Saturday, January 08, 2005

How to Interrogate Terrorists

I ran across this article, by Heather MacDonald, which is published by the Manhatten Institute, a conservative think-tank. At first, I was impressed; the article is well-written and well-argued, and could not simply be dismissed as the rantings of another right wingnut.

MacDonald's arguement runs like this: The Pentagon-approved techniques, once believed effective 95% of the time, were not working. First in Afganistan, later in Cuba and Iraq, they found that the various psychological games used to ferret out information simply weren't effective with suspected al-Qaeda prisoners. The frustration about this was where the discussions of the use of "stress techniques" came about. MacDonald denies that this, or the memos trying to find a way around the Geneva Convention led to the abuses that were found in Abu Ghraib and Guanatanamo. In fact, she argues that the Pentagon's reaction to the scandal has now tied the hands of interrogators, who now find it difficult to use even standard methods.

The article gives an interesting history of how the discussion developed -- starting with Afghanistan, where they found that prisoners, some of whom had resistence training, simply refused to cooperate when faced with the familiar psychological techniques, such as "good cop/bad cop" or promises to allow the prisoners to see their families in exchange for cooperation. The prisoners were unruly and contemptuous, even threatening towards, their captors.

So, the decision was made to try to keep them "off-balance" and uncertain about how far the interrogator would go, with a slight breaking of the rules i.e.mild physical contact (like poking or pushing), when would be intimidating to prisoners who have been told that, according to American rules, they cannot be touched. Another rule-of-thumb that evolved was that prisoners could be treated no worse than the Army treated its members, which allowed interrogators to use sleep deprivation, standing for long periods, and other stressing situations that were common in Army boot camp. And, it worked -- prisoners started giving information. But this treatment is against the Geneva Convention, which is where the discussion of how to get arounds its provisions comes from. MacDonald points out that none of the the things, with the exception of the CIAs use of "waterboarding", that so horrified the country about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were ever approved. She also points out that interrogators on the scene were not aware of the Justice Department and White House memos.

MacDonald says "the abuse at Abu Ghraib resulted from the Pentagon's failure to plan for any outcome of the Iraq invastion except the most rosy scenario, its failure to respond to the insurgency once it broke out, and its failure to keep military discipline from collapsing". The prisoners at Abu Ghraib weren't even scheduled for interrogation, because they had no valuable information to give. In other words, the abuse wasn't policy; it was part of the general screw-up in the way this war has been carried out.

However, I am puzzled as to why she would characterize the recent FBI memos as merely confirming "that the FBI opposes stress methods" -- unless she considers allowing prisoners to lie for hours in their own excrement an acceptable example. The FBI memos reported other abuses, like sticking a cigarette in a prisoner's ear, that are certainly torture. In fact, MacDonald seems to completely gloss over the known abuses that occurred at Guantanamo Bay, painting a picture of a mild and humane imprisonment for the "worst of the worst" al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.

While interrogators may have never seen the memos debating whether or not the Geneva Convention had to be followed, I'm not so sure that the attitude that the rules can be bent didn't trickle down in some way from higher up. If the Justice Department didn't approve of using torture, somebody did -- and that somebody must have felt that superiors would turn a blind eye to it. Another thing is that many of the abuses were too deliberate just to be attributed to a breakdown in discipline -- the sexual humiliation, for example, or forcing prisoners to eat pork or drink alcohol -- these are things that were deliberately designed to show contempt for the prisoners' religious beliefs. The whole reason those now-infamous pictures were taken was so they could be used as a threat: "Talk, or we'll show this around your neighborhood." The same types of abuse appeared both in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo -- that wasn't an accident, a spontaneously made-up game by bored and undisciplined soldiers. In fact, when the scandal broke, the story was that this treatment was authorized in order to "soften them up for interrogation" -- a very odd justification for the degrading treatment of prisoners that MacDonald claims were not scheduled for interrogation.

Another point that Grandma, who saw Heather MacDonald interviewed on t.v., made this morning was that she apparantly got most of her information from the interrogators, and the same is true of this article. If she had asked at Abu Ghraib, before the scandal broke, I doubt they would have provided her complete information about what was going on, and would have put the mildest face on it possible. What we have is a complex picture; I'm sure some of the interrogators are telling the truth when they say that they were extremely careful not to stretch the Geneva Convention too far, but obviously this was not true of all interrogators, some of whom are responsible for the abuses.

So Heather MacDonald's article really just amounts to an unusually articulate denial of what has happened. We know that there was abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and it really stretches crudulity too much to claim that this was unknown and disapproved of by upper echelons. The question is how far up did the approval go? We know that pushing past the restraints imposed by the Geneva Convention was allowed, even MacDonald admits that. The question is, how much was officially allowed? And how much were they willing to wink at?

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