Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I think it is time to talk torture. This is perhaps the most sickening and anti-Christian legacy of a Bush Administration that has out-done itself in creating an ugly legacy.

The Senate Armed Forces Committee just released its "Inquiry Into the Treatment of Detainees In U.S. Custody." What we learn is that in December 2001 the administration was already planning its use of torture. On February 7, 2002, Pres. Bush signed a memorandum stating that the Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflicts with al Qaeda and the Taliban, which meant that Common Article 3, which affords basic humane treatment to detainees, did not apply.

In August 2002 the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel issued two legal opinions. The first of which redefined torture:
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.
The second opinion analyzed and approved of specific torture techniques, including waterboarding (the simulation of drowning). These memos are referred to as the First Bybee Memo and the Second Bybee Memo because they were approved of and recommended by Jay Bybee, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel. Jay Bybee is (sigh) a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and a graduate of BYU undergrad and law school. I am ashamed.

Pres. Obama recently released the memos to the public. The memos are legal documents describing and justifying brutal interrogation methods including "forced nudity, the slamming of detainees into walls, prolonged sleep deprivation and the dousing of detainees with water as cold as 41 degrees," as well as "keeping detainees awake for up to 11 straight days, placing them in a dark, cramped box or putting insects into the box to exploit their fears."

Keep in mind that this is the United States government we are talking about. Our government. The policies and practices of our government represent our shared values and the image we present to the world. But lets continue.

These "techniques" were used in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It is much harder, I think, to make the argument that the Geneva Convention does not apply to those wars. I can agree that the larger war on terror may not be the type of conflict that is contemplated in the Geneva Convention (though I adamately disagree with its total suspension in those cases), but the Afghani and Iraqi Wars were the type of conventional wars that were contemplated by the Geneva Convention. To suspend it and use torture in those wars is an absolutely inexcusable breach of justice and humanity.

Now, perhaps, the most disgusting revelation of them all. A former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist has stated that the Bush Administration pushed for torture to be used in order to create a link between al Qaeda and Iraq. Top al Qaeda detainees were waterboarded dozens and dozens of time in an effort to extract information that the intelligence community had already advised the administration did not exist. It is clear now that the Bush Administration knew it was going to war with Iraq (despite claiming that war was always a last resort). In order to build a case that it was told could not be built, it ordered torture. Torture was not just used to extract information of imminent threats to America, it was used for political purposes. This makes me sick to my stomach.

There is not much to add to any of this. The arguments have been made that torture produces more false confessions and evidence than facts. The arguments have been made that our use of torture creates more animosity and, as a result, terrorists, because we are known torturers. The arguments have been made that America and Americans are supposed to be the shining example of freedom and justice in the world. We are supposed to be the beacon that the oppressed and hopeful flock to in order to flee oppression and fear.

After initially stating that no prosecutions would be forthcoming at any level as a result of torture, it now appears that those that devised and ordered the torture policies will be subject to possible investigation and prosecution. This is the way it should be. We are a nation of laws, and when those laws are broken justice must be done. We have to assure that this will never happen again. We have to cleanse our government of this type of thinking. These decisions will be made independent of the administration through the Department of Justice (what? You forgot that the Department of Justice is an independent agency after the Bush Administration abuses of power? That is understandable).

There is a significant argument put forward by conservatives that it was dangerous for the Obama Administration to release the torture memos. We need to remember that these are memos that outlined the legal foundation for the use of torture. These are not memos that give specific names, dates, or locations of torture. The only people put at risk by the release of these memos are the criminals that authorized, drafted, and approved of them. These memos reveal the arguments in favor of torture, which needs to come to light so we can avoid this type of reasoning in the future. Everyone in the world already knew America had become a torturer, now we know the depraved reasoning that got us there.

Finally, and I realize this is getting long, but I want to stress again that the way we use language is so important. The great David Foster Wallace said it best:
There's a grosser irony about Politically Correct English. This is that PCE purports to be the dialect of progressive reform but is in fact--in its Orwellian substitution of the euphemisms of social equality for social equality itself--of vastly more help to conservatives and the U.S. status quo than traditional SNOOT prescriptions ever were. Were I, for instance, a political conservative who opposed taxation as a means of redistributing national wealth, I would be delighted to watch PCE progressives spend their time and energy arguing over whether a poor person should be described as "low-income" or "economically disadvantaged" or "pre-prosperous" rather than constructing effective public arguments for redistributive legislation or higher marginal tax rates on corporations. (Not to mention that strict codes of egalitarian euphemism serve to burke the sorts of painful, unpretty, and sometimes offensive discourse that in a pluralistic democracy leads to actual political change rather than symbolic political change. In other words, PCE functions as a form of censorship, and censorship always serves the status quo.)
We call "torture" things like enhanced interrogation, harsh interrogation, techniques, coersion, aggressive interrogation, a necessary tool, mistreatment, tough interrogation, freely interrogate, refined interrogation, etc. We refer to stress positions and waterboarding, sleep management, sexual humiliation, and non-injurious physical contact. We hold illegal combatants at black sites. In short, we use non-offensive language to maintain the status quo and prevent real discourse and real progress.

We held human beings, children of God, in secret prisons and tortured them. Now that we are being honest about it, it's time for social progress.


Iliana said...

You don't watch 24 do you.

Jacob S. said...

Nicely done. I thought about 24 when I was writing this. JB is a great American, no question.

Andrew said...

I don't watch 24 so I don't know what sort of weighty moral issues it supposedly addresses. I've read elsewhere that the protagonist (among other things) captures and interrogates "terrorists" using tough-guy tactics to play find-the-bomb or something like that. Basically a serial infomercial for the benefits of "enhanced" interrogation techniques. Or some similar silliness.

Doug said...

In addition to Bybee's complicity in approving and signing off on the torture memos other church members were involved in this dark chapter in our history. James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen (Mitchell Jessen & Associates), are two military psychologists who, beginning in 2002, were hired by the CIA to train interrogators in brutal techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and pain (basically reverse engineering the SERE program). Both are LDS. How do they justify their actions and what is their standing in the church now?

Jacob S. said...

I had never heard that before, Doug, but that is truly disturbing. How does one reconcile one's Christian (in this case Mormon) beliefs with one's complicity in creating and supporting the governmental torture apparatus? Is the cry of "National Security" enough? I just don't think it is.

Doug said...

For more info on Mitchell & Jessen, Jane Mayer's book "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals" chronicles their involvement. She describes them as ”good looking, clean-cut, polite Mormons”. Mayer, who interviewed Mitchell, said: "he’s a great believer in “science is science,” as he says, and so he used what he thought was good science, which were experiments that had been done on dogs, to apply them to ways to break down human detainees." I worry about when the MSM begins to link Bybee, Mitchell, & Jessen. It will surely not present the church in a good light. I believe that fear has been the great motivator behind the former administration's GWOT.

Andrew said...

I actually think it's a testimony to the universal nature of the Gospel that you have people with such varying opinions politically within the Church. The Gospel has never broken down neatly along party lines, that's one of the reason I support very strong separation of Church and State. Human politics is way too narrow for something as vast as the Gospel, trying to shoehorn it into any particular ideology will ultimately fail.

That being said, I believe that anyone involved with instituting torture as policy should be held strictly accountable for their actions. Honoring and sustaining the laws of the land includes ensuring that what you do doesn't contradict those laws. One of the overriding themes I noticed in the "I Have A Question" from June 1976 is that, as long as our government is representative (i.e., we can elect people to represent us) we should do everything in our power to honor and uphold the law.

I think that Bybee et. al. grossly overstepped their bounds by legislating from the OLC, instead of going the usual route to get Congressional approval. While there are interesting international law issues (and moral issues as well), to my mind the fundamental question of whether they were making up de facto laws on-the-fly is the real heart of the matter.

Tyson said...

I would like to know if anyone has arguments to counter Sam Harris' position for the selected use of torture. see

Jacob S. said...

I would say a couple of things. First, the ticking time bomb scenario does not exist. It has never existed and will, with almost absolute certainty, never exist in the future. So while it is emotionally stimulating to go over the Jack Bauer scenario, it is a waste of valuable resources to put any stock into it.

Second, there is plenty of evidence out there that shows that torture leads to false information. The last thing we need is for our people to be sent on a wild goose chase in the face of imminent threats.

Third, experienced interrogators almost unanimously agree that traditional interrogation techniques, honed over thousands and thousands of man-hours of experience, are the most effective at eliciting accurate and complete information. Here is a source:

So, yeah, I would love to okay torture on someone who had my kids hidden in a secret location threatened with imminent pain or death. That's the emotional side, and we can't deny how powerful it is. But as a matter of public policy and moral policy, I don't think it holds up.

Tyson said...

Are you responding to Harris' arguments? If so
1) How can you eliminate the probability of the ticking time bomb scenario? If the probability was one in a million, in LA, that would happen 10 times a day.
2) Harris' argument doesn't claim that it's perfect, but that it creates a probability of eliciting evidence, even if it is small, when other techniques have failed. I think a better argument against Harris on this point is that the emphasis should be on research to identify better methods as you point our in your third argument.

Lastly, how do you respond to Harris' arguments regarding collateral damage as a comparison to torture, i.e. we are willing to kill and maim innocent men women and children, but not a known enemy combatant?

Randall said...

A few short observations about "torture" issues.

First, I think it is always healthy to have an honest debate about policies such as our interrogation techniques and the limits of such techniques as we move into the future.

That said these facts are clear.

1. Democratic Leaders on the intelligence committee were fully briefed about interrogation techniques. Pelosi specifically was briefed then later lied about her attendance at the meetings. You have to be honest enough to admit her deception on these issues.

2. Democrats had no complaints at the time. Its easy to take events 5-6 years in the past and play armchair quarterback. These were actual terrorists from which we were trying to extract actual real time information about ongoing terrorist plots.

3. Proscicuting former politicians of the other party after a power change for things done in the heat of war is a dangerous precedent. What if FDR had to face trials for every action of WW2 or Truman for Heroshima, by the opposing party. Personally I think Clinton's dealing of Black Hawk Down was criminal but none of this rises to the level of "crimes against humanity" If we start getting revenge when we switch parties no one will act at all.

4. These interrogation techniques are used on American Soldiers as part of special forces training. I personally know soldiers who have volunteered for this training. If we can do it to our own soldiers, why is a foreign terrorist to sacred for the same treatment. This has been a disclosed and visible part of our armed services that any politician would have known about. And none of them have been outraged at the treatment of American soldiers.

5. Information was extracted to foil an actual terrorist plot in NYC. We can guess, of course, that someone could have extracted information another way, that is all conjecture.

6. The United States has been the the most moral participant in military campaigns in the history of the planet. Although not perfect, our record is so good, and so compassionate, that to impune it is to discredit the good name of all of our service men in our history.

Obama certainly has the power to adjust certain policies with the CIA if he chooses. This late and selective partisan outrage is an obvious attempt to hurt the Republican party and throw fresh meat to their base.

But the Pelosi crowd would do anything to expand her power and the power of her party, no matter how many soldiers have to die for her partisan cause. I have a hard time imagining that any LDS person can not see her for what she is, the Eva Peron of America. ( Examine History of Argentina 1940's) Its really all about history in the end.

Jacob S. said...

But people on both sides of the ideological spectrum have been complaining about torture for years. The reason it is such a hot topic now is that Pres. Obama released the torture memos that showed the dishonest intellectual gymnastics that the Bush administration went through to justify its use and it is only recently that we have learned the full scope of the torture program.

Here is an honest criticism I have of conservatives, and maybe one that you can help shed light on. Why is it so taboo to criticize America? Why must we turn a blind eye to our shortcomings and require that our leaders do the same? Why do we gloss over our foreign policy failures?

I agree that America is an incredible force for good. But I can at the same time require more of my country. I can look with disdain at our poor policies in the Middle East the last few decades. I can at the same time be ashamed about torture. I can require more.

If I had a close friend that was a very good person, gave time and resources to charities, and helped make his community a better place, except he also had a drug or alcohol problem, I would absolutely want him to correct that problem and become an even better person. Why can't the same be true of our country? Why can't we look at its virtues and flaws honestly and require it to be better?

Jacob S. said...

I will also just add that one of the few things that is worse for the stability of our country than torture is an unwillingness to apply the law equally to those in power and out of power. If we are too afraid to fairly and fully prosecute those that commit crimes in our country because of political expediency, then I fear for us going forward.

It is no excuse to rely on past bad precedent. So we didn't prosecute crimes and war crimes in the past? So what? If such crimes were committed (and I'm not making any judgments as to whether or not they were) they should have been prosecuted. We are a nation of laws, and the politically powerful don't escape those laws and we don't not enforce the law because of political considerations.