Thinking of the Torture Report

FBI MaskTorture is evil. Whether it brings about the results that it intends is a matter of debate. I can only know how I would react to it. To stop it I’d tell anything that the interrogators wanted to hear even the truth. I’m no hero like John McCain who apparently was able to keep his head high while undergoing torture in North Vietnam prisons.

The Democratic majority and Republican minority differ over its effectiveness. We’ll truly never know whether it provided actionable intelligence but it would seem to me that it had to have produced some gems or at least hints of things that could be corroborative of other things learned.

Aside from whether it produces results, we still have a great disagreement over whether the measures used constituted torture or “highly enhanced interrogation techniques” or even whether those are synonymous. I like to look at it from an old perspective which dates to WWII. We accused our enemy Japan of torturing American soldiers who were held prisoners. One particular heinous act we were told was the Bataan death march; and there were others like the beatings and imprisonment in small cages. If we thought things like that were torture then I’d suggest they remain torture now.

The idea behind issuing the Torture Report by the Senate Democrats seems misplaced. One big reason is that it sets out instance after instance of horrible acts and then ends. It has no recommendations as to what should be done to see that those things don’t happen again. It has no suggestions of what we should have done differently as a nation that had just come under attack by Muslim terrorists.

I suggest if people were really interested in whether we tortured, whether had we done it we gained from it, and many other matters surrounding the CIA and FBI’s post-September 11 actions we would have put together a bi-partisan group to examine this. All the Senate report has done is to provide fodder for those already vested in one side or the other and furthers much of the partisan divide that exists between our people.

My overall criticism of the whole exercise is its Monday morning quarterback aspect. By that I mean it is the type of cowardly exercise engaged in by some who want to criticize what was done after the danger has passed rather than as they should have done during the days of danger. Here we are 14 years after the country was highly traumatized by the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent anthrax mailings and having spent the time since then in the relative safety of our land wanting to go back and kick around those who were responsible for having brought us through those dark days. The Senate report wants us to believe the tactics used were unnecessary but we can never know that. All we can know is they worked. We really don’t know if they had not been tried things would have turned out the same.

This reminds me of the report by Senator Church back in 1975 that was highly critical of the methods used by the FBI and the CIA during the WWII years, the early years of the cold war, and up to the days of the Weathermen and other radical American groups. Few realized that Church ginned up the coverage to look into the actions of the FBI which no one had exhibited prior to that time because of the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972. It took several years for the FBI to regain its footing having lost its leader of 48 years. That report, like the Torture Report, found much to criticize now that the dangers had passed.

One night walking from one gin mill to another I was with three friends heading down Brookline Avenue into Kenmore Square. Some guys coming the other way got into a verbal squabble with us. One of them pulled out a knife. Cooler heads prevailed and we went on our way. Later one of my friends asked me why I didn’t take the knife from the guy saying I thought they taught you how to do that in the Marines. I explained the guys with the knives in the Marines were not going to stab me so it was easy, I didn’t want to find out the intention of the guy we had just met. He said if he had known I wasn’t going to do it he would have done it.

Writing of the Torture Report and the Church Report brought that incident back to mind. The bravado and indignation come out after the danger had passed. We also have seen it in John Connolly’s case where his reward for operating his Top Echelon Informants is handed out by Johnny-come-latelies who tut-tut at his actions and put him in prison.

Hopefully no one will go to prison over the Torture Report. It may feel good for all these people to complain and criticize others for the past actions which brought about their safety but they should show some degree of gratitude that whatever their past actions they now enjoy the fruits of them.

20 thoughts on “Thinking of the Torture Report

  1. If folks want to see how a torture mill works, watch the film “Battle of Algiers.”
    The French counter-insurgency boss in Algeria’s capital city, General Jacques Massu, was a pioneer in the development of mass torture. He relied on torture to further France’s struggle against the insurgents in the capital, applying it liberally, until, he broke the revolutionaries’ urban infrastructure. The CIA closely studied his methods, adopting many for use in the Phoenix Program.

  2. When you muse about torture mills, think about them as practical applications of BF Skinner’s ideas about “stimulus and response (SR). If Stalin is the father of the torture mills, Skinner is their mother.

  3. Matt:
    Your post raises some interesting philosophical questions regarding how we see ourselves in relation to the concept of nation. Does America have an a communal soul, the aggregate of all our individual souls? If so, do immoral actions on the national and international levels injure that soul? Can it be repaired? Is there an ideal cultural identity Americans commonly strive toward?

    The idea of a “torture mill” Goes back to Stalin. He made torture not just the premier tactic, but, the keystone of his police state institutions. By bureaucratically applying torture to large numbers of the Soviet population, Stalin found that he could raise the level of terror in the Soviet Union to such a pitch that people were too frightened to think, let alone speak, about challenging the system. This method of despotism spread to all the Soviet satellite nations whose dictators aped Stalin by applying police state terror to their own peoples.
    POW experiences in Korea brought the psychological effects of systemic mass conditioning through torture to the attention of the CIA. The idea that torture could be utilized not only as a source of information, but, also a mass conditioner for whole societies,and/or sub-groups within those societies was a revelation. Some say no valuable intelligence is derived from torture, that the talking approach yields better results. That may well be true, but, it all comes down to time. How much time and effort can be expended unraveling the loyalties of the individual being interrogated? That type of interrogation is an art, and, the number of artists quite limited. On the other hand, the “torture mill” system has an industrial efficiency to it. It’s production is quantifiable. Theoretically, if enough people are tortured, it won’t matter if they lie, or, not. So much data is collected, that when it’s collated, the lies cancel each other out. Indeed, the lies themselves establish a pattern for investigation. Crunch-able numbers are what torture mills are all about.

    1. Khalid:

      I always though the soul of America was that it would do the right thing as well as it could. It would act in such a way one would be proud of it. I find little to be proud of in the Phoenix Program or in the actions in South America or during the War on Terror. If we don’t have a bright line under which we can go then we can become like the Soviet state under Stalin. It’s difficult once one tarnishes the soul to ever get it fixed up again. Some suggest that we only did a little torture, or only tortured a few, as making a difference but it didn’t to those who were the victims of it or to the way we look at ourselves.
      I believe in American exceptionalism in the sense we try to do what is best for other people with no self-interest in the matter. I know that is naive given our history but it’s a notion I cling to because in the most part we’re not interested in conquering other nations to gain territory but to in trying to do what is right. We are the ones who are mainly responsible for Europe’s 70 years of peace which is something to be proud about considering its history.
      Stalin and his followers were at the apex of evil and torture. We differ in that we have not been torturing our own people as they have done. We deal with people who we believe are different from us which might make it easier for the torturers. Having crossed the torture threshold we lessen the horror of having our own people subject to it. We see beyond the torture what our nation has done to diminish our freedoms. Guantanamo Bay is an example. I never thought it was possible for anyone to be imprisoned without a trial but there we see men confined possibly for life without having any charges brought against them. That’s another ding in what we should be as a people. So is the extent of secrecy under which our government operates as we’ve seen with the grand jury process.
      I’m sort of appalled that we would follow anything Uncle Joe did. If our torture mills are base on his ideas then our nation is truly losing its moral edge. You are right that its the totality of the information squeezed out of people that gives validity to what is said. The more people tortured the greater the accuracy of the information. As you know that is an endless cycle that demands more and more torture.

  4. K : Keyrect !!! … no disputing history. Like a Phoenix, torture always rises from its ashes. It’s formally acknowledged systematization and enshrining in legal statute though during Bush 2 is what troubles. There is a difference between the dark spectre you tacitly acknowledge is always in the room, and the one you openly invite to sit down at the table with you. Let’s leave it there. Despite past thorny exchanges I have always appreciated that you have a keen … thinking apparatus … as Buckley liked to call it.

  5. These torture revelations are a farce. The US used systematic torture throughout the Phoenix Program 1967-72. Vietnam’s provinces are divided into districts, as part of the program, CIA personnel in each district combed the local prisons to find recruits for the Provisional Recon Units (PRU). At the direction of CIA, these PRU would snatch NLF cadres off the street and bring them in for interrogation/torture. The Vietnamese would do the torturing. The CIA folks would collect and collate the data from the interrogations. Once the suspected VC had “given up the money,” they’d be killed by the PRU. There was an active torture mill in every hot district. Originally, under COORDS (Komer was the boss. Colby succeeded him)the program had a number of pacification components: building village schools and infirmaries, a grievance procedure, and, the nesting of small Vietnamese SF units in the villages for local security. Shortly after TET, all pretense at civil pacification was dropped. The program became solely concerned with interrogation and assassination. By 1970-71, the CIA had destroyed the NLF infrastructure to the point that Hanoi had to send down cadre to replace their losses on the local level. Officially, the program is credited with assassinating almost thirty thousand VC, and, VC sympathizers. the true figure may be closer to ninety thousand. The Phoenix Program established a counter-insurgency paradigm that was later used against insurgents in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Iraq. Torture was SOP for interrogations. Locals do the hands-on work while CIA folks watch and listen.
    After 911, we didn’t suddenly just begin using torture, the CIA has been using it all along. This hand-wringing in the media is solely for show. The G puts great effort into salving the public consciousness. When things leak out, the CIA takes the heat. Some high ranking guy/gal falls on his/her sword, and, it’s over, until, the next time. I’ve watched it happen three times: Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq. It mystifies me why Bush & Co. tried to publicly rationalize the use of torture, considering that it has been used all along in our counter-insurgency programs

    1. Khalid.

      Thanks. I never heard of the Phoenix Program. I’ve since looked into it a little once you mentioned it. Business as usual I suspect for the USA but it is effectively hidden from the public view. I suppose all we are left with is that we don’t cut off the heads of our enemies but everything and anything else is OK. What’s then left of the the soul of our country when we turn it over to brutes. I would disagree with something you said. I don’t recall any high ranking guys or dolls taking a hit; it’s usually the low level guys and gals trying to climb up the ladder. I should have know that under LBJ such things would have taken place. I guess truth be told with all the secrecy the CIA cloaks itself with this will never stop. What are we left with to be proud of?

  6. More from the Beale document:

    “So I would ask those who express concern that the rest of the world will follow our lead – especially those who are rolling their eyes at my suggestion above – to consider the facts about the standard tactics being carried out by warring factions all over the world today, and ask themselves which protocol they would rather be in place were they to become the captive – ours or theirs?

    Speaking as a retired soldier who was considered “high risk” and trained in the SERE course, I would welcome the implementation of the CIA interrogation protocols by any enemy I may encounter, because I would know that whatever they did to me would be monitored, measured, and carried out over a finite period of time. I would know that they would never cause me severe injury or death. I don’t know that about any of our current enemies, so I would gladly accept the CIA interrogation protocol as the world standard. “

    1. Jon:

      Having just read Khalid’s comments about the Phoenix Program in Vietnam Beale’s conclusion that “they would never cause me server injury or death” seems a little naive.

  7. Matt,

    Here is an interesting excerpt from the Beale document (pp. 19-20) which supports your point about the release of this report not really increasing the danger to overseas staff and troops that already exists, and also makes the rather reasonable claim that adoption of EITs the world over would actually eliminate torture based on a comparison of SERE-based EIT techniques to torture practiced all over the world by rogue regimes and non-state actors:

    “I have often read and heard over the last few years that the conduct of the CIA interrogation program served as a principle recruitment tool for Al Qaeda and, more specifically, put American troops in danger of mistreatment and torture upon capture. Putting aside the fact that the program was secret until 2005 —————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————– it is the second accusation which defies all intellectual reason.

    First, all of our enemies over the last several decades routinely torture, kill, or maim their prisoners as a matter of course. It ’s simply what they do. Our more recent enemy, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated brethren, have proven themselves to be amongst the most brutal captors in the history of captivity. (The majority of this piece was written in early 2014, before the name “ISIS” was known to anyone outside of the intelligence community). They tortured and beheaded captives before the interrogation program was initiated, while it was being secretly carried out, and after it was revealed publicly. There was no strategy shift upon revelation of the CIA interrogation program to switch tactics from establishing rapport and bonding with their captive to sawing off his head. It was always about the sawing off of heads. It still is. That said, some have suggested that our use of enhanced techniques put our country in the delicate position of demanding fair treatment of our prisoners while at the same time using harsh techniques on Al Qaeda detainees. They wonder what’s to stop our enemies from using the same tactics we used, and what right we would have to ask them to stop. I would submit that the immediate adoption of the entire CIA interrogation program by every combatant entity currently engaged in any war or battle in any corner of the world would be the greatest thing that ever happened to modern detention and prisoner/hostage/detainee well being. Were the Secretary-General of the United Nations to propose and enforce the adoption of the CIA interrogation program and conditions of confinement on every battlefield on earth, the number of lives improved and saved would qualify him for a Nobel Peace Prize. There would be no more torture – yes, I mean actual torture. No detainee would ever be subjected to any treatment more severe than that we inflict on our own American servicemen every month in SERE training. All prisoners and detainees would be adequately fed, clothed, housed, and given health and dental care. There would be no beheadings, no beatings, no cutting off of hands, fingers, ears, or noses. No starvation of prisoners. No slow deaths from disease and dysentery. No snuff films, or propaganda videos featuring staged confessions or abuse. No beating of the undersides of feet, or genital mutilation. There would be no rape, no sexual abuse, and no blackmail of families.”

  8. The report was released now because when the GOP takes the Senate, this report would have never seen the light of day.
    If you want to be the “good guys”, you hold yourself to higher standars than the barbarins at the gate.

    Matt’s wish for a more bipartisan roadmap back to grace flies in the face of everything we know about the current Congress. (See 1600 page budgetary bill now up for vote).

    Cowardly? Most politicians are basically cowards now enthralled to big money on one side or the other. This “political” release is the best we can hope for. Everyone fears megamoney funneled to his opponents by angry special interests as much as they once feared JEH’s legendary secret files.

    I dispair of the immediate future as whoever wins in 2016 will be no better in this climate than the present lot. We need a game changing Roosevelt-ian figure to arise, unite and inspire the common man and begin to break the strangle hold Wall Street, big energy and the mil- ind complex has on our government. Teddy or FDR, I would support either.

    I’ve read that the last two generations are the first since the war that cannot expect to do better than their grandparents (us). This is what we should focus on.

    I respect and appreciate the experience and opinions expressed here. This is mine.

    1. Jeff:

      I agree and likewise despair of the future of our country. It looks like our choice is going to be between Old Lady Clinton who is indebted to so many people that it’ll cost the country another trillion to satisfy them; and Jeb Bush who’ll just be a re-run of the Bush Bunch. The new budget from the little I can see is a selling of much of the country to special interests. No one in Congress knows what they are voting for other than the little special bill that enriches their friends. It’s true about the last two generations. The Washington Post is doing a series on the demise of America’s middle class It’s worth reading if you want to have some more depressing news. I have a real sense something is wrong and there is no will to repair it.

  9. There is a substantial difference between Japanese war crimes and EIT. Didn’t seven thousand American pows perish on the Baatan Death march? Wasn’t the death rate for U S prisoners held by Japan 40% compared to 1% of those held by Germany? At Chigi Jima many captives were tortured, killed and eaten by their Japanese captors. 2. A definition of torture is the infliction of severe pain to obtain information. Did that happen? No one died. No permanent injuries. KSM after chopping off Pearl’s head and killing thousands wasn’t entitled to the kid glove treatment. MacArthur executed 1100 Japanese war criminals in military tribunals and some in our land are wringing their hands over three being waterboarded. 3. You are right. Both the CIA and Senate are making conflicting claims to the efficacy of EIT. Who knows who is accurate? What conduct of the CIA is troubling is there penetration of the Senate’s computers. They have no authority to conduct domestic investigations. CIA and NSA are for foreign operations only. The CIA has to respect the separation of powers as does the FBI. They are both accountable to Congress. If either agency refuses to co operate their funding should be withheld.

    1. NC:

      1. The Japanese were wicked in war. That’s why we had the trials and hanged so many after we won.

      2. Some died, some were severely injured in mind if not in body. You should look into the Phoenix Program.

      3. That some EIT is torture seems to be beyond dispute.

  10. @Jon … Informative/Thoughtful posts presenting pragmatic case for EIT. The problem is that the ” Abu Greib Syndrome ” as I call it can take hold of otherwise ” normally ” functioning and basically decent individuals . Incidentally , one shining and for me ultimately defining FBI MOMENT in time and history was when the FBI Agents pulled out of the Aby Greib CIA/Army Intel pain circus, saying in clear unequivocal language : Look @@ This is Just Not the way we do things. EIT cannot be distilled in political essence to the self-flagellating thin mean monk’s gruel she and the lefties now hypocritically and self-righteously serve in the partisan refectory ; Nor is it so nobly particularized in your incisive analysis , Jon, of noble instances, that we cannot viscerally perceive : This is Just not the way we do things! !! .. I leave it there. This is my opinion ; you as eloquently and heartfelt have yours. Enjoyed your posts.

  11. Also, there is merit to the question of what, in fact, constitutes “torture”. I don’t think that there is any dispute that there were abuses in the early stages of developing EIT policy. There is the context of 9-11 and the worry about when the next attack would occur. There are the bureaucratic rigidities as a backdrop when everyone is trying to figure out what can and can’t be done, in real-time as legal memos are being written and discussed, and interagency discussions and the results of their discussions are passed down the chain of command with lags and miscommunications. There is even debate about the nature of actual interrogation practices, evidenced by Rumsfeld’s famous remark that he stands 8-10 hours a day so how can it be “torture” to make a detainee stand for 4 hours. All of which is to say that abuses are almost inevitable (which is not to say excusable).

    As I believe Beale suggests in his writeup, it is helpful to view EIT policy in terms of a before and after. That is, “before” is in the early going when abuses were prone to happening (for reasons stated above), and “after” is after the hysteria died down and policy was more fully thought out and implemented.

    Finally, one of the big ironies about the Bush administration, in an argument stated rather strongly in Jack Goldsmith’s book The Terror Presidency, is that never have attorneys had so much influence as they had in the Bush administration. In other words, Goldsmith (who headed the Office of Legal Counsel in 2003-04 and was the first or among the first to challenge the legal reasoning behind the “torture” memos) argues that the Bush administration were determined to provide legal justification in anticipation of the inevitable legal challenges against their policies. Goldsmith argues that the mistake Bush administration made was not making enough of an effort to build political consensus around its policies, as had Lincoln and Roosevelt during their own times of crisis and controversial policies.

  12. Matt,

    The ethics of “torture” aside, I would only say that we should understand that interrogation and de-briefing (not to be confused) is a more complex undertaking than that implied by your remark: “I can only know how I would react to it. To stop it I’d tell anything that the interrogators wanted to hear even the truth.” Obviously, the point of EITs is not to get a detainee to say whatever you want a detainee to say. You might as well say: tell me your mother is a hippopotamus or I’ll waterboard you, and so you admit that your mother is a hippopotamus. But what’s the point of that? No information is gained.

    Interrogation and de-briefing in particular and the practice of intelligence collection in general is a complex undertaking of assessing the substance of a detainee’s response and how a detainee responds, weighing the information obtained against other pieces of evidence, and applying judgment based on an interrogator/de-briefer’s understanding of the subject matter being discussed.

    You can read a 40-page first-hand account of SERE-based interrogation by one of the CIA interrogators writing under the pseudonym Jason Beale here:

    1. Jon:

      No one in interrogation is concerned with hippopotomi; but they do want to know about people who you may have associated with. They’ll ask about specific persons or places often with leading questions. The person being interrogated can often figure out where they are going and tell them what they want to hear. I agree it is a system of checks and balances against the possessed knowledge but under pressure of Torture it seems obvious one would do anything to have it stopped. The SERE interrogation may be one thing but it all boils down to what the interrogator knows, what he thinks you know, and the game between them. There have been many people who have confessed to murdering other people when they were not involved in the crime at all.

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