Monday, March 30, 2009

Torture: It's not about "intelligence gathering"

One of the most persistent and discouraging themes that crops up in discussions of torture is the question of whether it "works" or not. The people engaging this question make a fatally wrong assumption: that the goal of torturers is the same as that of legitimate interrogators -- to get reliable information useful for active, circumscribed military operations or police investigations.

But torture does something else altogether, and is designed to do so: it extracts false confessions. These confessions, along with the agony of the torture itself, serve the goals of limitless, lawless "war": to humiliate and break opponents, to divide them from supporters, to terrify those not actively in opposition into staying inactive, and, most importantly, to justify the operations of the dirty war within which torture takes place: commando raids, assassinations, spying, kidnaping, secret and/or indefinite (and unreviewable) detention, and further torture.

The mistaken assumption that those in the previous administration who set the torture policy were motivated solely by an urgent need for information has several other bad effects. It reinforces the absurd ticking-bomb hypothetical that allows so many people to justify torture to themselves. It provides a noble-sounding excuse for the officials who promoted torture, making it harder for citizens to muster the will to hold them legally accountable for their crimes: "They were just trying to keep the country safe."

The euphemism of "enhanced interrogation" for torture was chosen by both the Nazis and the Bush-Cheney regime exactly because of its propaganda value in reinforcing this false picture: It's just legitimate questioning that goes a little further. An error of enthusiasm, if you will. An understandable mistake, a policy difference that we sure don't want to criminalize, looking backward with our 20-20 hindsight.

But, as useful as these effects are to the torturing regime, the most important role of the spurious linkage with intelligence-gathering and interrogation is as a screen: It hides the role of torture in creating and expanding the dirty war itself.

The Principals knew by mid-2002 that the vast majority of prisoners they were holding in Guantanamo and elsewhere had no meaningful connection to terror attacks against the U.S., past or planned. But they had a global "war on terror" to pump up. That "war" was vital not only for promoting the long-planned assault on Iraq, but for expanding executive power, cowing political opposition, and maintaining enough of a threat level in the public mind to make voters reluctant to change parties in the next several rounds of elections.

So the torture regime was set in motion and migrated to all the prisons in the dirty war: not just the dozens of CIA secret prisons, but Bagram, Guantanamo, and the many military and secret prisons in Iraq. Statements extracted under torture from a few prisoners could suffice to justify the continued detention of hundreds of others simply by being inserted into the uncontestable list of charges against them. People could be picked up, shipped off to cooperating torturers in Morocco and Syria and Egypt, and the results trumpeted as foiled terror plots to forestall Congressional questions, round up still other men, convince judges to quash lawsuits by asserting that state secrets would be endangered, and feed allies information to justify their own involvement in the dirty war. In Iraq, the process spun into a perpetual motion machine of raids, imprisonment, and "questioning", leading to further raids and captures, as well as the bombing and mortaring of purported "enemy safe houses."

The prolonged failure at Guantanamo to gather the evidence against prisoners into even minimally professional, reviewable form for prosecution was a big red flag that those in charge knew there was no real evidence to be had. The 2005 destruction of the tapes of the CIA's sessions with Abu Zubaydah and Al-Nasiri was intended to hide not their torture, which was well known to the Principals who authorized it in detail, but the way in which the "intelligence" about other "terror plots" was fed to the prisoners through the process rather than originating from them.

The origins of the occupations and wars in which we're now mired are almost completely phony; only the costs are real. They were ginned up to their current scale by the use of torture and the resulting "intelligence." The human, material, political, and propaganda investment up to now makes it all but impossible for those in power to admit to the phoniness at the roots of each conflict.

This self-justifying, self-multiplying quality is inherent to torture. It's poison that seeps everywhere if it's allowed anywhere. That's why the Convention Against Torture prohibits it absolutely -- in all cases, for any reason. That's why jurisdiction is universal. Torture is a grave crime against humanity because of the violence it does not only to the person tortured but also to the society in which it takes place.

Cross-posted at A Tiny Revolution

Update: 17 April, 10:00 am - Valtin makes an important contribution to the thoughtful comments below, and in slightly longer form at his blog (which should be a regular stop for anyone concerned with this issue). I've responded in comments there.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

FMLN wins presidency in El Salvador

Of course I'm pleased.

But I feel about the victory as I did about Obama's: I've viewed it as a certainty for almost a year now. It's long overdue. The candidate's program is far less progressive than I'd prefer. And the road ahead is daunting, with the country in sorry shape from so many years of right-wing rule.

On the other hand, I should take my own advice, so:


Tim's El Salvador Blog has an excellent round-up of excerpts and links from post-election coverage.

Update: 4:30 pm, 17 March - {Sigh.} Many reports and opinion columns in the English-langage press repeat the same lie: "Funes is the first FMLN presidential candidate who was not a combatant/guerrilla commander/etc. in the civil war."

In the elections of March 1994, the first in which the FMLN participated as a legal political party, their candidate was Ruben Zamora, who was never a combatant or an FMLN member at any point in the decades of armed conflict before the peace agreement of 1992. He was one of the leaders of the FDR (Democratic Revolutionary Front), a political coalition formed in 1980 that allied with the FMLN.

Given the historic nature of the 1994 elections ("the elections of the century"), you might think it would be hard for such a bogus factoid to get going. But ignorance of what happened in El Salvador before, during, and after the U.S.-sponsored war was vast, and remains so. Mainly, the first non-combatant candidate bit is just too convenient to give up, true or not, for the "FMLN grows up" narrative the media have decided to push.

[Disclosure: I was a volunteer for the FMLN election effort in 1994, doing data entry and computer support. Despite serious, systemic fraud on the part of the governing-party-dominated Elections Tribunal, mainly worked by the omission of FMLN voters' ID numbers from the lists posted at the polling places, the FMLN won 25% of the legislature, coming in second to ARENA's 45%. Zamora got 25% of the presidential vote; ARENA candidate Calderon Sol was denied an absolute majority at 49%, but in the later runoff crushed Zamora 68%-32%.]

Update 2: 12:40 pm, 2 April - A fine post-election report by Robert Lovato that captures the double-edged emotions of the FMLN victory. Salvadorans have moved forward only by reclaiming their history; we could learn a thing or two from them. A detail from the story that embodies the fusing of defiance, sadness, liberation, memory, and commemoration: the FMLN's official celebration (in image above) was staged on Escalon Boulevard, a main street through the richest neighborhood in San Salvador and the site of intense fighting in the November 1989 offensive.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Evidence in the public domain

This is my favorite passage from the letter* calling on the Obama administration to appoint a special counsel to investigate for prosecution those responsible for U.S. torture:

We see no need for these prosecutions to be extraordinarily lengthy or costly, and no need to wait for the recommendations of a panel or "truth" commission when substantial evidence of the crimes is already in the public domain.
A new article by Mark Danner puts possibly the most substantial piece of evidence yet in the public domain, the Red Cross report of the accounts of what prisoners experienced in CIA "black sites" before being transferred to Guantanamo in 2006.

The accounts are chilling and detailed. The report notes that the strong similarities in the accounts by 14 prisoners who had had no contact with each other before speaking to the Red Cross, down to small details, add to their credibility.

*More than a hundred organizations have now signed on. Perhaps your local bar association or other concerned group would be interested in joining the effort.

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