Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama And Torture

Yesterday, President Obama issued executive orders that gave heart to many who believe that the policies used by President Bush in the war on terror have damaged the moral and legal reputation and integrity of the United States. The orders directed the Central Intelligence Agency to shut down its secret overseas prisons, ordered the prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay to be shut closed as soon as possible but in no longer than one year, and banned the CIA from using "coercive interrogation methods," requiring the Agency to adhere to the same rules that the military follows in interrogating suspected terrorists. Taken together with the statement by Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder at his confirmation hearing that "waterboarding is torture" these orders seem to close the door on the debate on whether the United States does, and should, use extreme methods in its interrogations of suspected terrorists.

But not so fast.

In his own confirmation hearing, Obama's nominee for Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, refused to classify waterboarding as torture. He did say that the US would no longer use waterboarding as an interrogation technique and that the US would not use torture, but when asked directly whether waterboarding is itself an act of torture he refused to answer. Senator Carl Levin pushed Blair to answer, saying "If the attorney general designee can answer it, you can too," but Blair would not.

It may be that Blair is trying to protect US intelligence agents from prosecution, particularly as any agent that used waterboarding very likely did so believing that the Bush administration had determined that the technique was legal.

But it's also possible that the Obama administration is trying to keep the door open to use coercive interrogation techniques in the future if it is deemed necessary. Indeed, White House counsel Gregory Craig seemed to give confirmation to this in a briefing to congresspeople on Wednesday. According to the New York Times, "a Congressional official who attended the session said Mr. Craig acknowledged concerns from intelligence officials that new restrictions on C.I.A. methods might be unwise and indicated that the White House might be open to allowing the use of methods other than the 19 techniques allowed for the military."

Let's be clear what is being discussed here. The 19 techniques that the military is allowed to use are all relatively tame when compared to the extraordinary techniques authorized for the CIA (described below). They can be found in Army Field Manual 2-22.3 and range from "Direct Approach" (simply asking the subject questions) to offering incentives to playing on a subject's emotions (fear, hate, pride, ego) to tricking the subject that the interrogators already know the answers to the questions being asked to pretending the the subject is believed to be someone more important and dangerous and forcing the subject to reveal what he knows to prove he's not the other person to simply being silent and making the subject nervous. Two of the more controversial techniques, both of which require authorization from higher up the chain of command, are the "Mutt and Jeff" (also known as "good cop-bad cop") and "False Flag" in which the subject is led to believe that his interrogators are from another country not the US. Finally, one technique, "Separation," is highly restricted and requires authorization from flag officers. According to the Field Manual:

The purpose of separation is to deny the detainee the opportunity to communicate with other detainees in order to keep him from learning counter-resistance techniques or gathering new information to support a cover story, decreasing the detainee's resistance to interrogation. Separation does not constitute sensory deprivation, which is prohibited. For the purposes of this manual, sensory deprivation is defined as an arranged situation causing significant psychological distress due to a prolonged absence, or significant reduction, of the usual external stimuli and perceptual opportunities. Sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and anti-social behavior. Detainees will not be subjected to sensory deprivation.

Physical separation is the best and preferred method of separation. As a last resort, when physical separation of detainees is not feasible, goggles or blindfolds and earmuffs may be utilized as a field expedient method to generate a perception of separation.

• Physical Separation: Prevent the detainee from communicating with other detainees (which might increase the detainee's resistance to interrogation) and foster a feeling of futility.
• Field Expedient Separation: Prolong the shock of capture. Prevent the detainee from communicating with other detainees (which might increase the detainee's resistance to interrogation) and foster a feeling of futility.
The coercive interrogation methods authorized for use by the CIA are as follows:

  1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.
  2. The Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.
  3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.
  4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor, for more than 40 hours.
  5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time the prisoner is doused with cold water.
  6. Waterboarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane or a towel is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. The gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.
CIA agents undergoing waterboarding lasted an average of 14 seconds before giving in; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed apparantly lasted two and a half minutes. Christopher Hitchens voluntarily underwent waterboarding; the video is here.

There is a lot of discussion back and forth about the utility and necessity of coercive interrogation methods. However, as the Times article cited above makes clear, the CIA has for years asserted that the military's interrogation techniques are insufficient to pry information out of hardened terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Of course, many people, including former CIA interrogators, claim that the use of the more extreme methods are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

This seems to be a smart move by Obama: Repudiate the policies of Bush openly and decisively, but preserve the freedom of action he might need to interrogate other high-level members of al Qaeda. President Obama has very likely learned a very important lesson in his first days on the job. It's one thing to criticize policies as an outsider when one does bear the responsibility for the protection of the country; it's another thing entirely to do so when one is president.


Anonymous said...

Can water-boarding cause any injuries? Short or long term? I am unaware of any. If this is true, why should the US halt such a technique? We have closed the door on a valuable interrogation technique which causes little or no physical harm to the individual?

I am not suggesting the author of this blog is ‘sensitive.’ I only wish to bring up the fact that US citizens would jump at the opportunity to have waterboarding used on suspected terrorists who may know of an impending threat on US soil. It is a technique which has proven its strengths without causing physical harm to the person being “tortured.”

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