August 2, 2008


Black Sites: a review of THE DARK SIDE: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals By Jane Mayer (ALAN BRINKLEY, NY Times Magazine)

[A]s Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, makes clear in “The Dark Side,” a powerful, brilliantly researched and deeply unsettling book, what almost immediately came to be called the “war on terror” led quickly and inexorably to some of the most harrowing tactics ever contemplated by the United States government. [...]

No one knows how many people were rounded up and spirited away into these secret locations, although the number is very likely in the thousands. No one knows either how many detainees have died once in custody. Nor is there any solid information about the many detainees who have been the victims of what the United States government calls “extraordinary rendition,” the handing over of detainees to other governments, mostly in the Middle East, whose secret police have no qualms about torturing their prisoners and face no legal consequences for doing so.

This vast regime of pain and terror, inflicted in the name of a war on terror, rests in large part on the untested belief of a few high-ranking leaders in Washington that torture is an effective tool for eliciting valuable information. But there is, Mayer persuasively argues, little available evidence that this assumption is true, and a great deal of evidence from numerous sources (including the United States military and the F.B.I.) that torture is, in fact, one of the least effective methods of gathering information and a likely source of false confessions. Among the many cases Mayer and other journalists have chronicled — including the case of the most notable Al Qaeda operative yet captured, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — the information gleaned from tortured detainees has produced unreliable and often entirely unusable information.

When last we heard from Ms Mayer she was upset about Ronald Reagan helping the Contras defeat the Sandinistas, so it's hardly surprising to hear her complain about W defeating al Qaeda, but there is something surprising about at least the reviews of her book: the lack of examples of torture and/or of the unreliability of confessions obtained in the interrogations. Mr. Brinkley cites the case of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as if it were dispositive. It is, but for the opposite position to the one he and Ms Mayer hold. The public record reveals that Mohammed was waterboarded, not tortured, and that the information he revealed thereupon was genuine and useful, Spilling Al Qaeda's Secrets: 'Waterboarding' used on 9/11 mastermind, who eventually talked (John Crewdson, December 28, 2005, Chicago Tribune)

Moral and legal aspects aside, conventional wisdom is that torture simply isn't practical: that someone who is being tortured will say anything to make the torture stop, and that information gleaned through torture is therefore not reliable.

Some former military and intelligence officers say, however, that physically aggressive interrogation techniques that some human-rights groups consider torture can be effective in the short term. When asked for specifics, the technique they cite is "waterboarding," in which water is poured over a subject's face to create the sensation of drowning.

Consider Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the 39-year-old former Al Qaeda operative who was the Sept. 11 mastermind and bearer of many Al Qaeda secrets.

If anyone had a motive for remaining silent, it was the man known to terrorism investigators as "KSM." But not long after his capture in Pakistan, in March 2003, KSM began to talk.

He ultimately had so much to say that more than 100 footnoted references to the CIA's interrogations of KSM are contained in the final report of the commission that investigated Sept. 11.

Not that everything KSM said was believable. But much of his information checked out in separate questioning of other captured Al Qaeda figures.

What made KSM decide to talk? The answer may be waterboarding, to which KSM was subjected on at least one occasion, according to various accounts.

Intelligence operatives say that while waterboarding can break through a suspect's initial resistance, it isn't effective for long-term interrogation.

Once a suspect begins to communicate, however, an interrogation specialist can put into action a wide range of far more subtle techniques, which include playing to a subject's ego or pretending to be his friend.

It could not be learned exactly when KSM was waterboarded or whether the technique was used more than once. But only 12 days after being captured in Pakistan, on March 1, 2003, KSM made his first reported major revelation.
For a revealing bit of agitprop, check out the cartoon used to illustrate the review, then search the story--futilely--for facts supporting its use.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 2, 2008 8:25 AM

I'll not bother to click through on Ms. Mayer's article, but I am willing to give odds that it stops on the water's edge of 9/11 with no mention of President Clinton's rendition program and projects Echelon and Omnivore. Any takers?

Posted by: Rick T. at August 2, 2008 10:31 AM

That's because history began on January 20, 2001. Everyone knows this

Posted by: Benjamin at August 2, 2008 10:43 AM

I have a friend who is a historian, and a conservative Republican since the Clinton years. He once told me that whenever someone asks for his opinion about past civil rights violations in wartime and how this relates to the Bush administration, he carefully explains that wartime executive administrations always take actions that some people invariably view as civil rights violations. However, when the war is over we revert to our usual state of things, because our republic is strong.

Note that none of this even touches whether or not the civil rights supposedly being violated are Constitutionally guaranteed or not. We simply have a kind of gravitational pull towards expansive readings of these things during peacetime, and we narrow these "rights" when necessary.

That's what makes these complaints about President Bush bringing "fascism to our shores" so funny. Our Constitutional system of checks and balances makes us suspicious of concentrated power, and our deferential attitude to the rule of law cinches the matter. No president could do this even if he wanted to.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 2, 2008 2:20 PM

She doesn't know how many locations, but they must be many; she doesn't know how many people have been swept up, but it must be thousands; she doesn't know how many have died, but hints darkly at the numbers.

All speculation, but she goes to the most dire position. Not a surprise at all, and likely won't convince anyone who isn't already convinced.

Posted by: Mikey at August 2, 2008 6:33 PM

A "war on American ideals?" Queer* indeed, when the author goes on the list the other great American presidents throughout our history who have exercised extraordinary,dictatorial powers during times of emergency.

Far from this history being that of a discarding of the Constitution, it demonstrates the very wisdom of the Constitution in providing means for the President, in times of crisis, to take care that the republic be defended, after the manner of Roman consuls operating under a Senatus Consultum Ultimum..
*Nice rhetorical twist

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 2, 2008 8:12 PM

Lou: of course though Ms. Myer and her ilk would spit on Cicero and exalt Cataline.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at August 2, 2008 9:28 PM

Yep, no jumper cables since Vietnam; althought the Egyptians and Syrians were probably less
solicitous of such reservations. The premise is imbedded even unlikely fair like "Burn Notice'
where the most recent episode, proudly states,
that 'torture is for sadists' however the behavior modification regimen suggest;(variations of temperature, light, isolation,control of food)
would also be considered 'illegal' under the current interpretation of Geneva (ie; the case of Detainee # 603, Mohammed Manea Shalan Al-Quahtani, the 20th hijacker)

Posted by: narciso at August 3, 2008 1:18 PM

When we do a 'Black Hole of Calcutta', let me know.

Posted by: Mikey at August 3, 2008 3:40 PM
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