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Talking About Torture

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 25, 2006; 12:40 PM

The Republican-led Congress is in an obvious hurry to enact interrogation legislation before the mid-term elections -- even though four days after a much-heralded agreement between the White House and some balky GOP senators, it's still unclear which if any of the CIA's "alternative techniques" such legislation would forbid.

But there are also some voices calling for a more protracted and informed debate about whether torture and other harsh interrogation techniques work and what role they should play in our society.

In my Friday column , I called for a discussion of these issues in the press, if nowhere else. And there are signs such a discussion is beginning.

What Torture Achieves

Chilean novelist and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman writes in The Washington Post's Outlook section with the story of the first torture victim he ever met: "He confessed to anything and everything they wanted to drag from his hoarse, howling throat; he invented accomplices and addresses and culprits; and then, when it became apparent that all this was imaginary, he was subjected to further ordeals.

"There was no escape.

"That is the hideous predicament of the torture victim."

Dorfman concludes: "Can't the United States see that when we allow someone to be tortured by our agents, it is not only the victim and the perpetrator who are corrupted, not only the 'intelligence' that is contaminated, but also everyone who looked away and said they did not know, everyone who consented tacitly to that outrage so they could sleep a little safer at night, all the citizens who did not march in the streets by the millions to demand the resignation of whoever suggested, even whispered, that torture is inevitable in our day and age, that we must embrace its darkness?

Chief Warrant Officer Marney Mason (retired) tells the Outlook section: "I think anyone who believes torture is a useful means of extracting information has been watching too many Sly Stallone movies.

"A good interrogation is like a seduction. You sit down. You ask the person questions. You try to develop a very intense personal relationship with another human being so they'll part with information they'd rather not part with. You wheedle, cajole, trick, lie. The point is to collect usable, actionable information. Sure, if you start pulling a guy's fingernails out, he'll start talking -- it may not be the truth, but he's going to tell you exactly what you want to hear."

Charles Kaiser writes in the Los Angeles Times about why 43 retired generals and admirals publicly stated their opposition to Bush's interrogation policies. For instance:

"Retired Brig. Gen. James P. Cullen was chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. 'I grew up in an Army where the rules were very clear and where serviceman and women had no question about what their obligations and responsibilities were under both the Geneva Convention and our domestic law,' he said. 'When you have a winking-and-nodding policy [as was the case at Abu Ghraib], that just brings about the consequences that we came to view at [the prison].'

"What further fuels the officers' outrage is that the policies they believe have undermined the military were mostly formulated by men, like Bush, who have not seen combat.

"'[Vice President Dick] Cheney made mention in the days after 9/11 that he wanted to operate sort of on the dark side,' Cullen said. 'Here was a guy who never served, and now something terrible had happened, and he wanted to show that he was a tough guy. . . . So he's going to operate outside the rules of law. Bad message.'"

Paul Rieckhoff , who served in Iraq, writes in a New York Times op-ed on the strategic value of treating prisoners decently: "I saw countless insurgents surrender when faced with the prospect of a hot meal, a pack of cigarettes and air-conditioning. America's moral integrity was the single most important weapon my platoon had on the streets of Iraq. It saved innumerable lives, encouraged cooperation with our allies and deterred Iraqis from joining the growing insurgency."

Editorial Watch

The Los Angeles Times calls for the sort of "sustained scrutiny that will be impossible if there is a rush to enact the compromise into law before the midterm elections. Democrats, who until now have allowed McCain and Co. to serve as their stand-ins, especially should resist a stampede. . . .

"Before writing Bush a blank check, Congress should insist on a convincing explanation of what the CIA would be allowed to do that would be forbidden for interrogators in the military -- and why."

USA Today writes: "The skids are greased in Congress this week to rush through a deal on how terror suspects should be interrogated and prosecuted. . . .

"While the lawmakers would be elated to get this messy issue behind them before they go home to campaign for re-election, it's worth being wary of a quick fix for an intricate issue that defines the nation's values and how the world sees us. . . .

"What the nation needs is a law that defines how to protect its citizens from terrorism without violating their values. Getting it right is more critical than getting it done fast."

The Boston Globe writes: "Unless Congress wants to set a precedent for other countries to use in mistreating US troops in future conflicts, it should insist that interrogations be conducted in accordance with the Army's field manual and that any special trial commissions use the military's court-martial procedures, which are sound."

The Mysterious 'Compromise'

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times: "The compromise reached on Thursday between Congressional Republicans and the White House on the interrogations and trials of terrorism suspects is, legal experts said yesterday, a series of interlocking paradoxes.

"It would impose new legal standards that it forbids the courts to enforce.

"It would guarantee terrorist masterminds charged with war crimes an array of procedural protections. But it would bar hundreds of minor figures and people who say they are innocent bystanders from access to the courts to challenge their potentially lifelong detentions.

"And while there is substantial disagreement about just which harsh interrogation techniques the compromise would prohibit, there is no dispute that it would allow military prosecutors to use statements that had been obtained under harsh techniques that are now banned."

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "A Republican senator who played a leading role in drafting new rules for U.S. interrogations of terrorism suspects said yesterday that he believes a compromise bill embraced by party leaders and the White House will bar some of the most extreme techniques said to have been used by the CIA.

"Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) named three measures that he said would no longer be allowed under a provision barring techniques that cause serious mental or physical suffering by U.S. detainees: extreme sleep deprivation, forced hypothermia and 'waterboarding,' which simulates drowning. He also said other 'extreme measures' would be banned. . . .

"Aides said he did not clear his remarks with the Bush administration in advance, and spokesmen for the CIA and the White House declined to say yesterday whether they accept McCain's conclusions."

But as Smith himself wrote on Sept. 16, McCain reportedly thought the last bit of torture legislation he championed -- last year -- was also going to have that effect.

And as the transcript of McCain's interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" shows, McCain was not exactly expressing certainty.

Here he is facing interrogation by Washington Post national political editor John Harris and host Bob Schieffer:

"Mr. HARRIS: This whole debate turned on things that I think most citizens couldn't understand. You said you -- severe punishment, pain should not be inflicted, but serious pain can -- what can that possibly mean in concrete terms?

"Sen. McCAIN: In concrete terms, it could mean that waterboarding and other extreme measures such as extreme deprivation -- sleep deprivation, hypothermia and others would be not allowed."

Note McCain's use of the word could .

"Mr. HARRIS: That's what you say. What if the administration interprets it differently, as it is allowed to do under the provisions of this law? What if you disagree with the interpretation?

"Sen. McCAIN: If we disagree with the interpretation, the fact is that those interpretations have to be published in the Federal Register. That's a document that's available to all Americans, including the press. And we in Congress, and the judiciary, if challenged, have the ability then to examine that interpretation and act legislatively. These are regulations the president would issue, we would be passing laws which trump regulations. . . .

"I'm confident that some of the abuses that were reportedly committed in the past will be prohibited in the future.

"SCHIEFFER: Well, for example, will this prohibit making people stand up for long periods of time? Because I know in your captivity -- what? -- you were once made to stand up for two days, or something?

"Sen. McCAIN: Yeah. It's hard for me to get into these techniques. First of all, I'm not privy to them, but I only know what I've seen in public reporting. But some of these, such as an extreme stress position and extreme application of that I think would be -- would be certainly important. . . .

"Mr. HARRIS: What gives you the confidence? The last time you reached an agreement, it was in law, the administration signed it, and then put out a signing statement saying it was going to interpret it its own way. Did you have confidence as you were negotiating with the administration, and are you also confident that this outlaws torture?

"Sen. McCAIN: That Detainee Treatment Act, they did have -- put that signing statement in, but it's -- they have never violated it to my knowledge, and we would challenge it if they did. And second of all, part of this agreement is adherence to the act that we passed, the Detainee Treatment Act. So, look, I believe the administration acted in good faith. We all understand the need to collect intelligence and we know how important it is. But we also ought to recognize that. . . .

"Mr. HARRIS: Do the tactics work? . . . Because the administration said these tactics work. Do they?

"Sen. McCAIN: I think that they work to an extent, but I also think that we have to be very careful, because we already have numerous examples where, if you torture somebody, they'll tell you anything that you want to know. Ask the British in Northern Ireland. Ask the French in Algeria. Ask the Israelis. So you've got to be very careful about the -- about these abuses.

"Mr. HARRIS: Well, you have access to more information about this than any of us because you've been in the negotiations.

"Sen. McCAIN: No, actually I. . . .

"Mr. HARRIS: You know of specific instances where these tactics have produced valuable information. And. . . .

"Sen. McCAIN: Only what the president talked about in his speech, and there has been, everyone agrees, there has been some valuable information gained. Exactly what techniques were used in obtaining that, I certainly don't know."

Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise how little McCain knows. Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "As lawmakers prepare to debate the CIA's special interrogation program for terrorism suspects, fewer than 10 percent of the members of Congress have been told which interrogation techniques have been used in the past, and none of them know which ones would be permissible under proposed changes to the War Crimes Act. . . .

"The lack of consultation means that senators and representatives will be voting next week to authorize a program that most know little about, raising questions about Congress's oft-repeated vow to increase its oversight of the war on terrorism."

Remember Habeas

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Sunday he has a problem with the Republican agreement on rules for the interrogation and trial of suspects in the war on terror.

"President Bush is pushing Congress to put the agreement into law before adjourning for the midterm elections, but Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Sunday he 'vigorously' disagrees with the habeas corpus provision of the bill.

"The provision would allow legal counsel and a day in court to only those detainees selected by the Pentagon for prosecution. Other terror suspects could be held indefinitely without a hearing."

Iraq: Making Terror Worse

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The classified National Intelligence Estimate attributes a more direct role to the Iraq war in fueling radicalism than that presented either in recent White House documents or in a report released Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee, according to several officials in Washington involved in preparing the assessment or who have read the final document. . . .

"The report 'says that the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,' said one American intelligence official."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post that senior intelligence officials describe "a different kind of conflict than the one outlined by President Bush in a series of recent speeches marking the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

David Millikin writes for AFP: "The intelligence document rocked a central pillar of the Republican Party's campaign platform ahead of November elections: that the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein made America safer, not weaker."

Richard A. Serrano writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The White House on Sunday sharply disagreed with a new U.S. intelligence assessment that the war in Iraq is encouraging global terrorism, as Bush administration officials stressed that anti-American fervor in the Muslim world began long before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"White House spokesman Peter Watkins declined to talk specifically about the National Intelligence Estimate, a classified analysis that represents a consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. . . .

"But the White House view, according to Watkins, is that much of the radicals' rage at the United States and Israel goes back generations and is not linked to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq."

In one of the White House press office's weakest attempts at rebuttal, an e-mail to reporters on Sunday asserted that Bush himself has repeatedly said that terrorists are more dispersed, less centralized, and still a threat.

As for the conclusion that the war in Iraq has become a primary recruitment vehicle for violent Islamic extremists, the White House responded: "The terrorists' own words, cited in the President's September 5th remarks, show they are driven by numerous reasons, including establishing a caliphate encompassing much of the world."

And the liberal Think Progress Web site points out that Bush has already made it clear that he simply rejects the NIE's conclusion.

Bush got the report in April. Here he is in August : "You know, I've heard this theory about everything was just fine until we arrived, and kind of 'we're going to stir up the hornet's nest' theory. It just doesn't hold water, as far as I'm concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East."

Clinton Attacks

Jim Efstathiou Jr. writes for Bloomberg: "Former President Bill Clinton accused the Bush administration of largely ignoring the threat from al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden until the Sept. 11 attacks and defended his record on counterterrorism.

"Democrat Clinton said he came 'closer to killing' bin Laden than anybody has since in operations he approved, including a 1998 missile strike on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

"'No, I didn't get him but at least I tried,' Clinton said in an interview broadcast today on the 'Fox News Sunday' program. 'That's the difference between me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now.'

"Clinton said some of Republican President George W. Bush's allies, who now say Clinton didn't do enough to stop bin Laden, accused him of being 'too obsessed' with the terrorist leader while he was in office. Bush 'downgraded' the role of former White House adviser on counterterrorism Richard Clarke and failed to focus on bin Laden before the attacks, Clinton said."

Here's the transcript and the video .

For good measure, Clinton also talked about Karl Rove and fear.

"WALLACE: Let's talk some politics. In [a] New Yorker article, you say that you are tired of Karl Rove's B.S., although I'm cleaning up what you said.

"CLINTON: But I do like the -- but I also say I'm not tired of Karl Rove. I don't blame Karl Rove. If you've got a deal that works, you just keep on doing it.

"WALLACE: So what is the B.S.?

CLINTON: Well, every even-numbered year, right before an election, they come up with some security issue. . . . We're going to win a lot of seats if the American people aren't afraid. If they're afraid and we get divided again, then we may only win a few seats.

"WALLACE: And the White House, the Republicans want to make the American people afraid?

"CLINTON: Of course they do. Of course they do. They want us to be -- they want another homeland security deal. And they want to make it about -- not about Iraq but about some other security issue, where, if we disagree with them, we are, by definition, imperiling the security of the country.

"And it's a big load of hooey."

Bush's Anguish

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post about Bush's private anguish when he meets families of the fallen.

"His public persona gives little sense that he dwells on the costs of war. He does not seem to agonize as Johnson did, or even as his father, George H.W. Bush, did before the Persian Gulf War. While he pays tribute to those who have fallen, the president strives to show resolve and avoid displays that might be seen as weak or doubting. His refusal to attend military funerals, while taking long Texas vacations and extended bicycle rides, strikes some critics as callous indifference.

"Yet the private Bush comes across differently in the accounts of aides, friends, relatives and military family members who have met with him, including some who do not support him. . . .

"Hildi Halley, a self-described liberal antiwar activist who met with President Bush in Maine last month, said she believes he felt her grief. 'It wasn't just a crocodile tear,' she said in an interview at her home. . . .

"Bush said he hoped their meeting helped her healing. 'You know what would help my healing?' she recalled responding. 'If you change your policies in the Mideast.' Bush smiled, she said, but did not reply.

"Halley said the meeting did not change either of their minds. She would still vote against him. But she said she appreciated that he opened himself up to her. 'I don't think he's a heartless man,' she said. 'I think he's pulled in a lot of different directions by very intelligent people. . . . I don't think it's going to change his policies, but I hope it does make him think about it. I hope I'm in his dreams.'"

On Language

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Shortly after terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush's speechwriters began grappling with a linguistic puzzle: What to call the enemy? In the five years since, Mr. Bush has road-tested an array of terms: evildoers, jihadists, Islamic extremists, even 'Al Qaeda suiciders.'

"But no phrase has crashed and burned as fast as the president's most recent entry into the foreign policy lexicon: Islamic fascists, or, Islamo-fascism."

Campaign Watch

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Since President Bush's approval rating sank to the lowest level of his presidency in May, nearly six in 10 of his appearances helping Republican candidates have been closed to all media coverage.

"Unlike his barnstorming leading up to the 2002 congressional elections, when he was more popular and the divisive Iraq war had not begun, Bush has yet to hold a single traditional campaign-style rally for one of his party's hopefuls this election cycle.

"Every one of his events for GOP gubernatorial, House and Senate candidates has been to raise money from faithful Republican donors _ not to urge support among the broader voting public."

Yoo Who?

Eric Brewer , a liberal blogger for BTCNews and occasional visitor to White House briefings, writes about his experiences at Friday morning's gaggle, "in which Tony Snow laughs at me (but the last laugh is on Tony)."

According to Brewer's transcript, he asked a perfectly reasonable question, quoting from a recent New York Times op-ed by former deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo, one of the leading architects of Bush's sweeping assertion of executive power.

Yoo had defended Bush's signing statements. Brewer asked: "Why doesn't the president veto laws that he thinks are unconstitutional?"

Snow responded with scorn: "You haven't been around here much, have you? This is a question we've done many times, so, for those of you who've heard it before, you may resume your crossword puzzles."

After a meandering rehash, Snow asked: "So, who was John Yoo deputy assistant attorney general for?"

Brewer: "Um, President Bush."

Snow: "OK. Was he really?"

Other reporters: "Yeah, yeah. The architect."

Snow: "Wow. He was the architect of this. . . . WOW! This is great! In any event, uh . . . boy, I stepped in that one, didn't I? (laughter)"

Nice Threads

Well, he may not know something as basic as who John Yoo is, but he sure knows how to color-coordinate.

Ray A. Smith writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Five months into the job, the former Fox News pundit is using his wardrobe to communicate that he's not the stereotypical press secretary. . . .

"Mr. Snow mixes things up, with colors that often seem to reflect the administration's mood. Discussing Syria recently, he wore a serious white shirt and maroon tie. When the president gave an upbeat press conference in the Rose Garden after a surprise visit to Iraq, Mr. Snow wore a cheery pink shirt and light blue tie."

Nedra, Baby

Bush had a photo op this morning with business leaders about Lebanon reconstruction efforts. From the pool report by Lisa Friedman of the Los Angeles Daily News:

"POTUS took no questions. Upon departure of the pool he turned to AP White House Reporter Nedra Pickler and said 'Nedra, baby, I'm gonna miss you. I'm sad you're leaving.' Pickler, who has been assigned to cover the '08 election but will not leave until after the midterms, replied 'Don't count me out yet! I'm here six more weeks.'"

Gas Watch

A new Gallup Poll finds that an astonishing 42 percent of Americans believe that the Bush administration has deliberately manipulated the price of gasoline so that it would decrease before this fall's elections.

But whether this has happened or not should not be a matter of idle speculation. As a determinable fact, it should be the object of some reporting.

How 'bout it, colleagues?

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