Friday, May 14, 2004

In The Shadow Of The Torturer

We now know that physically and psychologically harsh interrogation techniques were approved as official U.S. policy.
Donald Rumsfeld approved the use of "harsh" interrogation techniques at Guantánamo Bay, including stripping detainees naked, making them hold "stress" positions and prolonged sleep deprivation, a senior Pentagon official confirmed yesterday.

Stephen Cambone, the under-secretary of defence for intelligence, also said severe interrogation techniques, including the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners, had been approved for use by military commanders in Iraq.
(Here's a description of some of those approved techniques, which the New York Times says is taken from an standard Army field manual.) Paul Wolfowitz (Rumsfeld's deputy) and Peter Pace (Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) both acknowledged yesterday that the physical and psychological stress techniques approved for use at Guantanamo, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq probably violate the Geneva Conventions. (Rumsfeld still denies it.)

Harsh treatment of detainees was supposed to have limits. It was only supposed to be applied to people who were likely sources of high-value intelligence, and it was supposed to stop just short of the nebulous line where actual torture begins.

But inevitably, fine distinctions like these are lost. We know that from case studies: the Israelis and the Palestinians, the British and the IRA. Things get out of hand.

Aversive techniques were only supposed to be applied to prisoners with high intelligence value. But as things worsened in Iraq last fall, as American soldiers came under constant attack, as people became exhausted, scared, angry, disgusted, suspicious, that target got a lot bigger.
The worsening war outside the walls of the U.S. prison system in Iraq had a direct bearing on the abuses that occurred inside the facilities, according to Iraqi and American sources. Through the summer and fall of 2003, when detainees at Abu Ghraib prison suffered mistreatment now notorious throughout the world, the security situation in Iraq and the treatment of Iraqi prisoners ran parallel courses, both downward.

U.S. officials were under mounting pressure to collect wartime intelligence but were hobbled by a shortage of troops, the failure to build an effective informant network and a surprisingly skilled insurgency. In response, they turned to the prison system.
People tend to assume, even in the U.S., that an arrested person is guilty of something. (Senator Inhofe is hardly alone.) In Iraq, add the difficulties of dealing with an alien culture and the constant fear of being killed. Eventually, under stress and without proper restraint imposed from higher levels, the question becomes not "what reason do I have to believe that this guy knows something?", but "how can I be sure that this isn't a guy who knows something?" Roughing him up starts to seem like a reasonable thing to do "just in case."

Similarly, while Rumsfeld seems to be satisfied that Pentagon lawyers have adequately identified just where "things that really sound like torture" cross the line and become "torture," it's ludicrous to expect that untrained, minimally supervised, tired, stressed, overburdened, threatened Army Reserve privates are going to know where that line is. "Stripping them naked is okay, but not stripping them naked and sexualizing the context. Making them do painful things is okay, but not making them do humiliating things or doing painful things to them." You may be able to assume a suitably Jesuitical attitude when you're sitting in the Pentagon with your legal advisors, making out a list of approved techniques, but it's unrealistic to expect troops on the ground to understand just how much distress and suffering crosses the magic line. If you tell them to mess with the prisoners, some of them will go too far.

Reading this over, I'm afraid it sounds as though I'm saying that torture is inevitable, or that the behavior of U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib is understandable enough that their moral culpability is diminished. Nothing could be further from my position. I'm saying that both history and psychology tell us that you simply can't do what we attempted to do. You can't walk the line between almost-torture and torture, and you can't approve abuse for a few without having it spread. This is something you have to keep starkly black and white: there is a right and moral way to treat prisoners, and there is an illegal and punishable way to treat prisoners. We know from past experience that trying to live in the grey area between inevitably leads to abuses.