Torture and the truth

“It was only after the suspects had given up lots of info, but not the info Cheney wanted, that the torture started, as it usually does in history. It starts with someone empowered with torture to get from a victim the words that will confirm what the torturer already believes.”  Andrew Sullivan


I have suggested that “enhanced interrogation techniques” serve the same function as the arrows and olive branches American prosecutors use to extract testimony from reluctant witnesses in our justice system.  Threatening a decade of prison time is a lot like waterboarding; offering a time cut to a convicted felon is a lot like making the waterboarding stop.

In both cases, as Andrew Sullivan suggests in a recent column in The Atlantic, enhanced techniques are used to confirm what the interrogator already thinks he knows.   You don’t torture a suspect to get the truth; you want the poor wretch to tell you what you already believe to be true.  If the techniques of interrogation are enhanced sufficiently you will hear exactly what you want to hear.  To make the hurting stop the torture victim will give you the words, inflection, grammar and syntax you desire.

The game is particularly easy if you are working with the broken men and women who typically fall under the shadow of the American Gulag.   Those already in prison are looking for a ticket back to the free world.  Those on probation and parole live in fear of going back to the joint.  Those who live outside what the law allows know they can escape scrutiny by saying a few magic words.  If that means implicating a fellow suspect, so be it. 

If you are looking for confirmation torture works great.  If you want to justify a war or if you are trying to bolster an inherently weak legal case enhanced interrogation techniques are invaluable.

But what if you are looking for the truth?

In that case, torture isn’t much help.  It gives you what you want, not what you need.

When prosecutors can shape testimony to their liking the truth is superfluous.

The public can’t tell when it is being bamboozled.  When a politician cites “reliable sources” or a prosecutor trots out a string of “reliable witnesses” the ordinary citizen has no way of guessing the horrific abuse behind “the facts”.

Andrew Sullivan says torture was used to justify the invasion of Iraq and the fanciful link been Saddam and Al Queda.  In our criminal justice system torture is regularly used for equally dubious purposes.

Tortured To Justify A War?

One key thing to understand about torture is that it almost never occurs when the torturers know nothing and need to find out something. That’s why seeing it as an interrogation tool, properly understood, is actually oxymoronic. What torture is about is forcing a victim to tell you something you already think you know but want confirmed – either to prevent an attack or use as propaganda or deploy against another suspect. And, as one recalls, there are many things that Dick Cheney simply knows – even though the CIA, the State Department, and much of the professional machinery of government might disagree. In fact, disagreement by State and CIA actually only tends to confirm Cheney’s view, in his mind, that he is always, always right.

So what were the two things of which Cheney was completely sure after 9/11, regardless of the objective

evidence? He was sure that there was an operational connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, and sure that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. In Cheney’s defense, these were judgments based on completely legitimate fears – and any president or vice-president would be duty bound to figure them out. After 9/11, the possibility of al Qaeda with WMDswas terrifying, and Cheney had already been responsible for the worst attack on American soil in US history. By his reading of his oath of office, he had already broken it. So he finds two potential Qaeda suspects and they are interrogated … but although they tell him a lot about al Qaeda, they don’t tell him what he wants to know and believes is true. And what he believes is true could, in his mind, threaten the US and thousands of American lives. He wasn’t alone in this fear. I was right there along with him, as most of us were. But, from all we now know, he went one step further in this quest than any American elected official had ever done in history before.

From much of what we can glean, it was only after the suspects had given up lots of info, but not the info Cheney wanted, that the torture started, as it usually does in history. It starts with someone empowered with torture to get from a victim the words that will confirm what the torturer already believes. This evidence can then be publicly cited as proof that Cheney is right … and justify further torture and even, in this case, partly justify an entire war that killed tens of thousands and cost trillions of dollars and still has almost the entire US military locked down with no way out in the middle of the Middle East. Moreover, the result of torture – it worked! you can almost hear Cheney exult – proves that other potential torture victims could also be forced to tell us the same thing. And so the temptation to torture deepens with every session – as you believe you are nearing the truth, even as, in reality, you are entering a dark hole from which there is no escaping.

And so Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libiwas first captured by the US and tortured by CIA surrogates in an Egyptian cell. Apparently, they beat him and put him in a coffin for 17 hours as a mock-burial. To end the severe mental and physical suffering, he confessed that Saddam had trained al Qaeda terrorists in deploying WMDs. This evidence was then cited by Colin Powell as part of the rationale for going to war in Iraq. Bingo! And we wonder why torture is such a temptation. Which politician wouldn’t want to be able to manufacture evidence to support what he wants to do anyway? Take that, Valerie Plame!

Now you see the temptation to use Zubaydah for the same purpose.

He’d been interrogated successfully, given up huge amounts of information when being treated humanely, even kindly, in hospital and after – but not enough for Cheney. Cheney wanted Zubaydah to tell him what Cheney already knew: the Saddam-Qaeda connection. That would sure foil those pantywaist liberals in the State Department, the Congress and the press who kept asking for proof – as if proof were needed in such an emergency. And so Zubaydah was strapped to a waterboard to force a fake casus belli out of him. Here is the relevant section from the Bybee 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 States or in Saudi Arabia and information regarding plans to conduct attacks within the United States or against our interests overseas.

But those in the “interrogation team” had no such certainty, according to Ali Soufan, who was part of it. And David Rose subsequently discovered what Bush and Cheney got out of the torture session, once the professional interrogators had been ushered out:

Rose quotes a Pentagon analyst who read the transcripts from the interrogation: “Abu Zubaydah was saying Iraq and Al-Qaeda had an operational relationship. It was everything the administration hoped it would be.” That analyst did not then know that the evidence was procured through torture. “As soon as I learnt that the reports had come from torture, once my anger had subsided I understood the damage it had done,” the analyst says.

We still have memos and a bureaucratic paper trail. But we don’t have the tapes of those torture sessions which were destroyed – yes this is a Hollywood movie – by the CIA. And as for al-Libi, a man who could also flesh out the details of his torture and what Cheney forced him to say … well, for a long time, he simply went missing:

“I would speculate that he was missing because he was such an embarrassment to the Bush administration,” said Tom Malinowski, the head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. “He was Exhibit A in the narrative that tortured confessions contributed to the massive intelligence failure that preceded the Iraq war.”

Yesterday, he was found dead in a Libyan jail, an apparent “suicide”.

3 thoughts on “Torture and the truth

  1. This is a very on point commentary and I appreciate it finally being put in print with the proper and justifiable outrage it is due.

    It is especially pertinent when you consider that the imprisonment of many people is concomitant with coerced “confessions”. Beatings, and threats to have a relative arrested are the two means of getting these “confessions” that immediately come to mind in the American Injustice System.

    It transfers easily to the field of battle in as much as the cops and soldiers come from the same society. In fact, I believe that most of the “law enforcement” officers on the street today are former members of the military. It is clear that the people that are presently in the military will join “law enforcement agencies” when they get out of the military. These people will bypass screening for PTSD and the other mental ailments that come from literally ‘fighting for your life’.
    There is an additional problem with the injustice system. A full 80% of people in jails this morning do not belong there. They are the result of plea bargains. The consequences of making such “deals with the devil” are potently shown in the movie “American Violet”.

    Dick Cheney is a particularly evil man. He told the man that was the weapons inspector in Iraq to start torturing individuals. This man was there to look for these non-existent “weapons of mass destruction”. The memo that the man received has been traced back directly to Cheney.

    There is only one thing that remains to be seen now. Will President Obama direct the attorney general to prosecute the Bush Crime Family for the myriad of CRIMES they have committed? It has been reported that he wants “to leave the past in the past”. Should he choose this mentality and the hypocrisy attendant to it, he will himself become a criminal, and the future will indeed leave him in “the past”.
    TITLE 18 > PART I > CHAPTER 1 > § 4
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    § 4. Misprision of felony
    Whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony cognizable by a court of the United States, conceals and does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
    In the book “The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder by Vincent Bugliosi, Bugliosi explains the ability to prosecute the case against George W. Bush by a district attorney or states attorney in any local jurisdiction where a life was lost in the Iraq war. Federal prosecutors also have that option. It is not a stretch to see Obama as an accessory to said murders and being prosecuted under “the law of parties”.

    The decision of Bush and Cheney to go to war with Iraq, and Obama’s willingness to let it continue, were done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions-or bury the results.

  2. Dick Cheney insists that waterboarding is not torture. Well, it would be for me. (Even the variety in which you stand on a board being pulled through the water would be torture for me.) Well, even if the verdict is still out on waterbiardubg as torture, let’s ask “Who would Jesus waterboard?” I think I know the answer, and I think Dick Cheney does too. But Dick doesn’t care, and I do.

  3. What is Andrew Sullivan’s position on release of the “result memos”? Conflicting claims are made about their contents, but only Cheney’s side calls for their release.

    We can agree Jesus wouldn’t have liked waterboarding. Suppressing torture effectively is going to require knowing all we can about the motivations to use it. Maybe it’s just me, but when someone tries to tell me what’s in a document but won’t let me see it, I don’t like that.

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