A debate we should not be having

As predicted, Bush sycophants are doing their best to use the death of Osama bin Laden to attempt to justify his administration’s unconscionable torture policies.

It is depressing that America is once more having a debate about whether its loftiest principles ought to be sacrificed to gain a false measure of security. But if one side is determined to have the debate, those of us on the other must not shy away. Pardon the length of this post, but this is important. This is a foundational argument, one that defines who we, as Americans are and who we want to be.

In a 2009 column about this dehumanizing debate, I wrote about the two issues that should be at the heart of the debate: Whether to call torture what it is, and whether torture works.

On the first issue, I wrote:

Some reject calling these interrogation methods torture, believing that the legal memos produced by the Bush Justice Department somehow found a bright line between the kind of behavior we consider torture when it is used against our soldiers and the kind of behavior we consider “enhanced interrogation” when we use it against suspected terrorists.

There is no such bright line. When you set out to terrify someone, cause them extreme pain, make them believe they are drowning, deprive them of sleep for days or weeks at a time, shackle them to a ceiling so their feet barely touch the ground, you are engaging in torture — and all the good intentions in the world cannot obscure that fact.

There can be no doubt that waterboarding is torture. Other “enhanced interrogation” techniques authorized by the Bush administration also surely crossed the line between acceptable interrogation practices and torture. All the euphemisms in the world cannot change the fact that the United States engaged in conduct that likely constitutes war crimes.

This would be bad enough if that conduct actually produced intelligence that saved lives, as Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly asserted. That is almost certainly not the case. In fact, as I wrote in that column, the techniques embraced by the Bush administration were based on Communist Chinese methods from the Korean War – methods that were designed to elicit false confessions:

As detailed in an April 21 New York Times article, the enhanced interrogation program was based on Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training, known as SERE training, used to prepare American soldiers at high risk of capture for some of the worst they might face at the hands of the enemy.

Those developing the program knew that. They figured the methods couldn’t be torture if they were used to train American soldiers. What they didn’t know, and didn’t bother to find out, according to The Times, is that SERE training was based on torture methods used against our soldiers in Korea and Vietnam to get them to sign false confessions.

And, in fact, torture has proven ineffective for America – and was ineffective in trying to get the information that led to the discovery of bin Laden, as an article in today’s New York Times makes clear:

Glenn L. Carle, a retired C.I.A. officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee in 2002, said in a phone interview Tuesday, that coercive techniques “didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information.” He said that while some of his colleagues defended the measures, “everyone was deeply concerned and most felt it was un-American and did not work.”

Obama administration officials, intent on celebrating Monday’s successful raid, have tried to avoid reigniting a partisan battle over torture.

“The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council. “It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

That torture is ineffective is consistent with everything we have learned about the psychology of interrogation:

“The torture of suspects [at Abu Ghraib] did not lead to any useful intelligence information being extracted,” says James Corum, a professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the author of a forthcoming book on counterinsurgency warfare. “The abusers couldn’t even use the old ‘ends justify the means’ argument, because in the end there was nothing to show but a tremendous propaganda defeat for the United States.”

Corum, who recently retired as a lieutenant colonel after twenty-eight years in the Army and Reserves, mostly in military intelligence, says that Moran’s philosophy has repeatedly been affirmed in subsequent wars large and small. “Know their language, know their culture, and treat the captured enemy as a human being” is how Corum sums up Moran’s enduring lesson.

The Moran he refers to is Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran, author of a classic 1943 report, “Suggestions for Japanese Interpreters Based on Work in the Field,” that outlined the most effective way to actually get prisoners talking, which went against the conventional wisdom of that time and ours:

The brutality of the fighting in the Pacific and the suicidal fanaticism of the Japanese had created a general assumption that only the sternest measures would get Japanese prisoners to divulge anything. Moran countered that in his and others’ experience, strong-arm tactics simply did not work. Stripping a prisoner of his dignity, treating him as a still-dangerous threat, forcing him to stand at attention and flanking him with guards throughout his interrogation—in other words, emphasizing that “we are his to-be-respected and august enemies and conquerors”—invariably backfired. It made the prisoner “so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy intelligence” that it “played right into [the] hands” of those who were determined not to give away anything of military importance.

I can already hear the Limbaughs and Hannitys mocking Moran’s approach as soft and suggesting that it could never work with terrorists. But it worked with battle-hardened Japanese soldiers, and it worked so well that it completely changed how the military approached interrogations toward the end of World War II.

Torture is wrong, even if it was effective. But America is debating abandoning important humane principles in order to engage in horrific behavior that doesn’t even work. Even after Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, he continued to mislead his captors about the identity of the courier that finally led the United States to bin Laden.

This debate should have been over years ago. It is sad that some cling so fiercely to such a discredited and un-American set of ideas.

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