Monday, April 20, 2009

CIA Torture Memos

I saw admitted on the news (Fox) today for the first time that waterboarding is routinely practiced on our own aviators and special operations personnel in training. Waterboarding, of course, was a major political issue in the campaign and for the current administration, who has banned use of the practice against terrorists for the purpose of obtaining information to prevent future terrorist attacks. The media made much of the fact that waterboarding was used against Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - and no one else - as revealed in the recently released CIA memos on interrogation policy. No word on whether President Obama has also banned the routine waterboarding of US military members.


Eric said...

If that was Fox's report, it wasn't news and it wasn't accurate.

The waterboarding program was reverse-engineered from the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) training program, which itself was reverse-engineered from techniques used against captured American servicemen during Korea and Vietnam. This fact has been known for several years now, and was reported by segments of the MSM at least as early as 2005.

The fact that the CIA torture program was reverse-engineered from SERE is one of its problems and the source of criticism, not a reason to think it wasn't-really-so-bad. First, it should be noted that the SERE program itself is controversial, since what servicemen are forced to endure is indeed technically torture and supervision of the program by doctors and psychologists arguably violates their certification/licensing; furthermore, administration of SERE training against civilians would certainly be illegal (possibly even with informed consent by the civilians)--that it's technically not an issue for servicemen reflects the legal exceptions carved out for those who have given their lives to service for their country (much as a soldier/sailor/airmen/marine is subject to a different legal code and may not possess certain Constitutional rights during his/her service).

Secondly (and perhaps more significantly, considering the alleged aims/justification of the CIA program), the torture that SERE was modeled after was not designed to elicit information. The North Koreans and North Vietnamese did not subject Americans to torture to extract intelligence, they did so to extract false confessions and useful propaganda. So what the psychologists involved with the CIA torture came up with was an extrapolation from a program extrapolated from conduct deliberately designed to elicit lies and misinformation in order to make the suffering stop.

If your summary of Fox's report is accurate, CW, it reflects poorly on Fox's timing (they've been scooped for, oh, four years) and accuracy (the ludicrousness of using SERE to develop an intelligence-gathering system has been much discussed with much disgust, including, if I'm not mistaken, criticisms from people formerly involved with SERE itself). If Fox was reporting a new development, I'd be curious to know more and hopeful, as you say, that Mr. Obama would terminate the abuse of Americans; unfortunately, given that your summary describes the abuse of SERE to a tee, I have to assign a very low probability to the latter--that is, I suspect Fox took old news and tried to spin it for the benefit of audience members so skeptical of the MSM for the wrong reasons that they're unaware of news so old it's taken for granted by anybody who has been paying attention.

CW said...

Eric I believe you make a very good point that the SERE "torture" regimen was adapted from techniques first encountered by US servicemen in Korea, which were designed to "brainwash" and elicit false "confessions" for propaganda purposes, not to obtain correct information. Those techniques, in turn, reportedly were learned by the Koreans from the Japanese, who used them during WWII to compel submission, not obtain information either. Waterboarding, I believe dates back to the Spanish Inquisition, where it was used for much the same purposes as in Korea and Vietnam - to extract false confessions or testimony.

It is ironic that the CIA would misunderstand and misuse Communist interrogation tactics against terrorists. Their reported previous preferred interrogation method was the use of psychedelic and psychotropic drugs (e.g. "truth serum", aka sodium pentothal, etc), which was previously discredited for not producing truth. (See the recent excellent article on Area 51, by Annie Jacobsen of Aviation Nation for a firsthand account of a CIA employee being subjected to chemical interrogation after ejecting from a prototype A-12 - found here,0,786384.story .)

I'm rather perplexed about who comes up with this stuff at the CIA. Experienced interrogators, practiced and proven effective at obtaining the truth from noncooperating subjects, will tell you the trick is a combination of techiques for psychological manipulation, most of which involve gaining trust and rapport with the subject, not brainwashing or torturing them.

My only point is that a really big deal is being made about an interrogation technique that was used against only 2 terrorists (and the two most dangerous and fanatical terrorists we've ever captured at that), while there seems to be not the least concern whatsoever regarding the use of that same technique on thousands (maybe 10s of thousands) of US servicemembers over the years.

I'm very interested, however, in the motivations of the many critics of the various interrogation techniques used against Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who weren't the least bit concerned about the use of those same techniques against American servicemen and women. The general idea - which I think is pretty well understood and accepted - was that Zubaida and KSM were thought to possess time-sensitive operational information about impending major terrorist attacks by al Qaeda and it was considered literally a matter of life and death to extract this information.

So the real question - which most of the critics avoid - is what do you do if you're in the "Jack Bauer scenario" for real? You have a terrorist - who has just recently killed thousands of innocent Americans - who has information that could save the lives of thousands more, and he doesn't want to give it to you. Do you treat him humanely, in accordance with the Geneva Convention (which explicitly doesn't apply) and the Army Manual for Interrogation, knowing it will mean the death of thousands, or do you do whatever it takes to save the lives of the innocent?

Eric said...

CW, I don't think it's fair to suggest that there's not concern for American servicemen: the SERE program remains controversial, and more-detailed criticisms of the CIA torture program have implicitly taken shots at the SERE program. The problem is that the SERE program is actually a much thornier legal and political issue, because those who sign themselves over to the U.S. for a term of service don't have the same legal rights as ordinary citizens, while the rights of enemy combatants at least appeared to be a settled matter up until the Bush Administration began to parse terms so that alleged terrorists were neither "enemy combatants" (entitled to one set of protections) or criminal defendants (entitled to another set of protections).

The legal status of a serviceman can be murky: a U.S. airman has, for instance, some Constitutional rights (e.g. freedom of religion) but voluntarily relinquishes others (said airman will not be able to rely on Amendment XIII to disobey an order). And I suspect that there continues to be institutional pressure in favor of SERE from some within the U.S. Armed Forces--the fact that some American POWs were successfully tortured into coerced making coerced statements was seen by many within the military as an embarrassment or blow to American prestige. (This perception, incidentally, was naive, ignorant and muddleheaded--any sense of shame belonged to the torturers, not to Americans who bravely suffered and endured but in the end were only human.)

I would not be shocked if SERE's days were numbered. To some extent I think SERE operated out of habit and under the radar, with most Americans not aware of the program. The adoption by the CIA of SERE methods has brought the entire program into the public eye and into disrepute, and called the efficacy into question. And the scrutiny that's now (appropriately) being given to those who advise and consult is likely to extend out from the lawyers who gave the CIA license out to doctors and psychologists. If it's determined at some point that a psychologist or doctor who advised the CIA torturers acted unethically and should lose his license as a result, I think it's likely that SERE will have to fall apart in the wake.

The "Jack Bauer scenario" really hasn't been ignored, which is a little unfortunate because it's a red herring that's been advanced by Cheney and others. First, there's been no real evidence that there actually was a "ticking time bomb" scenario; certainly in one of the most controversial torture cases, that of Binyam Mohamed, it doesn't appear that anything he knew was time-sensitive, and it seems to have been the opinion at the time that Mohamed had divulged everything he knew to FBI interrogators using standard investigative techniques, such as establishing a rapport with the subject. Second, given that torture is notorious for producing false information--from the Spanish Inquisition through the Salem Witch Hunts through the Vietnam War and beyond--there is no reason to believe that even if you were in a Bauer Scenario, torturing the subject would produce reliable information that would help you locate and diffuse the bomb. Rather, it seems likely that one would waste time engaging in torture only to receive false leads that would waste even more time; on the other hand, rapport-building techniques have been successfully used by law-enforcement officers in time-sensitive situations to secure the release of hostages or locate kidnap victims.

And these are the merely pragmatic considerations, as opposed to any moral or ethical concerns that might be voiced.

To the extent the Bauer scenario is ignored by torture critics, it's because it's spurious. There's no evidence we've been in a Bauer scenario and no reason to think torture would resolve a Bauer scenario if we were in one. One might also point out that there's a form of dishonesty within the ticking time-bomb scenario itself: the real world is always more complicated than a simple binary situation of (don't torture=people die/torture=people live). Upon hearing a congressman or radio pundit uncork the Bauer scenario yet again, one is tempted to reprogram the Kobayahi Maru simulator oneself (forgive the geeky metaphor, but Jack Bauer is a fantasy character, too): "instead of torturing him, I'll just ask his ex-girlfriend who hates him" or "my teams of geiger-counter wielding inspectors will already found the bomb before your terrorist was in Mr. Bauer's custody." I mean, why not? The truth is the Bauer scenario is really kind of silly and reflects the way things work on television shows and in movies, the fantasy of glass-jawed villains who look tough but crack as quickly as their knuckles and square-jawed defenders who do what is right in the face of opposition from unprincipled pansies; as opposed to the realities of intelligence gathering, law enforcement, and the simple chances of luck that land a memo on the wrong desk or result in some random soul making a fortuitously-timed phone call after stumbling across an oddity. While there is an answer to those who pose the Bauer gag (see above paragraphs), it doesn't actually deserve one.

All that said, I'm not sure we're in that much disagreement, CW: it looks like we agree on the usefulness of torture, the idiocy of the CIA in using SERE techniques, and that experienced interrogators believe rapport-building techniques are the way to go if you want reliable information.

John the Scientist said...

I'm not sure that a knee-jerk withdrawal of that part of SERE is a good idea. Perhaps a re-vamping of the techniques. After careful evaluation.

I don't know if the information was ever incorporated into SERE, but "Afghan" Russian vets who were prisoners of the Taliban were questioned by the US DoD about his experiences. (This is public knowledge, BTW, as reported in the Russian press).

CW said...

Eric you are correct we are in agreement on several of the issues here.

I don't say much about much here on the old blog, for reasons which I believe would make sense to most folks, if it came up.

But I will say this: just because you haven't heard about real-life examples of the "Jack Bauer scenario" doesn't mean it hasn't happened, more than once, in recent history. And, I suppose it is theoretically possible, that someone might have come up with a "Kobayashi Maru"-style solution, as well.

An area which we may not agree is the notion that unlawful combatants are entitled to more legal protections than our own servicemembers. (And unlawful combatants are not, by any known interpretation of the law, "ordinary citizens".) Recent legal opinion from some quarters has sought to associate the concept of unlawful combatant with the Bush administration, when in fact it dates to the 1st Hague Convention in 1899. The 3rd Geneva Convention provided conditions under which unlawful combatants could obtain some legal protection when captured or detained - which none of the al Qaeda detainees satisfied. (Chain of command, wearing of uniform markings, bear arms openly, and conform to the laws of war, for the curious.)

Otherwise they are protected only by the most expansive interpretation of the Martens Clause, which has holes big enough to sail a battleship through. Ultimately the concept of "customary international law" has about the most weight of all the muddled precedent - and customary international law has usually held that terrorists have no rights.

All that is just legal BS to me, however - my main interest is still why SERE was never controversial, never even an issue, until we started to use those same tactics on known mass-murdering terrorists. I grant that the SERE interrogation tactics don't have much empirical merit for extracting correct information from noncooperating subjects - but I still question why nobody cared when we were doing it to our own people. They only got all huffy and indignant when we used those same (ultimately pretty tame to me) techniques on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the demonstrably, and by his own enthusiastic admission, most bloodthirsty amoral murderers ever taken into custody by the United States. What's up with that?

Some of this discussion reminds me of some of the stuff I read on the "special operations" bulletin boards around the net. On those sites, if you haven't had validated first hand experience in whatever you are discussing, your input is not only discounted, but ruthlessly pilloried. I think a lot of that is pretty silly, because after all it is the internet - it isn't like anyone or anything has any more intrinsic credibility than anyone or anything else. But perhaps it may, in fact, be difficult to have an authoritative opinion about something about which you have no firsthand knowledge or experience?

I readily admit I wasn't there for the apprehension and interrogation of KSM (or Abu Zubaida), and state for the record that, as such, I am not in a position to judge whether their interrogation was effective, appropriate, legal, or fattening.

Also for John: You probably have a very good point about the desirability of updating the SERE training structure in view of the changes in warfare since Vietnam. Today US servicemembers, if captured by al Qaeda or another radical 4th generation-style adversary, have essentially no hope or protection of any kind. It's pretty much fight to the death or die a much worse death if captured. Al Qaeda isn't going to torture you to extract "confessions of war crimes" for propaganda purposes. They are going to torture you for pure sadism then kill you in about the most gruesome way imaginable, desecrate your body, videotape the whole thing, and post it on the internet. As such the emphasis should be on the S, the E, and the other E, vice the R, which was about 80% of the Vietnam-era training. That's another, longer, discussion.

Eric said...

Just to briefly address two points you raise, CW:

1) I certainly have firsthand knowledge and experience in the law: a JD from a fairly good law school and more than a decade's experience as a criminal trial lawyer. And while I don't practice international law, I do feel comfortable saying that much of what was allegedly done to several detainees was illegal if the allegations are true. And that's certainly regardless of whether the interrogations produced reliable information that avoided a Super-Double-Top-Secret ticking time bomb scenario that nobody without a security clearance has heard of. And I feel absolutely comfortable in saying that the torture memos are incompetent legal work: I learned how to write those in law school, and what Bybee, Yoo and others passed off would not possibly have passed the standards of a 1L writing class--which makes it baffling and embarrassing that they were the work-product of some of the most-highly-placed lawyers in the country and were used to advise the Executive Branch of the United States. If I'd turned in any of the Bybee memos in law school, where the only real-life concern was my final grade, they would have been handed back to me covered in red until I at least addressed the obvious gaffes and errors those memos brim with (e.g. advice clearly contrary to the exact wording of the Convention Against Torture).

Furthermore, I feel comfortable, based on familiarity with and study of legal ethics (including an ancient paper I did back-in-the-day when I was in law school comparing the MCPR and MRPC and discussing the history of the model codes), saying that anybody who signed off on the torture memos deserves to be disciplined by their State Bar Committee (perhaps even disbarred), regardless of whether or not they're actually prosecuted for authorizing crimes against humanity. I've discussed the specific rules Yoo and others violated back at my blog, and more than once (I won't rehash it all here).

2) If SERE wasn't controversial, it should have been. It should be now. I think you can make a case it had more potential for harm than good even when it was first implemented. Personally, the answer to your question, CW, is not that there's a double-standard between servicemen and alleged terrorists, but that there was a failure of oversight, responsibility and good judgment when SERE was implemented in the first place. While I'm not a psychologist, I suspect it's safe to say that psychological and physical abuse is still damaging even when it's performed for short periods of time by professional colleagues in controlled settings for allegedly beneficient reasons. If I'd been aware of SERE training before last year, I would have thought it a bad idea before last year. If I'd been a member of a Congressional committee with oversight, I can't imagine I would have voted for it. If I'd been in the Executive branch in a position of oversight, I can't imagine I would have signed off on it.

At a bare minimum, SERE needs to be re-evaluated. It probably should be cancelled, but not as a knee-jerk reaction to anything; certainly the abuses SERE was invented to address are serious threats to servicemen and will continue to need addressing even if SERE is probably the wrong way to go about it, meaning that any move to cancel or revise SERE should be done with deliberation.

John the Scientist said...

"It probably should be cancelled"

I strongly disagree.

Eric said...

Coincidentally, John, today's Slate features a reposting of the brief for closing SERE--from a former marine who graduated from the program in 1995.

Since I haven't been through the program myself, I'll just say I find Mr. Morris' piece to be fairly persuasive, though I think reasonable minds might differ on the point.

John the Scientist said...

Morris is not a representative source.

Eric said...

John, I'm aware that there are probably SERE grads who disagree with him--including the anonymous alleged SERE grad CW links to. However, as to how "representative" Mr. Morris is, I suspect you have as little idea as I do--as far as I know, neither one of us has done a comprehensive survey of opinions of SERE grads, although perhaps you've read one somewhere and are holding back (do share, if you have it).

As I said: I find him to be persuasive, but can see how reasonable minds might differ (as to whether he's persuasive or not, or as to how persuasive he is--I imagine a person might think Morris makes good points and still disagree with his conclusion).

But shrugging him off as "not representative" when it's unlikely you have anything more than anecdotal evidence (if any)? Weak.

Eric said...

One more thing (sorry, John, you riled me): even if Morris is the only single SERE graduate in the universe who thinks the program should be cancelled--how would that be relevant? He either makes good points or he doesn't, he's either right or he's not. He could indeed be the lone voice crying in the wilderness--and it wouldn't have any bearing on the merits of his case.

I suppose you're prepared to abandon your own unpopular positions as unrepresentative of the general public, then?

John the Scientist said...

Eric, the points Morris makes are not solid. Perhaps deliberately, I don't know, but I was arguing argumentum ad authoritarium, I was arguing that Morris's points may or may not be BS, and an argument relying on him as a source needs corroborating evidence.

I know SERE graduates who think he's a doofus. That is pretty much the "some guy said it on the internet" argument, which I realize the weakness of. Let's leave it at that.

John the Scientist said...

One other thing - I'd take Morris a lot more seriously if he'd actually been captured and put the stuff to use and then said it was BS. SERE in its current incarnation was designed in part by people like Nick Rowe who had done put the old system into practice and found it wanting.

I don't withdraw my opinions because they are minority ones, but when they are I expect a lot more scrutiny about them. Reasonably so. I'm willing to defend them in open debate.

But there is no open debate here. You're talking about a Salon article. Where's the articles in publications such as the Marine Corps Gazette (which is critical of many current aspects of the military)? Most proponents of SERE are either barred from talking because of active service, or are disinclined to talk because of OPSEC considerations. That's why I caveated my knowledge of the interviews with Russian ex-prisoners as public knowledge. It's hard to get a clear picture when only the opponents feel free to speak their mind in public.