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Friday, April 24, 2009

Waterboarding infamy

Obama has been vacillating on how to deal with the torture memos. The White House seems to be reacting on an ad hoc basis to criticism of the torture, anger from the Right over the release of the memos, and indecision over how far to pursue the investigation.

At least the Republicans are no longer saying torture didn't occur; they've instead opted to say how much it helped "protect us." I didn't think water-boarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was necessary, let alone over 180 times in a month. Nor was putting KSM, the confessed mastermind of 9/11, in a closet with insects, one of the treatments authorized by our government. The allegations that KSM's children were taken to compel him to confess may or may not be true. How will we ever know? Without transparency, we have no idea what our government does in the name of "protecting us."

I've offered here on this blog one reason why the harsh interrogation techniques might have been used: politics. Incidentally, I saw that the techniques were reverse-engineered by our military's S.E.R.E.(Survival Elusion Resistance Escape?) training, used to prepare special forces soldiers and SEALs to withstand torture by Cold War captors. In assessing the effectiveness of the SERE techniques, our own military acknowledged that they weren't likely to reveal accurate intelligence. This is no surprise: if someone tortures you, and you're in pain, you're likely to say whatever the torturers want you to say. So providing timely, actionable intelligence wasn't the primary goal, whatever Dick Cheney might say.

The intelligence branches knew torture wasn't effective in producing intelligence. So what was the reason behind the torture if it wasn't meant to render accurate information? Torture did yield results in a punitive capacity. This could send a message to would-be plotters: if you do a 9/11--or even plan it--you will disappear into one of our black sites, where you'll become "property of the United States" (as a now-free English detainee, interviewed for the groundbreaking National Geographic Presentation, Inside Guantanamo, claimed he was told by one of his captors.)

OK, so there's a intimidation value, just like fear of the Nazi SS's brutal prisons likely scared the hell out of French partisans. But, wait, the extremity of their treatment at the hands of the Germans actually motivated the French to resist more effectively. If you knew you'd die horribly if you were caught, that might dissuade you from joining the resistance, but facing death if caught would also make you quite willing to die. You'd go to extremes not to be caught, becoming far more dangerous and deadly.

Now, bring us back to now, who is it that's willing to die? Mujhadeen, in the service of Allah against the infidels. OK, so the intimidation value might actually become a motivator for resistance, making it not only more extreme--considering the consequences of capture--but also mobilizing people who revile the treatment of fellow Arabs they see in pictures released from Abu Ghraib.

Torture doesn't serve any good purpose if it exposes occupier misconduct to the point it motivates the occupied to resist. We could take a look back and probably see an uptick in attacks on Americans in the period subsequent to the release of the Abu Ghraib photos.

OK, so maybe the Republicans are right--torture pictures should never be released, if they help the enemy. Then again, if torture helps the enemy why torture? In a democracy, things have a way of getting out. Whistleblowers whistle, leakers leak, and secrets spill. So who could think that we could keep a lid on all we do, particularly when it's as odious as torture? As a matter of fact, the release of the Abu Ghraib photos made it seem like we intended to intimidate the Iraqis, although it likely just made them madder, increased American troop deaths, and lengthened the war.

We've already established torture is no more effective than other means. After all KSM was taken in March 2003 by Pakistan's ISI (a group with ties to the Taliban who we used to fund the mujhadeen in their fight against the Soviets.) The Los Angeles plot Cheney refers to was supposed to have happened in 2002, as far as I know. There was also the planes over the Pacific thing, so you'll have to pardon me if I've confused the date of KSM's capture with the terrorist events he was said to have said were coming.

KSM was in no position to say no. He would have admitted any terrorist attacks were his, if for no other reason to protect his children from being locked in a cage with biting insects. Any good parent would do the same. So if his interrogators had wanted to pin a terror strike on him, past, present, or future, they could have done so easily.

Having a patsy who'd readily admit to anything surely was convenient in the color-coded alerts John Ashcroft would periodically announce in the lead-in to the 2004 election. Not by coincidence, Rove had targetted Security Moms and NASCAR dads as the key demographics. Tending to vote on their impulses, these groups fell for the War on Terror rhetoric.

For instance, at the end of the Democratic convention, a time when Demcoratic candidates get a pop in the polls, Ashcroft announced a raising of the alert level. Last year, I referenced Keith Olbermann's Nexus of Politics and Terror which went through every alert and its circumspect timing in political events.

Why is the political side so important? Well, since Day One, the War on Terror has been a political vehicle. Yes, our military consummated the use of force overseas, in places which just so happened to have a lot of oil and natural resources. But the real plumb of the terror war has been domestic political opinion. Looking tough on terror earned political scoring points in the demographic segments needed to win elections.

Now in order to show that there was a real diabolic enemy, say someone labelled al Qaeda though that group never existed prior to the creation of a list by that name by US and British intelligence agencies, people like Khalid Shiekh Mohammed needed to confess. But because they were shipped off to black sites, the American public could never know. So new terror plots would have to be uncovered and where there were none, invented if need be. If after all, KSM would admit to anything, why not associate him with every potential terrorist plot that his interrogators could? The more terror plots, the bigger the threat and the more justified the response. The more terror plots that were exposed (through KSM's confessions) the more rational the pursuit of radical Islamic fundamentalists. And when these plots--real or imagined-- were thwarted, the Washington consensus that more military force was needed.

Peons in the lower ranks were actually convinced that the War on Terror was real, that Arabs really were plotting. Stung by 9/11, most Americans were vulnerable. Inserting ourselves on false pretenses into Iraq gave Bush's central front in the war on terror relevance. Our boys were being attacked, by "them." Never mind that al Qaeda never existed in Iraq prior to our arrival. Never mind that nationalistic Iraqis might be resisting the presence of non-Iraqis (whether Muslim or not.)

The War on Terror was created to satisfy the policy. The Downing Street Memos said intelligence was fixed around the policy, namely to go to war. It's therefore not much of a leap to assume our enemies in the War on Terror were whoever our government said they were, regardless of their actual guilt or innocence. (Orwell's "we are at war with East Asia," though the prisoners paraded through London weren't Asian.) The main point--and political purpose behind it--was to rationalize the ongoing use of force, which solidified support behind the war president, as Bush referred to himself.

KSM was tortured not to provide any fresh intelligence. KSM was tortured to substantiate the War on Terror myth, to solidify the excuse behind a relinquishing of civil liberties, an expansion of Executive branch authority, and to justify a series of wars that fed a ever-growing war machine. Forty percent of the Pentagon's budget flows directly to defense contractors, so a 100% increase in the Pentagon's budget meant a lot to executives in the military industrial complex and their shareholders like Cheney. And the spike in oil prices certainly didn't do Bush's friends in Texas and Saudi Arabia any harm.

Nothing happens without a reason. Where there lies political opportunity, political opportunists go, even if the damage to our international credibility, and the rule of international law, and morality, is forever damaged. Even if the consequences of using torture means that the US now acts beyond any legal accountability.

The example has been set: the US can get away with torture. Obama has no plans to investigate, at one point he oddly uttered something about the need to move on, a comment that was met with righteous incredulity. Under this logic, no one would ever be prosecuted for a crime. Everyone, or anyone in the Office of the President, or acting as his agent, was above the law by Obama's imperial decree. They were immune to any charges, at least until Obama went on to say that no one was above the law and that his Attorney General might investigate. Unfortunately for justice, Holder is the consummate Washington insider who's far more likely to use torture as a political cudgel against Republicans than go back and start charging people.

I guess the culture of corruption means that we don't have any choice in how we are led. Leaders of both parties seem preoccupied with maintaining the status quo at any cost. Yes, there are morale issues if intelligence agents think they'll face charges. But at one point the CIA was actually purchasing liability insurance policies for its employees involved in the interrogations, and another odious practice called rendition. And what about Valerie Plame, an agent working on WMD proliferation, outed by the Vice President and Scooter Libby through the media?

Unfortunately the realization that the Republicrat duopoly means real change will never be offered becomes a de-motivater. Americans are apathetic enough about voting. And when they do rise up, leave it to the mass media and Washington establishment to instantly turn any issue of substance into a red herring. Degenerating into partisan politics cuts off constructive debate and deters political activism that could mobilize popular opinion and threaten the Washington establishment.

Now the tea protestors have it right when they say that so much government borrowing will have dramatic consequences.
I was surprised by how quickly the gatherings were classified as politically motivated, and partisan. While the consensus can say the protestors have come and gone, and go back to their business of spending the people's money free of interference.

I don't think there's a right and a left when it comes to opposing government waste and corruption. By aligning themselves with the movement, people like Glenn Beck doomed it. Liberals then criticized the protest as the product of scheming against Obama by so-called conservatives. I say so-called because the media's definition of conservatism today differs so thoroughly from the traditional concept. Now occasionally a conservative theme will emerge in mainstream GOP politics, like fiscal discipline, but the track records of the self-proclaimed "conservatives" isn't conservative at all. Same goes true for interventionism, the idea that the US should participate directly in overseas commitments, which is not a hallmark of real conservatism, if Reagan is the example. Real conservatives would be astounded to learn that their present day equivalents in name only would be convinced having more than 600 overseas basis was a good thing.


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