Nobody Said This Was Going To be Pretty

by digby

The Washington Post has obtained a full copy of the July 2002 JPRA (military) memo, mentioned in this week's Armed Services report, which stated that the military believed that using SERE torture techniques was illegal and unreliable. (This was before the Bybee memo. )

Keith Olbermann opened his show tonight with this news and breathlessly said this:

The Post also observes "the committee report, the attachment, echoes JPRA warnings issued in late 2001," meaning the Pentagon was looking into torture before anybody like Zubaydah had even been captured, or long before ordinary interrogation methods had failed. Time now to bring in our own Jonathan Alter, senior editor of Newsweek magazine. Jon, it's some evening.

Alter and Keith went on for quite a bit, turning over whether or not the Pentagon kept this a secret and wondering why they were talking about this before it could conceivably have become necessary. Alter said, "the bottom line is that the Pentagon , even John McCain has said, knew that torture doesn't work! People give you the wrong answers so as to stop the pain." He went on to disagree with Olberman's theory that they must have wanted false confessions since they obviously knew that the information wasn't reliable and scoffed, "oh, they were just insistent that the theory that they saw on, you know, shows like 24, worked and could help their cause."

Olbermann then again brought up the fact that all this took place very early and that they were using the word "torture" almost immediately after the attacks. He was agitated because this indicated that they were contemplating it before terrorists were even in custody.

Alter replied:

Yeah clearly an awful lot of people were moving toward that. Remember at the time, the greatest crime in America history had not been solved. We hadn't gotten to the bottom of 9/11 on who attacked us. So there was a fair amount of desperation to try to get more information. It's important, historically, to look at the context of this story.

But what happened afterward, even though this was clearly torture, anybody in the military knew it was torture, there was an effort in these OLC memos to try to dress it up as something else, call it enhanced interrogation techiniques, or whatever they want to gild the lily, although it wasn't a lily. To try to say that black was white and white was black. And for several years they seemed to get away with it until it started to unravel on them.

And what's so fascinating is that Dick Cheney stands almost alone. You don't see former president Bush out there pursuing this. You don't see Condi Rice or Domn Rumsfeld or others. It's the former vice president who is becoming a forlorn and I think soon to be further disgraced figure. But this is his bid for resurrection.

Yes, Dick Cheney is forlorn and all alone. Many of the people who advocated taking the gloves off are leaving him out there hanging today. And one of them is Jonathan Alter.

See, he forgot to mention --- and Keith apparently didn't know --- that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 this torture talk didn't come out of nowhere or even from the dark recesses of Cheney's evil mind. Jonathan Alter himself was one of the people who brought it up almost instantly:

Time To Think About Torture

By Jonathan Alter
November 5, 2001

In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to ... torture. OK, not cattle prods or rubber hoses, at least not here in the United States, [my emphasis -- ed] but something to jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history. Right now, four key hijacking suspects aren’t talking at all.

COULDN’T WE AT LEAST subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap? (The military has done that in Panama and elsewhere.) How about truth serum, administered with a mandatory IV? Or deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings? (As the frustrated FBI has been threatening.) Some people still argue that we needn’t rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement, but they’re hopelessly “Sept. 10”—living in a country that no longer exists.

One sign of how much things have changed is the reaction to the antiterrorism bill, which cleared the Senate last week by a vote of 98-1. While the ACLU felt obliged to quibble with a provision or two, the opposition was tepid, even from staunch civil libertarians. That great quote from the late Chief Justice Robert Jackson—”The Constitution is not a suicide pact”—is getting a good workout lately. “This was incomparably more sober and sensible than what some of our revered presidents did,” says Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment lawyer, referring to the severe restrictions on liberty imposed during the Civil War and World War I.

Fortunately, the new law stops short of threatening basic rights like free speech, which is essential in wartime to hold the government accountable. The bill makes it easier to wiretap (under the old rules, you had to get a warrant for each individual phone, an anachronism in a cellular age), easier to detain immigrants who won’t talk and easier to follow money through the international laundering process. A welcome “sunset” provision means the expansion of surveillance will expire after four years. That’s an important precedent, though odds are these changes will end up being permanent. It’s a new world.

Actually, the world hasn’t changed as much as we have. The Israelis have been wrestling for years with the morality of torture. Until 1999 an interrogation technique called “shaking” was legal. It entailed holding a smelly bag over a suspect’s head in a dark room, then applying scary psychological torment. (To avoid lessening the potential impact on terrorists, I won’t specify exactly what kind.) Even now, Israeli law leaves a little room for “moderate physical pressure” in what are called “ticking time bomb” cases, where extracting information is essential to saving hundreds of lives. The decision of when to apply it is left in the hands of law-enforcement officials.


Short of physical torture, there’s always sodium pentothal (“truth serum”). The FBI is eager to try it, and deserves the chance. Unfortunately, truth serum, first used on spies in World War II, makes suspects gabby but not necessarily truthful. The same goes for even the harshest torture. When the subject breaks, he often lies. Prisoners “have only one objective—to end the pain,” says retired Col. Kenneth Allard, who was trained in interrogation. “It’s a huge limitation.”

Some torture clearly works. Jordan broke the most notorious terrorist of the 1980s, Abu Nidal, by threatening his family. Philippine police reportedly helped crack the 1993 World Trade Center bombings (plus a plot to crash 11 U.S. airliners and kill the pope) by convincing a suspect that they were about to turn him over to the Israelis. Then there’s painful Islamic justice, which has the added benefit of greater acceptance among Muslims.

We can’t legalize physical torture; it’s contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.

Clearly, the Pentagon wasn't alone in advocating torture from the moment 9/11 happened. It was being advocated in the pages of major newsmagazines by so-called liberal columnists who are now commenting on what "Cheney did" as if they weren't even in the country at the time. The New York Times even commented on the commentary. Alter very vaguely alludes to this as being part of the early days after 9/11 when we allegedly didn't know who perpetrated the act (as if that's some kind of excuse for the braindead cretinism in that column.) It's complete nonsense. Even laypeople knew it was Al Qaeda from the first day, much less by two weeks later. It's just that some people completely lost their heads, among them major members of the media.

If you continue to wonder why the villagers are so reluctant to hold anyone responsible for this disgusting breach of American values, I think this clears it up, don't you? They are themselves responsible and they know it. You cannot tell me that people like Alter and Dershowitz and Thomas "suck on this" Friedman using the pages of the country's major newpapers to advocate barbarity didn't give the Bush administration cause to believe they were justified.

Alter not mentioning this column on TV tonight was truly cowardly, especially in light of Keith's obvious incredulity that people were talking about torture almost immediately. (Somebody should tell Olbermann that he needs to stop assuming that all of his "liberal" friends in the media can be trusted on this issue, an issue about which he seems to care a lot.) There were more than a few who thought taking off the gloves was just ducky during those days of rage -- which might be ok for the average citizen sitting at the end of the bar railing at bin Laden. But these were opinion leaders, people paid big money to deliver well considered opinions in a time of crisis. And they are responsible for creating an environment in which turning into barbaric brutes beacme the norm among the ruling class. No wonder Cheney looks so forlorn now that he's the only one out there defending this horror. At the time he was making these decisions he was the most popular man in Washington.

In case you were wondering, the prisoners to whom Alter referred in his piece turned out to be completely innocent. But I'm sure if the government had just taken his advice and had them "shaken" they would have gotten them to confess to something after their brains were permanently damaged.