Response to Comment on Powell / Morality

This is a response to a comment made on today’s post Powell reminds us of the importance of morality. I have posted it as a new entry instead of a comment for wider distribution since TypePad doesn’t syndicate comments. 

As I see it, the issue here is the institutionalization of torture and all that goes with it. By making it routine and codified, we take it away from the extreme ‘bomb on the bus’ prevention. The fact of the matter is the vast majority of the non-combatants captured are simply not worthwhile sources of intelligence and aren’t involved in vast conspiratorial plots to attack the US or its allies. At best, and all too frequently, they are merely foot soldiers without significant commitment either way. In this last case, the lack of true (or any) judicial processes reinforces the image of a hypocritical United States and inhibits any sort of reforms or institutionalization we’re attempting. But let’s not talk about these guys since you’re not.

In the ‘bomb on the bus’ scenario, I’m all for dunking, cutting fingers at the knuckles, ripping meat off the bone while using medical personnel to prevent shock, etc. However, when was the last time we had this situation? Never? I don’t recall a lawsuit on this. Does it need to be routinized because we’ve had terrorist attacks were prevented because of this intelligence tool? Are you telling me extreme measures have never been taken in ‘bomb on the bus’ scenarios in the last, say, fifty years? By legitimizing the process in the way the President is attempting to do, it becomes part of standard operating procedure and regardless of how high the bar is set by field manuals, it will be lower than it was before (because I don’t buy it hasn’t been used).

By the way, outsourcing the torturer to CACI or Titan, or any other private contractor isn’t the solution either, but hey its an option that does not require this change. In this case, Bruce Willis might be appropriate. He’s at least deniable and only brought in for extreme cases, like the bomb on the bus itself.

The proposed rule changes comes with a lot implied assumptions. First, it incorrectly assumes our enemy is monolithic by supposing any action we take will be constrained within the specific universe of our opponent. If this is what you think, you’re out of the loop. AQAM (al-Qaeda and Associated Movements) is now a franchise operation with limited or non-existent links back to ‘HQ’. By the way, do we completely not care about the Tamil Tigers or Kurdish separatists because it ain’t on us, yet? Because they could care less about religion. What about domestic terrorists? Are these Christo-Fascists to be targeted also?

Second, it incorrectly assumes the enemy at which this aimed – presumably the ‘Islamo-Fascists’ – will be our only enemy. Does one really think the President will, at some point at which the mission is accomplished or when we go to war with another group, perhaps a non-Muslim group, revise or remove the change? 

Third, in our project to spread democracy, a fair and equitable judicial process is a must and is (barely) included. Disregarding established international law and legal processes undermines not just our supposed moral authority but fails to lead by example. This is one of the many points the JAGs were making (and in a way far better than my attempt here). To suggest a Power can move in, kill, maim, and/or imprison who it wants, irrespective of justice and then create a peaceful and friendly polity is pure fantasy and robs every American KIA in Iraq and Afghanistan of dignity. They apparently died in vain.

From Sun Tzu to ibn Zafar to Machiavelli to Clausewitz to Callwell to Mao to Galula to Nagl, and countless others, to diss the local population is to invite hatred. It’s not new and it’s still wrong to assume the cadre of enemy leaders is finite if we continue on the path on which the tribunal and interrogation plans keep us are on. The recruiting pools of the various enemies that we now fight will continue to expand across the globe and expand within the territories of our allies and our own land. If only the US Army would have such luck in recruiting.

To be clear here, we’re not talking about the run of the mill ‘insurgent’, we’re largely talking about the ‘terrorist’. The insurgent is a military target and while the interrogation rules are actually intended to address him, the terrorist is what the emotional defenders of the rule focus on, including yourself. So let’s talk terrorists. If you caught Atta on September 10, 2001, do you think he would’ve talked if torture was allowed? Do you think if we knew the extent of what was to happen on September 11, 2001, torture would not have been explicitly or implicitly authorized? I know for a fact that many get seriously injured ‘during arrest’. Are you telling me that would not have happened?

Now Rep King is talking about Osama bin Laden. Is the best way to get information out of this man torture? If it is, do you think it wouldn’t be authorized explicitly or implicitly? Seriously now.

What is your counter to the military JAGs and generals? “Because”?

Codifying torture only guarantees their reckless use and will further harm America’s image and ability to win this war. If you disagree, I bet you buy into Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis. Did you know that virtually all of the suicide terrorist attacks and attempts explicitly cited American military presence or allied support of American military presence? How does that conform with Huntington? 

The solution isn’t to ratchet up extreme measures. These guys and gals already think they have no other option and their leaders have already conditioned them to accept and invite death into their lives. There is an alternative and it is to inhibit and crush their ability to recruit. As it is, our own actions are their best recruiting tool.

The solution? Keep it off the books, low key, and exclusive to real extreme instances. Focus on not creating recruiting posters for the enemy. Focus on counter-insurgency tactics proven to work through history and in the present. Focus on tactics that act as force multipliers, for us not them, including getting communities to trust us and report on suspicious behavior in Iraq, Britain, the US and everywhere else.

I welcome your comments.

2 thoughts on “Response to Comment on Powell / Morality

  1. Hi thank you for the response. Sorry it took so long to get back to you.Frankly, I like the way you handle the argument, but I still think you are off on the wrong track in one critical way. The reason the Bush Administration feels it is necessary to codify the legal parameters around torture, and not keep it “off the books” as you say, is because his political enemies keep bashing him over the head every time they dig into and discover evidence of “torture”. So what happens is that they’ve kept it off the books, but the Liberal Media keeps announcing “LOOK THEY DO TORTURE OVER HERE!!! LOOK EVERYONE LOOK!!! FASCIST CHIMP-HILTER-BUSH TORTURING PEOPLE OVER HERE!!!”. So of course, the facts on the ground preclude any ability to keep torture off the books, and out of the Media. Therefore it is now required that the laws around torture be codified. In addition, those who do the torture are less likely to wind up in legal hot water if the rules are codified. It is also more fair to everyone if the terrorists and the public know for a fact what is and is not allowed in regards to torture. To say that we should “keep it off the books” is like hiding society’s head in the sand, and doesn’t solve any of the problems with torture. If we must use it in some cases then the rules should be well defined and known. Failing to do this leaves the legal ambiguities that can lead to disaster. The fact that you think that if codified there will be abuses is off kilter. There are already abuses. codifying and clarifying is a way to inhibit abuse, not encourage it. That’s my opinion.

  2. I hear you and see validity in your arguments, ACCEPTING and ASSUMING certain preconditions. First, torture as a regular component in interrogation is effectively what the Administration is requesting. While oral arguments suggest use only during extreme situations — and this is primarily the argument giving by supporters — the framework is not limiting. In numerous cases, including the just released Syrian-Canadian, torture, through extra-ordinary means or not, is a regular means of intelligence gathering.Second, the argument in favor assumes that torture is a valid means of interrogation. In cases where immediacy isn’t an issue, when there’s not a bomb on the bus, torture is (significantly) less likely to provide reliable intel. The most effective interrogator at Gitmo, as I was told a year ago, was a woman who befriended the detainees. Psychological studies and the military’s own analysis all point to and support this method, and not torture, as an optimum solution for quality information.
    Third, this Administration has not, in my Republican opinion, proven itself capable of judicious application of torture. This Administration has made it clear it would rather resort to violent means of coercion rather than anything else. Harsh methods leads to harsh enemies and distrustful alliances. History has proven this and historian and strategic thinkers through the ages remind of that from Thucydides to Sun Tzu to Clausewitz to Mao. This Administration is selective in claiming tools to defend the country that are prioritized by (perceived) short-term payoffs.
    Fourth, going back to my comments above, this proposal assumes a very short-sighted and narrow intrepretation of the enemy. ‘Long War’ or not, these aren’t the only people we’ll come into contact with.
    Fifth, and again emphasizing the above commentary, our attempt to promote Democracy (American-style democracy, that is) is cut at the knees by such attempt to legitimize torture and prevent the defendent from seeing evidence against them, ala Star Chamber (I admit you’re not, at least not here, suggesting the revised tribunal rules should also be implemented).
    There are no boundaries for the torture. The media is remarkable complacent and pliable. They’ve turned on the Administration because a) people within the Administration don’t believe in the ’cause’ (this is described as ‘indexing’ by the media) and b) they are beginning to feel duped. We can discuss plenty of failed and no-start investigations by the US media (important distinction here since the Administration doesn’t care about foreign media and the US media largely ignores them… and is Fox News now Liberal Media?), so to bring them into this is not pertinent. The purpose, value, and representation of torture as a tool against the enemies of the state (terrorist or not, because that’s ill-defined as well) is the core issue.
    I disagree this will inhibit abuse. Preventing abuse and prosecuting violations by civilian contractors, for example, is already available through contract oversight, management, and the application of existing US law. However, it has been a political decision not to follow those routes either explicitly or implicitly. The same holds true for US military and OGA personnel. This law will not curb abuse because it does not set a framework that will deny activity.
    Allowing torture will remove limits that have existed and show the world we condone torture without parameters (none are codified), in my opinion.
    I appreciate the dialogue.

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