Today, a news story that neatly captures the moral failings of Bush’s war on terror:
The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of “coercive management techniques” for possible use on prisoners, including “sleep deprivation,” “prolonged constraint,” and “exposure.”
What the trainers did not say, and may not have known, was that their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.
The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The chart also listed other techniques used by the Chinese, including “Semi-Starvation,” “Exploitation of Wounds,” and “Filthy, Infested Surroundings,” and with their effects: “Makes Victim Dependent on Interrogator,” “Weakens Mental and Physical Ability to Resist,” and “Reduces Prisoner to ‘Animal Level’ Concerns.”
The only change made in the chart presented at Guantánamo was to drop its original title: “Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance.”
This actually isn’t all that new. It’s covered in Charlie Savage’s book, Takeover. The moral failing here is bad enough. But the ineptitude doesn’t end there. The whole purpose of the Air Force study was to figure out how the Chinese were able to elicit false confessions from American soldiers and pilots during the Korean War. U.S. special forces troops are put through these interrogation techniques during training so they’ll recognize them–not so they won’t give up classified information, but so they won’t submit to giving fake information for propaganda purposes, as happened in Korea.
Those techniques were then adopted at Guantanamo. Which leaves us with one of two possibilities. The first is that this administration is so incompetent that it was foolishly using techniques the military has known for decades lead to false confessions in a bumbling effort to collect real intelligence. That would be bad enough. But at least that would indicate mere incompetence. The second possibility is even scarier: The administration knew the history of these techniques but adopted them anyway, because it wanted confessions it could then trumpet to the public as successes in the war on terror–and they didn’t much care whether or not they were false.
As Savage writes in his book, high-level military interrogation experts tried to explain to political leaders in the Bush administration that they had misunderstood the origin and effect of these techniques. They were rebuffed by political appointees hellbent on expanding presidential power.
Gelles, Kleinman, and other interrogation experts tried to raise alarms internally about the dangers and ineffectiveness of the SERE-style coercive techniques, but they were ignored and threatened. Civilian decision makers inside the Bush-Cheney administration viewed such criticisms as an attack on its claims of presidential power. And they dismissed the complaints as nothing more than another example of the misguided worries of a “law enforcement” mind-set too often focused on fathering evidence that could be used in a civilian courtroom to understand that different rules apply in wartime.
Ron Suskind notes in his book The One Percent Doctrine that many of the false alarms we’ve had over impending terrorist attacks in recent years came from the use of these techniques against low-level al-Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah (he was basically the organization’s travel agent), who told his interrogators whatever he thought they wanted to hear to stop them from torturing him. So we got all of those false warnings about pending terrorist attacks on “shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, and water systems.”
So this administration’s stubborn, tunnel-visioned quest to expand presidential power has caused it to adopt inept interrogation methods, in part because what better way to show the Congress, the human rights groups, and the UN that they have no power to stop this White House than to adopt the most brutal techniques available? Who cares if they work! In the process, they’ve managed to elicit false information from terror suspects, leading to false panics and the waste of potentially billions of dollars in heightened security expenditures after those false alarms have gone out.
“Terrorism” by definition is an effort to use a few attacks to induce unwarranted and irrational fear across an entire population. The aim is get the terrorist’s target to alter its policies, waste its resources, and change its way of life in an irrational response to an enemy without the resources for a more traditional war.
This administration isn’t fighting terror. They’re helping perpetuate it.