Sunday, November 27, 2005

Luban and the real debate about torture


David Luban's article in today's Washington Post is an excellent summary of key issues in the debate about torture. Here is the introduction:
For viewers of TV shows such as "Commander in Chief" and "24," the question is about ticking bombs. To find the ticking bomb, should a conscientious public servant toss the rulebook out the window and torture the terrorist who knows where the lethal device is? Many people think the answer is yes: Supreme emergencies demand exceptions to even the best rules. Others answer no: A law is a law, and a moral absolute is a moral absolute. Period. Still others try to split the difference: We won't change the rule, but we will cross our fingers and hope that Jack Bauer, the daring counterterrorism agent on "24," will break it. Then we will figure out whether to punish Bauer, give him a medal, or both. Finally, some insist that since torture doesn't work -- that it doesn't actually unearth vital information -- the whole hypothetical rests on a false premise. Respectable arguments can be made on all sides of this debate.

Real intelligence gathering is not a made-for-TV melodrama. It consists of acquiring countless bits of information and piecing together a mosaic. So the most urgent question has nothing to do with torture and ticking bombs. It has to do with brutal tactics that fall short -- but not far short -- of torture employed on a fishing expedition for morsels of information that might prove useful but usually don't, according to people who have worked in military intelligence. After Time magazine revealed the harsh methods used at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to interrogate Mohamed Qatani, the so-called "20th hijacker," the Pentagon replied with a memo describing the "valuable intelligence information" he had revealed. Most of it had to do with Qatani's own past and his role in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Other parts concerned al Qaeda's modus operandi. But, conspicuously, the Pentagon has never claimed that anything Qatani revealed helped it prevent terrorist attacks, imminent or otherwise.

The real torture debate, therefore, isn't about whether to throw out the rulebook in the exceptional emergencies. Rather, it's about what the rulebook says about the ordinary interrogation -- about whether you can shoot up Qatani with saline solution to make him urinate on himself, or threaten him with dogs in order to find out whether he ever met Osama bin Laden. And the trouble is that this second debate is so wrapped up in legalisms, jargon and half-truths that it is truly hard to unravel.

The most recent issue is Arizona Sen. John McCain's amendment to a defense appropriations bill, designed to plug loopholes in current anti-torture law. It has passed the Senate, and the House is scheduled to vote on it sometime next month. President Bush has responded that we do not torture, we treat prisoners humanely, and we follow our legal obligations. But what, exactly, are the politicians arguing about?

Luban explains why the Bush Administration is opposing the McCain Amendment, and what the Administration actually means when it says that "we don't torture" and we treat detainees "humanely." The Bush Administration's position is that

(1) "Torture" does not include cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of the sort used in Guantanamo: "18- to 20-hour-a-day questioning for 48 out of 54 days, blasting prisoners with strobe lights and ear-splitting rock music, menacing them with snarling dogs, threatening to hurt their mothers, and humiliations such as leading them around on leashes Pfc. Lynndie England-style, stripping them naked in front of women, or holding them down while a female interrogator straddles them and whispers that we've killed their comrades." Therefore all such treatment is consistent with the Administration's statement that "we don't torture."

(2) Although cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (CID) violates the Constitution, not to mention international agreements to which the United States is a signatory, the Administration's position is that these bans on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment do not apply outside the geographical boundaries of the United States and its territories. (The McCain amendment is designed to close this particular loophole, which, as Luban points out, was not intended by the original Senate reservations to the 1988 Convention Against Torture). So when the Administration says "we don't torture," what it really means is that "we are free to engage in cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment anywhere outside the United States, including Guantanamo Bay."

(3) "Humane treatment" according to the Bush Administration, "requir[es] nothing more than providing food, clothing, shelter and medical care. In the Bush lexicon, therefore, sexual humiliation, acute sleep deprivation and threats to have a detainee's mother kidnapped and imprisoned are humane." Thus, when Adminstration officials say that "we treat our detainees humanely," they have said nothing about interrogation methods.

(4) Members of al Qaeda (or, equally importantly, those the Administration believes are al Qaeda) have no rights against cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment: "Bush declared that al Qaeda members have no Geneva Conventions rights -- not even the minimum rights against cruel and humiliating treatment that the Geneva accords guarantee to detainees who don't qualify as POWs. Although in February 2002 the president ordered the military to treat detainees according to the Geneva standards, his order conspicuously omitted any mention of non-military agencies such as the CIA. It also left a large loophole for `military necessity.' In the law of war, military necessity encompasses anything that contributes to victory, so the president's directive really forbids nothing but pointless sadism. Cheney and his new chief of staff, David Addington, have fought the McCain amendment precisely because it would prohibit CID treatment. In short, we comply with our legal obligations because, in the Bush lexicon, we hardly have any."

(5) Despite these artful rhetorical maneuvers, the Administration still manages to cross the very wide boundaries for interrogation practices it has set for itself:
"We don't torture" means that we don't use worse tactics than CID [cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment] -- except when we do. Waterboarding (in which a prisoner is made to believe he is drowning) and withholding pain medication for bullet wounds cross the line into torture -- and both have allegedly been used. So does "Palestinian hanging," where a prisoner's arms are twisted behind his back and his wrists are chained five feet above the floor.

A Nov. 18 ABC News report quoted former and current intelligence officers and supervisors as saying that the CIA has a list of acceptable interrogation methods, including soaking naked prisoners with water in 50-degree rooms and making them stand for 40 hours handcuffed and shackled to an eyebolt in the floor. ABC reported that these methods had been used on at least a dozen captured al Qaeda members. All these techniques undoubtedly inflict the "severe suffering" that our law defines as torture.

Consider the cases of Abed Hamed Mowhoush and Manadel Jamadi. Mowhoush, an Iraqi general in Saddam Hussein's army, was smothered to death in a sleeping bag by U.S. interrogators in western Iraq. Jamadi, a suspected bombmaker, whose ice-packed body was photographed at Abu Ghraib, was seized and roughed up by Navy SEALS in Iraq, then turned over to the CIA for questioning. At some point during this process, according to an account in the New Yorker magazine, someone broke his ribs; then he was hooded and underwent "Palestinian hanging" until he died. The CIA operative implicated has still not been charged, two years after Jamadi's death. And the SEAL leader was acquitted, exulting afterward that "what makes this country great is that there is a system in place and it works."

He got that right. Shamefully, it is a system that permits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, smudges long-standing lines about what is and is not permitted in routine interrogations -- and then expresses hypocritical horror when soldiers and interrogators cross the blurry line into torture and murder.

Luban's article is a helpful corrective to a debate that Administration officials-- including the President of the United States-- have repeatedly and willfully confused with their Orwellian doublespeak. They have tortured the English language so they can treat others cruelly. We shouldn't let them get away with either practice.


Excellent article. Thank you for continuing to post about this very important topic.

^^ What he said.


My understanding of Taser gun training is that the officers who want to use the taser on the job are required to recieve a shot from the stun gun before they can use it on the streets. In my not so humble opinion, our President, SecDef and others directing interogations must likewise personally experience all the techniques they want used on suspects.

I am not the best, I am not one of the best, but every time I will try my best.
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