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.



At 12:08 PM, March 31, 2009, Anonymous joel hanes said...

PZ Meyers has pointed out that one important reason for a policy of torture is to intimidate and bully the not-yet-detained, and that torture is rather more effective as an instrument of state-sponsored terror than as a means of gathering information.

At 6:24 PM, March 31, 2009, Blogger Batocchio said...

Nell, this is an important dynamic you highlight. One of Darius Rejali's key points in Torture and Democracy is how torture always spreads and corrodes a society. Torture victim Vladimir Bukovsky wrote that after he was tortured, "neither the doctor nor those guards could ever look me in the eye again."

It's striking how central torture was to the Bush administration – when they decided to ignore sound counsel against it, so many other decisions fell into place. Keeping innocent people imprisoned indefinitely becomes more crucial when those prisoners will tell the truth about being tortured. And torturing Abu Zubaydah, leading to more prisoners who were also tortured, leads to an endless cycle of abuse, violence and lies. Some of the Bushies' "intel" about going to war came from sources who were tortured, most notably Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. Bogus intel obtained through illegal abuse became another scary story to tell the public to justify further seizing of power, both public and private, and starting an unnecessary war. All this bad intel amounted to excuses, though, not reasons. It's not as if those in power were acting in good faith. Cheney has claimed they adopted these measures because they were requested in the field, but the opposite was the case. And the Cheney gang ignored, sidelined and sometimes lied to people working for the administration, such as General Counsel to the Navy Alberto Mora, who insisted that these practices were torture and had to stop.

In many cases, I think it's not a matter of either/or, but both – the torture tapes were destroyed both to prevent war crimes prosecutions and to cover that little to nothing was gained from the torture. I think bigotry, ignorance, a desire for vengeance, an authoritarian mindset and fantasies about playing Jack Bauer played key roles as well, although motivations are less important than their actions

(I'll include your post in my next roundup – my most extensive recent post on the subject is here, and from last year is here - although they're both quite long.)

At 1:20 PM, April 01, 2009, Blogger Nell said...

@joel: It's a very important reason. The fact that people tortured will give up the names of others makes anyone imprisoned and then released a risk to work with in opposition organizations.

Once torture is understood to be routine, catch-and-release is an easy way to sow division and suspicion within the opposition, even without torturing the prisoner in question.

This is something I learned while working with Salvadorans in the 1980s and early 1990s.

I found American liberals able to grasp that this was an important motivation for torture for other governments. They were able to understand that these governments were supported entirely by the U.S. government, including actively covering up and denying the torture that was going on. But very few of them could take the next step and accept that this was a result intended by officials of the U.S. government, that it was part and parcel of counterinsurgency.

Ever since, I've been trying to understand the source of this resistance. Is it a measure of how deeply American exceptionalism is ingrained? Or is it an unwillingness to face that "it could happen here" because it's too frightening? Now that it has happened here, to a U.S. citizen, is that resistance even stronger?

At 1:21 PM, April 01, 2009, Blogger Nell said...

@Batocchio: Thanks for the pointer to your posts -- long, but worthwhile! The excerpt from Hilzoy's post is an outstanding example of the line of thought to which my post is addressed. I admire many things about Hilzoy, but am nearly maddened by her insistence on attributing to the torture drivers sincere motivations of intelligence gathering.

Being scrupulously fair is an excellent starting point for discussion. Attributing bad motivations to opponents before making a thorough examination of their arguments and actions is a sure-fire way to derail any real discussion; it raises the emotional temperature, makes people defensive, etc.

But there's not an absolute prohibition on it: sometimes people are acting from evil motivations, and it takes a certain wilful blindness after a while to refuse to acknowledge them.

The historical record of torture makes clear that a good-faith effort to obtain genuine intelligence is never the motivation. To continue to give the Bush-Cheney administration the benefit of this assumption betrays a serious ignorance of the history or an ideological commitment to attributions of good faith.

Hilzoy has read far more widely than most people about the subject of torture. She is a professional ethicist. So the refusal seriously to consider other motivations might be a product of a commitment to American exceptionalism. Or it could be the desire to maintain a reputation for scrupulous fair-mindedness regardless of evidence (strengthened by being an owner of a blog where the attribution of malign motives is regularly called out and discouraged). Or it could be a sound practice that's hardened into a reflexive inability to attribute bad motives where they exists. Or it could be the fear I mentioned above in my response to Joel, though that's an explanation I'm least inclined to believe in Hilzoy's case.

At 7:58 PM, April 01, 2009, Blogger Batocchio said...

Nell, I hear ya. Hilzoy can certainly speak for herself, and I don't know if you've commented over there and brought any of this up already. But I think it's more of a style choice. Obsidian Wings has a general rule of not accusing other commentators of arguing in bad faith because it's generally counterproductive (even when it's true), and the regular commentators are pretty sharp and civil. I think it's more an outcome of that. And Hilzoy does the polite debunks and smackdowns so well. She's got a good recent one on Andrew Klavan's "Rush Limbaugh challenge," although I think skippy's saltier one also has its place. From reading other Hilzoy posts on torture and the Bush administration, my take is that she just prefers a polite critique that might reach those of a different mind who are nonetheless somewhat reality-based. It's an issue of audience and style more than, say, perception.

I grew up in Arlington, and in my experience, there are plenty of career government professionals in DC who really are trying to make good decisions and do a good job. Political appointees are another matter, and I think the 'well-intentioned versus deliberate policy' percentages are very different at the intelligence agencies. The One Percent Doctrine depicts a struggle between the FBI and the CIA as to how to interrogate prisoners (the FBI favored traditional rapport-building), but that the main push for abuse came from the White House regardless. But it's not as if all was pure before that. During the Cold War especially, in foreign countries the U.S./CIA almost always backed the more repressive and conservative faction. Then there's the School of the Americas. They loved their strong men, and much of the DC establishment still does, and are very much imperialists and exceptionalists. Your Salvadoran experiences sound very interesting, and I'm sure you have more direct experience of all that stuff than I do (and ATR, where you cross-posted, covers that stuff well).

The chicken-egg, evil-ignorance question gets a bit moot with these people. I've read enough about Cheney to know he really believes some of this stuff, but it's a bit irrelevant since he brooks no dissent and arrogantly believes in his own infallibility. Pointing out a "cognitive error" to him would be pretty useless. He may have believed he was right, but right or wrong, he was still willing to crush all dissent, spy on his colleagues, and lie to leading members of his own party. It's not as if his behavior was in any way ethical or in good faith, or that Bush allowing him to do that was ever good management. Barry Eisler has a good bit on the vengeance mindset of this gang, and I do think vengeance and machismo played key roles. But those are part of the authoritarian mindset to begin with, and it's not as being elected (let alone 9/11) magically transformed Cheney, Addington and the entire "cabal" into authoritarians. The story is not one of tragic heroes but a very old narrative about the abuse of power. As you point out, the two bigger issues are that these policies were not at all accidental, and that as awful as the Bush policies were, some of them were not as radical a departure from previous American governmental practices as some of us might like to think.

I think some of all this also depends on your audience. For example, I have a friend who isn't sure that torture doesn't work (for obtaining accurate intel). That's mostly a lack of knowledge – hell, I knew much less on this ten years ago – but that's due in part by people like Rivkin. I know someone else who still simply will not believe that government officials would knowingly lie to start a war or seize power. That's a cognitive dissonance. Tucker Carlson was being a hack when he claimed that the government would never torture anyone if it didn't work, but I think he might actually believe that, too. Howard Kurtz recently argued that Brian Williams and other big-name corporate media figures weren't shills for the establishment because they didn't grow up as privileged (as they are now). I think Kurtz really believes this. (Also, we all know Reagan was the bestest preznit ever, and we haven't had class warfare by the rich over the past thirty years - and a few millennia - and Amurca has the bestest health care in the entire world, because, well of course it is, because it's American.)

We all have our blind spots. It's also the habit of liberals and teachers to believe that these people doing these things just haven't thought things through. I'll cop to that at times myself. But I do try to distinguish between hacks and wonks, and think dealing with Rivkin on the merits reveals his hackery, and that it's folly not to consider his motives and character, even if outright accusing him of bullshit on TV might not play well. In any case, thanks for following human rights issues so diligently, and I'll be sure to link this or another post at some point (I'm only a part-time blogger). Cheers!

At 8:31 PM, April 01, 2009, Blogger Batocchio said...

Actually, this says it all better.

At 7:06 PM, April 10, 2009, Blogger Valtin said...

Re the torture argument.

The U.S. government spent serious money and decades thinking about and experimenting upon torture and other forms of controlling human behavior.

I think the issue is falsely separated into orthogonal realms where one supposedly tortures to gain information, OR one tortures to terrorize or gain control (this would include the idea of eliciting false confessions, as well).

It would be wrong to suppose that torture does not sometimes occur as an attempt to gain information. I worked in therapy with a former Central American insurgent who was captured, and then tortured to reveal the names of his comrades. The poor fellow did reveal names under torture, and suffered tremendous guilt as a result (and hence had come to see me).

I have also worked with torture survivors who clearly were tortured as a matter of social control and terror, and had no identifiable information or connection that could feasibly make them a possible source of intelligence. (I remember one case particularly well of a man from Egypt.)

I also have worked with some who were tortured and coerced to make false confessions.

I think that like all human behavioral and psychosocial phenomenon, the desire to isolate motivations into identifiable causal factors betrays our understanding of the situation.

The human psyche is internally divided, determining reality based on a complex set of assumptions, identifications with others (or with entities or causes), and a large retinue of defensive mental maneuvers to ward off all kinds of anxiety, including the anxiety of not knowing or not belonging.

The result is a psycho-social-emotional stew of motivational factors that defies any easy kind of categorization, and that is what I believe we have when we look at the purely human phenomena of torture.

It gets even more complicated when we look at the question of "false confessions." The latter can often be a mixture of fact and fiction. They can also be rendered for use in very complicated counter-intelligence schemes, so that it's not clear what kind of information was desired or not, and by whom.

The classic example of the latter is the paradigm case of the U.S. torture experience: the "confessions" by U.S. Air Force officers captured by the Chinese and North Koreans, who confessed to operating aircraft used in a secret U.S. program to use biological weapons during the Korean War.

Were these confessions true or false? If you believe torture always produces garbage, then it must be false. But empirically, it is not true that torture produces only bad intel. When CIA torturers have discussed their results publicly, as in Biderman's The Manipulation of Human Behavior, they make it clear that best results for accuracy happen in a thin band between normal interrogation and resistance and overt brutality or overuse of psychological techniques which collapse the mind of the victim.

In the case of the captured airmen, the U.S. denied any such use of bio weapons, despite the findings of an independent commission to study the issue. Only much later, in the early 21st century, have some legitimate historical examinations found that there may have been some truth in the airmen's confessions. (See Endicott and Hagerman, The U.S. and Biological Warfare.)

To conclude, it is not a question of the efficacy of torture to provide information, as you ably point out. The motives for torture, however, are complex, interconnected and over-determined, so that every instance of its use must be looked at in its cultural-political-historical context to see to what degree one causal aspect played a more or less significant role as against a number of other possible causes.

A final thought: by entering into the argument as to whether or not torture "works", we move farther away from the primary point, which is that torture is unacceptable and illegal no matter what the reason or the cause. Period.

Otherwise, it would be as if we were still arguing about cannibalism, with one group arguing whether or not it really provided nutrition or not.

At 6:36 AM, April 16, 2009, Anonymous james said...

Thanks for posting this, Valtin. They are all extremely good points.
I'd add, though, that torture is argued by some as being ineffectual not because all the information is false but because some of it is false. And how do you determine which is which?

Your concluding sentence just nails it! Very powerful. Thanks

At 5:46 PM, March 26, 2010, Blogger Raul said...

It is good to hear someone say that intelligence gathering isn't assisted by torture. It is also true that torture creates terrorists.


Post a Comment

<< Home