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Friday, April 17, 2009

A Tortured Defense of Torture Secrecy

blindfolded detaineeLast night, the Obama administration released Bush-era torture memos. The documents detail slamming heads against walls, sleep deprivation, keeping people in a cramped box and -- in the case of insectophobic Abu Zubaida -- putting insects in the box with him. The memos detail these methods and argue that none of them constitutes physical or mental torture. Anyone who believes that exploiting someone's phobias isn't mental torture needs to do themselves a favor -- go ahead and Google rats, 1984, "room 101." It's odd that something that's not really torture would wind up being what is probably the most famous literary example of psychological torture.

Obama says he won't prosecute CIA employees for torture, but doesn't say he won't prosecute the people who authorized it. You kind of get the feeling that he's not handling that political hot potato until he absolutely has to. And who can blame him? No matter what he says on that issue, many, many people will be very, very unhappy.

But first, someone has to say something. When the news came out last night, The Altantic's Andrew Sullivan had an interesting observation:

No mention of the torture memos appears right now on the Drudge Report (which provides news of a prank at Dominos pizza), Instapundit (which mentions the new DVD for the Lord of The Rings trilogy), Pajamas Media, or Michelle Malkin. They are reacting to the evidence of war crimes committed by the president of the United States the way they did at the time the crimes were committed.

The key word here is "react." That's all they do. The wingnut blogosphere is almost entirely reactionary. There was no reaction because there were no lefty arguments to counter yet. Right wing pundits may not realize it, but their game is all big D. Even when they go on the offensive, it's in defense of something. That's the problem with being a reactionary, you're always playing defense.

This goes all the way to the upper reaches of the right wing world. In the Wall Street Journal, former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey write that Obama's giving away the store. Now terrorists will know what to expect.

Although evidence shows that the Army Field Manual, which is available online, is already used by al Qaeda for training purposes, it was certainly the president's right to suspend use of any technique. However, public disclosure of the OLC [Justice Dept. Office of Legal Counsel] opinions, and thus of the techniques themselves, assures that terrorists are now aware of the absolute limit of what the US government could do to extract information from them, and can supplement their training accordingly and thus diminish the effectiveness of these techniques as they have the ones in the Army Field Manual.

This is stupid beyond words and so obviously disingenuous that you wonder if the authors aren't ashamed to see it in print. The President has made it clear that torture is unquestionably illegal and has issued an executive order to the effect that it be stopped. Terrorists are already "aware of the absolute limit of what the US government could do to extract information from them" -- releasing the details of what we used to do doesn't do a damned thing.

Second, this is basically arguing that torture only works if it's a big surprise. That surprise was blown a long time ago -- long before Barack Obama showed up -- when the photos from Abu Ghraib were leaked. Any terrorist suspect who believed there was no way he was going to be tortured under Bush was probably the least informed person on the face of the Earth.

Third, we don't torture anymore -- at all. Mostly because it's both wrong and ineffective. What we got from Zubaida was, in the opinion of one FBI insider, "crap." Torture isn't just unethical and criminal, it's a stupid waste of time and resources. "We spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms," says one former intelligence official. Torture someone long enough and they'll tell you anything. And, by "anything," I include lies. Torture me long enough and I'll draw you a map to the Lost Dutchman mine -- it doesn't mean I actually know where it is, all it means is that I want you to knock off all the torture. Nothing about torture guarantees truth and the plain fact is that, of those backwards and oppressive nations that do torture, the purpose is almost entirely to extract false confessions. It's a lot easier to force someone to lie than to tell the truth. Especially if they don't actually know the truth you're looking for.

Mukasey's and Hayden's op-ed is a pretty lousy argument. In fact, it's a case study in using rationalizations to cover your ass. But what it isn't is convincing. Which is why the rest of the right were so slow to react -- they were at as much of a loss as how to defend torture as the two Mikes were. What they needed was some lefty op-ed, some high-profile blog post to react to. They'll heap ridicule on whoever that is and pretend they're going on the offensive, but what they'll really be doing what they always do -- defending what is or what used to be the status quo.

It's like what I always say -- if a conservative's talking about change, it means they want to change something back. There is no future in the conservative mind, only a perfect and beautiful present where history stops -- like in the communist historical dialectic -- and the status quo remains in place forever. A neocon paradise of self-regulating markets, an unquestioning media, and -- most importantly -- perfect safety forever for the Greatest Nation God Ever Gave Man.

No, it doesn't make any damned sense. Which is why their arguments never do either.


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M said...

You know, it's amazing that war criminals still have the soap box to spew their poison and rejected ideology.

It can't be said enough. I'm so thankful these stupid bastards aren't in power.

vet said...

Great piece. This kind of eloquence is why I follow your stuff so religiously.

Just one nit to pick. Under Obama, you're not supposed to torture any more, but accounts from the still-open Gitmo suggest that nothing there has changed. And Obama is still keeping up the mantle of secrecy that prevents us from knowing anything for sure.

Even if we trust Obama, can we trust his successors to keep up the same ideals?

I'll believe him when he institutes some real serious oversight of the CIA - such as making them answerable to civilian courts, and not just on US soil too.