Let’s get some things straight here, before Seymour Hersh’s artfully misconstruing account sucks all the oxygen out of the debate.
First, abuse isn’t necessarily torture, isn’t necessarily tough interrogation. Abuse is bad acts, that violate policy or the law. Abuse is distinguishable from torture and legitimate interrogation techniques because it is unsanctioned, while the latter two enjoy the sanction of the state conducting them. Based on what Jeremey Sivits, the first of the Military Police (MP) to plead out has said, the stuff you see in the pictures wasn’t interrogation, it was pure, unsanctioned abuse. We may find out differently later, but for now, that’s my conclusion too.
Second, tough interrogation techniques aren’t necessarily torture either, in spite of the best efforts of Human Rights Watch and Sy Hersh to define torture downward.
The Geneva Convention forbids physical or mental abuse, as well as duress and coercion. Hmmmm… gotta wonder how them Swiss boys reckon we’ll get an interrogation on.
The fact is, that the prohibition on duress and coercion, by custom among the western nations, is interpreted more or less as “won’t leave a permanent mark.” Custom matters because in international law, there are only two fonts of wisdom: the printed text of treaties, and customary interpretations. Because the Geneva Convention is so widely interpreted to permit rude, nasty interrogation techniques that fall short of torture, then such techniques are permissible.
Three, if you want us to beat Al Qaida and the assorted Islamofascists – some of whom apparently take their duties as subordinates in the Axis of Evil pretty seriously – then you had best get your mind right on the question of what you will allow our boys & girls to do in the interrogation room. I’m not saying we need bamboo shoots under the fingernails, but asking nice once or twice – which is what Human Rights Watch and the increasingly ill-informed (on this issue) Phil Carter seem to be advocating – will get a lot more of our troops dead, in a hurry. It will maybe eventually get a lot more New Yorkers or Los Angelenos dead in a hurry too. Better unfuck your minds, people, or Al Qaida is going to rip off your heads and skullfuck you. (With apologies to Gy.Sgt. (Ret.) R. Lee Ermey). Yes, our ideals are wonderful. Torture is bad. And fire burns, and kittens are fluffy, as long as we are sticking to statements of the obvious. There are things a state has to do to survive, from time to time, which are ugly. If we aren’t okay with making Al Qaida or Fedayeen Saddam undergo interrogation naked, or making them stand for 10 hours in an uncomfortable position, or letting military working dogs bark at them (not bite), then we are probably too gutless to survive as a nation. If we can’t even discuss the problems we face honestly, with some nuance and discernment (I’m talking to you, Phil) then we are probably too dumb to survive. I really don’t like where this is headed.
Four, this Sy Hersh hitjob does a smashing job of conflating abuse with torture and tough (but legit) interrogation techniques, and of using unnamed sources to impeach nameless badguys for the MP prison abuses, which they apparently had nothing to do with.
Hersh talks about three or four things. He talks about the MP abuse – and abuse is what it was. He talks about the open system intelligence unit that did interrogation at the prison, 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, and it’s commander, Colonel Pappas, who sought permission from General Sanchez in a number of cases to use one or two tough interrogation tactics. Then Hersh talks about some Special Access Programs run out of the Department of Defense using Rumsfeld-approved tough interrogation methods.
Hersh’s main failure, is he talks about all this stuff as if it is of apiece. It isn’t.
The MPs, insofar as they are aware of anything Intel does, would have only operational knowledge. “Line up the dogs to bark at 8:00 PM as we bring prisoner X back to his cell.” “Stand in the back of the room to restrain prisoner Y if he gets unruly during questioning.” “Wake up prisoner Z every time he falls asleep.” Not only are these MPs probably unaware of the big plans, any interrogator worth a damn would have them well under control insofar as they participated in the interrogation process; control is the key to interrogation, and nothing that compromises the absolute control of the interrogator can be tolerated. As for the MP chain of command, all commanders and NCOs have a duty for all troops under their direct command, and within their line of sight. The single plea bargain so far, indicating that the abuse pictured was unsanctioned, rings true. It was clear from a statement made by that soldier, SPC Jeremy Sivits – “if the command knew, they’d drop the hammer; they always try to do the right thing” – that the MP policy was against abuse.
Likewise, the open system military intelligence folks in the 205th MI Brigade appear to have followed policy. It can be gleaned from the Hersh article that DOD approved tough interrogation methods – sleep deprivation, moving around a prisoner’s meal schedule, and making the prisoner stand or sit in uncomfortable positions. Deep knee bends for everybody! Yet Hersh notes that these procedures, anything beyond mere questioning, had to be requested by Col. Pappas, and approved by General Sanchez. If I recall the numbers correctly from the Taguba report, that number was around 30 requests over a several month period. So a system was in place that allowed for sleep deprivation, diet manipulation, naked questioning, being hooded whilst listening to nearby barking dogs or heavy metal, or being made to stand in an uncomfortable position. That system was known, and used. (As an aside, about the only special method that can now be used is isolation. Oooh, that does a really good job at getting confessions out of our prisoners here in the states…)
Then there are the Special Access Programs. Hersh says there are a couple hundred special forces operatives acting in such positions world wide. Hersh talks about these Special Forces operatives using the prison to house their subjects, but he seems to blow it way out of proportion. Instead of the occasional “ghosts” that General Karpinski and the MPs describe in the Taguba report, Hersh makes it sound as if they were running the prison, saying they were ‘inside the prison’. Actually running the prison, as Hersh implies, would be pretty tough given their small numbers and the limited interest they would have had in run-of-the-mill insurgents. But internal consistency was never really Hersh’s goal with this article.
There are other problems with Hersh’s article. He cites unnamed Pentagon experts who say that Special Forces have carte blanche to grab anybody and do anything they want. Yet paragraphs later, he attempts to pin the blame on Undersecretary for Intelligence Cambone and Donald Rumsfeld, who supposedly marked out the rules for the Special Access Programs, and were tightly controlling the reins. How can they be running amok, when in fact they are tightly controlled?
One other problem. The term Special Access Program isn’t a “program” in the way Hersh seems to think. SAPs aren’t military units, they are just compartments within security classifications of materials, to limit dissemination. Say you want to limit dissemination of material on a research program using dogs on the battlefield. A SAP called “Red Rover” might be created, and only people read on to Red Rover material could get access to your research results. For a guy who has been covering the Pentagon beat – slamming the Pentagon, really – since the height of the anti-war movement in the sixties, this is an inexplicable technical error. Unless he’s trying to make the whole thing sound more sinister than it is.
Hersh did get one thing right though. A source is cited who said the Pentagon tried to exercise its discretionary power, and as a result of missteps is going to wind up with a Church Committee. The Church Committee was convened in 1974 to address the abuses of U.S. intelligence committed in the United States. The end result was the hamstringing of intelligence, and erection of the “wall” between intel and law enforcement, that the 9/11 Commission hammered Ashcroft over.
I fear that the truth is that the prison photo scandal is going to lead to a Church Committee-like exercise, with the eventual result being the destruction of our tactical and strategic interrogation capabilities. Ironically enough, a lot of the same Senators who will preside over that, will be quick to start throwing daggers at the intel community the next time the U.S. comes under major attack – the irony being that the next major attack will be greatly hastened by the Senators fastening the chains on our intel services. I blame the media for this mess – they are unable or unwilling to sort out the facts, to dig deeply enough to figure out how things work, or to stop and ask for a couple organization charts. Yet without a doubt, they will be leading the feeding frenzy when NY gets nuked. Or Sidney. Or London. Or L.A. As in Iraq, we will know they have blood on their hands; and also as in Iraq, nothing will be done about it, nor can anything be done about it. For that, you’d need the media on your side, something we don’t have.