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)
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