Thursday, April 23, 2009

(Misplaced) expectations of decency and honor

Guest post by Boatboy

(Boatboy has done some fantastic work recently covering the torture issue, including the Bush memos and the ethics of torture generally. Make sure to check out his blog for more. This post, below, is quite long, but it's an excellent examination of Bush's torture regime. -- MJWS)

A Senate Armed Services Committee report was expected yesterday on inquiries into the origins of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used in the GWoT, made public some time ago and whose flimsy justifications have been recently made available through the memos the Obama administration released last week. Though the report has apparently not been released as of writing, both The Washington Post and The New York Times have articles on the programme's origin, and my blogging peers are already starting to weigh in.

The evidence unearthed both damns the programme from its formation and spotlights the incredible ignorance, callousness and hubris of the GWoT as prosecuted. From the Post and Times items, the programme began perhaps eight full months before the first Justice Department memo affording its scope was delivered. Early questions from junior officers seeking clarification on the legality of the methods employed were brushed aside. And by the time the earliest memos were written, a de facto routine to employ those techniques, and a network of facilities in which to use them, was already well (if perhaps not fully) formed.

One of the most shocking things revealed is that the programme's origin in Department of Defense SERE training techniques, intended to assist US servicepeople captured and interrogated, was openly recognised and even approved. The logic that if we were trained to endure such treatment it couldn't really be all that bad drove both the programme itself and its general acceptance by the leadership; no recognition is indicated that the programme was designed to help soldiers survive treatment known to be illegal, immoral, and inhumane meted out by governments and organisations whose own legitimacy would already be challenged and against whom the US was already engaged - presumably for reasons that included those very interrogation techniques.

Throughout the prosecution of the GWoT, we were told repeatedly that "the US doesn't torture." It is now clear that, though these techniques were clearly torture, the maladministration didn't believe it so -- and held that belief simply because we employed a programme that meted out this same treatment as a training regimen. Some of the interrogators that employed these techniques first did so under the assumption that since SERE methods were part of their training they must be legal. The pattern that emerges follows that logic, conveniently ignoring the origins of SERE and the evil it was intended to combat.

The memos that followed adoption of these interrogation techniques at least recognize that justification for the interrogations required a radical reinterpretation of US law and international treaty. The parameters they list -- denying the psychological effects even as those were depended upon, using US facilities on foreign soil to skirt the constraints imposed on the country by treaty -- indicate a clear understanding of the ethics of the situation and a desperate effort to twist the letter of law and treaty to condone or overlook the interrogations. Now that it is obvious the "legal guidance" these memos provided ex post facto basis for methods already approved and in use their obscenity is compounded.

One striking item in the reports is the enthusiasm with which the interrogations were greeted by the entire administration in 2002. The intellectual laziness displayed in the near-total lack of curiosity about a programme whose origins were all readily available to those making these decisions is staggering. Had the programme had some totally alien origin it might be understood a little better; however, the SERE program was a long-standing training regimen designed to harden troops to interrogation techniques known to produce false intelligence and break its subjects and which had been encountered some forty to sixty years ago. One might be able to excuse a young recruit just subjected to SERE for not knowing why SERE training was necessary: the wars the US fought where it had faced the tactics the programme was designed to combat were over before most of them were born. One cannot excuse the leadership of the nation, being old enough to remember some of those conflicts personally.

Perhaps this is a predictable consequence of a "global war on terror" waged by a team that largely deferred its deployments to Vietnam past the duration of that conflict or found other means of avoiding service in that theatre. Disinclination to fighting is easily translated into intellectual incuriosity about how wars are fought. Certainly the offhand treatment of complex issues, and the naivete of the Bush administration were formative in other areas: that their treatment of the GWoT in general, and interrogation in particular, should be little surprise.

The initial reactions I have read to the announcement of this narrative has been one of shock and disgust. But there is another aspect that is highlighted in recent news. Some senators, including Patrick Leahy of Vermont, are calling on justice Jay Bybee, crafters of one of the now-infamous memos, to resign out of "decency and honor." From the Armed Services Committee's findings, those two virtues appear to have been nearly uniformly lacking in the Bush administration: no decent or honourable person would have agreed that SERE was an appropriate model for our intelligence services to use as an interrogation methodology, and no self-respecting legal professional would have gone through the legal gymnastics required to legitimize that decision and redefine SERE practices as anything other than torture in the manner Bybee and others are now irrefutably known to have done.

In 2000 then-Governor Bush campaigned for the presidency on a platform of "Compassionate Conservatism," perhaps hoping to echo and expand on his father's "kinder, gentler" approach to politics. The US saw the results as systematic failures of management and execution in response to multiple natural disasters and acts of terrorism (those who shout about 9/11 conveniently forget the anthrax scares of following months) and as commonplace shredding of the social safety net and civic accountability as health care and Social Security were attacked and the GWoT was farmed out to private industry more interested in its bottom line than in providing meaningful services. The prosecution of the GWoT -- and its treatment of those it captured -- was the face of "Compassionate Conservatism" that the world saw: a petty, vengeful, amoral regime disinterested in human rights or the legitimacy of foreign powers and focused only on its own preeminence and revenge for its injuries.

The US understood Bush as something other than "Conservative" in the last years of his misgovernance. Now, at last, the US is learning something the world grasped some time ago: that the Bush maladministration was as alienated from compassion as it was from conservatism. Expectations that a self-described Christian would adhere to the standards of "honor and decency" that Leahy described and that the US as a presumably moral nation assumed were clearly misplaced. It is well past time the Bush administrative team was held to account for that failure.

(Cross-posted from The View from the Docks.)

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