Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why History Matters

According to this Times report, not one single person involved in writing or approving the "torture memos" at Justice, the White House, the C.I.A. or in Congress, ever inquired into the history of the tough interrogation techniques before they were adopted. Not one single person.

In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.

Even George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director who insisted that the agency had thoroughly researched its proposal and pressed it on other officials, did not examine the history of the most shocking method, the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding.

The top officials he briefed did not learn that waterboarding had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II and was a well-documented favorite of despotic governments since the Spanish Inquisition; one waterboard used under Pol Pot was even on display at the genocide museum in Cambodia.
Worse, these tactics were readied (sans the historical analysis) before there was even approval.
Intelligence and military officials under the Bush administration began preparing to conduct harsh interrogations long before they were granted legal approval to use such methods -- and weeks before the CIA captured its first high-ranking terrorism suspect, Senate investigators have concluded.

Previously secret memos and interviews show CIA and Pentagon officials exploring ways to break Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees in early 2002, up to eight months before Justice Department lawyers approved the use of waterboarding and nine other harsh methods, investigators found.
None of this is particularly shocking in light of what else we have been learning recently, but the utter lack of historical context is surprising.

Put it this way: no student in the last eight years who has taken my punishment class could pass without knowing the Inquisition "Tocas" and the 17th century "Ducking Stool" were the forebear of the 19th century "Waterboard," and that use of the technique was outlawed (and prosecuted) even in wartime during the 20th century. Not one single person.

UPDATE I: When you scroll through the Senate Armed Service Committee's report, and the vast pages which are redacted (see pp.144-145), another disturbing theme emerges: these enhanced interrogation techniques weren't being sought just to extract information regarding possible terrorist attacks; the interrogators were after false confessions linking Saddam Hussein and Iraq to al-Qaeda and 9/11 as justification for the Iraq War. That would make the "torture memos" less about national security and more about political power.

UPDATE II: A former FBI agent, Ali Soufan, who interrogated several "high value detainees" before the "torture memos" were written and went into effect, calls the claim that the enhanced tactics worked "false" in an op-ed today. "The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process. Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they [worked]. This is false."

He notes that when "the gloves came off," the FBI instructed its agents to get out of the interrogations. Also noteworthy, it was mainly contractors, not C.I.A. agents, who carried out the more sordid aspects of the memos, according to Soufan.

UPDATE III: The WSJ has a blistering editorial critical of Obama's refusal to rule out prosecutions of high-level Bush administration lawyers. Without a trace of irony, they write, "But at least until now, the U.S. political system has avoided the spectacle of a new Administration prosecuting its predecessor for policy disagreements. This is what happens in Argentina, Malaysia or Peru, countries where the law is treated merely as an extension of political power."

See also: Update I above.

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