The Problem With Torture Part XXXIV

by digby

Abu Zubaydah had provided much valuable information under less severe treatment, and the harsher handling produced no breakthroughs, according to one former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case. Instead, watching his torment caused great distress to his captors, the official said.

Even for those who believed that brutal treatment could produce results, the official said, “seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.”

Imagine what these depths of human misery and degradation did to the prisoner? Of course, legal wing nut hacks like David Rifkin are out there saying those memos show awesome legal reasoning and prove that these actions were not torture. So perhaps it was actually much harder on the torturers because they erroneously thought it was torture, in which case it actually was torture --- for them.

Apparently, this all came about because there were those in the field who felt they had extracted all useful information but were pressured by Washington to step it up.

And why was that do you suppose? It couldn't be this:

"I said he was important," Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" "No sir, Mr. President," Tenet replied. Bush "was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?" Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports.

I shouldn't be flippant about this because the truth is that those who torture do suffer. I wrote about this a long time ago, worried about what our government was doing to their own people, and discussed this article by Jason Vest on the subject at length:

"If you talk to people who have been tortured, that gives you a pretty good idea not only as to what it does to them, but what it does to the people who do it," he said. "One of my main objections to torture is what it does to the guys who actually inflict the torture. It does bad things. I have talked to a bunch of people who had been tortured who, when they talked to me, would tell me things they had not told their torturers, and I would ask, 'Why didn't you tell that to the guys who were torturing you?' They said that their torturers got so involved that they didn't even bother to ask questions." Ultimately, he said -- echoing Gerber's comments -- "torture becomes an end unto itself."


According to a 30-year CIA veteran currently working for the agency on contract, there is, in fact, some precedent showing that the "gloves-off" approach works -- but it was hotly debated at the time by those who knew about it, and shouldn't be emulated today. "I have been privy to some of what's going on now, but when I saw the Post story, I said to myself, 'The agency deserves every bad thing that's going to happen to it if it is doing this again,'" he said. "In the early 1980s, we did something like this in Lebanon -- technically, the facilities were run by our Christian Maronite allies, but they were really ours, and we had personnel doing the interrogations," he said. "I don't know how much violence was used -- it was really more putting people in underground rooms with a bare bulb for a long time, and for a certain kind of privileged person not used to that, that and some slapping around can be effective.

"But here's the important thing: When orders were given for that operation to stand down, some of the people involved wouldn't [emphasis mine --ed]. Disciplinary action was taken, but it brought us back to an argument in the agency that's never been settled, one that crops up and goes away -- do you fight the enemy in the gutter, the same way, or maintain some kind of moral high ground?

In light of the OLC memos Vest's article is worth reading in its entirety. Retired CIA agents were sounding the alarms about these practices throughout the Bush administration, not that anyone paid attention. (I have to wonder if one of the real stories here is the fight within the agency --- or perhaps more importantly, the fight between the agency and the pressure from the administration.)

At the time I commented on Vest's story, we were still a little bit incredulous about all this. But after four more years of revelations, culminating in those sickening legal memos, I can see that most people have become adjusted to this new reality of an America that tortures (even as the president ridiculously claims "America doesn't torture" without adding the obvious disclaimer --- "anymore.") The news media didn't seem particularly exercised, except to the extent that it proclaims worry about how this will empower the boogeyman. With the exception of Russ Feingold and a couple of others there was no outcry from congress. It's not "news" so it's not news. We torture. Live with it.

When I originally commented on that Vest piece back in 2005, I concluded with the following:

To some extent civilization is nothing more than leashing the beast within. When you go to the dark side, no matter what the motives, you run a terrible risk of destroying yourself in the process. I worry about the men and women who are engaging in this torture regime. This is dangerous to their psyches. But this is true on a larger sociological scale as well. For many, many moons, torture has been a simple taboo --- you didn't question its immorality any more than you would question the immorality of pedophilia. You know that it's wrong on a visceral, gut level. Now we are debating it as if there really is a question as to whether it's immoral --- and, more shockingly, whether it's a positive good. Our country is now openly discussing the efficacy of torture as a method for extracting information.

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase "defining deviancy down" he couldn't ever have dreamed that we would in a few short decades be at a place where torture is no longer considered a taboo. It certainly makes all of his concerns about changes to the nuclear family (and oral sex) seem trivial by comparison. We are now a society that on some official levels has decided that torture is no longer a deviant, unspeakable behavior, but rather a useful tool. It's not hidden. People publicly discuss whether torture is really torture if it features less than "pain equivalent to organ failure." People no longer instinctively recoil at the word --- it has become a launching pad for vigorous debate about whether people are deserving of certain universal human rights. It spirals down from there.

When the smoke finally clears, and we can see past that dramatic day on 9/11 and put the threat of Islamic fundamentalism into its proper perspective, I wonder if we'll be able to go back to our old ethical framework? I'm not so sure we will even want to. It's not that it changed us so much as it revealed us, I think. A society that can so easily discard it's legal and ethical taboos against cruelty and barbarism, is an unstable society to begin with.

At this rather late stage in life, I'm realizing that the solid America I thought I knew may never have existed. Running very close, under the surface, was a frightened, somewhat hysterical culture that could lose its civilized moorings all at once. I had naively thought that there were some things that Americans would find unthinkable --- torture was one of them.

The old Lebanon hand that Vest quotes above concludes by saying this:

I think as late as a decade ago, there were enough of us around who had enough experience to constitute the majority view, which was that this was simply not the way we did business, and for good reasons of practicality or morality. It's not just about what it does or doesn't do, but about who, and where, we as a country want to be."

Now that we've let the torture genie out of the bottle, I wonder if we can put that beast back in. He looks and sounds an awful lot like an American.

I hope it is enough that Obama simply says that we won't do this anymore. But I doubt it.