June 12, 2005


Interrogating Ourselves (JOSEPH LELYVELD, 6/12/05, NY Times Magazine)

In order to get to the nub of the question of what we as citizens really expect and require of American interrogators facing supposed terrorists -- how far we're prepared to allow those asking the questions to venture into the dark realm of brutalization and coercion -- let's for argument's sake put aside the most horrific, shameful cases, those of detainees who died under interrogation: that of Manadel al-Jamadi, for instance, whose body was wrapped in plastic and packed in ice when it was carried out of an Abu Ghraib prison shower room a year and a half ago, where he'd been handcuffed to a wall; or Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who, elsewhere in Iraq, appears to have been thrust headfirst into a sleeping bag, manhandled there and then, finally, suffocated. By anyone's definition of torture -- even that of the Bush administration, which originally propounded (and later withdrew) a strikingly narrow definition holding that torture occurs only when the pain is ''of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure'' -- these cases answer the question of whether torture has been committed by our side in what's called the global war on terror. No one steps forward to condone what's plainly illegal under United States and international law. And although we've seen no indication that blame will attach to any official or command officer at any level for these killings, there are small signs that conclusions have been drawn somewhere between the Pentagon and White House, signs of an overdue housecleaning, or maybe just a tidying up. By the coldest cost-benefit calculation, a dead detainee is a disaster: he cannot be a source of ''actionable intelligence,'' only fury. So there's now a new policy, ''Procedures for Investigations Into the Death of Detainees in the Custody of the Armed Forces of the U.S.,'' that was duly conveyed last month to the Committee Against Torture, a United Nations body, in a subsection of a longer report. The subsection's heading even carried a whiff of contrition. It was ''Lessons Learned and Policy Reforms.'' Also, the Pentagon has let it be known that it's preparing a new manual for interrogators that prohibits physical and psychological humiliation of detainees. What interrogation techniques it does allow are listed in a classified annex as, presumably, are any hints of what can happen when those techniques fail to produce the desired results. Can the detainee then be handed over to another agency, like the Central Intelligence Agency, that may not be constrained by the new directives? Or to units of a foreign government like the counterterrorism units now being financed and coordinated in Iraq by the United States?

In other words, if there has been a housecleaning, to how much of the shadowy counterterrorism edifice constructed since Sept. 11 does it now apply? The cases we know about, after all, are mostly old cases, even if we recently learned about them. We've been told little about what's now going on in interrogation rooms at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib -- what the limits are now supposed to be. While Defense Department investigators are still kept busy looking into detainees' complaints of abuse in Iraq, it has to be acknowledged that we've yet to hear of any fatalities under interrogation in 2004 or 2005.

It has been more than a year now since we (and, of course, the region in which we presume to be crusading for freedom) were shown a selection of snapshots from Abu Ghraib with their depraved staging of hooded figures, snarling dogs and stacked naked bodies. For all the genuine outrage in predictable places over what was soon being called a ''torture scandal'' -- in legal forums, editorial pages, letters columns -- the usual democratic cleansing cycle never really got going. However strong the outcry, it wasn't enough to yield political results in the form of a determined Congressional investigation, let alone an independent commission of inquiry; the Pentagon's own inquiries, which exonerated its civilian and political leadership, told us a good deal more than most Americans, so it would appear, felt they needed to know. Members of Congress say they receive a negligible number of letters and calls about the revelations that keep coming. ''You asked whether they want it clear or want it blurry,'' Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said to me about the reaction of her constituents to the torture allegations that alarm her. ''I think they want it blurry.''

One result is that we've insulated ourselves from the really pertinent, really difficult question: How do we feel about coercive techniques that are commonly, if somewhat cavalierly, held to fall short of torture?

Why wasn't our general acceptance of what's been going on precisely the democratic cleansing cycle? There just wasn't very much we thought particularly dirty other than problems with soldiers exceeding their orders.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 12, 2005 12:00 AM

How do we feel about coercive techniques that are commonly, if somewhat cavalierly, held to fall short of torture?

How is this a "really difficult question" ?

I suppose that if one is not a serious person, causing a suspect physical or mental discomfort is grounds for soul-searching, but the suspects that we're coercing haven't been detained on suspicion of shoplifting cigarettes - they're suspected of arranging for, or attempting to, kill mass numbers of random civilians and/or American GIs.

If they can walk away after the questioning, then I say: No foul.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at June 12, 2005 6:12 AM


We kill them freely. Why would torture be more discomfiting?

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2005 8:32 AM

There are two things going on here. First, there are people out there--Communists, homosexuals, the French--for whom America is the enemy. Anything which strengthens America is bad, anything which weakens America is good. For our reflexive enemies, terrorrism and Islamacism are good things.

The second problem here is the Alan Dershowitz approach to torture: let the lawyers and judges have a chop on it. This is insanity. The law cannot and will not deal with torture, nor should it. If the situation is sufficiently grave to require these measures, we are solidly into Silent Leges country. Right now we are stumbling through realizing we are in a tough situation while not having the nerve to take the tough measure of suspendinmg the Writ.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 12, 2005 8:54 AM

For the same reason that there's a perceived difference between murder and self-defense.

(Although sometimes the difference is simply a matter of timing).

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at June 12, 2005 8:56 AM

Dershowitz is pro-torture.

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2005 8:58 AM


And no one will look closely at the timing as long as its a bad guy you kill.

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2005 8:58 AM

Tell that to the Marines and soldiers now being prosecuted for improperly killing Iraqis.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at June 12, 2005 9:13 AM

They're just being busted out of the service for violating orders. No one cares what they did to prisoners in the abstract.

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2005 9:34 AM

Under the Geneva Convention, in order to qualify for POW status, a combatant must wear a uniform, bear arms openly, be subject to military discipline, and obey the laws of war. If a combatant does not qualify as a POW, you are allowed to summarily execute him.

Al-Qaida does not (and has never attempted) to conform to the Geneva Convention.

Therefore (he says, displaying the fact that he once got a passing grade in a logic class) we can shoot or string up everyone now held at Guantanamo.

So what we're saying here is that international law permits us to shoot them, but not to keep them alive and subject them to unpleasant stresses well short of a .45 ACP to the base of the skull, is that right?

Posted by: Mike Morley at June 12, 2005 9:39 AM

Dershowitz is pro-torture as a legally recognized procedure. He is dead wrong about this. American courts would never, ever go for it. There are occasions for extreme interrogation, but the courts don't want to hear about it, and they will not listen other than to order it stopped.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 12, 2005 12:33 PM

The whole thing is silly. No one has been tortured. Abu Grahib was a fraternity hazing. Pretending it was a real issue was a mistake.

The Administration must make it clear that the GWoT is not a law enforcement effort. Issues like due process are not relevant. The old women on SCOTUS have had their say and now they can sit down and shut up. Second, the Geneva Convention is a relic of 19th century Europe, it will apply if we fight the Prussian Army, but it is uterly and totaly irrelevant to the GWoT.

The other thing that needs to be spread abroad, and the US Government cannot say it, is that the Arabs are not really terribly concerned about torture. Torture, in their estimation, is what one does to prisoners, pour l'esport. To not torture prisoners is to admit weakness and fear. This is why there has been more rioting over Koran "desecration" than about torture, and why the fuss comes from the NYTimes and not Al-Jazera.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 12, 2005 10:17 PM

I'm with Robert. The alternative is to take fewer, or no, prisoners. That measure would have cut our own casualties. Tough decisions ... and another reason to hold our members of the armed forces in high esteem. Many of them make those decisions everyday. They're confronting murderous bastards who wouldn't think twice about blowing up non-combatants.

Posted by: Genecis at June 13, 2005 12:10 PM