Thursday, May 21, 2009

Tortured Logic

As Daniel Schorr indicates, it is absurd that the current dialogue regarding torture is focused on whether and when it is OK instead of what Pelosi knew and when she knew it.

I should probably start out with the basics and define torture. Especially since ambiguity over what is and is not torture is abused by armchair nationalists to cloud the debate.

"torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
Art I, Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Or if you prefer U.S. law:

“torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
18 U.S.C.
§2340. The definitions are substantially similar in the act that constitutes torture is the infliction of severe suffering, though the U.N. treaty requires a particular goal in mind they both define torture as the act of a government. So clearly, any argument based around the ambiguity inherent in the word "suffering" designed to imply that imprisonment qualifies as torture is disingenuous at best. Any reasonable person would agree that water boarding fits under this definition as torture. The argument that the presence of a doctor during waterboarding changes it into something other than torture because the victim is less likely to die cuts decency to the quick. The blatant disregard for both the legal definition of torture and the suffering of the victim lays bare that anyone making such an argument has no respect for those the argument is being made to.

One might raise the argument that such legal protections only extend to uniformed soldiers captured on the battlefield. This ignores the clear intention of the above convention which indicates that it is the goal of the person performing the torture that makes the act illegal, not the identity of the tortured subject. It's simple common sense to say that if we have the jurisdiction to hold a person then they are under the jurisdiction and protection of our laws regardless of whether we find it convenient. Further, though the United States Supreme Court has not decided this narrow issue yet, it has decided a line of cases that a rational person would think extends to cover this situation (a rational person being one who has not set out with the goal of achieving an end result where torture is justified). In a line of cases from Ex parte Milligan to Boumediene v. Bush the Supreme Court has held that even the detainees at Guantanamo Bay fall under the protection of U.S. law and that they can not be deprived of fundamental rights like Habeas corpus. Also, that Congress and the President, even working together cannot simply declare certain people and places to be without those protections.

Though it is yet to be determined if the prohibitions against torture apply to non-uniformed foreign national enemy combatants captured in a foreign country, we have frequently tried to make a clear argument on this blog that the protections of the law should apply to these people. I have tried to make this argument by making the implication that any innocent American citizen could be taken to Gitmo. Of course, any time someone implies that the government could wrongfully imprison an innocent person the notion is labeled as X-Files type conspiracy lunacy. Which is why I have tried to be careful and point to situations that show how easy it is to be mistakenly labeled as a terrorist. Where the no-fly list includes the names of innocent people, or where police label nuns and peace activists, that they admit are innocent of any crime, as terrorists.

If you combine the fact of how easy it is to become labeled a terrorist or an enemy combatant with the fact of how difficult it has been for those in Gitmo to even contest that label, even when they have been found innocent by their own government, you see that torture is being used on people merely for being accused of being a terrorist, having not been found guilty in any court, merely because there is the possibility that they may have some information that could be obtained through torture that could not be obtained as quickly through more conventional interrogation. Even when good old fashioned investigation still works. I am not so foolish as to believe that everyone in Gitmo is an innocent victim of circumstance or that there aren't dangerous terrorists being held there that can never be released without representing a serious threat to the American people. I am just worried about the labels being used and logic being applied to justify locking people up for an indefinite period of time punishing them without the accusations against them(and their accusers) seeing the light of day and I am particularly uneasy about the U.S. torturing anyone, especially in such suspicious circumstances.

Still Cheney is making the political talk show rounds insisting that torture produced valuable intelligence that saved lives. This argument is being picked up and repeated as if anything Cheney says about intelligence to the media can be trusted after the fiasco that was the run up to Iraq and the Valerie Plame scandal. It has even been revealed recently that torture was even used to produce some of that bad intelligence that Colin Powell presented to the U.N. security council.

This is exactly the worst case scenario that comes to mind whenever there is mention of torture. There was no ticking time bomb and the poor sap being tortured didn't know anything and only gave the people committing the torture what they wanted to hear in order to end the torture. That bad information was relied on to put us in an unnecessary war and thousands of people have died. Yet the idea that torture produces effective intelligence continues to be tossed around like it is a valid argument. Even if torture produces good intelligence some of the time, the risk that bad information will be relied on because it is what is politically expedient at the time is far too great a risk for us as a nation to be throwing our morality to the wind.

Even if torture works it is still morally wrong. Unfortunately I don't have any arguments here, just a bald assertion of a moral absolute.

I could argue that Alberto Gonzales was clearly wrong at his confirmation hearing when he said we can never be like our enemy's. Or I could parrot the refrain that being seen as abandoning our collective principles encourages extremist anti-Americanism. Or I could point to the damage this does to our international relations. Friendly nations wonder why we have fallen from being Regan's shining beacon of freedom on a hill, and antagonistic nations like Russia and Iran point to our abuses when we criticize them for kangaroo trials or oppressive measures. I could point to truly oppressive regimes across the globe that now simply label as terrorists those they wish to abuse. However all those are pragmatic reasons, and I don't think that is the best foundation for a moral absolute. I know torture is always wrong because I have human compassion. And you know it too.

All that is beside the point. Torture is illegal and water boarding is torture. The only reason I can think of that the MSM has allowed itself to be hijacked by Cheney again is that Obama has decided that the people who committed acts of torture under color of law will not be prosecuted. So that ends that story. Only vague questions of conspiracy remain and the question still appears to be open as to whether those that wrote the torture memos and the members of Congress and the Executive branch who were complicit in authorizing torture will face any kind of consequences.

It is vitally important that we zealously prosecute everyone responsible for the use of torture from the interrogators and their commanders and guards at the camp that knew it was happening to those that wrote the memos and everyone in power who knew it was happening and did nothing to stop it. even if that means throwing half of Congress in prison. This is important for a couple of reasons. First, a full and complete prosecution of everyone responsible will correct many of the above mentioned pragmatic reasons that torture is wrong. Clearly extremists will continue to hate America for irrational reasons. However, by taking pains to correct our misdeeds we will show to friends and enemies internationally and future leaders of America that we are a nation committed to the rule of law and that we can bravely face our own misdeeds and see justice done.

The next reason is that only a full prosecution of everyone that could possibly be complicit is the only way to actually see justice done in this situation. Where the government at all levels and in multiple branches participates in enacting a broad policy that is illegal and immoral and actually produces negative consequences simply rooting out a sacrificial lamb like "Scooter" Libby only perpetuates the sense that those in power who are ultimately responsible for the crime are beyond justice. A full prosecution is also important to avoid domestic political wrangling. If we put Cheney on trial Pelosi needs to go on trial as well. So does every member of Congress that was briefed on the use of torture and everyone in the various agencies that used them, both political appointees and career agents. I am not saying that we need to imprison half the government and military, but in the interests of justice there needs to be a full and impartial investigation that brings charges against those who appear to be guilty of serious crimes against U.S. law.

I understand Obama's order that the interrogators not be prosecuted. Spies and agents in the field are not legal experts and have to be able to rely on the orders of their superiors. Unquestioning reliance on the command structure is vital to successful military operations. Still, there is a point where the guy who has boots on the ground knows something is wrong. That an order is wrong. It is that person's responsibility to say "no." I know it is a hard and cold and frankly unrealistic rule but that is the very same thing we say to accused former Nazi prison camp guards as they are extradited and prosecuted for simply guarding the camp. (No I didn't just fall prey to Godwin's Law)

I further understand Obama's decision not to prosecute the interrogators because doing so would turn our agents in the field into political paws by using them as a sacrificial lamb. An agent in the field has to be able not only to rely on his orders but also to believe that he can effectively carry out his mission even when there is an election coming. They need to know that they won't be hung out to dry just to appease the public when the party in power changes.

Because prosecuting the interrogators is off the table and it is highly unlikely that Congress will enact legislation that could put their own members in prison, and because there is a current sentiment that we need to move on with current troubles and not be concerned with the egregious acts of the prior administration it is highly unlikely that we will see any kind of full and non-partisan investigation that results in justice being done. The most we will see is someone like John Yoo getting a slap on the wrist. I am still too cynical to believe even that will happen.

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