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Friday, March 28, 2014

 Huckleberry Graham and the torture fantasy

by digby

So, it turns out that the US can conduct a dignified, high profile Islamic terrorist trial in New York without any kind of drama in the courtroom or outside in the streets:

[E]ven as the debate continues over how and where international terrorists should be prosecuted, the United States attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn have since successfully prosecuted a series of terrorism trials without subjecting New Yorkers to the type of draconian security measures once contemplated for Mr. Mohammed’s trial.

The conviction on Wednesday of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, was the latest such example; Mr. Abu Ghaith, 48, was convicted of all three counts against him in Federal District Court in Manhattan, and he could face life imprisonment.
Critics of prosecuting terrorism cases in civilian court have long feared that defendants like Mr. Mohammed, the self-proclaimed architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, would, if given criminal trials, turn them into soapboxes and try to incite their followers.

But in the trial of Mr. Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti-born imam who was known for his oratory, that concern did not come to fruition. At one point, Mr. Abu Ghaith, who unexpectedly took the witness stand in his own defense, was asked about his nationality. He responded with an answer about how Muslims were “one nation, one blood, one race” and had no differentiation “based on color, language or features.”

He tried to continue, but Judge Lewis A. Kaplan interrupted, telling him to answer the question that was put to him, and then to stop. “Save the speeches for some other time,” the judge said.
Some of those who waged a full-blown hissy fit over the prospect of civilian trials for the Guantanamo prisoners had to admit that it went well. Some, but not all. One lonely little patriot from South Carolina still fights the good fight:
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said after the verdict that the defendant should have been held as an enemy combatant and interrogated for intelligence gathering purposes.

On Thursday, Mr. Graham said in a telephone interview, “I applaud the judge and the jury; they did their job,” but added, “We’re not fighting a crime here; we’re fighting a war.”

“This guy is so connected to the organization,” he said. “He was a treasure trove of potential information, and we blew it.”

Testimony at the trial showed that Mr. Abu Ghaith was interrogated after being turned over to United States authorities in Jordan early last year, as he was flown to New York to face charges. Even before he was advised of his Miranda rights, he was asked by an F.B.I. agent and a deputy United States marshal if he knew of any threats of operations aimed at the United States or other countries. He said no.

After being advised of his rights and waiving them, he answered questions for hours. An F.B.I. summary of the interrogation runs 21 pages. Mr. Abu Ghaith described his time in Afghanistan, his interactions with Bin Laden, his imprisonment in Iran and other topics.

But Mr. Graham said, “It should have been a 200-page statement, taken over weeks or months.” He added, “We lost an opportunity here with this guy.”

Let's be honest here, shall we? Senator Graham believes that those many hours of interrogation by the FBI were inadequate and the suspect should have been tortured in order to get more information. The reason he and others are so against trying terrorists in civilian trials is because information gleaned from torture would not be admissible. And he wants to torture terrorism suspects.There's just no other way to read what he's saying.

I'll refrain from addressing the obvious moral depravity of "enhanced interrogation." I've written plenty about it over the years. But it's worthwhile to look at what Graham's saying about the way the interrogation was handled in this case. I'm not familiar enough with the details to know if this defendant even could have had access to what they call "actionable intelligence" (meaning something that could stop an impending attack) but I do know that Osama bin Laden has been dead for three years so if this person's status as son-in-law gave him some special access to the man himself I'm going to guess it's not particularly relevant today. But be that as it may, (and despite the CIA's junk-science that says than "enhanced interrogation" can release buried memories) the idea that torture can produce more useful intelligence than standard interrogation techniques has been debunked over and over again.

In fact, neuroscience has shown that the FBI's approach of gaining trust and calming the suspect is far more likely to produce truthful responses than torture. Common sense tells us that a prisoner will quickly deduct that as long as he keeps talking --- no matter what he's saying --- that he won't be hurt. So it's unsurprising that these tortured prisoners would provide false information. But the "enhanced interrogation" program takes that into account and continues the torture anyway under their junk scientific theory that prolonged pain will induce the long term memory to give up details it couldn't otherwise access. In fact, the opposite is true. Torture, unsurprisingly, releases stress hormones that fog the brain and make it difficult for subjects to be able to tell the truth from fiction. So even if the torturers get beyond that first threshold where a prisoner consciously lies to stop the torture, their brains are so flooded with pain and stress that nothing they say, even if they themselves believe it to be truthful, is reliable:
Scientists do not pretend to know, in any individual case, whether torture might extract useful information. But as neurobiologist Shane O'Mara of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin explains in a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science called "Torturing the Brain," "the use of such techniques appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect. Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or 'enhanced' interrogation."
This article goes into some of the details if you're interested. But suffice to say that the decades the FBI has studied interrogation techniques showed the same results. They are most successful at getting useful information if the suspect is calm and cooperative and torture is hardly something that produces such a state.

But I doubt very seriously that Lindsay Graham is concerned about actionable intelligence. He's running for re-election in South Carolina which is one of the most conservative states in the union and one where the primary is getting ugly. He's never had to prove his macho bonafides more. But Graham isn't really an outlier in this. Republicans in general believe in torture:

Well, perhaps we should be a little bit more precise: most Republican men believe in torture. And half of Independent men as well. But that would be the group that Graham needs to convince that he's macho enough to continue to protect the nation from the dusky hordes.

Unfortunately, that poll, which was done in 2009 actually understates the current support for torture. It seems more Americans are coming around to Graham's way of thinking. (This article in Foreign Policy examines why that might be so. Let's just say that it may be some combination of distance from the horror of Abu Ghraib which has the public reverting to its longstanding fundamental love of torture and Hollywood spy/torture porn. Yikes ...)

In any case, this is all more relevant today with this ongoing turf war between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA over the torture report. I think people expect that there must be something truly alarming in it for the CIA to be so adamant about keeping it under wraps. And it's certainly possible that's so, although if I had to bet, what that report will show is what we already know: the Bush administration engaged in torture and it produced nothing but bad results from wrong intelligence to a catastrophic loss of (what was left of) America's moral authority in the world. If there's anything new to be learned it's that they engaged in an elaborate cover up (although it's hard to imagine what could be more damning than the conscious decision to destroy the torture tapes ...)

Indeed, we already have a ton of evidence including this report by the bipartisan Task Force on Detainee Treatment that was largely ignored by the press because it was released on the day of the Boston bombings. This interview with one of the principles spells out the findings most succinctly:
We made a number of findings as a result of our two-year effort. All of these but one were unanimous. I just want to share with you a few of the most significant unanimous findings that this task force reached.

We found unanimously that U.S. forces in many instances used interrogation techniques which constitute—I underscore—torture. We conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Both categories of actions violate U.S. laws and international treaties. The conduct that I'm going to share with you in a few moments is directly contrary to the values of the Constitution and the nation.

A second finding unanimously made: The nation's most senior officials, through some of their actions and failures in the months and years immediately following the September 11 attacks, bear ultimate responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of illegal and improper interrogation techniques used by some personnel in several theaters. Responsibility also falls on other government leaders and military leaders.

Third—this is really critical—there is no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. forces produced significant information of value. There is substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable.
This just concluded trial and conviction of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith in New York City shows that the American justice system is more than adequate to deal with accused terrorists. It might not fulfill the sadistic needs of the likes of Huckleberry Graham and his followers, but that's what video games are for. Justice and security should be assigned to people who don't need to act out their depraved fantasies on the world stage.