Archive for the ‘terrorism’ Tag

More truth about Dick Cheney and torture

In yesterday’s “Why Dick Cheney keeps torturing us,” I chose not to address the immorality of interrogation by torture because I wanted to focus on the true purpose of the former vice president’s cynical political tactics. But as commenter ‘Briar’ rightfully noted, a utilitarian argument against torture is in some sense too narrow. Even in the rare theoretical instance in which torture might produce useful results (we have yet to learn of a single one in the prolonged war on terror, as I wrote yesterday), its use would still be wrongheaded and reprehensible.

americacanttakeitThere are numerous reasons for this, of course, not least what it does to the person being tortured. Also deeply disturbing, although less often discussed, is what it does to the people who carry out the torture or who witness it being carried out. The New York Times article I cited yesterday with regard to intelligence extracted from Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah also reported that “watching his torment caused great distress to his captors.” Even for those who believed that brutal treatment could produce results, according to a former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case, “seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.”

In an in-depth article on torture I reported for Salon back in 2005 (also cited in yesterday’s post), this point was made particularly well by U.S. Army Captain Ray Kimball, who spoke with me about reports of Special Operations Forces brutalizing prisoners in Iraq:

“Torture not only degrades the victim, it also ultimately degrades the torturer,” said Kimball, who served in Iraq and now teaches history at West Point. “We already have enough soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after legitimate combat experiences. But now you’re talking about adding the burden of willfully inflicting wanton pain on another human being. You tell a soldier to go out there and ‘waterboard’ someone” — strap a prisoner to a board, bind his face in cloth, and pour water over his face until he fears death by drowning — “or mock-execute someone, but nobody is thinking about what that’s going to do to that soldier months or years later, when it comes to dealing with the rationalizations and internal consequences. We’re talking about serious psychic trauma.”

The moral imperative not to torture is manifold, powerful and obvious to most. The single greatest weapon against it is the argument that using torture saves American lives — so in that respect Cheney’s demonstrably false argument, that torture has worked, deserves to be called out for its cold political calculus.

Especially now, as the ongoing media campaign from Cheney and others who share his views appears to be working to a degree. From an analysis on the torture debate by reporter Scott Shane appearing in today’s New York Times:

Many intelligence officials, including some opposed to the brutal methods, confirm that the program produced information of great value, including tips on early-stage schemes to attack tall buildings on the West Coast and buildings in New York’s financial district and Washington. Interrogation of one Qaeda operative led to tips on finding others, until the leadership of the organization was decimated. Removing from the scene such dedicated and skilled plotters as Mr. Mohammed, or the Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali, almost certainly prevented future attacks.

It becomes more difficult to doubt the efficacy of torture after reading a paragraph like that from a respected national security reporter. (Even in an article containing a hefty dose of skepticism favoring the other side of the debate.) But if the above is accurate, why, for more than seven years, have no specific details been made public as to how and what “information of great value” was gained through brutal interrogations?

As Shane notes, “which information came from which methods, and whether the same result might have been achieved without the political, legal and moral cost of the torture controversy, is hotly disputed, even inside the intelligence agency.”

In light of all the known evidence to date, though, one thing is crystal clear: The political — and moral — onus rests squarely on the backs of the torturers.

UPDATE: Ali Soufan, an FBI agent directly involved in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, speaks out publicly today for the first time on the torture issue. His Op-Ed is well worth reading in its entirety; here’s what stands out in particular per above:

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

It’s also worth noting that Soufan is the central figure in Lawrence Wright’s account of a pivotal interrogation prior to 9/11, which I cited here yesterday.

Why Dick Cheney keeps torturing us

Nobody should be surprised that the former vice president keeps returning from the political wilderness to defend the brutal treatment of suspected terrorists. Without providing any specifics, Cheney continues to intone that torturing Al Qaeda suspects yielded information vital to protecting America. Countless news reports have suggested strongly that claim is false.

cheneyMake no mistake: What Cheney is doing isn’t about protecting America, it’s about protecting political power. (Anyone who needs a refresher on his views of amassing and wielding that commodity should go back and read this Pulitzer Prize-winning series from the Washington Post.) With President Obama’s courageous decision to declassify Bush administration legal memos and return the unfinished torture debate to the headlines, Cheney and those who helped do his bidding in the Bush administration’s war on terror still have a lot to lose in terms of legacy and liability.

Once again we watch Cheney double down on an ugly bet: “I haven’t announced this up until now,” he said on Fox News on Monday, “but I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country.” The U.S. government should declassify those reports, too, he said, so that Americans can see “how good the intelligence was.”

Obama is unlikely to do that, and Cheney knows it. That’s because the chances are that most if not all documentation of actual intelligence operations — as opposed to memos laying out the Bush administration’s legal justification for them — contains information too sensitive to disclose regarding sources and tactics. Obama should call Cheney’s bluff not only by noting that distinction, but also with a full-throated rejection of Cheney’s false argument: He should remind Americans that torture simply does not work.

That truth has been borne out in reams of media reporting on the war on terror, and has been reiterated time and time again by senior U.S. military and intelligence officials, several of whom I spoke with when covering the issue at length for Salon back in 2005. It was on full display again in late March, in a Washington Post report further examining the treatment of the terrorist Abu Zubaida, who was waterboarded by the CIA at least 83 times:

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads. In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

A New York Times report last weekend underscored that valuable intelligence gleaned from Zubaida did not come via torture:

His interrogation, according to multiple accounts, began in Pakistan and continued at the secret C.I.A. site in Thailand, with a traditional, rapport-building approach led by two F.B.I. agents, who even helped care for him as his gunshot wounds healed. Abu Zubaydah gave up perhaps his single most valuable piece of information early, naming Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whom he knew as Mukhtar, as the main organizer of the 9/11 plot.

Lawrence Wright’s definitive volume about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “The Looming Tower,” recounts in vivid detail another example of how the measured, savvy manipulation of a captured terrorist suspect — not the beating and simulated drowning of him — yielded critical intelligence. No doubt there are other such examples that have not been made public.

But in seven years, not a single example has emerged of specific information vital to U.S. national security that was obtained through torture — not even when protected from public view. As the Post reported late last month, “Since 2006, Senate intelligence committee members have pressed the CIA, in classified briefings, to provide examples of specific leads that were obtained from Abu Zubaida through the use of waterboarding and other methods, according to officials familiar with the requests. The agency provided none, the officials said.”

Of course, Cheney and his supporters will continue muddying the waters — including through leaks of nonspecific claims — in hopes of warding off political and legal vulnerability as the nation realizes the truth about torture.

UPDATE: More here on Dick Cheney’s defense of torture.

A blogger breaks news on waterboarding

Pondering the rise of new media and the decline of the traditional newsroom, skeptics still tend to cling to either-or thinking: You’ve either got shrill partisan hacks or experienced professional reporters, and never the twain shall meet. The failure of imagination involved is pretty obvious. Digital media has unlocked great potential for nontraditional approaches to the gathering and analysis of information — a vast middle ground of additional possibilities.

Let’s say the government releases a bunch of documents related to a controversial, secretive activity. Now anybody with a computer, an Internet connection and a little motivation can dig in. (Of course, this has already been going on for quite a while.)

whatiswaterboardingpgToday brings a fresh example of how reporting by bloggers can contribute to, or even lead, a major news cycle. In a front-page story today, the New York Times announces that the CIA used waterboarding, a torture technique provoking fear of death by drowning, hundreds of times on two Al Qaeda suspects — far more than was previously known. It’s newsworthy information on several levels, including for how it punches holes in past testimonials from U.S. officials about covert interrogations conducted by the Bush government.

This was not a scoop from the nation’s largest newsroom. The information underpinning the Times report came via blogger Marcy Wheeler, who discovered over the weekend that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month when she examined the fine print in a newly declassified Bush administration memo from 2005. Wheeler also used the memo to look at a telling clash between the FBI and CIA over the interrogation program and to examine the key question of whether waterboarding actually is effective, as has been claimed by Dick Cheney et al.

The Times report underscores that this story remains far from over (also see Mark Danner for an in-depth political discussion of the unresolved torture issue) — and the public has an enterprising blogger to thank for pushing it ahead.

Osama bin Laden’s “man-caused disaster”?

President Obama’s predecessor famously terrorized the English language. But lately, as the new, more fluent commander in chief and his team leave behind George W. Bush’s linguistic legacy on national security — jettisoning hard-line terminology such as “war on terrorism” and “enemy combatant” — they seem in danger of over-articulating.

In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Janet Napolitano explained why, in her first testimony to Congress as Homeland Security chief, she used particular language to describe continuing perils. “In my speech, although I did not use the word ‘terrorism,’ I referred to ‘man-caused’ disasters,” she said. “That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”

A worthy goal. But considering the mass casualties perpetrated in Manhattan or Madrid or London in recent years, is it really a good idea to deploy a phrase that’s in danger of suggesting accidental tragedy?

As Peter Baker reports in the New York Times, the Obama administration is opening itself to criticism that it doesn’t take the dangers of the world seriously enough. Says Shannen W. Coffin, who served as counsel to former Vice President Dick Cheney: “They seem more interested in the war on the English language than in what might be thought of as more pressing national security matters. An Orwellian euphemism or two will not change the fact that bad people want to kill us and destroy us as a free people.”

One can always count on a loaded partisan volley from the Cheney camp, but in this case one perhaps not easily deflected in the battle of political perception.

oblnycfbiAnother national security legacy of the Bush era, deeply troubling, lingers. An internal report from late 2008 assessing the state of the U.S. intelligence system, made public this week, found precious little progress since 9/11 in terms of fixing serious bureaucratic risks. That’s despite the greatest overhaul since World War II of the system, including the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to oversee America’s spy agencies.

Many senior U.S. intelligence officials interviewed “were unable to articulate a clear understanding of the ODNI’s mission, roles, and responsibilities,” according to the report. U.S. spy agencies are still running “largely disconnected and incompatible” computer systems and have “no standard architecture supporting the storage and retrieval of sensitive intelligence.” And “intelligence information and reports are frequently not being disseminated in a timely manner.”

And while the concept of sharing information between agencies is “supported in principle” among some intelligence leaders, according to the report, “the culture of protecting ‘turf’ remains a problem, and there are few, if any, consequences for failure to collaborate.”

Hopefully the true consequences of such recent turf battles, and the excruciating story behind them, haven’t already gone forgotten.

Toxic banks one-up bin Laden

I’ve been thinking about the economic crisis as a rising national security danger since sometime back in December, and I’m sure I haven’t been alone, even though scant attention has been paid in the mainstream media — until now. It’s only an odd coincidence that the same day earlier this week that I was suggesting we’d soon be hearing more from President Obama’s intelligence chief on the matter, Dennis C. Blair was in fact on Capitol Hill sounding the alarm. The global economic crisis now represents the top security threat to the United States, he told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

“Roughly a quarter of the countries in the world have already experienced low-level instability such as government changes because of the current slowdown,” Blair said. (That would be nearly 50 countries. Including Iceland, whose government collapsed three weeks ago.) Blair further warned of the kind of “high levels of violent extremism” seen in the 1920s and 1930s if the economic crisis persists beyond 2009.

The fears have now reached the front page of Sunday’s New York Times: “Unemployment Surges Around the World, Threatening Stability.” The trio of images above the fold are a quick world tour of worker displacement and unrest, from Bejing to Reykjavik to Santiago, where street graffiti declares “unemployment is humiliation.”

<em>Ivan Alvarado/Reuters</em>

Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Just one glaring manifestation of a troubling global trend.