Torture Metrics

by digby

Dick Cheney is going to hell. But we knew that. And so are Bush and Rice and all the rest who insisted on torturing Abu Zubaida, a brain damaged man who was so desperate that he made up fantastical terrorist plots just to make the torture stop. They not only committed a war crime, they made us all less safe by sending investigators all over the world on wild goose chases.

This story was always pooh-poohed by administration officials, who insisted that the information this man with serious memory problems gave under torture was vital in stopping many terrorist attacks. But they lied. The Washington Post provides some new details in this story in today's paper:

When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates -- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as "al-Qaeda's chief of operations," and other top officials called him a "trusted associate" of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.

Abu Zubaida was not even an official member of al-Qaeda, according to a portrait of the man that emerges from court documents and interviews with current and former intelligence, law enforcement and military sources. Rather, he was a "fixer" for radical Muslim ideologues, and he ended up working directly with al-Qaeda only after Sept. 11 -- and that was because the United States stood ready to invade Afghanistan.

It goes on to lay out Zubaida's story in detail, and although it features one counterterrorism official who clings to the idea that the torture was effective, it quotes other high level officeials unequivocally saying the torture was counter-productive and wasted many valuable resources. Read the whole thing.

It highlights something that I haven't seen discussed much, but which interests me as we try to get a handle on how something like this gets approves and becomes instutionalized. They report:

As weeks passed after the capture without significant new confessions, the Bush White House and some at the CIA became convinced that tougher measures had to be tried.

The pressure from upper levels of the government was "tremendous," driven in part by the routine of daily meetings in which policymakers would press for updates, one official remembered.

"They couldn't stand the idea that there wasn't anything new," the official said. "They'd say, 'You aren't working hard enough.' There was both a disbelief in what he was saying and also a desire for retribution -- a feeling that 'He's going to talk, and if he doesn't talk, we'll do whatever.' "

The application of techniques such as waterboarding -- a form of simulated drowning that U.S. officials had previously deemed a crime -- prompted a sudden torrent of names and facts. Abu Zubaida began unspooling the details of various al-Qaeda plots, including plans to unleash weapons of mass destruction

This isn't the first time I've heard that the Bush administration was obsessed with getting a volume of information, caring little about the quality or reliability of it. neither is it the first time that we've heard that this pressure came from the highest reaches of the administration itself. Back in 2005, I posted this:

Last week I wrote a post featuring Lt. Col Stephen Jordan and his testimony that the White House had been "impressed" with the "flow of information" coming out of Abu Ghraib. Today, Spencer Ackerman, pinch hitting for Josh Marshall at Talking Points, references this USA Today article about the same fellow, connecting many of the same dots and more.

There seems to be a great deal of emphasis placed on the numbers game. From the USA Today article:

Sergeant First Class Roger Brokaw, told the paper. "How many raids did you do last week? How many prisoners were arrested? How many interrogations were conducted? How many [intelligence] reports were written? It was incredibly frustrating."

From the Christian Science Monitor article I referenced in my earlier post:

Specialist Monath and others say they were frustrated by intense pressure from Colonel Pappas and his superiors - Lt. Gen Ricardo Sanchez and his intelligence officer, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast - to churn out a high quantity of intelligence reports, regardless of the quality. "It was all about numbers. We needed to send out more intelligence documents whether they were finished or not just to get the numbers up," he said. Pappas was seen as demanding - waking up officers in the middle of the night to get information - but unfocused, ordering analysts to send out rough, uncorroborated interrogation notes. "We were scandalized," Monath said. "We all fought very hard to counter that pressure" including holding up reports in editing until the information could be vetted.

General Ripper, as well, seems to have been mighty impressed with the quantity of intelligence he got from prisoners in Guantanamo after he "took the gloves off." From January's issue of Vanity Fair:

According to General Miller, Gitmo's importance is growing with amazing rapidity: "Last month we gained six times as much intelligence as we did in January 2003. I'm talking about high-value intelligence here, distributed round the world."

Daily success or failure in guerilla wars is notoriously difficult to assess. Unlike a war for territory you cannot say that you took a certain hill or town. Political types are always looking for some measurement, some sign that they are succeeding (or failing.)

Billmon noted this back in October in an interesting post on Rumsfeld's angst at being unable to assess success or failure in the WOT:

Above all, Rumsfeld cries out for "metrics" that can be used to measure progress in such a war:

"Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror," he wrote. "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"

Billmon makes the obvious comparison between Rummy and the most recent war criminal sec-def, Robert McNamara, concluding:

The same mindset also spawned McNamara's preferred metric: the infamous "body count." In that earlier, more naive, era, it hadn't yet occurred to management theorists that numeric targets can quickly become bureaucratic substitutes for real objectives, such as winning wars. So McNamara (and the military) had to learn it the hard way, as industrious field officers dispatched soldiers to count graves in Vietnamese civilian cemetaries in order to hit their weekly numbers.

I'm not sure what the equivalent might be today, although Rumsfeld's memo points in a possible direction when it suggests the creation of a private foundation that could fund "moderate" madrassas (Islamic schools) to counteract the radical ones. Perhaps someday we'll have a "moderate student count," in which hard-pressed CIA officers dispatch agents to count child laborers in Pakistani sweat shops in order to hit their weekly numbers.

It looks to me as if they found a simpler metric than that. Like the mediocre, hack bureaucrats they are, they decided that they would guage success or failure --- certainly they would report to the White House success or failure --- based upon the sheer numbers of raids, arrests, interrogations, reports, confessions and breakdowns achieved, regardless of whether any of it resulted in good intel or enhanced security anywhere.

This was the only metric they could conceive of and in order to get those numbers up they had to detain large numbers of innocent people and torture them for false information to fill the endless reports of success on the ground in Afghanistan, Gitmo and Iraq. They could hoist up a huge pile of paper in a meeting with their president and say, "look at how much intelligence we're getting. We're really getting somewhere."

McNamara quotes TS Eliot at the end of The Fog Of War:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

Well, not everybody apparently. Thirty years after the hell of Vietnam, it's the same shit, different fools. Lyndon Johnson is laughing his ass off in hell.

In the case of Zubayda there seems to be another element as well. They were desperate to keep up the fiction that Al Qaeda was the outsized foe they'd built them up to be. If they were merely a dangerous little gang of criminals rather than a deadly global army of supervillians, it would be hard to justify the spending of trillions on unnecessary wars and suspending inconvenient portions of the constitution. These Vietnam chickenhawks didn't want to hear anything that would imply that they weren't fighting the war of all wars.

They knew these were false confessions and fictional plots and cynically used them to keep up the sense of panic --- even among themselves --- that fueled their global ambitions and fed their damaged egos. Ultimately they failed in that, not because they actually did anything that kept the babies safe, but because the American people just don't have the attention span to stay panicked about anything for very long. Once the spell broke, there was nothing left but the metrics.