Torture Or National Security?

One advantage of a transcontinental plane trip is that I got a chance to get through almost all of Charlie Savage's new book, "Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency." This blog has covered on a daily and sometimes hourly basis much of what is in the book: the elevation of the executive branch above the rule of law; the unprecedented use of signing statements; the corruption of the OLC; the war crimes of John Yoo; the resistance of Goldsmith, Ashcroft and Comey to the de facto coup of Cheney and Addington; the secret authorization of torture; and the elaborate, ferocious and successful attempt to prevent 519y8x1kmll any democratic daylight coming into the protectorate that Bush and Cheney have set up and that the Clintons and, more ominously, Giuliani might inherit.

Savage has all the goods, with a real narrative flair and deep, factual detail that prompts alternate bouts of despair and rage at what has been done to American honor and the rule of law these past few years. Do yourself a favor: Read the book. It's great to see rule-of-law conservatives like David Keene or Bruce Fein or George Will endorsing its thesis as well. But Savage also reminds me of an important part of the torture debate that I haven't explained as well as I might have.

The torture techniques authorized by Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney are not just immoral and illegal; they are a terrible threat to our national security. Why? Because they originated as a means to extract false confessions in totalitarian societies, not as a means to gain actual, workable intelligence, i.e. anything we might hope to think of as the truth. Many of the techniques were mirror images of techniques that American soldiers had been trained to resist if captured by Viet Cong or North Korean or Soviet thugs - the famous SERE training. They had also, of course, been used by the Nazis. Yes, these torture methods, in most cases, left no physical marks - precisely so that captured American soldiers could be shown on television giving confessions as if they were volunteering real information. But they were lying, of course, because torture forced them to lie. And so, in an unknowable number of cases, have the torture-victims of the Bush administration. One thing I'd forgotten, of course, is one central case in which torture did give us actionable intelligence:

"Al Qaeda continues to have a deep interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction... I can trace the story of a sernior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al Qaeda. Fortunately, this operative is now detained and he has told his story."

The man who spoke those words was Colin Powell at the UN. The "operative", we now know, was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libbi. He was waterboarded and given Bush-approved hypothermia treatment, i.e. frozen till he could take it no longer. It was only then that he told of al Qaeda's links with Saddam's WMDs. Guess what? Libbi subsequently retracted his confession. According to ABC News, the CIA subsequently found al-Libbi "had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment." So I now realize that part of the reason I believed the WMD case for war against Saddam was because the Bush administration had been secretly torturing suspects and got false confessions. The biggest intelligence failure in recent US history - the WMD case in Iraq - was partly created by the torture policy.

The same story is true of another tortured prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, as recounted in Ron Suskind's book.

Zubaydah, as Savage reports,

was waterboarded, beaten, threatened, subjected to mock executions, and bombarded with continuous deafening noise and harsh lighting.

Zubayhdah gave the FBI dozens of warnings of looming attacks across the US: plots to bomb shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, water systems. Many of the terror alerts issued by the Bush administration were based on Zubaydah's tortured false confessions. See the picture? It's a closed circle. Cheney and Bush have sealed off the government from even cursory Congressional oversight; they have instituted torture as a primary means for intelligence gathering; and used that intelligence to justify war and more torture. Once you enter this vortex of torture and untruth, there is no escaping it. This is where we now find ourselves. There is no doubt in my mind, in other words, that not only is torture evil, it is terribly dangerous for our national security. We have expended enormous resources in fighting threats that are not there, while failing to expend the necessary resorces and time to figure out accurately what exact threats we do face. When you hear of the intelligence extracted by torture, remember that it was the intelligence that "proved" that Saddam and WMDs and links to al Qaeda. Tyrants get the tortured to say what they want them to say. The point of torture is always and everywhere torture.

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