October 06, 2005

Detainee abuse redux

I see Tom Donnelly and Vance Serchuk (the latter of whom was an acquaintance and sometimes mentor of mine during my time as an intern at the American Enterprise Institute) have a good primer up in the Weekly Standard on the subject of Congress codifying the Army Manual interrogation guidelines as the uniform standard for interrogation. The Senate has now voted 90-9 on the subject and I think it's for the best. Readers interested in my previous thoughts on the topic of detainee abuse can read here.

The 12 points (and yes, I know the Good Lord had only 10) on this issue for me are as follows:

1. I don't want to have to deal with this topic. Period. There are a lot more important issues that need to be discussed and a lot more important things that need to be done that are not because of this controversy. Its continued existence continues to sap domestic support for the war, provides inadvertent aid and comfort to both the enemy and the US anti-war movement, and makes it difficult to curb the rise of anti-Americanism among the general populace our oh-so-superior European allies. I also think that many of the bloggers who have touched on this subject have become far too hysterical and in so doing discredited the much broader and more important issues at hand.

2. All of the above might be tolerated if there were some kind of real, tangible benefits derived from the procedures that have been documented in various government reports. As noted in my previous piece, I am well aware that interrogating a terrorist to the point where they will supply useful information is not a pretty thing, which is why they call it "breaking." However, I do not see how any useful information that can be obtained from utilizing the various abuses documented to date, nor do any number of individuals who know far more about the practice than I up at my hometown of Fort Leavenworth. What good is interrogating a subject if they die in the process, for example? One of the options I am sympathetic to is that of narco-interrogation, but as I understand it no one has raised it as a serious alternative to date, leaving me wondering if it has either been dismissed as ineffective or is simply being ignored. From a purely utilitarian perspective, the key issue here for me is effectiveness and I do not see how what happened at Abu Ghraib or Bagram according to the military reports on the subject are effective interrogation techniques.

3. As noted above, I do think that many (but by no means all) of the individuals involved in this have been overly hysterical, have a political axe and/or vendetta to grind, et al. I also think that if you take many of the more hysterical arguments on this subject to their logical conclusion that you can't help but come to the point of view that US troops, at least when serving under a Republican administration, are serial human rights abusers. That's a personal judgement call and one I'll happily make. But that does not remove their concerns from the area of merit and I think that the Donnelly/Serchuk piece helps to put this issue in its proper perspective as far as what the issue is here ("it's apparent that confusion and lack of training--more than premeditated malice or moral failing--have been the determining factors in the misconduct of American soldiers"). Conservatives who have for many months now defended American troops against what they regard as a sickening smear campaign against them by elements of the anti-war left should not shrink from adopting this measure, as it clearly defines right from wrong as far as interrogation techniques are concerned. From a purely political perspective, it serves to separate those who are genuinely concerned over the issue of detainee abuses from those who regard this as just another political vendetta.

4. Al-Qaeda prisoners will almost certainly continue to claim abuse or torture before a jury, military tribunal, or upon release. It is a part of their training curriculum and serves as an effective propaganda tool, which is one of the reasons why it's so necessary to counter for the broader PR battle that the US is now facing in the Muslim world. In order for this campaign to work, we must be able to contrast our own civilized nature to the abject barbarism practiced by Zarqawi and his allies. Conservatives (in my opinion correctly) bemoaned the tabloid-esque media sensationalism that occurred following the release of the first round of Abu Ghraib photos as nothing less than a recruiting commercial for al-Qaeda. Those photos played directly into bin Laden's hand and from the perspective his Middle Eastern audience confirmed the truth of everything he said about the US. We cannot afford to have a disaster on that scale happen again, period.

5. I do not believe that either international human rights organizations, the international media, or the loonier segments of the anti-war movement are going to dampen their criticism of the United States or the administration because of this measure. Keep in mind, many of them tend to regard the very idea of designating al-Qaeda detainees as enemy combatants an act against international law every bit as bad as the detainee abuses themselves (which in my view demonstrates more the skewed moral paradigm that such individuals operate under than anything else). You don't undertake correct actions like this to gain the praise of your enemies, however.

6. The idea that this act plays into the hands of the enemy is misplaced, in my view. It certainly does not extend the rights enjoyed by US citizens to the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh, Abu Zubaydah, Abd Rahim al-Nashiri, Tawfiq Attash Khallad, or Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, for example. Rather, it codifies US interrogation policy so as to make sure that there are unambiguous distinctions between what are and are not acceptable conduct under American law. If these abuses are indeed the exception or the result of confusion and a lack of training as I believe to be the case, then what exactly is the problem?

7. Armchair psychoanalysis assessments linking prisoner abuses to either the US (correctly) labeling Iraqi insurgents as terrorists are horridly off-key, in my view. Or to state it better, these are arguments that sound brilliant to pundits but completely fall apart once you expose them to the harsh light of reality. As anyone who has ever taken an introductory class in psychology will tell you, human beings have a natural tendency to abuse authority, particularly when the rules are confusing or seemingly ambiguous. There have been a number of famous sociological studies demonstrating ample potential for prisoner abuse quite removed from anyone calling their prisoners (who were their classmates in one such study if memory serves) "terrorists" or even being in the middle of a war.

8. I understand well the argument that prisoner abuses, like the poor, will always be with us. No policy is going to be perfect in this respect, but if there is room for improvement I see no reason not to take that step whenever possible.

9. The administration, as I understand, argues that bill in question would intrude on the power of the executive branch to conduct war. That's a reasonable concern and I'm all for separation of powers, so if in fact they're correct in this regard the solution seems simple to me - have the administration implement a directive doing exactly what this bill argues for and then remove it from the floor.

10. The administration is threatening a veto on this particular bill, just as it has threatened a veto on another bill aimed at rescinding its earlier policies with regard to embryonic stem cell research. As a Catholic whose views on this subject are in line with the Magisterium (an issue that I am not going to get sidetracked on in the comments), I accept arguments in favor of the latter on the grounds of preserving human life. Given that adopting the former measure will serve to assist in the preservation of the lives of current and future US soldiers for all the reasons noted above, is it not then equally worthy of support?

11. On the issue of how to handle truly hard-core al-Qaeda members and leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, I think there are a variety of interrogation options available, though I'm still more than a little fuzzy as to whether or not the Field Manual regulations even apply to the CIA operatives charged with his interrogation or whether they have their own internal interrogation guidelines. Whether or not they do, I think it goes without saying that the interrogation techniques that can be used against absolute monsters like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should be quite different in terms of both order and degree from those employed against the normal Iraqi or Afghan detainees who are often taken up in periodic "sweeps" of hostile territory, questioned, and in most cases released afterwards. Simply put, what you do to someone you know is a mass murderer in a controlled environment like Diego Garcia (you guys do know that's where they're housing KSM, right?) is and should always be different from what you do with regular detainees.

12. One final point that hasn't been discussed but needs to be is how we deal with the interrogation of juvenile detainees. As I noted in an earlier discussion with Eric, al-Qaeda doesn't adhere to Western ideas like the belief that you become an adult at 18 and has no problems fielding fighters, runners, or spotters as young as 16 or even 12. A number of African armies do this as well and it's not a pretty thing, but it is a reality that is going to need to be addressed at some point as far as how we deal with them upon capture.

That's all I plan on writing on this for now and barring any unforeseen developments, I really don't plan on addressing the topic again. Just wanted to bring this to the attention of readers and let them know where I stood on it.

Posted by at October 6, 2005 08:42 AM | TrackBack (5)

There is something more fundementally wrong here that you fail to appreciate.

Young men (particularly) and women can be surprisingly brutal and cruel. This is especially true when they are under arms in a combat zone.
Allowed freedom of expression the armed American 18 year old can be as barbaric as the mongol 18 year that rode with Ghengis Khan.

This is not just my opinion. It is an opinion that is shared by many veterans of combat.

The typical 18 to 20something male is a hard on attached to a stomach. Add to that fear,anger,etc (emotions experienced intensely in a combat zone) and sophisticated weapons systems....and you can have a real problem on your hands.

One major purpose of the entire command structure of the Armed Forces is to cicumvent that problem.

What we are seeing with the apparently systemic prisoner abuse issues is a breakdown of command; a failure of command.

That troops would have a propensity to abuse prisoners does not surprise me; that they would act on the impulse frequently and openly, does.

So either the abuse is officially permitted - if not encouraged - or the military command structure is totally screwed.

Setting up some guidelines, developing or reinforcing some manuals, etc won't really address what must be the problem (s).

Posted by: avedis at October 6, 2005 12:57 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I disagree, to the extent that the military command structure seems in good order with respect to the functions that the military has prepared and trained for: primarily combat.

Prior to 9/11 the military had done much less preparation for holding, interrogating, and processing large numbers of detainees, and what advantages it may have gained through experience in Afghanistan were completely swamped by the much larger number of prisoners in the very different situation in Iraq.

Now, what the Senate seeks to mandate now the military should have mandated on its own starting two years ago at least. As Dan rightly points out, so many of the detention and interrogation practices that have done our cause in Iraq so much harm could not possibly have done us any good. That they went on in the first place and appear to have persisted for as long as they did I put down to command inattention borne of the wish that this unwanted responsibility would go away sooner rather than later, and therefore did not require a major investment of thought and resources. This is not nearly the only subject concerning which this kind of wishful thinking within the military (and of course within the civilian leadership at the Pentagon) has had baleful consequences since the Iraq war began.

It is appropriate and probably necessary that Congress step in with McCain's amendment. I'm sorry it is. Frankly the administration and the uniformed services -- particularly the Army -- have been inviting this kind of intervention by their refusal to assign responsibility for prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan to any but enlisted personnel and a few junior officers, a problem I wrote about in this space during my own guest-blogging stint last spring.

Posted by: JEB at October 6, 2005 03:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I am a big fan of clear guidelines, because the temptation is just too great for young men and women who have seen scumbags kill their friends and innocent civilians. I applaud this and any other move to clearly define what is and is not allowed.

Posted by: John Thacker at October 6, 2005 07:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Jeb, agreed that the US armed forces are effective in combat and that the command structure works quite well in that regard.

But are you seriously saying that the officer corps does not understand that "smoking" and "fucking" and sexually abusing and killing prisoners is wrong and counter productive?

Because that is the logical conclusion. If discipline and command are functioning then the only reason that systemic prisoner abuse would occur - other than the abuse was ordered at the highest levels - is that field grade officers don't understand that it is not a good thing. Furthermore, once incidents of systemic abuse were identified, general officers would have to interject themselves to ensure that these things stopped.

Are you going to tell me that a General (or even a Colonel) needs Congress to explain what's ok and not ok to do to prisoners?

I find that to be incredible.

I have to conclude that 1) torture and abuse was, to some extent, ordered from way on high and 2) those orders led to a free for all that was noted, but ignored, by command (at least at the battalion level and maybe at regimental level).

This is not good.

Then again, maybe we have a bunch of comissioned dolts these days who don't know right from wrong. And this would not be good either.

The cheese is rotten any way you slice it.

Posted by: avedis at October 7, 2005 12:22 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

A well reasoned post, and I generally agree on the specifics. However-

Given that adopting the former measure will serve to assist in the preservation of the lives of current and future US soldiers for all the reasons noted above, is it not then equally worthy of support?

This is wrong. There is no evidence whatsoever that al Qaeda or other islamic militant groups will treat captured US personnel one iota better because of this, and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary.


As it is a given that prisoner abuse is a problem that will always be with us, and that al Qaeda will allege torture regardless of how they are treated in custody, and that the international human rights organizations, international media, and the anti-war movement will condemn the US military in any case.... what is the point? The US will be condemned, regardless of it's conduct, or guilt or innocence.

If you are going to be hated, it is safer to be hated and feared than the be hated and held in contempt.

Posted by: rosignol at October 7, 2005 07:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'd like to know what shortcomings there are in the present regs and procedures that this bill seeks to address.

As I recall my own training (Infantry) some decades back, bad stuff was not allowed. In one exercise, the trainee squad leader had me "take care of" an officer dressed in black jamas, wearing a straw hat and a fake Ho beard and gabbling like a nutty old man. I slung my weapon and grabbed him by both shoulders and took him off the path. I was about to let him go when the officer dropped character and reamed me for being brutal. He was a wounded veteran of Viet Nam, no greenie.

IMO, if there are no lacunae, this Congressional action is a bit of grandstanding, administration-embarrassing, and pandering to the left (who can never be appeased no matter what you do so why bother?)

Since the AG stuff has resulted in jail for the actual perps and BG Karpinski's career detonation, and other stuff in between, we can presume that existing regs don't allow for that kind of treatment. It would be silly, if not beyond one's expectations for Congress, to think new regs are needed to address AG and any potential replications.

This strikes me as discovering that people are breaking the speed limit and reacting by passing another speed llimit law.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at October 7, 2005 05:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Understanding something and doing something about it are two different things. No senior officer will advance his career through immersion in detainee issues, especially if he and his associates assume that these issues will not have to be dealt with over a long future period. The institutional bias in late 2003 in favor of pretending that what was going on at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere was either not happening or represented isolated incidents must have been considerable.

It may be as well to address a potent source of confusion about this subject: the distinction between al Qaeda detainees apprehended in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and detainees in Iraq. There is a lot of overlap both ways: some Afghan detainees were picked up on bad information, and some Iraqi detainees were, and are, genuine terrorists. But the military and intelligence agencies did proceed against "the worst of the worst" by deliberately using methods that included harsh interrogation techniques. It did this not to "relieve tension" or give bored soldiers on the night beat at Abu Ghraib something to do, but to extract intelligence. Agree with the methods or not, there was a policy here, and a reasonably clear objective. The same cannot be said of the abuses in Iraq.

Moreover the damage done to American policy by abuse of Iraqi detainees, most of whom in 2003 were being arrested on very sketchy information by American soldiers who did not even speak Arabic, was (and remains) vastly greater than any damage done by waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. As I suggested upthread, its toleration over a period of some months only made sense if the senior American officers did not expect to be in Iraq for very long -- as in 2003 most did not -- for abuse of detainees picked up on such a random basis had negative consequences that could have been easily predicted and could not possibly have done us any good.

Intellectually, I understand the military's position that it needs "flexibility" in interrogating the first group of detainees: likely terrorists, who may well have information about future terrorist attacks. Military and intelligence officers would rather not be put in the position of extracting intelligence that saves American lives and then be prosecuted for it. But the flexibility thy are demanding requires an effective effort on their part to distinguish between "the worst of the worst" and the much larger number of detainees in Iraq. In 2003 this kind of effective effort was not made; "flexibility" was abused to the great cost of America's effort in Iraq.

The McCain amendment may well reduce the flexibility available to American interrogators, and as I said before I wish it were not necessary. Given what we have seen and heard since the Abu Ghraib scandal came to light I do not see that Congress has much choice but to act.

Posted by: JEB at October 7, 2005 05:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"One final point that hasn't been discussed but needs to be is how we deal with the interrogation of juvenile detainees. As I noted in an earlier discussion with Eric, al-Qaeda doesn't adhere to Western ideas like the belief that you become an adult at 18 and has no problems fielding fighters, runners, or spotters as young as 16 or even 12"

Realistically, such a kid is going to have a head full of ideology but precious little useful information.

So I'm not sure exactly what the point would be in an interrogation much harsher than would be used on a kid in the US caught in some misdemeanor.

Acting like some 15 year old is Zarqawi's 2nd in command would just be stupid.

Posted by: Jon H at October 7, 2005 06:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

rosignol writes: "There is no evidence whatsoever that al Qaeda or other islamic militant groups will treat captured US personnel one iota better because of this, and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary."

No, but perhaps some people won't become militant if we don't kneecap their relatives.

We can't do much about the people who are already violent militants, but there are lots of people who aren't. Yet.

The best thing for our troops, right now, would be if the insurgents were no longer able to recruit new members. You can't drain the swamp if you don't stop the inflow.

Posted by: Jon H at October 7, 2005 06:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Re seperation of powers:

Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitition:
"The Congress shall have power to...make rules concerning captures on land and water"


Seems pretty clearcut to me.

Posted by: Jon Marcus at October 7, 2005 07:45 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

There is some confusion - if not obfuscation - here.

Much of what went on at Abu and what Fishback and others are talking about has nothing at all to do with interogation techniques. Rather it appears to have been simply random, but prevalent, abuse of prisoners for fun and sport. And such was tolerated, if not encouraged.

This is a whole different issue than what should or should not be allowed in the interogation of positively identified terrorists who may possess critical information.

So I agree that what Congress is doing is non-productive grandstanding. Worse it obfuscates the problem. Again, the main problem is abuse of Iraqis - regardless of how clearly they are confirmed as active terrorists - for pleasure and sport, by US troops.

Posted by: avedis at October 7, 2005 10:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Typo alert?

"No policy is going to be perfect in this respect, but if there is no room for improvement I see no reason not to take that step whenever possible."

Isn't that first no out of place? I.e. "if there IS room for improvement I see not reason not to take that step..."

Posted by: Kirk Parker at October 10, 2005 05:57 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Oops, I quoted more than I meant to, so it's the SECOND 'no' that should be excised.

Posted by: Kirk Parker at October 10, 2005 08:24 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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