Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Iraq Journal, Part Three

[City Journal has published the second dispatch from my father on living and teaching in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimani. You can read his first dispatch here, and one from my mother on visiting Halabja here.]

City Journal Home.
Jerry Weinberger
Iraq Journal, Part Two
Socialism on top, Milton Friedman on the bottom
22 April 2009

Editors’ note: This is the second in a series of dispatches from Kurdistan, where the author is spending four months consulting for the American University in Iraq–Sulaimani. Read the first installment here.

I was born with the olfactory powers of a bloodhound, which is a blessing at fine restaurants but not in the city of Sulaimani, or Suli, in Iraqi Kurdistan. On first entering my apartment here, I knew that my palate, tongue, and nose were under assault from petroleum molecules—but I didn’t know why, since there’s no oil drilling nearby. It turns out that every house, business, and hotel has an ample, and often leaky, supply of diesel fuel in the basement. That’s because there’s hardly a house or business in Suli that doesn’t have a diesel-powered generator just outside the door. And that’s because electricity is available from the main grid only six or eight hours per day.

Water, too, is intermittent, which explains why for every private generator, there’s also a private water tank. The water is used for plants and for washing cars, clothes, and people, but not much for human consumption. Few people drink it, and it’s not wise to open your mouth in the shower or brush your teeth with water from the tap. A visit to the humblest and cheapest restaurant begins with a sealed, square plastic container of water plopped down in front of you, usually free of charge. In the bazaar are pyramids of sheep’s heads; outside the bazaar, you can’t walk a block without encountering giant pyramids of 20-liter bottles of potable water.

The reason for the city’s strange amalgam of official grids and unofficial networks is that Sulaimani Province is governed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a proud member of the Socialist International. The PUK owns half of the city and employs half of its people. American readers won’t be surprised that a sprawling, one-party socialist government is not a paragon of efficiency, transparency, and responsiveness to public needs—especially in a place like Kurdistan. After Saddam’s genocidal Anfal Campaign against Kurdish rebels in 1988, and the establishment of the no-fly zone after the Gulf War in 1991, the two Iraqi Kurdish political parties—the PUK, led by Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdish Democratic Party, led by Masoud Barzani—fought a nasty civil war. Adding to the cost of this internal chaos, which lasted from 1994 to 1998, were the sanctions that strangled Iraq, and particularly Suli, until the fall of Saddam in 2003. So the Kurds couldn’t buckle down to rebuilding their ravaged land until just six years ago.

Fortunately, the two parties have patched up their differences. The KDP (whose stronghold is in the northern province of Erbil) and the PUK in Suli have brought Kurdistan to a vague but real enough status as a quasi-independent region within a federal Iraq. They’ve even become somewhat embarrassed about their weakness on civil liberties, especially in more free-thinking and liberal Suli—where independent women’s groups have taken on the hot-button issue of violence against women, and where a high school student recently organized a seminar on child abuse. The two parties have, in short, provided a level of personal security, freedom, and religious toleration unknown in the rest of post-Baathist Iraq. True, it’s under the socialist PUK that the electricity runs only six hours per day and the water intermittently. Yet this administrative inefficiency hasn’t resulted in economic paralysis, because while a socialist government rules from above in Suli, the principles of Milton Friedman flourish underneath.

The Kurds have used their share of Iraq’s oil money to lure massive foreign investments. But at least in Suli, they haven’t succumbed to the Middle East’s stultifying economic and psychological dependence on that money. I think that’s because with so much inefficiency at the top, the regular citizens of Suli fend for themselves. Hence the spontaneous and private systems that electrify and water the city. Hence the private garbage collectors who walk the city collecting trash (though a lot of it gets deposited in the vacant lot next to my building) and the private propane sellers who crisscross the city to help people cook.

The city also hums with small-scale building, both residential and commercial, and shopping malls and start-up businesses—for instance, the Melody CafĂ©, a sleek espresso and gelato establishment in my building. Recently, two musicians, a Kurdish violinist and a Russian pianist, played classical music at the Melody to the beaming delight of the packed Kurdish house. The central street running to the sprawling bazaar is a free-enterprise zone—established by the enlightened free-market liberal Barham Salih, deputy secretary-general of the PUK and deputy prime minister of Iraq—with few public buildings and no elaborate rules governing how new businesses may start. Few rules, in fact, govern the building of anything in the city. Half the dust in Suli gets blown in from the south, but the other half is produced by all the digging and grinding and sanding of ubiquitous construction.

The result of all this vigorous private enterprise is that Kurdistan, the poorest part of Iraq before the war, now enjoys the highest standard of living in the country. If the government here worked better, in fact, I think the citizens of Suli would be slower to develop their nascent individualism, capitalism, and vibrant civic culture. Few of them probably realize that they are slowly acquiring the habits of entrepreneurial capitalism: do for oneself; take risks and strive to get richer; don’t dwell on the past; and when things go badly—and do they ever know what “badly” can mean—pick yourself up, don’t worry about honor, and get on with life.

The Milton Friedman bottom of Suli is causing problems for the socialist top. Recent polls show that almost half of the electorate is tired of government inefficiency and the slow pace of infrastructure construction, and the Kurdistan Islamic Union is licking its lips in anticipation of the next elections. It’s a joke when the disgruntled citizens of Bologna, Italy, vote in protest for Communists. It won’t be a joke if the Kurds turn in protest to the KIU and other Islamic parties.

The PUK knows this, and some of its members also know that it can’t rest on its laurels for having fought Saddam. There are rumblings in the party’s liberal and reformist elements. It’s my hope that in the long run, liberal, free-market reformers will come out on top. And they had better, because Kurdistan is caught between a Turkish rock and a Baghdadi hard place. It’ll take cool heads—who understand that Kurdish independence is fragile and that Iraqi oil is too valuable a resource to be lost pursuing nationalist dreams—to navigate the shoals of a workable Iraqi federalism.

Jerry Weinberger is a professor of political science at Michigan State University, director of the LeFrak Forum at Michigan State, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. His most recent book is Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Iraq Journal, Part Two

[This is the second in a series of posts about goings-on in Iraq. In the first, my father who is teaching at the American University in Iraq - Sulaimani wrote about getting to the Kurdish north. In this post, my mother, who is visiting my father in Iraq for a few weeks, writes about a trip to Halabja.]

Another fascinating and very stimulating weekend. (And did I mention that the weekends are Friday (the holy day) and Saturday.) Both Friday and Saturday we were taken in to the mountains surrounding Suli, first in the east and then in the west. The Kurds are fond of saying that "the mountains are our only friends" and that "Saddam had tanks but we had the mountains." The mountains surrounding Suli are different than any I've seen but Jerry compares them to the Grand Tetons. They rise sharply up from the valley without the surrounding foothills that are more typical in the US. And they vary dramatically in type from bare and rocky, to sandy with desert type plants, to covered with lush green

On Friday, a staff member at AUIS and her husband took us to Halabja, the town in the eastern mountains very close to the Iranian border where they were born and raised. Mention Halabja to any Kurd and they immediately know what it means and what you are going to see. Halabja is to the Kurds what the Holocaust is to Jews. It's the town that Saddam destroyed by chemical bombs, killing 5,000 men, women, and children. Visiting Halabja with Kurds, who are now in their 20s but were children of around 7 at the time of the attack, was a moving experience. Both had lost many friends and family members as well as having their homes destroyed; both had parents blinded for several weeks by the chemicals. Sham had never before visited the memorial because she feared the photos of those burned or killed would be too upsetting. Her husband recounted fleeing in fear, clinging to his mother's skirt. He took us to the path in the mountains on which, if they had chosen it, they would have died along with countless others who are now buried in mass graves that dot the hillside. He showed us the path they took instead to a village which though also hit by a chemical bomb, luckily, did not explode. Standing in the mountains, surrounded by wildflowers, and seeing families picnic at the cemeteries and mass graves it's difficult to imagine the horror which happened only 20 years ago.

Saturday, Dildar, a woman I was introduced to, took me to visit the Women's Commission, an organization which collects statistics, educates, and advocates on behalf of women. Although the women of Suli are relatively modern, women in the small villages still live lives of second class citizens. Honor killings still occur. Female circumcision is common. And few women are allowed to own property, receive their husband's pensions if they are widowed, or to withdraw money from bank accounts. Even in Suli, girls do not have the same freedoms as boys. The girls at the high school where I have been volunteering complain they are not allowed to go out with friends, they certainly can not have boys visit their homes, and many families prize boy children more than girls.

After an elaborate Kurdish lunch at the home of a Kurdish Member of Parliament with enough food to feed 30 people, Dildar also took Jerry and me for a drive in to the mountains (with a driver and uniformed guard carrying an M16 rifle!) She showed us the village and huts where she and her husband had been in hiding with other members of the pesh murga during the fighting with Saddam. She related stories of horror: bombing of the villages, climbing the mountains under sniper fire, having 3 miscarriages from effects of chemical weapons.

Again this weekend, Jerry and I were in awe of the stories of loss, heroism, and personal bravery that we heard. When we become frustrated with the construction debris, the dirtiness, and the inefficiencies of basic services, we try to remember how far Kurdistan has come in the brief time they have been at peace. We also once again were impressed by the warmth and hospitality of the Kurdish people. Sham's family in Halabja prepared a huge feast for us, family members from all over the city came to meet us and show us their children, and then they sent us home with a big bag of home-made bread. Shopkeepers, cab drivers, and others tell us over and over how much they love America. They are anxious that their stories are heard in the West.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Legalizing Torture? Part II: The 30 May 2005 Bradbury Memo

[This is the secondin a series of posts analyzing the recently released Office of Legal Counsel memos discussing the legality of proposed coercive interrogation methods to be used against suspected members of al Qaeda. The second memo to be considered is the May 30, 2005 memo from Steven Bradbury to John Rizzo, the Senior Deputy General Counsel of the CIA, entitled Re: Application of United States Obligations Under Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture to Certain Techniques that May Be Used in the Interrogiation of High Value al Qaeda Detainees. Part One of the memo is here; Part Two is here.]

I wrote in Part One of this series that it seems unlikely that there are grounds for criminal prosecutions in the August 1, 2002 memo. However, I'm not so sure that can be said for the May 30, 2005 memo. In this one, Steven Bradbury was advising the CIA on the obligations of the US under the Convention Against Torture and specifically how those obligations impacted the use of certain coercive interrogation techniques. Thus this memo is very detailed about the use of these techniques, as it seeks to determine whether they fall afoul of international law.

There's a lot of stuff in this memo...but I want to focus on the question of waterboarding, as that seems to be the most controversial. Page 15 of the memo clearly spells out the US policies governing the use of the waterboard:

The waterboard may be authorized for, at most, one 30 day period, during which the technique can actually applied on no more than five days...Further, there can be no more than two sessions in any 24-hour period. Each session--the time during which the detainee is strapped to the waterboard--lasts no more than two hours. There may be at most six applications of water lasting 10 seconds or longer during any session, and water may be applied for a total of no more than 12 minutes during any 24-hour period.
However, on page 37, we read this shocking revelation:

The CIA used the waterboard "at least 83 times during August 2002" in the interrogation of Zubaydah, IG Report at 90, and 183 times during March 2003 in the interrogation of KSM (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed).
If you go back and do the math on the instructions from p. 15, the rules limit the use of the waterboard to no more than 60 times per month (five days per month, two sessions per day, six applications of water during each session; 5x2x6=60). And yet, KSM was waterboarded 183 times.

The general standard that Bradbury applies throughout this memo is whether the action in question "shocks the conscience" and he eventually concludes, on p. 38, that "the CIA interrogation techniques, either their careful screening procedures and medical monitoring, do not 'shock the conscience.'" Back on p. 37, he argued that "the CIA usses enhanced techniques only to the extent reasonably believed necessary to obtain the information and takes great care to avoid inflicting severe pain or suffering or any lasting or unnecessary harm. In short, the CIA's program is designed to subject detainees to no more duress than is justified by the Government's interest in protecting the United States from further terrorist attacks."

Perhaps. But then what explains why KSM was waterboard 123 times beyond the established limit? That certainly doesn't square with the previously made claim that KSM only held out for 35 seconds during his waterboarding. So, even if the use of waterboarding is acceptable under US law, what happens when those laws themselves are broken? If waterboarding does, as Bybee noted in the 2002 memo, likely cause a fear of imminent death, using such a technique 200% more than is allowable under the law would certainly seem to shock the conscience. It is odd indeed that Bradbury mentions the number of times both detainees were waterboarded but doesn't account for the actions in any way.

This memo does seem to argue for criminal behavior, most likely on the part of the interrogators, and perhaps the higher-ups who knew of the actions and did nothing. This is still not an argument that the techniques were, if used according to the rules, torture or that the US was wrong to use these techniques. It certainly does point out the dangers in walking the fine line between coercive interrogation and torture. Given the fineness of the line and the paramount importance of legal definitions in this instance, if waterboarding was to be used it have been used within whatever legal framework was created to justify and bound its legality. When that line is crossed, the action moves into torture.

[I'll discuss the rest of this memo as well as the others later.]

Friday, April 17, 2009

What the War in Afghanistan Is Really Like

Today's New York Times has one of the most incredible stories I've ever read. It is an account of the ambush of a Taliban column by a patrol from the second platoon of Company B, First Battalion, 26th Infantry of the US Army. It is the most detailed account of war I've seen in a newspaper, and a testament to the bravery, skill, and fortitude of the men and women who volunteer to serve our nation in the armed forces, risking their lives and being asked to kill on behalf of our security as well as the security of the poor people of Afghanistan. An excerpt:

The soldiers waited. The rules of the ambush were long ago drilled into them: no one can move, and no one can fire until the patrol leader gives the order. Then everyone must fire at once.

The third Taliban fighter in the column switched on a flashlight, the soldiers said, and quickly switched it off. About 50 yards separated the two sides, but Lieutenant Smith did not want to start shooting too soon, he said, “because if too many lived then we’d be up there fighting them all night.”

He let the Taliban column continue on. The soldiers trained their weapons’ infrared lasers, which are visible only with night-vision equipment, on the fighters as they drew closer. The lasers mark the path a bullet will fly.

The lead fighter had almost reached the platoon when Pvt. First Class Troy Pacini-Harvey, 19, his laser trained on the lead man’s forehead, moved his rifle’s selector lever from safe to semi-automatic. It made a barely audible click. The Taliban fighter froze. He was six feet away.

Lieutenant Smith was new to the platoon. This was his fourth patrol. He was in a situation that every infantry lieutenant trains for, but almost no infantry lieutenant ever sees. “Fire,” he said, softly into the radio. “Fire. Fire. Fire.”

The platoon’s frontage exploded with noise and flashes of light as soldiers fired. Bullets struck all of the lead Taliban fighters, the soldiers said. The first Afghans fell where they were hit, not managing to fire a single shot.
Bravo to our men and women in uniform.

Legalizing Torture? Part I: The 2002 Bybee Memo

[This is the first in a series of posts analyzing the recently released Office of Legal Counsel memos discussing the legality of proposed coercive interrogation methods to be used against suspected members of al Qaeda. The first memo to be considered is the August 1, 2002 memo from Jay Bybee to John Rizzo, the acting General Counsel of the CIA, entitled Interrogation of al Qaeda Operative.]

When the CIA found itself holding Abu Zubaydah, it believed that it was holding "one of the highest ranking members of the al Qaeda organization." According to the memo, "the interrogation team is certain that he has additional information that he refuses to divulge. Specifically, he is withholding information regarding terrorist networks in the United Stares or in Saudi Arabia and information regarding plans to conduct attacks within the United States or against our interests overseas." To find out what Zubaydah knew, the CIA requested to expand the repertoire of interrogation techniques available to it. Specifically, the CIA asked to be able to use the following 10 techniques: "(l) attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap (insult slap), (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) insects placed in a confinement box, and (10) the waterboard." The report goes on to specifically detail how each technique would be used. For example, here's the description of "walling":

For walling, a flexible false wall will be constructed. The individual is placed with his heels touching the wall. The interrogator pulls the individual forward and then quickly and firmly pushes the individual into the wall. It is the individual's shoulder blades that hit the wall. During this motion, the head and neck are supported with a rolled hood or towel that provides a c-collar effect to help prevent whiplash. To further reduce the probability of injury, the individual is allowed to rebound from the flexible wall. You have orally informed us that the false wall is in part constructed to create a loud sound when the individual hits it, which will further shock or surprise the individual. In part, the idea is to create a sound that will make the impact seem far worse than it is and that will be far worse than any injury that might result from the action.
After describing all of the requested techniques, the memo then launches into a discussion of the effect of these techniques on individuals subjected to them as part of the military's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training. "Of the 26,829 students trained from 1992 through 2001 in the Air Force SERE training, 4.3 percent of those students had contact with psychology services. Of those 4.3 percent, only 3.2 percent were pulled from the program for psychological reasons. Thus, out of the students trained overall, only 0.14 percent were pulled from the program for psychological reasons." These numbers reflect people who were subjected to all of the requested techniques except for insects in the confinement box and the waterboard. Regarding the waterboard, the memo continues,

your on-site psychologists, who have extensive experience with the use of the waterboard in Navy training, have not encountered any significant long-term mental health consequences from its use. Your on-site psychologists have also indicated that JPRA has likewise not reported any significant long-term mental health consequences from the use of the waterboard. You have informed us that other services ceased use of the waterboard because it was so successful as an interrogation technique, but not because of any concerns over any harm, physical or mental, caused by it. It was almost 100 percent effective in producing cooperation among the trainees. [REDACTED] also indicated that he had observed the use of the waterboard in Navy training some ten to twelve times. Each time it resulted in cooperation but it did not result in any physical harm to the student.
In short, the memo concludes that based on the experience of those undergoing these techniques in SERE, there is no indication that these measures will cause any long-term mental or physical harm.

Bybee then turns to US law on torture: Section 2340A of the US code, which makes it illegal for any US citizen to engage in torture outside of the US. Section 2340(1) then defines torture thusly:

"torture" means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.
In turn, Section 2340(2) reads:

"severe mental pain or suffering" means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality; (C) the threat of imminent death; or (D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality

Thus, Bybee concludes, violating the Section 2340A "requires a showing that: (1) the torture occurred outside the United States; (2) the defendant acted under the color of law; (3) the victim was within the defendant's custody or control; (4) the defendant specifically intended to inflict severe pain or suffering; and (5) that the acted inflicted severe pain or suffering." The memo then proceeds to argue that none of the techniques in question causes "severe pain or suffering." Briefly, the OLC has concluded elsewhere that "'severe pain' within the meaning of Section 2340 is pain that is difficult for the individual to endure and is of an intensity akin to the pain accompanying serious physical injury." The memo also concludes that none of the techniques is likely to cause severe mental pain or suffering either, with two possible exceptions. Given Zubaydah's professed fear of insects (which is the rationale for putting insects in the confinement box with him), it could cause him severe mental pain or suffering if Zubaydah's believes that the insect could sting him and cause injury or death. Thus, the interrogators must either tell Zubaydah that the insect's sting (the CIA says that while it intends to tell Zubaydah that the insect is a stinging one, it intends to put a non-stinging insect in the box) cannot produce severe pain or death or should not tell him that the insect can sting at all. It also notes that "although the waterboard constitutes a tbreat of imminent death, prolonged mental harm must nonetheless result to violate the statutory prohibition on infliction of severe mental pain or suffering," which is turn defined as "mental harm lasting months or years."

Bybee does note that "under certain circumstances - for example, rapid escalation in the use of these techniques culminating in the waterboard (which we acknowledge constitutes a threat of imminent death) accompanied by verbal, or other suggestions that physical violence will follow - might cause a reasonable person to believe that they are faced with such a threat." Thus, the OLC is uncertain whether such a course would constitute a violation of the laws prohibiting torture. However, even if such circumstances occurred, to be considered torture and thus a violation of Section 2340A, the act must be committed with a specific intent to cause severe physcial or mental harm and must in fact cause severe physical or mental harm. If the interrogators do not have specific intent, there can be no torture.

Now, on to the analysis. First, this is the first chronologically of the memos...many of the most controversial techniques -- such as dousing a subject with cold water and forced nudity -- are not discussed in here, and won't be until 2005. Second, this is a serious attempt to define the boundaries of the law. While it may seem like legalistic parsing or hair splitting, let's not forget that there is, in fact, a serious threat to the US. That does not in and of itself justify torture. It does, however, justify efforts to find the strongest techniques available to interrogate suspected terrorists that are legal under US law.

That said, it seems to me that there are several problems in the legal analysis. First, I'm not so sure how accurately one can draw comparisons between those subjected to these techniques in a SERE program to a detainee's experience. The SERE people know, no matter how brutal the things being done to them, that their tormentors are their compatriots and that there are limits to what will, in fact, be done. The suspected terrorist has no such reassurances. So, while the physical effects may be the same, it seems as if the mental effects would be much worse for the detainee. [Please note that I am not in any way miniziming the SERE just doesn't seem to be really comparable in a legal sense].

Second, the requirement of specific intent is troubling. If the intent of the interrogator conducting a waterboarding session is to cause an imminent fear of death, which the OLC admits waterboarding does, can the only thing keeping this from being torture that waterboarding doesn't leave any lasting mental pain? Christopher Hitchens notes that, after voluntarily undergoing waterboarding, he suffers from panic attacks and night terrors. That may not count as "severe" mental pain and suffering, but it's getting close. And if Zubaydah does have, as the CIA believes he does, a fear on insects, confining him in a box with an insect that he may believe will sting him also seems to be pushing the line of causing severe mental pain and suffering.

As I mentioned, this memo is perhaps the most reasonable of the four that have been released, and it still seems to push the boundaries, particularly with waterboarding. However, the real problems at this stage seem to lie in the legal defintion, not in the OLC's interpretation of that wording. The law does say that there must be specific intent to cause severe pain and suffering and the law does not define in any clear way what constitutes severe mental and physical pain and suffering. It is not surprising that the administration pushed the law as far as it could in its efforts to defend the nation.

It seems difficult to conclue, I think, at this point over this memo that there is grounds for prosecution of the purveyors of this legal advice. There is a serious attempt to stay within the bounds of the law, while defining the law as liberally as possible. That may be wrong, but it doesn't seem to be criminal. As I have said before, I put more blame at this point on Congress, which never saw fit to more tightly and clearly define the rules with which it sought to limit the power of the president. As Kenneth Anderson points out in a New York Times debate on the memos, many members of Congress clearly knew what was going on:
as the Washington Post reported in December, 2007:

Yet long before “waterboarding” entered the public discourse, the C.I.A. gave key legislative overseers about 30 private briefings, some of which included descriptions of that technique and other harsh interrogation methods, according to interviews with multiple U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge.

With one known exception, no formal objections were raised by the lawmakers briefed about the harsh methods during the two years in which waterboarding was employed, from 2002 to 2003, said Democrats and Republicans with direct knowledge of the matter.

Most prominent among those briefed on waterboarding was Nancy Pelosi. According to the Post’s interviews, members of the Congressional oversight committees understood that they had to weigh the limits of inhumane treatment of people known to have Al Qaeda connections against the threat of new attacks. They believed that these techniques struck the right balance in the circumstances. Yet I haven’t heard of any serious call for prosecuting Speaker Pelosi or any of her colleagues for complicity in torture.
Anderson goes on to note something I have called attention to several times; Congress still has not made waterboarding illegal or passed legislation specifically defining it as torture. If Congress really wants to ensure that waterboarding or other techniques are not used, it must pass a law making such actions illegal. The fact that it doesn't hints at two things: One, that there is in fact a broader consensus on the need for such programs than people will admit publicly, and that; Two, Congress really is the feckless body, unwilling to take responsibility for the defense of the state, that we think it is.

However, to foreshadow some of the subsequent memos, we see that first, the CIA doesn't use waterboarding in the same way it is used in the SERE program, further throwing into doubt the legal reasoning of the first Bybee memo. Second, we see introduced much more controversial techniques, such as forced nudity, dietary/caloric restriction, and dousing with cold water. We also see a recognition that many of these techniques are considered torture by the United States when used by other countries.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The New Torture Memos

Today, the Department of Justice released several memos from the Office of Legal Counsel on the use of and legality of coercive interrogation techniques and how they are to be interpreted given US laws prohibiting torture. The memos can be found here. All of the memos are, essentially, parsing the coercive techniques to determine whether the violate US domestic laws against torture as well as US obligations under the Convention Against Torture, which the US has signed and ratified.

I haven't yet read the memos, so I can't comment in detail on the legal analyses. But, they appear to be serious attempts to define what is and what is not torture. Critics aside, this is an important distinction. Not every coercive interrogation technique is torture, so to draw the line we need to be able to define what constitutes torture. And it's not as obvious at it might seem. For example, in Ireland v UK (1978) the European Court of Human Rights ruled that several coercive interrogation techniques, including wall standing, hooding, subjectin to noise, sleep deprivatin, deprivation of food and drink -- several of which are at issue in the OLC memos -- did not constitute torture, although they were "cruel, inhuman, and degrading." Thus, the need to determine a standard of what is coercive, even if cruel, and what is torture. That is what these memos appear to try to do. That is not to say that they do the task well, or even honestly. I can't say yet. But the task itself is a necessary one.

President Obama also announced today that he would not bring charges against CIA interrogators who relied on the OLC memos for guidance as to what policies could be legally used. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, "It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department." That does seem to leave the door open to prosecuting those responsible for the legal opinions. But that remains to be seen.

Once I've read the memos, I'll comment on them.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Amnesty in Zimbabwe

The New York Times is reporting that top officials of Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party in Zimbabwe, fearing what will happen now that the opposition party is in the government, are kidnapping and torturing members of the opposition party in an effort to extract promises of amnesty from them. According to the Times:

Didymus Mutasa, who served as Mr. Mugabe’s minister for national security until the power-sharing deal went into effect, acknowledged that some senior officials in his party might be worried about prosecution.

Had the party floated the idea of an amnesty? he was asked. “Perhaps,” he said.

Were abductions used to gain leverage for amnesty? “There could have been something like that,” he said, “but how am I to know?”

The crimes that have been committed under Mugabe's government are unquestionably horrible, and the victims most certainly deserve justice. The Times provides a short accounting:

The crimes committed to entrench Mr. Mugabe’s rule date back to the 1980s, when thousands of civilians from Zimbabwe’s Ndebele minority in Matabeleland were killed by the notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Army brigade, according to historians.

Among the Ndebele, the tears of the living must be shed to release the souls of the dead. But the Fifth Brigade insisted that there be no mourning for those they killed, and in some cases shot family members because they wept, according to “Breaking the Silence,” a 1997 investigation based on the testimonies of more than 1,000 witnesses.

Other political crimes include widespread attacks on the opposition in 2000, 2002 and 2005, and most gruesomely last year. Beyond that, a vast 2005 slum clearance effort known as Operation Murambatsvina, or Get Rid of the Filth, drove 700,000 people in opposition bastions from their homes.

Last year, close to 200 people were killed, mostly before the June presidential runoff between Mr. Mugabe and the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, and thousands were tortured in state-sponsored attacks, but so far no one has been prosecuted, according to a State Department human rights report released in February.

Mr. Mugabe’s party fears that even more damning evidence will be unearthed.
This doesn't even include the horrors that Mugabe has unleashed on his people through his misrule: driving the country into bankruptcy, destroying Zimbabwe's agricultural capacity, collapsing the state's educational and health care systems, and so on.

So, justice is clearly due. But what kind of justice? Setting aside the coercion, should Mugabe and his cronies be given amnesty for their actions? Is getting the ZANU-PF out of power more important than punishing its leaders and members for their actions?

That decision rests, as it shoud, with the peopel of Zimbabwe. Different countries have transitioned through their difficult pasts in different ways. South Africa effectively granted amnesty through its Truth and Reconciliation Committee; Peru just recently tried and convicted its former president for crimes committed during its struggle against Marxist rebels. There are powerful arguments supporting each path.

Still, I would hope to see Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change do what is best for the country, which would be to get Mugabe and the ZANU-PF out of power. Hopefully, the MDC can resist the campaign of coercion being unleashed against it. In its place, the MDC should offer a broad amnesty, up to and including Robert Mugabe himself, in exchange for a full transfer of power to the MDC, which in all likelihood is the rightful ruling party. The amnesty should ensure that no one guilty of the crimes in question can hold political office in Zimbabwe again and that, as in South Africa, a full accounting of crimes is necessary to be granted amnesty. If such a deal can be reached, it should be taken. Anything less would be a true travesty of justice.

Energy and the Defense Department

Kevin Billings, an alumnus of Puget Sound and currently the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment & Logistics was interviewed for a new blog focusing on issues of energy and the Department of Defense. It's an interesting blog for anyone who cares about issues of future energy, and specifically as they interact with issues of national security. Here's the interview:

April 2009 Update from Air Force's Energy Chief

Kevin Billings shared a few minutes today, responding to three status questions I had queued up for him on: 1) the synth fuel initiative, 2) adoption of energy metrics, and 3) the Air Force's take on smart and micro grids. Here, without much embellishment, are his updates:

1) Synthetic Fuels - Certification of USAF's current inventory to run on a 50/50 natural gas-derived fuel/J-P8 blend is on or ahead of schedule. Other details include:
  • More focus coming up on bio fuels
  • Will down select to 1 or 2 bio fuel blends and begin new engine cert process for them
In short, USAF will be ready for its 2016 goal of using 50% alternative fuels, and is thereby making a market for these fuels. But the big question is: will industry be ready to provide new fuels in sufficient quantities?

2) Energy Metrics - Alas, Billings noted that the Energy Efficiency KPP would have been used extensively in Future/Next Gen Long Range Bomber, which Secretary Gates just recommended for deletion. But he said that USAF's acquisition arm is taking the FBCF and Energy Efficiency KPP very seriously. (I should be able to report more on that in the future.)

3) Air Force Smart / Micro Grids - According to Billings, while still in embryonic stages, new grid technologies and processes are at the forefront of USAF thinking. The primary driver is mitigation of the risk posed by the brittle national grid. The task re the smart grid is to work with utility providers to coordinate and collaborate on bringing smart sensors and other energy management capabilities on base to capture savings. The micro grid concept applies when thinking about bases as power islands, being able to run their own critical mission systems during local or regional blackouts. One of the lead agencies he referenced is the civil engineering team, AFCESA, at Tyndall AFB in Florida.

A detail I especially liked was Billings referring to the towns that host USAF bases as "community partners." He's interested in seeing if, should local blackouts occur, USAF bases could provide surplus power for critical community services. Wouldn't that be something ... something great.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

What is China (and Russia) Doing?

I wrote a few days ago about how the UN's response to the North Korean launch of a missile/satellite would be vital in determining how the US deals with the UN and multilateralism more generally in the future. Specifically, I wrote that:

If China, Russia, and the other members of the UN truly wish to see the US restrain itself, follow international law, and respect the UN, the Security Council, and other international institutions, those institutions must demonstrate the ability to deal with security issues such as North Korea, a relatively easy case given the coincidence of interests between the major players (no one, especially not China, wants to see a nuclear DPRK).

Well, China and Russia don't seem to be listening to me. The UN Security Council met yesterday, but came to no agreement about what to do regarding North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. China and Russia both expressed skepticism about the need for increasing sanctions on North Korea and opposed a US-Japanese resolution to punish the DPRK. UN insiders are reporting that Russian and Chinese opposition is so strong that "the United States and Japan might have to accept a non-binding warning statement from the council instead of a legally binding resolution." Meanwhile, China has advanced weak resolution that prompted one US official to comment that "The Chinese have come up with a completely watered down text which is unacceptable to us. It's not even worth discussing."

While I am not in any way surprised at the UN's complete inability to deal with issues of international security, I must admit I do not understand the strategic thinking of Russia and China here. President Obama has expressed his interest in more multilateral solutions as compared to President Bush, and sought to use the UN to deal with North Korea. Furthermore, neither Russia nor China has an interest in seeing North Korea proliferate. China in particular needs to worry about this, especially as North Korean proliferation may in turn drive Japan to develop a nuclear capability, or at the very least increase its ability for power projection.

Given that neither Russia nor China cares all that much about North Korea, given that they could have taken this opportunity as a chance to demonstrate that their preferred multilateral forum -- the UN Security Council -- is the proper place to deal with such issues and does have the capability to do so, given that the potential responses to North Korean proliferation are not in their interest, why would China and Russia be so unwilling to impose increased sanctions on North Korea for its flagrant violation of international law? I must admit I do not understand the strategic thinking here. The outcome of this intransigence is likely to demonstrate to Obama what President Bush knew: the multilateralism is not an end unto itself and that the UN cannot be relied upon to deal with issues that threaten American national security. Combine that with the regional destabilizing that will accompany North Korean proliferation and the potential for Japanese proliferation in turn, and it seems that China and Russia have made a colossal blunder here.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Iraq Journal, Part One

My father, Jerry Weinberger, a professor of political philosophy at Michigan State University, is currently in Iraq. He is spending the spring teaching politics at the American University of Iraq, which is located in Sulaimani in the Kurdish north. Recently, he has been writing for City Journal, and will be chronicling his time in Iraq in a series of articles. The first has just been published...

City Journal Home.
Jerry Weinberger
Iraq Journal, Part One
My arrival in Sulaimani, Kurdistan
2 April 2009

Editors’ note: This is the first of several dispatches from Kurdistan, where the author is spending four months consulting for the American University in Iraq-Sulaimani.

My electronic plane ticket directed me to the “Azmar Air” counter at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. From there I’d fly to Sulaimani (the Kurdish spelling of Sulaimaniya), the city in Sulaimani Province of the Iraqi Kurdistan Autonomous Region. The problem: I couldn’t find the Azmar counter. The gentleman at the information booth informed me that I should go to the Atlasjet Office on the other side of the airport—a big disappointment since my two suitcases weighed a ton, and I was also lugging my computer bag and fumbling with my cane. There, though, the Atlasjet man told me that if I wanted to talk to someone from Azmar, a Kurdish airline, I should go back to the other side. Again, I walked crab-like across the airport, still finding no Azmar. Eventually, Atlasjet (a Turkish airline) took my Azmar e-ticket—Azmar, in fact, doesn’t exist at Ataturk Airport, which somebody should have told me at some point. I boarded and was on my way.

The Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq, “founded” in 1991 when the Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein and were protected by a U.S. enforced no-fly zone, is the nation-state equivalent of Azmar Air: it’s an independent state that officially isn’t one. The Turks have been warming to their own Kurds of late—Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, for instance, wooed their votes in the recent election—and to the Kurdish Autonomous Region, too. Turkey’s National Security Council, the nation’s main political conduit of military influence, has recommended improving economic relations with “Northern Iraq.” The Kurds have reciprocated by claiming that they don’t support the murderous Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and would rather like a Turkish consulate in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil.

But in Turkey and in Washington, D.C., “Kurdistan” dare not speak its name. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the region’s official ruling body, has complained that the Kurds love America but get no respect from Washington. In response, State Department spokesman Robert Wood in February wouldn’t even use the word “Kurds,” referring to them instead as “one of Iraq’s ethnic components.”

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group on earth that doesn’t have a state of its own. And they’re not just in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. There are more Kurds in Eastern Turkey than in Iraq, and lots in bordering Iran and Syria as well. That’s why almost no one but the Kurds of Iraq refers to their region as Kurdistan, and why Kurdistan looks like a state and walks like a state, but no one will call it a state. And in my view, it’s likely that it can’t become a real state without the unraveling of Iraq and a consequent civil and regional war.

I got into Sulaimani, or Suli, at 3 a.m., in a jet-lagged daze. When the sun came up, I discovered that I’d landed in a totally different world. Suli is a far cry from Istanbul. My heart sank as I stepped outside to discover that my apartment building sat next to a garbage dump: piles of building debris and other trash and detritus covered the vacant lot next door, though gallant chickens pecked away at the rubble. Across the “street,” a building under construction looked like a concrete Erector Set joke: no way that the multi-storied pile of cinder blocks would not collapse. Down the rain-slick street ran muddy rivulets of water. I was glad I didn’t have to walk anywhere before my contact, driving a big SUV, picked me up. (Climbing into the vehicle, though, I did get a gob of yellow mud deposited on my pants.)

We drove through a warren of similar streets until we came to the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS): a single, large building surrounded by a high concrete wall. The SUV backed into a narrow gate and stopped while a soldier, AK-47 on his back, stuck a big mirror under the car and walked around. Just to make sure that I wasn’t riding in a bomb. I made my way to the office of my old friend, the provost, Josh Mitchell, who took over the job from another old friend, John Agresto, former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. Soon Josh had to rush off to speak with Barham Salih, Deputy Premier of Iraq, intellectual big-shot of the Progressive Union of Kurdistan party, and the driving force behind the new university. There was a personnel crisis in the PUK and, I assumed, it must have had implications for the university.

So I decided to stroll around the neighborhood and take some further measure of the city where I’d live for the next four months. My impression was again of a ramshackle mess. The streets are littered and smelly and crowded, with madly bustling traffic threatening to mow down walkers who mostly have to dart across streets without the aid of crosswalks or lights. The tiny, tumbled-down shops stand cheek-by-jowl, sidewalks start and stop, and you have to walk carefully because in Suli, most steps are irregular and uneven.

And then there are the guns. The AK-47 is as common as the ant in Iraq, and so, too, in Kurdistan. An armed soldier stands next to my apartment building 24/7. At lunch with some students I held my cane, which has a handle that could be taken for a butt, between my legs. One student asked why I had my gun with me, since they’re forbidden to bring theirs into the building. The demand for Western pistols is so great that the black-market price of a Glock 19 has tripled.

But it didn’t take me long to see that Suli is safe. It’s a lot like Israel, where it’s not unusual to see the man in front of you in line with a pistol stuck in his pants. The guns don’t denote internal tension or fear, but national pride and common vigilance against terror. The guard standing post outside my building is a young guy with a six-inch sword-tattoo on his arm, a nasty scar on his chin, and four missing teeth. He greets me: “Hello teesh,” and runs to shake my hand. The Kurds have learned, as New Yorkers did in the nineties, that security is the bedrock of a functioning (well, sort of functioning here) civil society.

Suli is a law-abiding town. Lose your wallet? Someone will call to return it with all the money. Washington, D.C. has more homeless beggars than I’ve seen in Suli, even in the bazaar, with its meandering streets and swarms of people walking and hawking and buying. I thought some boys were begging until I realized that they were selling plastic bags for shoppers. As I walked back, two drivers bumped into each other in the crazy-quilt traffic. Both stopped, inspected the small damage (one had to pull a bit at a bumper), and went their separate ways: no arguments, no shouting, and certainly no exchanges of lawyer information.

Sunday, March 8 was the Prophet’s birthday, so the university was closed on what would have been a normal business day. The holiday was quiet, though most business seemed to go on pretty much as usual. Little food markets and restaurants were open, and the propane-cooking-gas-canister guy passed down the street, a young boy perched atop the truck making the rhythmical banging that, when I first heard it, made me think that Suli has Hare Krishnas.

AUIS was closed the day before, too, which by contrast was filled with raucous festivities commemorating the 18th anniversary of the Kurdish uprising against Saddam—the Kurdish Fourth of July: beautiful girls decked out in colorful Kurdish garb, loudspeakers blaring, big crowds in social halls. As I walked in the swirl, I couldn’t go far without young men coming up to ask where I was from and shake my hand. “U.S./Washington D.C.” elicited replies such as: “America and Kurdistan good friends,” or “White House.” One young man even said: “Jack Bauer.” But invariably, they would ask: “How you like Suli?” while simply bursting with pride in their freedom and their city.

One doesn’t hear the words Insha’Allah (God willing) much here, at least as regards things that need doing. That’s not because Islam is unimportant to the Kurds; it is. But in Suli, people don’t much count on God to get things done. They do for themselves, which is why, for all its drabness and chaos, the city (or rather half of the city—more on this next time) works. I think that’s why its citizens love it so, and why it’s growing on me, too.

Jerry Weinberger is a professor of political science at Michigan State University, director of the LeFrak Forum at Michigan State, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. His most recent book is Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Yet Another Test That the UN Will Fail

While many people have argued that the US should destroy the "satellite" that is about to be launched by North Korea, the Obama administration has backed away from any kind of aggressive position on the impending test. Rather, an anonymous US official at the G-20 summit stated today that the US will respond to any kind of launch by referring the matter to the UN. UN Security Council resolution 1718, passed in the wake of the North Korean nuclear "test" in October 2006, states that the North Korean nuclear program represents a "clear threat to international peace and security" and demands that North Korea not test any ballistic missiles and "suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching." Even if, as North Korea claims, the impending launch is a satellite and not a ballistic missile, the technologies are so similar as to render the distinction meaningless and violate the resolution.

But what will happen if and when the US refers the matter to the UNSC? Most likely, not much. The UN may indeed pass more sanctions (1718 imposed a wide sanction regime, including bans on arms sales and luxury items), but past sanctions have seemed to have little effect on North Korea's behavior. Anything more serious than sanctions is likely to draw a Chinese veto.

The international community, and China in particular, should be very wary about obstructing the work of the UNSC or failing to seriously punish North Korea for it violation. The decision by the Obama administration to act through the offices of the UN rather than taking matters into its own hands represents a complete 180 from the policies of the Bush administration that have been so widely and roundly criticized. But if the UN fails to take meaningful action, why would the US continue to refer issues of national security to an impotent body? China has already proved willing to punish North Korea for such flagrant violations of international law and norms; China did vote for resolution 1718. If China, Russia, and the other members of the UN truly wish to see the US restrain itself, follow international law, and respect the UN, the Security Council, and other international institutions, those institutions must demonstrate the ability to deal with security issues such as North Korea, a relatively easy case given the coincidence of interests between the major players (no one, especially not China, wants to see a nuclear DPRK).

However, short-term political points scoring usually outweighs long-term strategies. The UN will, most likely, fail to respond to the North Korean test in any kind of meaningful way, leaving President Obama with exactly the same problem President Bush faced when considering what to do about Iraq.