Monday, May 11, 2009

The Temptations of Torture

US President Barack Obama has been quite clear as regards his stance on waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques”: He considers them torture, plain and simple, and under his presidency, the United States will refuse to condone torture under any circumstances…period.

So why does the debate continue about whether or not the United States government can or cannot apply torture under certain circumstances (in which, far-right-wing commentators and torture proponents would have us believe, the ends justify the means)? Why do reporters from right-wing news media continue to hound President Obama on the subject, as if his answer to torture required justification, as if he were the one who was somehow unethical for defending the non-use of torture? Answer: Because certain officials and advisers of the former administration, who decided that they possessed the power to throw more than two centuries of American ethics regarding the inalienable and universal rights of Man out the window may now have to answer for their unmitigated arrogance and absence of moral character. And the possibility that high-ranking officials (including former presidents of the United States of America) might someday be called upon to be accountable for the questionable decisions they make, scares the daylights out of the far right. Why? Because the far right believes in central power, in some people’s being “more equal” than others, in certain rights only applying to “people like oneself”. And they had long sought a leader that was less interested in doing what was right than in doing “whatever it took”, a leader who thought that he was above the law and the Constitution, a leader who would give in to the temptations of torture, the temptations of lawlessness, the temptations of the “hanging judge” mentality of the Old West, a leader who felt that the “expediency” of vigilante “justice” was preferable to the preservation of the highest ideals of a nation that was once the shining beacon of individual and collective rights and the worldwide defender of democratic rule.

And they found that leader in the person of George W. Bush, who wasn’t averse to giving the “great unread”, movie-culture masses the fantasy they longed for: the one that says, what if there weren’t any rules and you could do whatever you wanted to the “bad guys”? The fantasy that justifies the actions of the “Dirty Harries”, and the “Rambos”, who, from the silver screen, teach the public that there’s a point at which the law no longer works and you have to take justice into your own hands.

Tyranny by Any Other Name

Most of us have that fantasy at one point or another. It is almost natural for us as individuals to have such fantasies and even for us to occasionally be tempted to act them out by getting mad and getting physical. (I myself, in this sense, do not hold myself up as an example, notorious hothead that I am). But in order for civilized society to function properly, the law and its representatives must be coldly, clearly and objectively above such feelings and the system must be devised in such a way as to ensure that officials, including the President – perhaps even especially the President – act not as individuals, but as the worthy representatives of the law, and the keepers of the morals and ethics of the nation. If not, if it becomes the attitude of the Executive that rules are made to be broken, then mob justice will simply run amok and civilization and rule of law will be such in name only, a caricature cited for effect in political rhetoric, because it is the law that is the framework for civilization and if the law and the ethical standards of a people are only applied “when they are convenient”, then they become nothing more than an expression of good intentions. And, in the end, unless they are systematically preserved as inviolable, their application is only as effective as the individual in charge at any given time. So applied (or not), ethical and legal standards eventually cease to exist. They become obsolete and are replaced by the arbitrary decisions of the powers that be.

There is a name for this state of affairs: It is called tyranny. Here, I speak not from a textbook, but from experience, having lived through a decade of this kind of authoritarianism in Argentina back in the mid to late1970s and early ‘80s. Based on that experience – back in the early days of Bush’s war on terrorism, when Guantánamo first became an issue, and when perhaps the greatest living American statesman, Jimmy Carter, was one of the few people speaking out against the holding of political prisoners without trial on the offshore US base – I had an unexpected clash with a friend, an intellectual for whom I have the highest respect, who is as bi-cultural as I myself am – a sort of reverse of my own experience, his having been born in Buenos Aires and then having spent many years living in New York. In the midst of an otherwise friendly phone conversation, I stated my opinion that what was happening in the United States, in view of the special powers the Bush government had granted itself following Nine-Eleven, had clear parallels with what had happened in Argentina (as well as in Chile and Uruguay, for example) in the 1970s.

To my surprise, my friend couldn’t figure out what I was taking about. Well, I explained, suspension of civil and human rights, detention without trial at the disposal of the Executive Branch, military council’s of war instead of proper trials, the use of coercion and mental and physical abuse to elicit confessions, etc., etc. All of those things that the military junta imposed and that, back then, would have been inconceivable in the USA, were now a part of accepted US policy. What the United States is living through, I said, are the early stages of authoritarian rule. My friend found this funny, crazy even. He laughed. Treated me with the condescension reserved for imbeciles and madmen. It wasn’t like that, he insisted. He lived in New York. He knew what he was talking about. I was “misinformed”. It was just these terrorist guys that they were holding, nothing more. It wasn’t as if the whole system were jeopardized.

Frankly, I was shocked that he failed to see the comparison, since he was an expert in political science. Because the very same arguments were used here in Argentina to justify the abuses of power and sidestepping of the law and of the Constitution indulged in by the supposed “defenders of democracy” that stepped in to “save the Republic” in this country in 1976. And at the time, a very broad spectrum of the public agreed that in order to fight terrorism you had to throw the rulebook out the window. But in the end, it would become clear to the majority of Argentines – although the far right here as in the United States, still clings to the idea of the ends justifying the means – that defending democracy and rule of law by suspending them and applying a greater lawlessness to the battle against outlaws was tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bath water. If a single person’s rights were violated, everyone’s rights were violated. Because if it could be done to one today it could be done to all tomorrow.

The arguments applied by the so-called National Reorganization Process in Argentina for methods that were clearly at odds with international standards of decency and respect for human rights and jurisprudence, as well as with the country’s own Constitution and Bill of Rights, were very much like those quoted by the Bush Administration: the existence of aggression by a “non-Western and un-Christian enemy with ties to hostile foreign powers”, the need to fight fire with fire in the kind of “dirty war” waged by lawless terrorists, the “unfortunate reality” of “collateral damage” in confrontations of this kind, the practicality of applying “extraordinary means”, justified by the greater good of saving innocent lives through “expedient preventive action”, the justification of “extraordinary powers” being assumed by the Executive Branch so as to not “tie the hands” of government in the face of a clear and present danger to “the values and way of life of an entire nation”.

But in Argentina, what this led to, in the end, was institutionalized State terror, in which tens of thousands of people were tortured, most of the time simply to “see if they knew anything” rather than based of any proper intelligence, with the “evidence” wrung from non-person prisoners by means of water torture, electric shock, beatings, extreme humiliation, drugs and so on being used to justify the detention and torture of still other thousands, with this in turn leading to the summary executions of as many as 30,000 people still referred to simply as “the missing”.

At this juncture, when the far-right is very vocally accusing President Obama of being soft on terrorism and of endangering the United States by not doing as the Bush Administration did and pretending that the Bill of Rights and the human rights treaties signed, often promoted and once-championed by the US government are non-binding suggestions rather than inviolable statements of principle, it almost seems ironic that one of the main factors in stopping the slaughter in Argentina was then-President Jimmy Carter’s insistence on respect for human rights among all countries that sought friendly ties with Washington. With what face could the United States have judged any other country’s treatment of suspects and prisoners under the Bush Administration? And as a world leader, is this the face that the people of the United States wish the Nation to have: that of a country that condones torture and is not averse to suspending rule of law for the sake of expediency; that of a country that applies one law to certain of its citizens and another to others, or that is exceptionally lawless and cruel in dealing with its prisoners of war, no matter what their nationality may be. And if this is indeed the image we are willing to accept, then, what will be the extent to which we can express outrage when our own citizens are treated with brutality when captured?

A Case in Point

The question is: Can democracy, constitutionality and rule of law escape unscathed from attempts to “work around them”? Once a rule has been broken, is it ever “hard and fast” again? And if not, if every time a single man (in this case, the President of the United States), decides that a situation warrants a constitutional “time-out”, of what use is the law and democracy as our forefathers conceived it? And if the Executive has the power to switch the legal rights of individuals on and off like artificial light and effective darkness, then what is the difference between that and authoritarianism – indeed, between that and tyranny?

Almost as controversial as the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy is the case of the late Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro (b.1916 - d.1978). Moro was a high-profile Italian politician who twice served as the country’s premier (1963-1968 and 1974-1976). On the ever-volatile Italian political scene, he was the country’s longest serving post-war leader and one of the most important figures in the Christian Democracy Party. He was an intellectual and was considered a skilled and patient mediator.

In March of 1978, members of the Red Brigades communist terror organization kidnapped Moro, demanding the release of jailed terrorist leaders in exchange for his freedom. The government took a hard line making, it clear that it refused to deal with terrorists. Despite appeals from Moro’s family that the government save him by any means necessary, the government maintained its position. In view of the government’s refusal to negotiate, the Vatican intervened, with Pope Paul VI calling on the Red Brigades to unconditionally release the former prime minister. When this didn’t work, the Pope offered to take Moro’s place as the terrorists’ hostage if they would agree to the politician’s release. Nothing worked, and after holding Aldo Moro for 54 days, his kidnappers murdered him and left his body in the trunk of a car parked on a street in Rome.

There is now speculation that, despite the fact that the Red Brigades were almost surely involved in the kidnapping and murder, there was collusion with others who stood to gain from his death, including US and other interests in NATO and Moro’s successor and co-party member, Giulio Andreotti. Moro and Andreotti were from different factions of the Christian Democrats. While Andreotti was strongly rumored to have ties to both the CIA and the Italian and US Cosa Nostra and, as such, to be radically anti-communist, Moro, ever the mediator, saw the advantage of bringing members of Italy’s then-influential Communist Party into a coalition government. According to statements attributed to Moro’s widow, the former premier had received such strong warnings not to pursue this idea from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Nixon Administration) that he had, at the time, become frightened and ill and had considered leaving politics altogether. The ties between Moro’s assassination and Andreotti came up in a trial against the Andreotti years later for the murder of yet another politician and for his alleged Mafia ties. Andreotti was found guilty on a prosecution appeal and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, but the decision was later overturned in a defense appeal, and to this day, the former Prime Minister (now aged 90) sits in the Italian Parliament with the title of Senator for Life.

While interesting and revealing, these facts are not, in themselves, the point. What is germane, however, is that despite the extremely high profile and importance of the Moro abduction and in spite of the political machinations behind it, government and security officials at the time refused to bend the law to fit their political needs. Italy’s staunch pro-human rights stance remained firm despite the formidable threats posed at the time by the Red Brigades on the one hand and the long-standing Mafia on the other. When it was widely suggested that certain political-profiled prisoners’ feet should be put to the coals in order to expedite the investigation and secure the immediate release of the former prime minister, General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa – a ranking officer in the Italian Carabinieri and one of the architects of the country’s anti-terrorist policies and enforcement strategies – is quoted as having responded: "Italy can survive the loss of Aldo Moro. It would not survive the introduction of torture."

Dalla Chiesa himself was murdered along with his wife and driver by the Mafia in 1982. But that didn’t make him any less right about what he said. Although the fight waged by all legal means against the Sicilian Mafia and the Red Brigades brought the assassinations of numerous law enforcement and justice officials, persistent legal action eventually brought the substantial dismantling and stunning debilitation of both movements and the clear strengthening of Italy as both a political power and as a paladin of civilized culture and society.

But Does It Work?

Torture as an interrogation technique is highly questionable, not only from a moral and ethical standpoint but also with respect to its actual efficacy. Here in Argentina false leads gained through torture were, perhaps, the singlemost cause for the subsequent torture and summary executions of other people who were absolutely innocent of any links with terrorism. Torturing someone beyond all boundaries of human resistance while repeating a question or demand obviously begs an answer – whatever answer pops into his/her head – from the torture victim. In Argentina, it was reportedly not uncommon for interrogators to simply repeat, “I want a name! A name! A name!”, while punctuating each demand for a name with a blow from a nightstick, a kick in the ribs or a punch in the face. After long minutes of mistreatment, prisoners would obviously come up with a name…any name: an rival, a casual acquaintance, their landlord, their boss, any name at all that might stop the abuse.

Or in other words, such unsophisticated techniques often lead to bad intelligence. And experienced intelligence agents and military interrogators in the United States are not unaware of this. There is reason to believe that intelligence professionals may well have been bullied into using the techniques by political officers in the Bush Administration, judging from reports that show that more than a few of them have left little doubt that they find torture an unreliable tool for extracting sound information.

In 2005, the New York Times quoted CIA Inspector General John Helgerwon as saying in a 2004 report that the so-called EITs (advanced interrogation techniques) “appeared to constitute cruel and degrading treatment under the [Geneva] Convention” – an international treaty that the United States has waved in the faces of its enemies in successive wars when these foreign powers have mistreated US captives.

Former CIA officer Bob Baer is reported to have told ABC News that torture made for “bad interrogation”. He said: “I mean, you can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture’s bad enough.”

Another former CIA officer, Larry Johnson, who also served for a period as Deputy Director of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Office wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “What real field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust…than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Nazis and the Soviets.”

ABC and other media have quoted CIA sources as saying that certain presumably crucial information extracted from Libyan-born al Qaeda trainer Ibn al Shaykh al Libi through torture ended up being proven false. Al Libi was subjected to the whole battery of progressively harsher “enhanced interrogation techniques” over a two-week period, and finally broke after being waterboarded and left to stand naked overnight in a cold cell, while being periodically hosed down with cold water. The statements he gave under duress where largely the basis for the Bush Administration’s claims that Iraq possessed biochemical weapons and trained al Qaeda members in their use. In other words, his confession was a major plank in the administration’s platform for launching its attack on Iraq. It was later established by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that Al Libi really had no such knowledge and had only told his interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear – either to purposely mislead them or simply in order to make the torture stop.The DIA said in an official report that the Libyan’s statements were “unreliable”, since he could provide no further details to corroborate his confession resulting from torture.

Justice Where Justice Is Due

President Obama has been criticized for leaving the decision as to whether to try officials who condoned and ordered torture under the Bush Administration to Justice and the Courts.

Hard-line liberals had hoped the President would be an avenging angel, who would swoop down on human rights violators in government and make them pay for undermining North America’s image and substance as a staunch defender of human rights and rule of law. Far right-wingers wanted him to “show patriotism” by intervening and granting immunity to those who permitted and ordered the use of the torture techniques – which they whimsically refer to as EITs.

But in the end, the criticism in both camps is morally, politically and ethically misplaced, since in the hands of Justice is precisely where that decision must lie, not in those of the Chief of State, if Americans’ rights are to be properly protected and tyranny is to be kept at bay.