December 1, 2008

The Man Who Got Zarqawi Comes Out Against Torture

I have written extensively about the use of torture in the interrogation of prisoners in U.S. custody; it is one of the blackest marks - in a long, long list of black marks - left on our country by President George W. Bush. Not only does it stain our reputation and run counter to the ideals or our nation, it isn't even vaguely reliable, and it has placed American lives in danger by aiding recruitment among terrorist organizations.

Nonetheless, individuals like the disgraceful William Kristol believe that the use of torture by the United States should be forgiven - if not praised, outright - despite the obvious and ugly hypocrisy necessary to take such a position when the Allies prosecuted Germans after World War II for following orders "in good faith" and for ignoring crimes committed around them:

One last thing: Bush should consider pardoning - and should at least be vociferously praising - everyone who served in good faith in the war on terror, but whose deeds may now be susceptible to demagogic or politically inspired prosecution by some seeking to score political points. The lawyers can work out if such general or specific preemptive pardons are possible; it may be that the best Bush can or should do is to warn publicly against any such harassment or prosecution. But the idea is this: The CIA agents who waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the NSA officials who listened in on phone calls from Pakistan, should not have to worry about legal bills or public defamation. In fact, Bush might want to give some of these public servants the Medal of Freedom at the same time he bestows the honor on Generals Petraeus and Odierno. They deserve it.
In a bit of timely coincidence, however, Matthew Shephard, the man who led the team of interrogators that found Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - without resorting to torture - puts all of this in stark perspective in an article in yesterday's Washington Post. The entire article is well worth reading, but I found the following passages striking:

I'm not some ivory-tower type; I served for 14 years in the U.S. Air Force, began my career as a Special Operations pilot flying helicopters, saw combat in Bosnia and Kosovo, became an Air Force counterintelligence agent, then volunteered to go to Iraq to work as a senior interrogator. What I saw in Iraq still rattles me - both because it betrays our traditions and because it just doesn't work.
Amid the chaos, four other Air Force criminal investigators and I joined an elite team of interrogators attempting to locate Zarqawi. What I soon discovered about our methods astonished me. The Army was still conducting interrogations according to the Guantanamo Bay model: Interrogators were nominally using the methods outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual, the interrogators' bible, but they were pushing in every way possible to bend the rules - and often break them. I don't have to belabor the point; dozens of newspaper articles and books have been written about the misconduct that resulted. These interrogations were based on fear and control; they often resulted in torture and abuse.

I refused to participate in such practices, and a month later, I extended that prohibition to the team of interrogators I was assigned to lead. I taught the members of my unit a new methodology - one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information. I personally conducted more than 300 interrogations, and I supervised more than 1,000. The methods my team used are not classified (they're listed in the unclassified Field Manual), but the way we used them was, I like to think, unique. We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques to our work (something that the Field Manual permits, under the concept of "ruses and trickery"). It worked. Our efforts started a chain of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi.
I know the counter-argument well - that we need the rough stuff for the truly hard cases, such as battle-hardened core leaders of al-Qaeda, not just run-of-the-mill Iraqi insurgents. But that's not always true: We turned several hard cases, including some foreign fighters, by using our new techniques. A few of them never abandoned the jihadist cause but still gave up critical information. One actually told me, "I thought you would torture me, and when you didn't, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That's why I decided to cooperate."

Torture and abuse are against my moral fabric. The cliche still bears repeating: Such outrages are inconsistent with American principles. And then there's the pragmatic side: Torture and abuse cost American lives.

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me - unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.
If you are new to Sensen No Sen - or remain unconvinced by my previous posts on this topic - consider this thought experiment from Barry Eisler at The Heart of the Matter. I think the answers to Barry's questions are readily apparent, if we're honest with ourselves:

... If instead of American soldiers and Arab detainees, the photos and videos from Abu Ghraib were of American POWs and, say, Iranian guards, what would be the American reaction? Note the linguistic choices in the previous sentence, which would be automatic: Arabs are denied the dignity of being designated Prisoners of War. They're not even prisoners. They're merely "detainees" (I'm half-surprised we haven't started calling them "guests"). The Americans holding them are "soldiers"; were the shoe on the other foot, the enemy captors would doubtless receive the less exalted term, "guards." Would there be any debate about whether the practices revealed in the photos were "outrages upon human dignity," as prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law? Would we describe the practices as "abuse?" Or would they obviously, and rightly, be called "torture?" If Americans were taken against their will and spirited away by Iranian government forces, would we call the practice "rendering," or would we recognize it as "kidnapping?" Would we call the places to which Americans were secreted and where they were held without acknowledgment to their families or even to the Red Cross "detention centers?" Or would we call such a system a gulag?
President-elect Obama has promised to (re-)outlaw the practice of torture. Ending a practice that is effective only in endangering American lives, diminishing standing of the United States in the eyes of the world, and aiding our enemies can't come soon enough.


lokywoky said...

Hi. Too bad I didn't see this article before Thanksgiving. I got into a virtual screaming match with my right-wingnut little brother on this topic over the T-Day turkey. I kept telling him that torture doesn't work. His response was 'how do you know?' I said why don't you ask John McCain (who lied to his interrogators as well)? He just kept saying 'how do YOU know?

Then he told me he would not ever believe a single thing I would ever say because I was a stupid idiot who only gets my information off of nut-bag internet sites.

He, on the other hand, watches only Fox News - fair and balanced.


PBI said...

Oy - sounds like a less than fun, holiday. Hopefully all else went well.

And it's never too late to send him a link! ; )

Happy Thanksgiving!