Obama vs Osama, Final…and this time I mean it.

So, this is really my last post on the topic. I thought I’d covered everything in installment 3, but the key issue is still to be addressed.

That issue is the fact that none of our “enhanced interrogation techniques” (AKA torture) — those justified because they would provide time-urgent information (like Where’s Ozzie?) — none of them contributed to the intelligence on the raid. None of them.

Reportedly, the guy we got our first break from (a partial name for the courier we later tracked to Abottabad), had been subjected to these abominable practices when first captured, and for a year or so afterwards. He didn’t crack. It wasn’t until a couple of years after that that he let the name slip.

Let that sink in for a minute. The torture techniques didn’t work to extract the very kind of information they were purportedly designed to get. They failed, and I can tell you why they failed.

Back in the days of the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War, and the Communist regimes of the Cold War, such practices were commonly used — by our enemies, on captured American troops and on political enemies within their own system. They were not designed to elicit useful information. They were designed to break the will of the subjects, so that they would admit to whatever actions their captors desired. Those subjected to the torture would sign false confessions, make false statements, just to stop the pain.

We knew this. We recognized what was going on half a century ago. We never used those techniques, back then. Two reasons: first, of course, was that they didn’t work; second was, America always took the high road, and held ourselves to a higher standard, in order to protect Americans. At no point was anyone ever able to say “this is no more than the Americans are doing to their captives.” We don’t have that protection any more.

To help our fighting troops, we established training programs at places like Fairchild AFB to teach our military personnel how to endure the Communist interrogation tactics (I almost said “stand up to them”, but you don’t). But when it came time to deal with captured people we thought might be terrorists, consultants to the US government took those same techniques, techniques not designed to find the truth, and crafted an interrogation program around them, and the US government bought it.

What they were advocating was criminal, and they knew it was criminal. They got some cover from lawyers at the DoJ, lawyers sworn to do better than this, in the form of memos that said it was OK.

I am reminded of the ending of the motion picture “Judgment at Nuremberg“, where Nazi judges, not SS troops or GeStaPo operatives, were on trial for crimes against humanity perpetrated in the 1930s, the years before WWII. Nazi judge Janning finally breaks down in front of the American judge, Haywood, and says:

Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster)  I never knew it would come to that.
Judge Haywood (Spencer Tracy) Herr Janning, it “came to that” the first time you sentenced a man you knew to be innocent.

It’s funny, but nobody seems to run that movie any more.

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4 Responses to “Obama vs Osama, Final…and this time I mean it.”

  1. vsinghsblog Says:

    Thanks, this is eloquent and well thought out.

    I wonder if the logic, if one can call it that, of the inhumane methods of interrogation ultimately arises from a complex knot of fear of the Other and a refusal to acknowledge that the other person is also human. If those interrogators could imagine themselves on the other side, would they do as they did? I don’t pose this as a moral question but a psychological one.

    • FoundOnWeb Says:

      The US use of torture of terrorist suspects is somewhat different from most cases, and the situation is more complex than I portrayed.

      Your characterization of the prisoners as The Other fits well with most cases of torture, and prisoner abuse in general. In standard abuse situations, in order to maintain the proper attitude towards the prisoner, the guard cannot accept their humanity (because if they do, they will relax their vigilance, and the prisoner will exploit that), which leads to dehumanization and torture as a fun thing to do.

      In the case of the Communist bloc countries, this was a well crafted and well designed program to break the will of the prisoners. The people doing it were likely both suffering from the knot of fear, as well as being sadistic bastards, but there’s nothing that says you can’t enjoy your work.

      In the case of the US interrogations (not prisoner abuse like Abu Ghraib*), as far as I can tell, many of the actual interrogators didn’t like the idea — these were professionals who knew it wouldn’t work, not rogue psychos. The FBI agents, at least, complained to headquarters, and everyone was concerned that what Washington was directing them to do was illegal. That’s why the DoJ memoranda. Not just “I was only following orders”, but “…and the highest legal authority in the Executive Branch said it was lawful conduct.” That’s why the war crimes trials should start at the top.

      *and even there, I believe there was reporting that the abusers were told by their superiors to stress the prisoners to prepare them for interrogation. Since they had zero training in that area they tried whatever popped into their heads, and like all young Americans given a task, they really tried to get into the spirit of the thing.

  2. vsinghsblog Says:

    Ah, thanks for shedding light.

    I seem to recall reading/hearing on the radio about an American interrogator in Iraq who was really successful who used non-torture methods — actually won the trust of his prisoners who then revealed information.

    Harder work but win-win on all counts.

    • FoundOnWeb Says:

      That’s the way _all_ successful interrogations work, and the professionals know it. It’s how we worked in WWII, Korea, VietNam. I’m not saying we never did anything to lower their resistance, but when they found we weren’t going to pull out their fingernails, and that they’d get their wounds treated and three squares a day, they were usually happy to cooperate. One WWII interrogator said he got his best results questioning German officers over a game of chess.

      Quite aside from any moral issues, the torture program was not only ineffective and amateurish, it so polluted the evidence trail that many of the people now held can _never_ be brought to trial in a US court. It’s called ‘prosecutorial misconduct’ and often results in disbarment when continued over an extended period. Or, it used to. Now, you get tenure at UC Berkely.

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