Thursday, September 07, 2006

It's Torture, And We've Been Lied To

The President lied to us about torture yesterday. Or, I should say, he has been lying to us about torture all along. He just made it more clear yesterday. President Bush gave a speech in which he announced that the last fourteen detainees being held in secret CIA prisons will be sent to Guantanamo Bay and will be tried. The secret CIA prisons are themselves cause for alarm and Guantanamo is hardly a symbol of righteousness and virtue these days. But as David Sanger argues in the New York Times, the trials mark something of a gamble for the President. He is relying on the fact that his Democratic opposition and wobbly Republicans will not oppose the move. And while the President will face sniping, this seems a reasonable bet. The issue, for now, is not secret CIA prisons or the nefariousness of Guantanamo.

But there is more, and it does not redound to the President's benefit. The President continues to deny that Americans have engaged in torture. Andrew Sullivan calls him out on this patent lie and then some.

In the cases the president cites, he authorized torture as plainly stated in U.S. law and common English. Moreover, he says he has set up an elite group trained specifically for torture, the kind of elite torture-squads once dear to South American dictators. They have, he reassures us, 250 extra hours of torture-training over regular CIA interrogators. The president is asking the Congress to establish this in law. Yes, this is America. It just no longer seems like it.

Sullivan is not alone. Spencer Ackermann decries the duplicity here and here. And apparently even the Pentagon has grown squeamish. Otherwise, why would officials there have outlawed the use of "harsh interrogation tactics"? Why would Charles "Cully" Stimson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, have to argue that the new policy:
"unambiguously articulates the values and traditions of our nation, values that John Adams called 'the policy of humanity,' which has been the cornerstone of the American ethos of warfare. More importantly, it provides our forces in the field the policy guidance needed to ensure the safe, secure and humane detention during armed conflicts, however those are characterized."

As opposed to? Well, obviously as opposed to the pre-revision policy.

Torture goes against every ideal we should hold dear. It is of dubious efficacy -- people being tortured will say whatever they think their torturers want to hear. people who legitimately know nothing will say that they know something, adding to bad intelligence, to make the torture stop. People who know something will purport to know more than they do in order to get the toruture to stop. the self-fulfilling prophecy of torture will then encourage the toruturer to believe that the one being tortured knows more. Furthermore, it has been shown in case after case that much torture develops a life of its own so that the infliction of pain and suffering becomes a goal in and of itself irrespective of whether or not the pain and suffering actually brings about actionable intelligence. (And let's recall that this is an administration for which warnings of Osama bin Laden making plans to hijack planes and fly them into buildings did not qualify as actionable. They set that bar. Not me.) Finally, our use of torture means that if our enemies were to have any qualms about torturing captured Americans, we can feel pretty confident that those have dissipated.

Some will try to parse definitions of torture to decide if waterboarding qualifies. In my mind, a pretty good rule of thumb is that if a form of inquisition is hauntingly akin to a favored technique of the apartheid police, we probably ought to err on the side of calling it torture. Our policies have been wrong, and the administration has consistently lied to us about them. That, and not the president's announcement about trials that was far too late in coming, is the problem.

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