The USA No Longer Sees Freedom and Liberty as Core Strengths

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Why are we so intent on chopping it down?

W.J. Astore

In the crusade against Communism, otherwise known as the Cold War, the U.S. saw “freedom” as its core strength.  Our liberties were contrasted with the repression of our chief rival, the USSR.  We drew strength from the idea that our system of government, which empowered people whose individualism was guided by ethics based on shared values, would ultimately prevail over godless centralism and state-enforced conformity.  An important sign of this was our belief in citizen-soldiers rather than warriors, and a military controlled by democratically-elected civilians rather than by dictators and strong men.

Of course, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War could be amoral or immoral, and ethics were often shunted aside in the name of Realpolitik.  Even so, morality was nevertheless treated as important, and so too were ethics.  They weren’t dismissed out of hand.

Fast forward to today.  We no longer see “freedom” as a core U.S. strength.  Instead, too many of us see freedom as a weakness.  In the name of defeating radical Islamic terrorism, we’ve become more repressive, even within the USA itself.  Obedience and conformity are embraced instead of individualism and liberty.  In place of citizen-soldiers, professional warriors are now celebrated and the military is given the lion’s share of federal resources without debate.  Trump, a CEO rather than a statesman, exacerbates this trend as he surrounds himself with generals while promising to obliterate enemies and to revive torture.

In short, we’ve increasingly come to see a core national strength (liberty, individualism, openness to others) as a weakness.  Thus, America’s new crusades no longer have the ethical underpinnings (however fragile they often proved) of the Cold War.  Yes, the Cold War was often unethical, but as Tom Engelhardt notes at TomDispatch.com today, the dirty work was largely covert, i.e. we were in some sense embarrassed by it.  Contrast this to today, where the new ethos is that America needs to go hard, to embrace the dark side, to torture and kill, all done more or less openly and proudly.

Along with this open and proud embrace of the dark side, America has come increasingly to reject science.  During the Cold War, science and democracy advanced together.  Indeed, the superior record of American science vis-à-vis that of the Soviet Union was considered proof of the strength and value of democracy.  Today, that is no longer the case in America.  Science is increasingly questioned; evidence is dismissed as if it’s irrelevant.  “Inconvenient truths” are no longer recognized as inconvenient — they’re simply rejected as untrue.  Consider the astonishing fact that we have a president-elect who’s suggested climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China.

Yesterday, I saw the following comment online, a comment that summed up the new American ethos: “Evidence and facts are for losers.”  After all, President-elect Trump promised America we’d win again.  Let’s not let facts get in the way of “victory.”

That’s what a close-minded crusader says.  That the truth doesn’t matter.  All that matters is belief and faith.  Obey or suffer the consequences.

Where liberty is eroded and scientific evidence is denied, you don’t have democracy.  You have something meaner.  And dumber.  Something like autocracy, kleptocracy, idiocracy.  And tyranny.

Trump: A Worrisome Commander-in-Chief

Trump holds a rally with supporters at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan, U.S.
He doesn’t speak softly, even as he now inherits a very big U.S. military stick. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

W.J. Astore

I’d never watched a U.S. presidential candidate who scared me – truly scared me – until the Republican debate on March 3, 2016.  This candidate literally gave me the creeps.  As a historian and as a retired U.S. military officer, his answer to a question on torture and the potential illegality of his orders if he became the military’s civilian commander-in-chief horrified me.  The next day, I wrote a short blog post in which I argued that this candidate had disqualified himself as a candidate for the presidency.  That candidate’s name was Donald Trump.

What did candidate Trump say that so horrified me?  He said this: They [U.S. military leaders] won’t refuse [my illegal orders]. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.  After again calling for waterboarding and more extreme forms of (illegal) torture, as well as not denying he’d target terrorists’ families in murderous reprisal raids, candidate Trump then said this: I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

As I wrote at the time, “Our military does not follow blindly orders issued by ‘The Leader.’ Our military swears an oath to the Constitution.  We swear to uphold the law of the land. We don’t swear allegiance to a single man (or woman) as president.”

“Trump’s performance … reminded me of Richard Nixon’s infamous answer to David Frost about Watergate: ‘When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.’ No, no, a thousand times no.  The president has to obey the law of the land, just as everyone else has to.  No person is above the law, an American ideal that Trump seems neither to understand nor to embrace.”

“And that disqualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief.”

Yes, I wrote those words just before the Ides of March.  And yet here we are, with Trump as our president-elect and, come January 2017 the U.S. military’s next commander-in-chief.  What the hell?

Confronted with criticism of his remarks that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality, Donald Trump soon walked them back.  But for me his dictatorial instincts, his imperiousness, and, worst of all, his ignorance of or indifference to the U.S. Constitution, stood revealed in horrifyingly stark relief.  Little that Trump said or did after this major, to my mind disqualifying, gaffe convinced me that he was fit to serve as commander-in-chief.

Here’s what I wrote back in March about the prospect of Trump serving as commander-in-chief:

Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief.  Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect.  His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination.  Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.

Another disturbing tack he took was to suggest that he’d clean house among the military’s senior ranks — apparently, America today doesn’t have enough men like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump’s all-time favorite generals.  Patton was a notorious hothead, and MacArthur was vainglorious, egotistical, and insubordinate.  Leaving that aside, Trump doesn’t seem to understand that the president is not a dictator who can purge the military officer corps. Officers are appointed by Congress, not by the president, and they serve at the will of the American people, not at the whim of the president.

Combine Trump’s ignorance of the U.S. Constitution with his cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and you truly have a combustible formula.  Clearly, Trump had no idea what America’s nuclear triad was during the Republican primary debates, but few people in the media seemed to care.  (Gary Johnson, meanwhile, was pilloried by the press for not knowing about Aleppo.)  Trump gave statements that seemed to favor nuclear proliferation, and seemed to suggest he saw nuclear weapons as little different from conventional ones.  He also repeated that hoary chestnut, vintage 1960, that some sort of “missile gap” existed between the U.S. and Russia: the lie that Russia was modernizing its nuclear forces and the USA was falling hopelessly behind.  Again, there was little push back from the press on Trump’s ignorance and lies: they were enjoying the spectacle and profits too much.

When it comes to nuclear war, ignorance and lies are not bliss.  Can Trump grow up?  Can he become an adequate commander-in-chief? America’s future, indeed the world’s, may hinge on this question.

Might Makes Right: An American Tradition

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W.J. Astore (also posted at History News Network)

To hear Republican candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talk, almost any act of violence is justifiable to defeat the enemy. Trump talks of torture, far worse than waterboarding, and total destruction. Cruz ups the ante, speaking of carpet bombing and making the sand glow, apparently via nuclear weapons. Both appear to treat the enemy as inhuman.

Sadly, for America this is nothing new. Just read Bernard Fall on America’s war against Vietnam. In an article for Ramparts (“This Isn’t Munich, It’s Spain”), Fall wrote late in 1965 that the American military strategy in Vietnam was based on massive killing through overwhelming firepower:

The new mix of air war and of land and seaborne firepower in Vietnam is one of technological counter-insurgency — if you keep up the kill rate you will eventually run out of enemies. Or at least armed enemies. Of course, the whole country will hate you, but at least they won’t resist you. What you will get is simply a cessation of resistance — an acquiescence in one’s fate rather than a belief that your side and your ideas have really prevailed.

In other words, America sought to bludgeon the Vietnamese into compliance, rather than winning their hearts and minds through ideas or ideals.

“But what I really fear most,” Fall continued, “is the creation of new ethics to match new warfare. Indications are that a new ethic is already being created, and such influential men as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson have begun to provide its intellectual underpinning.”

Fall cited a speech at Amherst College in 1965 in which Acheson declared:

The end sought by our foreign policy . . . is, as I have said, to preserve and foster an environment in which free societies may exist and flourish. Our policies and actions must be decided by whether they contribute to or detract from achievement of this end. They need no other justification or moral or ethical embellishment. . .

To keep the free world free, America was justified to do anything it desired, irrespective of ethics and morality. Acheson’s words in 1965 have become the essence of U.S. foreign policy today as advanced by men like Trump and Cruz. In short, the end (a “free” society) justifies any means (torture, carpet bombing, perhaps even nuclear weapons) to preserve it.

Fall went on to cite a Pastoral Letter from French Cardinal Feltin in 1960 during France’s war with Algeria. In that letter to French military chaplains, Cardinal Feltin noted:

There cannot be a morality which justifies efficacy by all means, if those means are in formal contradiction with Natural Law and Divine Law. Efficacy, in that case, goes against the very aim it seeks to achieve. There can be exceptional laws for exceptional situations. . . there cannot exist an exceptional morality which somehow takes leave of Natural Law and Divine Law.

Too often in the past as well as today, U.S. foreign policy has taken leave of natural and divine law. The ends do not and should not justify the means, especially when the means (torture, carpet bombing, and the like) contravene the end (a “free” society based on ethical and moral principles).

Rather than posing as protectors of the free world, people like Trump and Cruz should admit their own amorality. They should admit they see the world as a brutal place, occupied by brutes, and that only by slaying those brutes in a brutish way can America preserve its dominant position as chief brute.

Doubtless many of their followers would still salute them for this view. But more reflective souls would see the honesty of Pogo’s famous insight that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


Torture: A Conservative Defense of Bush/Cheney

Obama

W.J. Astore

About seven years ago, I had an impassioned debate with a conservative friend about whether the U.S. had engaged in torture and, if we had, whether it had been effective.  My position was clear: we had engaged in torture, and it was both wrong and counterproductive.  My friend was unconvinced.  His arguments, which I detail below, provide a contrary perspective on the issue of torture as well as insight into the rationale of those who supported Dick Cheney’s unapologetic stance on torture.

(My friend is now deceased.  I don’t believe he would object to having his views outlined here, but I do believe he would wish to remain anonymous.  I have edited his comments for clarity, putting them in the form of a list.)

1.  Torture. The very word makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. Yet we have yet to come to anywhere near an agreement on exactly what the word means. To some it is hot irons, the rack, and beatings. At the other end are those who maintain the act of keeping prisoners at a facility like Gitmo, or indeed at any facility, is in of itself a form of torture.

I am not in favor of categorically using physical means to obtain intelligence from captives. From the tone of the [White House] memos [on torture], and from what I have read of the views of those in both the White House and the Pentagon, no one there was in favor of that approach either.  That is clearly not in the best interests of anyone. At the same time, it is folly to advertise [to the enemy] exactly what we will and will not do.

Clearly, from the very fact that the memos exist at all, and that questions were asked requiring legal answers, this subject was not approached in a cavalier fashion by anyone [in the Bush Administration].

It was St. Augustine who first offered the admonition that you may not do evil that good might come of it.  But he also said that it is at time permissible to tolerate a lesser evil to prevent a great evil.

2.  Waterboarding did yield results that stopped an attack on US soil. I believe that Cheney is correct in asking that further memos be released that either prove or disprove that point. I also believe that these episodes of waterboarding are being presented [by the media] out of context and without perspective.  In sum, if waterboarding resulted in obtaining info that did indeed foil an operation against the U.S., then I see no problem with having used it.

3.  The Geneva Conventions [on the treatment of prisoners of war] do not apply here. Terrorists are not soldiers of any state.  They do not wear uniforms.  We have a new paradigm to which we must adjust, both in the pure military sense, as well as the way we deal with those we capture.

Are such men to be treated as soldiers?  Are they to be treated as criminals?  Are we to extend such niceties as the Geneva conventions to those who would offer the exact opposite to those who would come under their control?

If we treat all captives as if they were soldiers, under Geneva Convention rules, that would create some problems, and would also effectively end the conversation. There would be no interrogations. On the other hand, if we treat this as a war, and all captives as POWs, then we are well within our rights to keep those same persons under confinement until the war ends.

If we treat these captives as criminals, we have other problems. First, and this may sound silly, but I doubt that they were read their Miranda rights as they were taken prisoner. But if they are to be treated as criminals, then other rules apply as well, and one of those rules is the right for authorities to question them.

As it stands now, how you treat terrorists is open to debate. They are clearly not soldiers. They are also not actually criminals either.

4.  The nature of the enemy: What we have now is a very different paradigm. These are not State actors. There is no fear on their part of betraying their “State,” or of facing consequences relating to betraying the State. There is no “State” in the first place.  These are Islamo-fascist terrorists, who have no state, only a religious conviction from which they draw their motivation.

We also know that they view cooperation and diplomacy and forbearance as weakness.

We know how totalitarian thugs act and react. We know what drives them, and we know what stops them.  We have had ample experience over the centuries.

5.  Abu Ghraib in Iraq, while deplorable, also did not represent an attempt to garner intelligence. And its commander was sacked.  I take exception to any comparisons with such places as the Hanoi Hilton [in North Vietnam]. The objective there was not information, but rather confession.

And what do we do to detainees who, after being treated as “guests,” respond by throwing feces and attempting to assault US guards?  Is no physical response to be permitted at all?

6.  This media focus, some would say obsession, with torture is more about attacking the Bush Administration than it is about protecting the rights of prisoners.

7.  While I have concerns about the prisoners who are the recipients of torture and abuse, I also worry about those on the other side. The act of abusing another human being is not healthy, and leads to many psychological problems. I worry about the effect any of this activity will have on our own people.

8.  The validity of information obtained under torture is always suspect. But we come back then to the very definition of torture. Is the stress of being questioned in of itself a form of torture?  And again, we are not talking about soliciting confessions; we are talking about obtaining and confirming information, from various persons and from different sources. If we decide that we cannot in any way, shape, or form question captives, then we might as well just treat them as we would soldiers. And that would mean keeping them locked up for a very long time.”

If I were to summarize my friend’s views, I’d say he believed that torture was regrettable but necessary to keep America safe, that those who were making a big deal about it were motivated by animus against the Bush Administration, and that those who objected to torture in principle didn’t realize the nature of the enemy, i.e. “Islamo-fascist thugs” who had to be “stopped,” even at the cost of committing lesser evils (torture) to prevent greater evils (attacks on innocent Americans).

And I’d say his views, politicized and biased as they were, were and are widely held in America, which is exactly why the Obama Administration chose not to prosecute anyone for the crime of torture.  “We tortured some folks,” as Obama memorably said, but let’s look forward, not backward.  So, in essence, Obama pretty much agrees with my conservative friend.

Update: Another thought: this debate over torture is much like the current debate over the renewal of The Patriot Act. The Obama Administration is trotting out the usual suspects to argue that, to defend ourselves from Islamo-fascist thugs, we must reauthorize the Patriot Act and consent to unlimited surveillance.

It’s yet another version of “we had to destroy the village to save it.”  In this case, it’s “we must empower authoritarian and secretive governmental agencies to preserve democracy and freedom in America.”  Good luck with that!

The Torture Was the Message

Proud Acolytes of the Roman God of War

W.J. Astore

Leading figures in the Bush Administration — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz — fancied themselves to be the new Vulcans.  As in Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge, armorer for gods and mortals.  In the aftermath of 9/11, they didn’t look to Darth Vader in their journey to “the dark side” — they looked to Ancient Rome. They believed that Rome had prospered because of its willingness to use force with unparalleled ruthlessness.  As the “new Rome,” the new hegemon of the globe, America too would prosper if it proved willing to use brutal force.

Call it “shock and awe.”  In the process, they sowed the dragon’s teeth of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and indeed throughout the world.  In attempting to intimidate the enemies they saw everywhere, they tortured widely as well.

In her book Rome and the Enemy (1990), historian Susan P. Mattern noted that:

Rome’s success, its very safety, ultimately depended less on the force that it could wield, which was not necessarily large or overwhelming, than on the image of the force it could wield and on its apparent willingness to use that force at whatever cost.

The American Vulcans, people like Cheney, concluded the same: they had to be willing to use brutal force at whatever cost.  Image was everything.  They had to be willing to project an image of ruthlessness, because the language of brutality was the only language “they,” the enemy, could and would understand.  It wasn’t necessary to sacrifice democracy to defend democracy, since to the Vulcans, America wasn’t really a democracy anyway.  No: America was the new Rome, the new global hegemon, and it had to act like it.

To the Vulcans, torture was not an aberration.  It was method.  A method of intimidation that sent a message to barbarians about America’s willingness to use whatever force was necessary to defend itself.  Whether torture yielded reliable intelligence was beside the point.  The torture was the message.

That’s why you’ll hear no apology from Dick Cheney or the other Vulcans.  They speak the language of naked power. A fiery power that consumes.  And they’re proud of it.

Two millennia ago, in a riposte to Rome’s utter ruthlessness, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote a critique using Calgacus, a Celtic chieftain, as his mouthpiece.  In Agricola, Tacitus wrote:

The Romans’ tyranny cannot be escaped by any act of reasonable submission.  These brigands of the world have exhausted the land by their rapacity, so they now ransack the sea.  When their enemy is rich, they lust after wealth; when their enemy is poor, they lust after power.  Neither East nor West has satisfied their hunger.  They are unique among humanity insofar as they equally covet the rich and the poor.  Robbery, butchery, and rapine they call ‘Empire.’  They create a desert and call it ‘Peace.’

This may not be quite the self-image that America’s new Vulcans had in mind, but it is the reality when you set yourself up as acolytes of the god of fire.  But fire is an especially capricious and elemental force, impossible to master, raging treacherously as it consumes everything in its path.  Beware when you play with fire, for even the Roman Empire burnt itself out.

(With thanks to the reader below who reminded me of the different roles Vulcan and Mars played in Roman mythology.)

More on the Torture Report

An unrepentant Dick Cheney in 2008
An unrepentant Dick Cheney in 2008

W.J. Astore

Six years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney admitted that he had approved waterboarding as one of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Waterboarding had been defined as torture by the U.S. during World War II when the Japanese had employed it (although the U.S. had used the so-called water cure during the Filipino Insurrection in the early 1900s). An unrepentant Cheney claimed that torture had been necessary to keep America safe, and that valuable intelligence had been gathered as a result, a conclusion disputed by this week’s Senate report on the CIA and torture.

Since Cheney’s admission, it’s taken six years to render an incomplete accounting of crimes committed by the U.S. government in the name of protecting America. The American people will never receive a complete accounting of these crimes since much of the evidence, including videos of interrogations, has been destroyed. Other evidence is being suppressed (just as the worst photographs from Abu Ghraib were never shown to the American people), ostensibly in the name (yet again) of keeping America safe from the blowback that would result from a complete accounting.

Who is really being protected here? The American people? Or the people who authorized and carried out the torture?

I wrote the following article back in December 2008 on the futility of torture as a technique and also on the need to punish those accountable for ordering it. However, it already appears that the U.S. Department of Justice has no plans to prosecute anyone for these crimes.

So, after a week or so of media grandstanding and manufactured outrage, this story will fade from view, just as our government wishes it to. Look forward, not backward, as President Obama says. And so it is that the crimes will continue without any possibility of atonement or redemption. W.J. Astore

Cheney says he approved waterboarding. Is that the end of the story?

ASK THIS | December 20, 2008

The vice president gave the go-ahead for tactics commonly regarded as torture. Was that a war crime or not? William J. Astore provides some background on the issue and urges the press to show that it too can do aggressive interrogations. And do them now, without waiting for a new administration or a new Congress.

By William J. Astore

Is our sitting vice president a war criminal because he condoned torture?  In an interview on ABC News on December 15th, Dick Cheney coolly admitted he had approved so-called “harsh” and “aggressive” interrogation techniques, notably waterboarding, in an attempt to extract intelligence from known or suspected terrorists, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Vital intelligence gathered about Al Qaeda, Cheney claimed, vindicated his decision, though this is much disputed. Subsequently, Cheney claimed that waterboarding and other harsh techniques did not constitute torture; this categorical denial was balanced by a counterclaim that he would have been remiss had he not authorized aggressive techniques in an attempt to safeguard Americans.

For approving these techniques and for other practices, The New York Times has attacked Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other Bush Administration officials. Calls have been issued for war crimes investigations. Are such calls warranted? Did Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others authorize techniques that constituted torture, and, if so, are they complicit in the crime?

Here, the Holocaust survivor, Jean Améry, and the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, offer valuable insights. Améry, himself a victim of torture, wrote about it in At the Mind’s Limits (1980). Torture, he observed, was a monstrous immorality because it violated another person’s body, reducing it to a vessel of fear and pain. Under such distress, the victim confesses to anything, even the wildest fictions and fantasies, as Améry himself did when he was tortured.

In its simulation of death by drowning, waterboarding is intended to produce great fear and psychological dislocation. It may perhaps leave no physical traces, but the mental wounds it inflicts are something else altogether. Their insidious effects on victims were captured by Améry in his conclusion on torture:

Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained …. It is fear that henceforth reigns over him. Fear—and also what is called resentments. They remain, and have scarcely a chance to concentrate into a seething, purifying thirst for revenge.

Torture, in short, alienates its victims from humanity and generates (or strengthens) vengeful resentments. Améry carried his own resentments as a burden to remind himself—and us—of the moral enormity of any attempt to demolish another human being’s will through torture. For Améry, such attempts are both crimes and mistakes because they sow the seeds of future acts of vengeance.

A further disturbing insight comes from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964). Adolf Eichmann, desk-bound executioner and “Jewish expert” for the Third Reich, oversaw the deportation of Jews to their deaths during the Final Solution. A bureaucrat who never dirtied his own hands, Eichmann therefore judged himself to be less than fully responsible for the murder of millions. On this point, the judges at Eichmann’s trial reached a far different conclusion: “the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.” In crimes against humanity, degrees of separation from the dirty work only add to the offense.

Waterboarding is torture; Cheney and Rumsfeld approved it; and Améry and Arendt’s reflections suggest the immorality of, and culpability for, the crime. What now? Whether we find this distasteful or not, the press needs to show that it too can aggressively interrogate sources. Rather than waiting a month for an Obama Justice Department or a congressional investigation, the press should challenge incoming Obama administration officials now, together with new members of Congress. Outside legal experts should also be consulted. Does Baltasar Garzón—the Spanish judge who pursued Augusto Pinochet relentlessly—have an opinion? These are obvious leads for reporters.

To strengthen America’s moral authority, we need to reject the idea that demolishing our enemies’ resistance through torture is a necessary price of our safety. Let’s not balk at an expeditious and complete accounting of our mistakes—and of crimes committed in our name.

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.