Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Shock the Conscience

There are a couple of stories out this morning in both the New York Times and the Washington Post about what led to the harsh interrogation of terror suspects.

First, Joby Warrick and Peter Finn at the Post report that the Bush administration was straining at the leash to use harsh tactics on suspects even before we had any.

Intelligence and military officials under the Bush administration began preparing to conduct harsh interrogations long before they were granted legal approval to use such methods — and weeks before the CIA captured its first high-ranking terrorism suspect, Senate investigators have concluded.

Previously secret memos and interviews show CIA and Pentagon officials exploring ways to break Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees in early 2002, up to eight months before Justice Department lawyers approved the use of waterboarding and nine other harsh methods, investigators found.

The findings are contained in a Senate Armed Services Committee report scheduled for release today that also documents multiple warnings — from legal and trained interrogation experts — that the techniques could backfire and might violate U.S. and international law.

One Army lieutenant colonel who reviewed the program warned in 2002 that coercion “usually decreases the reliability of the information because the person will say whatever he believes will stop the pain,” according to the Senate report. A second official, briefed on plans to use aggressive techniques on detainees, was quoted the same year as asking: “Wouldn’t that be illegal?”

But according to an article in the Times, the Bush administration didn’t know the answer to that question because they adopted the methods without inquiring into their past use, and they assumed that since the U.S. military had used them in training, they must be okay.

In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.

According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans.

Even George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director who insisted that the agency had thoroughly researched its proposal and pressed it on other officials, did not examine the history of the most shocking method, the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding.

The top officials he briefed did not learn that waterboarding had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II and was a well-documented favorite of despotic governments since the Spanish Inquisition; one waterboard used under Pol Pot was even on display at the genocide museum in Cambodia.

They did not know that some veteran trainers from the SERE program itself had warned in internal memorandums that, morality aside, the methods were ineffective. Nor were most of the officials aware that the former military psychologist who played a central role in persuading C.I.A. officials to use the harsh methods had never conducted a real interrogation, or that the Justice Department lawyer most responsible for declaring the methods legal had idiosyncratic ideas that even the Bush Justice Department would later renounce.

The process was “a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm,” a former C.I.A. official said.

Call me picky, but I think that when you’re the top officials in the government of the United States and you’re devising policies that could possibly endanger human life, be it directly on prisoners in your custody or indirectly on your own soldiers or civilians — not just in terms of how they might be treated if they’re made prisoners or how we’ll have to conduct ourselves in the future — you’d at least bother to use the Google to find out whether or not the techniques in question have been used by other people like Torquemada or Pol Pot.

But, as Hilzoy notes, it’s not really a surprise that the Bush administration wouldn’t bother to check. Why should they? They knew everything.

Philip Zelikow, a former Bush administration adviser and now dissenter, says that once we’re heading down that road, what’s next?

The underlying absurdity of the [Bush] administration’s position can be summarized this way. Once you get to a substantive compliance analysis for “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” you get the position that the substantive standard is the same as it is in analogous U.S. constitutional law. So the OLC must argue, in effect, that the methods and the conditions of confinement in the CIA program could constitutionally be inflicted on American citizens in a county jail.

In other words, Americans in any town of this country could constitutionally be hung from the ceiling naked, sleep deprived, water-boarded, and all the rest — if the alleged national security justification was compelling. I did not believe our federal courts could reasonably be expected to agree with such a reading of the Constitution.

David Welna at NPR said that the techniques were designed to “shock the conscience.” Of whom? Certainly not those who came up with this, or those who supported them. That assumes they have a conscience in the first place, and if the last eight years have taught us anything, very few of them did.