May 15, 2009

An Even Lower Low

This week brought significant new developments in the ongoing saga of American torture policy.

In the first, President Obama reversed himself on the release of additional images from the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal, in which United States military personnel tortured, humiliated, terrorized and even killed Iraqi prisoners in their custody. Mr. Obama had previously stated that he would not challenge the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)'s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for their release, but dug in his heals at the 11th hour, claiming that the pictures would "further inflame anti-American opinion and ... put our troops in greater danger."

The courts appear likely to force the White House to release the Abu Ghraib photos anyway, but if it is unclear what the president hopes to accomplish with this delay, there are a number of reasonable paths of conjecture. It's possible that he is positioning himself to release the photos later in conjunction with an investigation into Bush Administration torture policy. He might be concerned about bogging down ongoing relations with Pakistan, Iran and/or Afghanistan. It could be a simple matter of responding to ongoing criticism from the Republican opposition. It might even be an attempt to provide cover for members of the Democratic Party complicit in President Bush's policy. It could be some combination of any or all of these considerations, but one things is for certain: It would be pretty difficult to further inflame the Muslim world against the United States in any significant fashion. As the always-outstanding Glenn Greenwald writes [emphasis in original]:
We're currently occupying two Muslim countries. We're killing civilians regularly (as usual) - with airplanes and unmanned sky robots. We're imprisoning tens of thousands of Muslims with no trial, for years. Our government continues to insist that it has the power to abduct people - virtually all Muslim - ship them to Bagram, put them in cages, and keep them there indefinitely with no charges of any kind. We're denying our torture victims any ability to obtain justice for what was done to them by insisting that the way we tortured them is a "state secret" and that we need to "look to the future." We provide Israel with the arms and money used to do things like devastate Gaza. Independent of whether any or all of these policies are justifiable, the extent to which those actions "inflame anti-American sentiment" is impossible to overstate.

And now, the very same people who are doing all of that are claiming that they must suppress evidence of our government's abuse of detainees because to allow the evidence to be seen would "inflame anti-American sentiment." It's not hard to believe that releasing the photos would do so to some extent - people generally consider it a bad thing to torture and brutally abuse helpless detainees - but compared to everything else we're doing, the notion that releasing or concealing these photos would make an appreciable difference in terms of how we're perceived in the Muslim world is laughable on its face.
The second notable event was the testimony of former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan before a Senate panel examining torture by American personnel, which covered not only the ineffectiveness of abusive techniques in effective questioning, but directly contradicted - under oath - key assertions made by former Vice President Dick Cheney about the results obtained from these methods.

Mr. Soufan stated that torture techniques were "ineffective, slow and unreliable and, as a result, harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda," and went on to say that "many of the claims made" by the Bush Administration were questionable at best. Specifically, Mr. Soufan cited these examples:
  • The Bush White House claimed Abu Zubaydah was not cooperating before August 1, 2002, when waterboarding was approved. "The truth is that we got actionable intelligence from him in the first hour of interrogating him" before that date.
  • The Bush Administration credited waterboarding with drawing information from Zubaydah that led to the capture of alleged dirty bomb conspirator Jose Padilla, who received a federal sentence of more than seventeen years, despite the fact that prosecutors presented no information on the supposed dirty bomb plot whatsoever. Mr. Padilla was, in fact, arrested in May 2002, months before waterboarding was authorized.
  • Bush officials contended that waterboarding revealed the involvement of al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the attacks of September 11, 2001. That information was actually uncovered in April 2002 again, months before waterboarding was introduced.
Of course this compelling, firsthand testimony didn't dissuade GOP boosters like entertainment personality Joe Scarborough. On Thursday's Morning Joe program, Mr. Scarborough simply ignored the fact that Ali Soufan testified under oath, as well as the time line issues he raised, and promptly stated that the former FBI agent was "exaggerating" his involvement, and didn't really know what he was talking about. (The MSNBC host clearly aspires to the Stephen Colbert school of reportage. As the unequalled Colbert said on one of his first shows, "Anyone can read the news to you. I'm going to feel the news at you.")

Incrementally then, it seems as if the justifications for torture are crumbling, as are the defenses of major supporters like former Vice President Dick Cheney who has been on television - probably more in the last few weeks than at any time during his term in office - defending the indefensible. As the accounts of success and the effectiveness of torture itself are undermined, what explains Mr. Cheney's media outlet omnipresence?

In an article for the Washington Note, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the State Deparment's Chief of Staff during the term of Secretary of State Colin Powell, provides a crucial insight enormous in its implications:
Likewise, what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 - well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion - its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaeda.
When one stops to think about it, this explains an awful lot about why Dick Cheney is everywhere on the airwaves these days, claiming that torture kept America safe, and that the Bush Administration only had America's best interests at heart. However, if what Colonel Wilkerson says is true, then Mr. Cheney has a vested interest in making sure that the conversation about torture stays focused on its efficacy rather than the circumstances of its use.

Plainly, if the Bush Administration not only began torturing captives before the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued its opinion stating that such actions were permissible, but tortured prisoners to justify a political decision to invade Iraq - rather than to uncover "terrorist plots", then the jig is up. The torture of prisoners prior to the OLC opinion doesn't even have the flimsy legal cover that document provides. Worse for Mr. Cheney, the reason for that torture - the invasion and occupation of Iraq - isn't something that will pass muster as justifiable among any but the farthest right of the right wing.

For a while, I actually thought we had finally reached the bottom of the seemingly depthless pit of venality, arrogance, stupidity and ignorance that the Bush Administration seemed to mine regularly for its policy decisions. Based on past experience, I should have known better.

If the White House was, in fact, ordering the torture of prisoners, not even for the spineless justifications they have trotted out to date, but "merely" to help rationalize attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, then - true to form - they have found yet one more way to achieve an even lower low for a presidency characterized by little else.

Over at The Heart of the Matter, Barry Eisler responds to one of his readers, who supports American torture policy. It is one of the best and most systematic demolitions of pro-torture arguments I've read yet. Please check out The Torture Mentality.


Anonymous said...

There is yet one other reason for challenging the release of the photos "at the 11th hour". I believe it is because he can yet again play both sides of the fence. He knows, as an attorney (as well as his advisors' input), that there are no more legal options to appeal or object to the ruling. He will HAVE to release them at some point unless he uses Presidential power to stop (which he won't). This approach allows him the opportunity to play politics and appear to be concerned on both sides of the argument. Got to admit, he sure is slick!

PBI said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for stopping by.

I think you may be correct, although that is placing too much faith in a politician for my liking. This 11th hour stoppage is also predicated on using a new argument in the White House's appeal: national security. I hope you're right, but I think the jury is still very much out on this one.