Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Fruits of the Bush/Cheney Torture Policies

By Time for change

The use of torture by the Bush administration, which usually refers to torture as “coercive interrogation techniques”, is much more widespread than is commonly realized. In a recent post, I discuss in detail the abundant evidence for widespread torture condoned by the Bush/Cheney administration, referencing numerous Bush administration memos, the testimony of eyewitnesses, and evidence put forth by human rights organizations and journalists. Charlie Savage sums up the situation in his recent book, “Takeover – The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy”:

This coercive system of interrogation was put into widespread use following the 9/11 attacks. Eyewitness accounts put it all over – at Guantanamo, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in CIA prisons, and… in a military brig on U.S. soil. There were clearly hundreds and hundreds of U.S. officials employing these techniques in many contexts simultaneously around the globe… and the president had declared that the Geneva Convention did not apply to the war on terrorism.

Given the widespread use of torture by our government, and given that torture is morally shameful, disgraces the United States in the eyes of the world, obliterates fundamental rights provided in the U.S. constitution and the Geneva Conventions, and puts U.S. prisoners at grave risk of being tortured when captured, it is imperative that we carefully consider what our torture policies are and are not accomplishing.

Why torture doesn’t provide useful information

Savage discusses in detail in his book why torture doesn’t provide useful intelligenc. First he provides some background:

The military’s professional interrogation experts, who after 9/11 were vastly outnumbered by untrained ad hoc interrogators, believed that the coercive interrogation policy unleashed by the Bush-Cheney legal team’s theories was incompetent and a terrible mistake. These experts were opposed to harsh interrogations not primarily because they felt such tactics were immoral and illegal… Instead, the skeptics were focused on pragmatic results… They knew that there is no scientific evidence that coercive techniques produce information that is better than, or even as good as, the information obtained by other approaches, as the government’s own Science Board, a panel of experts… later concluded….

The CIA spent millions studying (torture) techniques to see whether it could make use of them; it concluded in a 1963 interrogation manual that the coercive approach was not very helpful outside the context of producing false propaganda because “under sufficient pressure subjects usually yield but their ability to recall and communicate information accurately is as impaired as the will to resist.”…

Neither trainers… nor their Special Forces trainees understood that the coercive techniques used in the program were designed to make prisoners lose touch with reality so that they will falsely confess to what their captors want to hear, not for extracting accurate and reliable information….

Savage then describes the explanations of the navy’s top forensic psychologist, Dr. Michael Gelles:

Abuse, Gelles said, inevitably introduces false information into the intelligence system because people will say anything to get relief from suffering and fear…. Finally, Gelles said, inflicting pain and humiliation on a prisoner destroys the opportunity to build rapport with him in order to persuade… him into saying what he knows, the technique that professional, trained interrogation experts overwhelmingly prefer… “If the goal is to get reliable and accurate information… rapport-building is the best approach… Why would you terrify them with a dog? So they’ll tell you anything to get the dog out of the room?”

And finally, because the large majority of our prisoners have no connection to terrorism whatsoever, the system is overwhelmed by false confessions:

False confessions only exacerbate things, given how many prisoners are unlikely to be able to offer a true confession. For example, a Red Cross report in 2004 estimated that between 70 percent and 90 percent of military detainees in Iraq had been arrested by mistake in the confusion of the insurgency. That same year, the head of interrogations at Guantanamo said that the majority of the detainees there had no useful information…

So, if torture provides little or no useful intelligence, then why does the Bush administration use it so much?

Use of a torture “confession” to help justify the Iraq War

In January of 2002, captured Al Qaeda operative, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, stated while being tortured that Al Qaeda had received chemical weapons training from Iraq. A Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) intelligence summary the following month said that al-Libi’s statement lacked pertinent details and that it was most likely false and based solely on his desire to stop being tortured. Charlie Savage describes the importance of al-Libbi’s “confession” for justifying the war in Iraq:

Libbi’s statements became a key basis of the Bush-Cheney administration’s claim, in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s prewar United Nations Security Council presentation, that Iraq was working with Al Qaeda: “Al Qaida continues to have a deep interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction,” Powell said. “… I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to Al Qaida. Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story.”

Obtaining “confessions” of terrorist plots to scare Americans

Bush, Cheney, and their minions like to hype the terrorist threat whenever they get a chance. This was especially important prior to the 2004 election. Thus it was that George Bush pressured CIA Director George Tenet into having Abu Zubaydah tortured. Savage, borrowing from Ron Suskind’s “The One Percent Solution” describes this process:

Zubaydah was described in public by Bush… as “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.” But… CIA analysts came to the conclusion that Zubaydah was little more than a travel agent… Nonetheless, Zubaydah was water-boarded, beaten, threatened, subjected to mock executions, and… Under such duress… (Zubaydah) said yes over and over again when asked if Al Qaeda was interested in bombing shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, and water systems… After each vague affirmation, the “information” was quickly cabled back to Washington, where it ended up in the president’s daily briefing and in FBI warnings that invariably leaked to the media. Many of the breathless and panicked warnings of Al Qaeda plots that marked the Bush-Cheney administration’s first term, with its periodic orange alerts that came to nothing, came from Zubaydah’s interrogation.

Stirring up the insurgency in Iraq

It is an established fact of guerilla warfare that support of the local population is critical in determining the probability of success for either side. With that in mind, perhaps the most striking series of polls to graphically illustrate the sinking fortunes of the U.S. military in Iraq are the public opinion polls sponsored by the Coalition Provisional Authority asking Iraqis If Coalition forces left immediately, would you feel more safe or less safe? The results for those answering less safe
November 2003: 11%
January 2004: 28%
April 2004: 55%
May 2004: 55%

That same poll, in May 2004, indicated that 92% of Iraqis saw the Coalition forces as occupiers, versus 2% who saw them as liberators and 3% who saw them as peace keepers. And 86% wanted the Coalition forces to either leave immediately (41%) or as soon as a permanent government is elected (45%).

These statistics obviously raise the question of what caused such a dramatic and abrupt rise in the discomfort that Iraqis felt with the presence of U.S./Coalition forces. One likely answer, it seems to me, is the awareness of how we were treating Iraqi prisoners. The revelations of the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib under the auspices of the U.S. government were first made in April 2004. Though we have no way of knowing precisely when Iraqis first became aware of this, it would seem likely that the revelations in April did not come as a complete surprise to many Iraqis.

How might this have impacted U.S. casualties? I don't know, but for the year beginning April 2003 there were 540 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, compared to 929 during the year beginning April 2004 (then remaining at a high level, with 796 in the year beginning April 2005 and 899 in the year beginning April 2006), approximately concurrent with the rather abrupt rise in the percentage of Iraqis who felt less safe with Coalition forces present than absent (though we don’t know precisely when the rise occurred or how abrupt it was).

The lesson should be obvious. Though George Bush claimed that one major purpose of his invasion of Iraq was to “liberate” it and bring it “freedom and democracy”, instead we torture Iraqis by the hundreds (or thousands?), and our invasion and occupation of their country has killed over a million Iraqis and produced over four million refugees. Why should it be surprising that a World Opinion poll of September 2006 showed 91% of Iraqis want us out of their country, 78% think we’re provoking more conflict than we’re preventing, and 61% approve of violent attacks on U.S. forces?

Intimidating the American public

Naomi Wolf, in “The End of America”, notes that the Bush administration has made no effort to punish those responsible for torture even when the scandal at Abu Ghraib became public. She writes:

So in our secret prison system now, torturers are unlikely to be punished even when they murder people. In other words, as in the prison camps of the Gestapo and of Stalin, people simply died, and that was the end of it as far as blame was concerned.

This institutional calm in the face of reports of torture, even death, suggests that the goal of establishing torture in a place beyond the rule of law may have been tactical. Americans now know a lot about how terrible the fate of a Guantanamo prisoner is…

It would take one high profile arrest, or a mere handful of them, to chill dissent quickly in America.

Conclusion – The Bush/Cheney torture policies do what they were designed to do

So, the Bush/Cheney torture policies have helped to supply an excuse for war, provided “information” used to make the American people believe that the next terrorist attack was just around the corner, fueled the Iraq insurgency, and probably intimidated many thousands of Americans (including myself).

None of this is by accident. George Bush knew full well that the information obtained from al-Libi and Zubaydah was likely to be grossly inaccurate. He was told so by his own intelligence agencies. But obtaining accurate information clearly is not the purpose of the Bush/Cheney torture policies. Savage describes what happens when Bush is warned that information obtained under torture is worse than useless:

Gelles, Kleinman, and other interrogation experts tried to raise alarms internally about the dangers and ineffectiveness of the… coercive techniques, but they were ignored and threatened…. And they (the Bush administration) dismissed the complaints as nothing more than another example of the misguided worries of a “law-enforcement” mind-set too focused on gathering evidence that could be used in a civilian courtroom to understand that different rules apply in wartime.

Congress has tried to put an end to it. As bad as the Military Commissions Act is, at least Congress added a provision that prohibited torture. But George Bush simply added a “signing statement” when he signed the law, which indicated that he wasn’t bound by the anti-torture provision.

In doing that, George Bush once again made clear his contempt for the checks and balances provided in our Constitution, as well as our Eight Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment”. There is only one appropriate way for Congress to respond to that, and that is impeachment and removal from office. There is no excuse for their failure to do that.

Posted in full with author's permission.

Originally posted at

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