Feds Didn’t Even Bother to Check History of Torture Methods

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Much of this was already covered in Charlie Savage’s book, but it’s worth repeating:

The program began with Central Intelligence Agency leaders in the grip of an alluring idea: They could get tough in terrorist interrogations without risking legal trouble by adopting a set of methods used on Americans during military training. How could that be torture?

In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.

According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans.

Even George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director who insisted that the agency had thoroughly researched its proposal and pressed it on other officials, did not examine the history of the most shocking method, the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding.

The top officials he briefed did not learn that waterboarding had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II and was a well-documented favorite of despotic governments since the Spanish Inquisition; one waterboard used under Pol Pot was even on display at the genocide museum in Cambodia.

They did not know that some veteran trainers from the SERE program itself had warned in internal memorandums that, morality aside, the methods were ineffective. Nor were most of the officials aware that the former military psychologist who played a central role in persuading C.I.A. officials to use the harsh methods had never conducted a real interrogation, or that the Justice Department lawyer most responsible for declaring the methods legal had idiosyncratic ideas that even the Bush Justice Department would later renounce.

Cheney’s theory of executive power rests on the notion that only the executive can be trusted to protect national security—that the courts and the Congress are too burdened by politial meneuvering, ego, and ivory tower theory to be entrusted with our safety. The irony here is that from Gitmo to Abu Ghraib to torture, the Bush administration’s utter and complete incompetence has become a more devastating counterargument to Cheney’s position than any of Bush’s critics could have conjured up themselves.

Digg it |  reddit |  del.icio.us |  Fark

26 Responses to “Feds Didn’t Even Bother to Check History of Torture Methods”

  1. #1 |  chance | 

    I knew quite a few guys who went through SERE, and even trained at the facility (not in SERE itself though) and got to see a little of it. Let’s compare the differences:
    * In SERE, you know there are some limits to what they will do to you. You don’t have to worry you will be killed, or permanently disabled.
    * You’re a volunteer, you asked to be there, or at least asked to be in a specialty that requires SERE.
    * It’s about 3 weeks long or so; regardless of actual length you know you’re getting out in a short amount time.
    * That’s not 3 straight weeks of torture mind you; much of the training is on the “survival”, “evasion”, and “escape” aspects, not just the “resist” part.
    * It is your fellow Americans doing this to you, for training purposes, not a bunch of foreigners who may or may not speak your language.
    * You are likely in peak physical condition and in good to great health.

    So not only was the history and effectiveness of the program taken into effect, the comparison was invalid in the fist place IMO.

  2. #2 |  chance | 

    correction; should read “not taken into consideration”.

    Also, any SERE grad here want to comment?

  3. #3 |  Torture is American. That’s the Problem. « Tiny Cat Pants | 

    [...] not just a matter of not knowing enough history to realize that the techniques you’re using were used on our military, not because they’re somehow “okay” but because we wanted to train folks in how [...]

  4. #4 |  Pushback Against Arrogant Torture Apologists Like Michael Hayden « That Shallow Fellow | 

    [...] acts on our the public dime without any serious public oversight or discussion (or even, if seems, without serious research and thought put into what they were doing). What the CIA does, it does in our [...]

  5. #5 |  Invid | 

    Look the torture worked – we found out where the “Al-Kaiders” leaders were and captured bin Laden and the rest. Plus torturing those guys led to the defeat of the “terrists”

    Don’t tell me torture doesn’t work…..

    Oh wait. my bad that never happened. Still, I’m sure that torture thing provided some kind of benefit…

    Oh wait, didn’t they interview Vietnam vets (like McCain) who talked about how, under torture they lied and gave false information….

    It’s just so confusing.

  6. #6 |  Marty | 

    history’s overrated.

  7. #7 |  dsmallwood | 

    best line:

    The process was “a perfect storm of ignorance and
    enthusiasm,” a former C.I.A. official said.

    but also good:

    C.I.A. interrogators were ordered to waterboard one
    of the captives despite their belief that he had no more
    information to divulge

    gaw bluss amerca, i am so proud

  8. #8 |  Tokin42 | 

    Let me see if I’m understanding the argument, we can’t use waterboarding because the japanese drowned people during ww2. If we stretch that logic out a bit then we can’t even talk to detainees because the germans talked the jews into the trains that took them to the ovens, right? (finally I get to be the one calling others nazi’s) I know people believe almost everything beyond being nice to the detainees is torture, but isn’t this argument an incredible stretch?

    BTW, this hits on a huge pet peeve of mine that I’m going to eventually flip out about. Not one japanese soldier was put on trial solely for committing the “japanese water torture”. There is a massive difference between the japanese water torture and the american use of waterboarding (which i’ll remind people only happened to 3 high level all-queda members), namely the person usually died at the end of the japanese torture. MSNBC kept saying “we tried people for this after ww2″ and “pol pot used this torture” yesterday, IT’S A MYTH and it’s intentionally spread by people who obviously don’t believe their argument against its use is strong enough not to intentionally mislead people. neglecting to mention the other serious war crimes the japanese were guilty of in order to progress your argument is dishonest.

  9. #9 |  truthynesslover | 

    Your kidding right?Ive no backgroung in intell and I know alot the history of torture.They knew and didnt care.They also knew torture would get you bad intell which is what they were looking for in Iraq.Why torture some Iraqie looking for an imaginary link to al-quada?
    This administration represented war profiteers and oil co.s any outrage in the middle east is just more money for them.Always follow the money.

  10. #10 |  MassHole | 

    Tokin42,

    We get it. You think waterboarding is ok as long as it’s done to the right people and that you don’t think it’s torture.

    Would it be ok with you if a US citizen accused of spying was waterboarded by Iran?

  11. #11 |  chance | 

    A wise man once said to me, if torture is an effective means of extracting credible information, then pre-enlightenment Europe was infested with witches.

    Of course, if you truly don’t believe that what was done amounts to torture, why not use these enhanced techniques here in the US on suspects who won’t confess? Seriously, I don’t understand the logic here.

  12. #12 |  Tokin42 | 

    #10

    If an american agent gets caught in Iran and that’s the worst thing to happen to him? then yeah, it’s a good thing. Of course we know that isn’t what happens though do we? Remember the canadian photojournalist the iranians said was spying?

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/kazemi/

    I bet her family wishes she were waterboarded instead of beaten to death.

  13. #13 |  Drew | 

    Is that even a coherent argument, Tonkin? Let me do the math on that… nope, it isn’t. The fact that Iranians can and do way worse things than we do isn’t any sort of coherent response to whether what we do is consistent with our legal and ethical values as a country.

  14. #14 |  Tokin42 | 

    #11 Chance

    I’ll say that absolutely there does come a point of diminishing returns but to suggest that people won’t spill their guts under fear of pain or even a painful death is completely mistaken. If you’re arguing that after they’ve told you what they know they’ll continue talking even if they have to make shit up, then I absolutely agree.

    This article though argues that we ignored the history behind water torture and therefore cheney/tenet are immoral and ignorant. I think that is a really dumb argument to make. Not only does it not fit the actual historical facts but the entire basis of the argument is specious. Do you consider the historical aspect of the gasoline engine before you drive yourself to work or ponder the historical evils of alcohol before you mix yourself a drink? What about all the incredibly evil things done with guns? Should those past abuses mean people should no longer use them to protect their homes?

  15. #15 |  Tokin42 | 

    drew, Are you even paying attention? I was answering a direct question, read massholes post.

  16. #16 |  chance | 

    Do you consider the historical aspect of the gasoline engine before you drive yourself to work or ponder the historical evils of alcohol before you mix yourself a drink? What about all the incredibly evil things done with guns? Should those past abuses mean people should no longer use them to protect their homes?

    You’re preventing a false choice here. Yes I do consider the history, and I bet you do to. I know alcohol can kill, and reduce my ability to make safe choices, so I do not drink, and I urge others to be moderate in their drinking. I learn about the “evils” of internal combustion, and so reduce my usage, and if an affordable alternative comes my way I will switch. I will never point my gun at anyone unless I feel I have no choice. And for torture, there are effective, legal, and ethical alternatives.

    I’ll say that absolutely there does come a point of diminishing returns but to suggest that people won’t spill their guts under fear of pain or even a painful death is completely mistaken. If you’re arguing that after they’ve told you what they know they’ll continue talking even if they have to make shit up, then I absolutely agree.

    That’s exactly what I’m saying, and there’s a few reasons why this is a huge problem;

    1. How do you determine which was the truth and which was the bullshit? The only way you will be able to tell the bullshit from the real intel is to find corroborating evidence from another source (preferably not another detainee). The more you torture a guy, the more reports are generated, the more bullshit for you to pour through, and to confuse the analysis.

    2. Cognitive bias; Mr. Balko has posted umpteen different stories on how easy it is for interrogators to inadvertently or purposely lead the suspects to confess to things they didn’t do, often in great detail. If you accept that is a common occurrence, why do we assume that couldn’t possibly happen in detainee interrogations? The FIRST thing out my mouth would be the truth, just because I would assume the enemy wouldn’t believe me.

    3. Cognitive bias 2: information flows both ways. In example one, I said the analyst should get corroborating info from other sources. If the analyst already has some evidence, and requests more information to support his or her hypothesis, the natural inclination of the interrogators is to find that supporting evidence, and the natural inclination of the analyst will be to believe it because it supports his preconception. Mind you, this is completely bass ackwards from how it should be done, but I’d bet real money it not only happened, it happened and contaminated the information.

    4. Timeliness. When a terrorist is captured, his fellow jihadists are going to practice OPSEC; “Mohammed got caught! Shit. He knew all about our plans.” They know we might get him to talk, so they will either accelerate current plans, or they will abandon them and draw up new ones. If I have to waterboard a guy 100+ times to get him to talk, that takes a long time. At that point, the information is likely of no value. I suppose you might argue that means we need to start off with the “enhanced” methods to begin with, but that still bumps up to problems 1 & 2.

  17. #17 |  Drew | 

    Listening just fine. You apparently think that Iranians are the standard by which we should judge whether our own conduct is ethical. I think that’s a pretty awful standard.

  18. #18 |  Seth Owen | 

    Tokin42′s argurment is so fallacious that a gradeschooler would be embarrassed to use it.
    Torture apologists necessarily abandon all truth, morality, honor and logic in order to make their case.
    For one simple example, Tokin42 repeats the claim that we only waterboarded three high value detainees. At the same time this claim was made it was also calimed that the targets broke within seconds because it was so effective and that they were only waterboarded a handful of times.

    Now we know that one was waterboarded more than 180 times and another one more than 80. Given that their earlier claim is demonstably false, why should we credit their testimony on how many they waterboarded?

    We also know that there are unaccounted for prisoners. We know that completely innocent people have been detained and abused. We know that actual terrorists have been released or, in some cases, non-terrorists MADE into terrorists by being abused. We know that the Bush administration’s torture policy is so infested with incompetence and untruths that nothing that the say can be believed by any objective observer.

    During the Clinton years I believed that, regretable as it was, impeaching that president was proper to defend the rule of law. Much trouble has been caused since that impeachment failed because the Democrats set the very bad precedent of defending-our-guy-no-matter-what-because-he’s-our-guy-the-law-be-damned. For one simple example, the National Oragnization for Women demonstrated its lack of principle by NOT taking up the cause of the women sexually harassed by Clinton.

    But one doesn’t expect principles from that side. What has shocked me is the revelation that the Right has been even less principled than the Left. If the Rule of Law demanded (and it did) that a president be held accountable for sexual harassment, then how much more does respect for Rule of Law demand that a president and his officials be held accountable for war crimes, flouting domestic laws against warrantless wiretapping and other lawlessness?

    Instead Bush apologists abandon all their so-called principles to defend the indefensible.

  19. #19 |  Tokin42 | 

    Chance,

    You know that articles argument was a massive stretch. Imagine that before you go out target shooting you stop to take a look at your weapon and think to yourself: “you know, Pol-Pot used a weapon very similar to this to execute almost a million people. I really don’t think I should be supporting that kind of past behavior”. The articles whole argument was one massive godwin with the nazis replaced by the japanese.

    On the more serious substance of your concerns about the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, let me just say I will agree with each and every point. I’m not “torture” happy, the only real disagreement I have is with those that say stress positions and waterboarding are torture and the agents who used the techniques should be tried under federal law. I completely disagree. I also disagree that the president, members of congress, and government lawyers should be held up for trial because they fulfilled, in my mind, their constitutional duties. In my mind this is a political question that needs to be addressed through elections, not judges.

  20. #20 |  Tokin42 | 

    Drew, buddy, put down the pipe.

    #10 | MassHole | April 23rd, 2009 at 1:40 pm
    ….Would it be ok with you if a US citizen accused of spying was waterboarded by Iran?

    I answered:

    #12 | Tokin42 | April 23rd, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    #10

    If an american agent gets caught in Iran and that’s the worst thing to happen to him? then yeah, it’s a good thing.

    I answered a direct question about iran, I didn’t bring it up.

  21. #21 |  MassHole | 

    Thanks for answering my question Tokin42. One last one if you will indulge me.

    We have laws against torture in this country. If the DOJ and a grand jury find evidence that persons ordered what constitutes torture or cruel and inhuman punishment as defined by current law, should they be tried or not? If the jury feels they acted in good faith and they should not be punished, they can nullify and not convict even if the evidence is overwhelming. In addition, the president could pardon or commute the sentence if he saw fit.

    Where do you draw the line of when the law should be ignored?

  22. #22 |  Tokin42 | 

    #21

    That’s a tough question. As far as I can tell there isn’t a federal law against the use of, even what I would consider, torture regarding military detainees. Maybe I’m wrong about this but the only obligation I see the US has is under the geneva conventions and the UN agreement we signed, the convention against torture. Both agreements have loopholes massive enough to drive a truck through. Someone correct me if I”m wrong but the convention against torture leaves it up to the home country to decide if activities meet the legal definition of torture and also to the home country to “submit for prosecution”.

    1: People can argue until their blue in the face and I don’t think that phrase means we “have to prosecute”. What happened to prosecutorial discretion? I find it hypocritical to say prosecutors should use their judgment but only on issues where they agree.

    2: What we know is the entire chain of command, the people actually authorized by our constitution with the handling of military detainees, plus dozens of agency lawyers decided these techniques did not meet that definition. Members of congress from both parties were briefed and gave their consent. There are obviously a lot of people who disagree with that assessment but still I don’t think that should make it a criminal offense.

    3: Obama and McCain both believe we shouldn’t be waterboarding and that it does amount to torture, but still BOTH have declined to ALWAYS rule out its use. Both their positions have been (obama even codified his) “it’s illegal….unless we really, really need to”.

    Lastly, I think this is a political issue that should be decided by the winners of elections. If obama and congress decides tomorrow that the best way to deal with guantanamo detainees is to just cut off their arms and send them home, I still wouldn’t think they should all be arrested. (Crap, under our constitution I could even easily argue it would be legal) I think the people get to decide if that’s the correct course of action, and they decide that by voting.

  23. #23 |  willie | 

    i have just one question for you all.

    when did these “terrorists” become US citizens and become protected by our constitution?

  24. #24 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Willie, get thee to a learnin’ building. That weak ass canard…are you serious? My guess is you’ve been hawking that crap on sites for at least 6 years. Get a new rap.

    Here…I went to Bangkok years ago and kidnapped three kids onto my yacht. Took them back to LA as slaves then beheaded them because Star Trek NG was cancelled. Hey! Whatchutalkin bout murder! Can’t be murder if they ain’t MERICAN!

  25. #25 |  The Big Mo « Just Above Sunset | 

    [...] Hell, even the Nazi the Luftwaffe in wartime had higher standards. But we got Dick Cheney, as Radley Balko explains: [...]

  26. #26 |  old | 

    Tokin42 | April 23rd, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Someone correct me if I”m wrong but the convention against torture leaves it up to the home country to decide if activities meet the legal definition of torture and also to the home country to “submit for prosecution”.

    You’re wrong.

Leave a Reply