“If the detainee dies you’re doing it wrong”

Since the report issued by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday had to, of necessity, be written, I am glad it was released now, instead of later, because the Bush administration that made it all possible is still in power, and since we have to suffer that indignity, it is somewhat tempered by the fact that they are publicly held accountable for at least some of their deliberate wrongdoing while a few of the bad actors are still on the stage.  

The report is the result of a two year investigation and concluded that both the policies adopted and the controversies that emerged as a result of those policies ultimately tarnished the reputation of the United States and undermined national security.  It stated unequivocally that the results those policies produced were exactly the opposite of their stated intent.  “Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.”  

The investigation focused on the DoD’s justifications for and promotion of torture, referred to euphemistically by the administration as “harsh interrogation techniques” and “enhanced interrogation” including temperature extremes, stress positions, sleep deptivation, sensory overload or depravation.

You know…torture.

“The Committee’s report details the inexcusable link between abusive interrogation techniques used by our enemies who ignored the Geneva Conventions and interrogation policy for detainees in U.S. custody,” John McCain,ranking Republican on the committee, said in a statement. “These policies are wrong and must never be repeated.”

The White House has long tried to pass the buck to the military, maintaining that commanders and field officers pleaded with them for the authority to go farther because traditional interrogation techniques were not working.  

The committee’s investigation puts the lie to this claim.

The truth of the matter is that the decision to use torture traces back to the moment on February 7, 2002 when George W. Bush put pen to paper and affixed his signature to a memo that declared the Geneva Conventions do not apply to captured al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.  Almost immediately top administration officials, including then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, were attending meetings and arguing forcefully in favor of torturing detainees.  The report cites a written statement by Condi Rice released earlier this year to support the assertion.  

And then, faced with a fork in the road, Rumsfeld went the wrong way.

By mid-summer 2002, Rumsfeld had ordered his senior staff to start compiling data about the techniques the military used in SERE training.  SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.  It is a voluntary training that certain members of the military, in limited career fields, including pilots, undergo.  

SERE was developed after the Korean war as a bulwark against the techniques that had been developed by the Chinese and successfully employed against captured Americans to break man after man and obtain propaganda confessions.  

I understand why SERE became Rumsfeld’s template.  He had undergone the training as a Navy pilot, and in the center of his narcissistic soul he knew it would break him, and projected that it would therefore break anyone.  He failed to make the connection in his mind that what we do to ourselves to make us tough and resilient in the face of unthinkable adversity only makes us inhuman when we do them to other people.

It also revealed an epic fail in Rumsfeld’s understanding of intelligence gathering.  Resistance training has little, if anything, to do with interrogations.  It also underscores the fact that Rumsfeld did not understand the structure of the non-conventional, stateless enemy he faced.

The structure of al Qaeda – small cells acting independently and in secret – negate any effectiveness that could be claimed for using harsh techniques/torture to interrogate suspects.  When you are confronted by an organization that has separated itself into cells, you are much less likely to acquire useful information from torture or severe interrogation. The available pool of useful information is virtually non-existent when it comes to trying to find information that extends out past the cell in which your subject has been operating.

Most troubling to me, though, is that Rumsfeld and others enthusiastically approved the use of interrogation techniques that were originally designed by an enemy state to torture Americans in order to  elicit false confessions.

SASC Chairman Carl Levin said in a statement that “SERE training techniques were designed to give our troops a taste of what they might be subjected to if captured by a ruthless, lawless enemy so that they would be better prepared to resist. The techniques were never intended to be used against detainees in U.S. custody.”

In the field, interrogators have little oversight, and there is no “safe-word” and it is a short step to the sort of abuse that we saw at Abu Ghraib.

And when people started to recoil and back away from it, they got together with the Justice Department and redefined torture:

[F]or an act to constitute torture as defined in [the federal torture statute], it must inflict pain that is difficult to endure. Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death. For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture under [the federal torture statute], it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years.  [P.5]


The breezy way it was explained away is sickening.  The Bybee Memo basically boiled down to this:  Acts of violence against detainees aren’t necessarily torture.  If you torture someone, you probably have a good reason, and therefore a defense.  If you don’t have a defense, the laws against torture don’t apply anyway if you are acting on the authority of the president.

Even if you can get past the issues of ethics and human rights that surround the issue of torture, are you okay with compromising investigations?  I’m not.  But that is exactly what has happened.  

Consider the arc of the case against Mohammed al-Khatani, the so-called “20th Hijacker” who was picked up in Afghanistan and detained at Guantanamo.  

(U) At about the same time, a dispute over the use of aggressive techniques was raging at GTMO over the interrogation of Mohammed al-Khatani, a high value detainee. Personnel from CITF and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) had registered strong opposition, to interrogation techniques proposed for use on Khatani and made those concerns known to the DoD General Counsel’s office. Despite those objections, an interrogation plan that included aggressive techniques was approved. The interrogation itself, which actually began on November 23, 2002, a week before the Secretary’s December 2, 2002 grant of blanket authority for the use of aggressive techniques, continued through December and into mid-January 2003.

(U) NSC Legal Advisor John Bellinger said that, on several occasions, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bruce Swartz raised concerns with him abo
ut allegations of detainee abuse at GTMO. Mr. Bellinger said that, in turn, he raised these concerns “on several occasions with DoD officials and was told that the allegations were being investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.” Then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said that Mr. Bellinger also advised her “on a regular basis regarding concerns and issues relating to DoD detention policies and practices at Guantanamo.” She said that as a result she convened a “series of meetings of NSC Principals in 2002 and 2003 to discuss various issues and concerns relating to detainees in the custody of the Department of Defense.”

(U) Between mid-December 2002 and mid-January 2003, Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora spoke with the DoD General Counsel three times to express his concerns about interrogation techniques at GTMO, at one point telling Mr. Haynes that he thought techniques that had been authorized by the Secretary of Defense “could rise to the level of torture.” On January 15, 2003, having received no word that the Secretary’s authority would be withdrawn, Mr. Mora went so far as to deliver a draft memo to Mr. Haynes’s office memorializing his legal concerns about the techniques. In a subsequent phone call, Mr. Mora told Mr. Haynes he would sign his memo later that day unless he heard definitively that the use of the techniques was suspended. In a meeting that same day, Mr. Haynes told Mr. Mora that the Secretary would rescind the techniques. Secretary Rumsfeld signed a memo rescinding authority for the techniques on January 15, 2003.

(U) That same day, GTMO suspended its use of aggressive techniques on Khatani. While key documents relating to the interrogation remain classified, published accounts indicate that military working dogs had been used against Khatani. He had also been deprived of adequate sleep for weeks on end, stripped naked, subjected to loud music, and made to wear a leash and perform dog tricks. In a June 3, 2004 press briefing, SOUTHCOM Commander General James Hill traced the source of techniques used on Khatani back to SERE, stating: “The staff at Guantanamo working with behavioral scientists, having gone up to our SERE school and developed a list of techniques which our lawyers decided and looked at, said were OK.” General Hill said “we began to use a few of those techniques … on this individual…”

(U) On May 13, 2008, the Pentagon announced in a written statement that the Convening Authority for military commissions “dismissed without prejudice the sworn charges against Mohamed al Khatani.” The statement does not indicate the role his treatment may have played in that decision.[P.10-11]

The Rumsfeld DoD opted to ignore the concerns of JAG lawyers from every branch of the military and instead rely on memos penned by  a small clique of legal extremists.  At one point, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers (who by the way deserves a lot more scrutiny than he has been subjected to) stepped in and scuttled a plan for further legal review of the tactics, in response to pressure from a top Pentagon attorney tasked with setting up the interrogation program.  

What conclusion can we draw from all this? Well, we may be the first to see the actual charge of “war crimes” lodged, successfully, against a US secretary of defense. The hippies screamed it about McNamara, Clifford and Laird at a time when passions ran high, but this time? When passions about the Iraq War and the war on terror are running so low as to be non-existent in the national mindset? This time it might actually stick. Think about it–we now have evidence that can take us over the river that would have been inconceivable before anyone knew what kind of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would be.

[***Crossposted from They gave us a republic – and although it has my byline, it was a team effort.  My partner Warren and I both had the report up, we both read every word and we collaborated on pretty much every paragraph.  I can not, in good conscience, post this without that qualifier.  We are a team, and I am a better blogger for having such a stellar partner.  –BG]