participate at WB. When this person leaves comments under a host of names and IP’s, their comments are removed. This is a spammer of the 1st order who hasn’t got a life outside spamming and spoofing WatchBlog. Been at it for years since they were banned from this site. Sad. Very sad individual. amabo won’t be replying to you, so I have removed your reply to him.

Posted by: WatchBlog Manager at April 27, 2009 6:08 PM
Comment #281188

Michael Kinsey had an interesting take on this issue today.

There is something that bothers me about about all this outrage, now. Granted, new information has come out about what it was used for and the rather indiscriminate use of waterboarding, but there was tacit acceptance by a large part of Americans, given their fears over 9/11.

Posted by: gergle at May 1, 2009 12:31 PM
Post a comment