Would a better prepared U.S. have used torture?

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The so-called Senate CIA Torture Report is supposed to be released today.  Five years ago, I wrote an article for Nieman Watchdog on the Bush Administration’s decision to resort to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or torture in plain speak.  Torture, I wrote back then, was the refuge of the impatient and incompetent, an approach that abrogated America’s fidelity to international treaties even as it became habit-forming.  In other words, the resort to torture simply begat more torture, irrespective of results.  As President Obama said, “We tortured some folks.”  And so on.  W.J. Astore

COMMENTARY | May 18, 2009

Did a lack of trained interrogators with appropriate language proficiency lead Bush administration officials to embrace torture as a ‘short cut’? A former dean at the Defense Language Institute writes that America was unprepared to wage a patient and savvy war of counterintelligence against Al Qaeda – which may have made less humane and less effective methods seem like an attractive option. Seventh in a series of articles calling attention to the things we still need to know about torture and other abuses committed by the Bush administration after 9/11.

By William J. Astore

In a letter dated May 10, 2007, General David H. Petraeus wrote to American troops serving in the Multi-National Force in Iraq:

Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy.  They would be wrong.  Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary.  Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone “talk;” however, what the individual says may be of questionable value.

Petraeus’s directive to the troops was unequivocal: Besides being illegal, torture is counterproductive, unnecessary, and generates “intelligence” of dubious reliability.

Evidence suggests the U.S. military was telling the Bush Administration these cold, hard facts all along.  Why then did George Bush and Dick Cheney approve torture under the guise of “enhanced interrogation techniques”?

To answer this question, I think we need to remember not only the immense pressure the Bush Administration was under in 2002 (the events of 9/11, after all, occurred on their watch), not only their idée fixe for a settling of accounts with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but also America’s lack of preparedness to wage a patient and savvy war of counterintelligence against Al Qaeda.

I witnessed this indirectly at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC), where I served as the Associate Provost/Dean of Students from 2002 to 2005.  Clearly, the U.S. lacked translators, interpreters, and especially trained military interrogators.  I recall interrogators being pulled from assignments at DLIFLC and reassigned to operational tours in the Middle East and Central Asia; the problem was that their language proficiency was often in Chinese or Korean or a Romance language – not, as one might expect, in Arabic, Pashto or Dari.

Few people understand how long it takes to produce a skilled military interrogator.  Attaining basic language proficiency in Arabic takes nearly 18 months of constant training at DLIFLC.  But attaining mastery of the language and the culture – the acuity and sensitivity to interrogate a suspect who’s deliberately trying to mislead you – takes years and even decades of study and practice.  From 2002 to 2005, it may be that our country simply didn’t have enough skilled and disciplined interrogators to take the indirect approach.

Torture, I’m suggesting, wasn’t used because of a simple Machiavellian calculus of “the ends justify the means.”  Rather, we lacked the most humane and most effective means to attain the ends that the Bush Administration so desperately wanted – “actionable intelligence” that could prevent yet another 9/11 from occurring on their watch.  So they deployed “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which carried with them not merely the risk but the certainty of excesses and mistakes.

As investigators look more closely at America’s resort to torture, they should ask if we decided to go rough because we couldn’t go smooth.  Because we lacked the language and cultural skills to play good cop, we played bad cop as a short cut.  The problem, of course, is that short cuts are habit-forming.  And in the name of results, they often sacrifice the essential for the expedient.  In the case of the Bush Administration, not only did torture apparently provide unreliable intelligence: It also abrogated America’s fidelity to international treaties that forbade torture, and compromised our own ethos of truth, justice, and the American way.

Here, the lessons of the French in Algiers continue to resonate.  Think back to the revelations of General Paul Aussaresses in 2001, which scandalized France.  Aussaresses unrepentantly confessed that, in attempting to suppress terrorism in Algeria in the 1950s, detainee abuse, torture, even murder became routine, first-choice, approaches.  The resort to torture simply begat more torture.

Investigators should look at whether this dynamic also applied to America in Afghanistan and Iraq.  How many of our counterterrorist experts became like General Aussaresses: Self-perceived patriots who believed torture and even murder were justified in the name of protecting the state?  After all, if the state’s essential purpose is to protect its citizens, and you’re dealing with an enemy that’s malevolently contumacious, as Al Qaeda appeared to be, what’s to stop avowed “patriots” from torturing suspects, especially when the state’s leaders have authorized harsh techniques and are pressing you for results?

Patriotism, it’s been said, is the last refuge of the scoundrel.  Is torture the last refuge of the impatient and the incompetent?  If so, how do we instill patience and competence?  Of the hundreds of billions we spend on national defense each year, surely we should dedicate more funding to training and retaining skilled and disciplined military interrogators.  Counterterrorism succeeds or fails based on human intelligence (HUMINT).  But to get the most reliable HUMINT, we have to be able to outsmart our foes.  And the best way to do this is to treat them as humans, not as vessels to be beaten until they voice the echoes of our worst fears.

Updated (12/9/2014, 11:50AM EST): The Executive Summary to the “Torture Report” has been released.  I’ve scanned the first 40 pages.  One remarkable data point is that supposedly the CIA did not brief the President on the full extent of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” until April 8, 2006.  In short, the CIA and its hired contractors used certain torture techniques on their own authority for four years.  Here’s an excerpt from the report:

On August 1, 2002, based on comments from White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, the talking points were revised to eliminate references to the waterboard.  CIA records indicate, however, that the talking points were not used to brief the president. On August 2, 2002, the National Security Council legal advisor informed the DCI’s chief of staff that “Dr. Rice had been informed that there would be no briefing of the President on this matter, but that the DCI had policy approval to employ the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Records state that prior to the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah in 2002, the CIA did not brief Secretary of State Colin Powell or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, two members of the National Security Council, on the techniques. The Committee, including the chairman and vice chairman, was also not briefed on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques prior to their use.

It seems like the CIA is shouldering all of the blame here.  The failure (if it was that) to brief the president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, as well as the Senate Intelligence Committee, constitutes a fundamental breakdown in Constitutional safeguards.  (Unless, of course, the “failure” to brief senior civilian leaders was all about protecting them and maintaining “plausible deniability.”)

Whatever else the report reveals, this violation of the Constitution is especially egregious.  If true, it would suggest that the CIA should be severely disciplined or even disbanded.

But I truly doubt whether the buck stops with rogue elements in the CIA …

Update (12/10/14): Eric Fair was a contract interrogator for the Army in 2004.  In an Op-Ed for the New York Times today, he writes:

I was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib. I tortured.

Today, the Senate released its torture report. Many people were surprised by what it contained: accounts of waterboardings far more frequent than what had previously been reported, weeklong sleep deprivation, a horrific and humiliating procedure called “rectal rehydration.” I’m not surprised. I assure you there is more; much remains redacted.

Most Americans haven’t read the report. Most never will. But it stands as a permanent reminder of the country we once were.

Old Thoughts on the Iraq War and Its Aftermath

W.J. Astore

It all seemed so promising in 2003 (Wiki)
It all seemed so promising in 2003 (Wiki)

Note to readers: I wrote these words in November 2008, just after Obama was elected President for the first time.  I’ve decided not to edit them.  Perhaps they capture the thoughts (however flawed) of one American who was trying to understand the mess we had made of Iraq.

Straight Talk on Iraq: Of Revolutions, Surges, and Victories (2008)

As a retired U.S. military man, I’d like to see “victory” in Iraq, not only for Americans, but also for the oft-neglected and oft-misunderstood Iraqi people.  With Saddam deposed and executed and the illusory weapons of mass destruction eliminated from our fevered intelligence guestimates, one could make an argument we’ve already won.  But “winning,” of course, was never supposed to be just about eliminating Saddam or WMD; it was about creating democracy, or at least a simulacrum of democracy, in Iraq.  We aimed to inspire and sustain an Iraqi government, allied with the United States, which would give a voice to the people instead of terrorizing them into compliance and silence.  This new freedom-loving Iraq would then serve as a positive role model to other states in the Middle East.  Or so it was pitched in 2003, among those who subscribed to neo-con dreams of the unqualified benevolence and irresistible potency of American power.

Even before the war in Iraq became an occupation that degenerated into an insurgency and civil war among rival factions, even before the Iraqi people paid a terrible price in lives lost and refugees created, our new president-elect expressed his opposition to the war, calling it a mistake and couching his criticism primarily in strategic terms (as a distraction from the real war on terror in Afghanistan, for example).  Many people in the U.S. and around the world believed the war was not simply a strategic distraction—one that allowed Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda leaders to escape from a noose tightening around them—but also an immoral one.  For them, the war was worse than a mistake.  It was a crime.

Those today who view the war as either a mistake, or a crime, or both naturally have little compunction about pulling our troops out immediately, even if it means “losing” the war.  But surely our new president-elect got it right when he said repeatedly on the stump, “We need to be as careful getting out [of Iraq] as we were careless getting in.”

The Iraqi Revolution: Made by America

Before we get out, however, we should understand what we did when we went in.  Basically, by overthrowing Saddam, disbanding the Iraqi army, and criminalizing the Ba’ath party and thus throwing most of Iraq’s professional bureaucracy out of work, we initiated a revolution in Iraq.  And revolutions, as we should know from our own history, are usually bloody, unpredictable, and run to extremes (think Reign of Terror) before they play themselves out (think Thermidorean Reaction), followed often by the emergence of a strong man (think Napoleon or Lenin; the U.S. was very fortunate indeed to produce George Washington).

Moreover, the Iraqi revolution we precipitated and attempted to negotiate was more than political and military: It was social, economic, religious, you name it.  Many of the Iraqi professional and educated elite fled the country as it degenerated into violence; a socialist economy, already weakened by more than a decade of sanctions, collapsed under U.S. bombing, Iraqi looting, and widespread corruption; a Shi’a majority, oppressed under Saddam, suddenly found itself able to settle violently its grievances and grudges against a previously overbearing Sunni minority.  Post-Saddam Iraq was a world that we turned upside down.  And our troops were in the thick of it—no longer victors, increasingly victims, whether of extremist violence or of our own leadership that failed to give them the equipment, both physical and mental, to defend themselves adequately.

Our military has its faults, but offering blunt self-assessments is not one of them.  As one Army field-grade officer put it to me recently, “We deployed an Army [in 2004-05 that was] unsympathetic to local Iraqis, sophomoric even at fairly senior levels in their approach to the fight, refusing to admit there was the potential and then the presence of an insurgency.”  His assessment squares with one made by a friend of mine assigned to the CPA in Baghdad in 2004 that the U.S. approach was “a train wreck waiting to happen, and the [Bush] administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less do anything about it.”

And the wreck came.  An Army battalion commander told me recently of a conversation he had with a former Iraqi insurgent leader about the “hot time” of 2004-05.  “Everyone,” this Iraqi leader confessed, “had gone just a little crazy killing members of their own tribes, other sects, in addition to fighting the [Iraqi] government forces and us [the U.S. military].”  His is a painful reminder that the Bush Administration started a revolution in Iraq that they chose neither to understand nor adequately control.  More than five years later, we are still picking up the pieces.

Of Simplistic Narratives

When Americans bother about Iraq, they rarely think of the violent top-to-bottom revolution that we precipitated.  Instead, they usually see it in the simplistic and solipsistic terms of the presidential debates.  For John McCain, Iraq was all about staying the course to victory (however defined) and achieving “peace with honor.”  Somehow, achieving victory would redeem the sacrifices of American troops (the sacrifices of Iraqis were rarely if ever mentioned).

For Barack Obama, Iraq was all about pulling out (most) troops as expeditiously as possible, following a seemingly prudent timeline of sixteen months.  Stressing the generous American taxpayer was contributing $10 billion a month to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, while an untrustworthy and seemingly ungrateful Iraqi government continued to pile up scores of billions in unspent oil-related profits, Obama called for shifting the war’s burden to the Iraqis, both militarily and monetarily.

Thus McCain and Obama, perhaps unwittingly, essentially stressed two different sides of the old Nixonian playbook of 1969: “peace with honor” together with an Iraqi version of Vietnamization completed in lockstep with a U.S. withdrawal.  Neither candidate chose to emulate Nixon’s “madman theory”: His idea that the North Vietnamese would negotiate in better faith if he convinced them the president was wildly unpredictable and so fanatically anti-communist that he might do anything, even toss a few nukes.  (Interestingly, the candidate who came closest was Hillary Clinton in her promise to “obliterate” Iran if it ever dared to threaten Israel.)

Complicating the simplistic narratives offered in the presidential debates were certain unpleasant facts on the ground, the most recent one being the Iraqis themselves and their growing assertiveness in affirming their autonomy and sovereignty.  Their resistance to renewing the status of forces agreement (SOFA) is a clear sign of growing weariness with our military occupation.  Other annoying facts include Iranian meddling: Iran’s leaders obviously have little interest in seeing either the U.S. or Iraq succeed, unless the latter is ruled by a Shi’a party closely aligned with them.  And let’s not forget other niggling facts and factions, such as the Sunni Awakening and its disputed role in Iraq’s future; the Kurds and their contested desire for more autonomy and control over Iraq’s oil resources; various extremist factions jostling for power, such as the Shi’a JAM (Sadrist militia) and its related criminal elements; and looming humanitarian and logistical problems such as accommodating millions of returning Iraqi refugees, assuming conditions improve to a point where they want to return.

Surging to Victory of a Sort

It’s undeniable that last year’s surge orchestrated by General Petraeus helped to curb violence in Iraq, providing a glimmer of hope that a comparatively bloodless political reconciliation in Iraq might yet be possible.  Yet most Americans, conditioned by campaign rhetoric, still remain unaware of the fact that the surge was arguably not the most important factor in the decrease in violence.  Petraeus himself has testified that recent gains achieved by Iraqis and American troops are both fragile and reversible.  As one U.S. Army battalion commander recently described it to me, Iraq remains “a Rubik’s cube of cross cutting rivalries and vengeances.”  As someone who never had much luck solving Rubik’s cube, I wasn’t encouraged by his analogy.

Our military has learned the hard way that Iraq eludes simple solutions.  The immense challenge facing us in the immediate future is to build on our limited gains and to make them irreversible.  And the first step for Americans in this process is to recognize that “victory” is ultimately in Iraqi hands, not ours.  Are we finally ready to admit the limits of our military power—and to share these limitations honestly and forthrightly with the American people?  Especially those whose knowledge of the war begins and ends with “Support Our Troops” ribbons?

If, as one U.S. Army commander puts it in plain-speak, a “shit storm” comes to Iraq despite our best efforts to head it off, are we honest enough to admit our culpability and the limits of our own power to remake the world?  Or will we once again play the blame game, and ask, “Who lost Iraq?”  And if we insist on asking, will we remember to look back to the huge blunders committed in 2003-04 by Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Bremer before rendering a final verdict?

Just before I retired from the Air Force in 2005, I shared a few words of goodbye with an Iraqi-American officer in my unit.  After consenting to sharing kisses with him (a sign of affection and honor in Iraqi culture, and the first time I’ve kissed a scraggly cheek since I was a kid), he left me with an optimistic message.  I don’t recall his exact words, but the gist of it was that although things in Iraq looked dire, ordinary, decent Iraqis would eventually come to the fore and renew the country of his birth.  His guarded optimism reminded me that there is hope for Iraq, and it resides in the Iraqi people themselves.  And as we slowly withdraw our combat forces, let us do whatever we can to support and preserve the spirit of peace-loving Iraqis.