Friday, September 22, 2006


Pat's right. If we're going to talk about "alternative interrogation," the administration's euphemism for torture, we probably ought to know what it's an alternative to; namely, interrogation. Keep in mind, though, the issue of "torture triangulation," as I called it below. For torture to be effective as an information-gathering procedure, it has to be a collection of correlated data. In other words, the various bits of information and misinformation from a program of torture. We're not simply talking about the "evil" ones now in Guantanamo.

This isn't Pat's claim here, but I think we need to keep it in mind in the so-called debates over torture.

The collection of useful data does not in itself imply torture as a means. But useful data from torture implies the broad use of torture.
With the earsplitting din of the current debate about whether to use torture in interrogating terrorist prisoners, it may be helpful, even educational, to define what an interrogation is, and how it is properly carried out, as opposed to the disagreeable prospect of torturing information out of prisoniers, a practice which would puke up America's record of promoting human rights..

According to retired a former very senior CIA official, interrogation is, in the first place, a function of counterintelligence which he defined as: “A huge research effort that involves consulting of massive and detailed files.” It is the data in those files that plays the key role, the official said. How the data is applied and used, especially the timing of its use, depends on the perceptiveness, the sensibility, the sheer artistry of the interrogator, he said.

This entirely rules out the use of kind of outright brutality.

One of the U.S. Army’s top spycatchers, retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington, who has interrogated suspects ranging from henchmen of former Panama strongman Manuel Noriega, to Vietcong operatives and Soviet double agents, said to me: “It is never proper to mistreat a prisoner.”

In his book, “Stalking the Vietcong,” Herrington, a member of the Phoenix program in Vietnam, said: “One of the keys to securing cooperation of a source was to disarm him psychologically by decent treatment.” Herrington recently added, in an interview: “Nothing else works as well.”

He said in addition: “There is basic human decency involved. The prisoner in front of you is a father, a brother or a son. He’s the same as you are, and I always asked myself, if I were in his place, how would I like to be treated.”...


roxtar said...

How long until alternative interrogation becomes the norm in police stations across America?

Anonymous said...

Yup, lets take that low road and start singing all together - SLIP SLIDING AWAY.

Anonymous said...

Is the desire to torture just a need to punish someone, anyone for a perceived wrong? Is it an attempt to get revenge through letting an alleged transgressor's suffering wash over you? Look at the situation of the doctors in Libya: and Why torture them? What is gained?

Ultimately, I think this debate, at least from the administration's point of view, is less about the semantics of torture and more about the continued establishment of an imperial presidency with no effective legal limits on its power. Heck, Tony Snow is even suggesting that the President, and not the Supreme Court, is the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution:

helmut said...

I suspect there's a fair amount of truth to this, Mr. Magic. But I don't think the "debate" is about semantics in the first place. It's a radical moral claim.

On one hand, I agree that this presidency is seeking a consolidation of power in pretty much every sphere. There's a lot to be said here - e.g., simply, why? Torture, more specifically, is applied to various individuals who are essentially powerless. I mean, torture is the ultimate in creating powerlessness in the victim. That's part of its effect - total powerlessness. But this isn't necessarily an extension of the imperial. However, it would be if - and I've suggested this before (last September) - it is an instrument of submission for a population. There are good signs that torture is used in this way - something along the lines of saying "be very careful of what you do because we can make your life hell." In places where martyrdom is often seen as something noble, torture ends up playing the role that a fear of death would play in other cultures.

On the other hand, I've tried resisting for the sake of argument more than anything else describing this administration in terms of an imperial presidency. I've paid attention to their shenanigans, and I've paid attention to the other extreme, the "conspiracy theories." I've called the administration "fascist" and "imperialist" in the past. And I think there's very good reason for saying both. The main reason for not running with them more often, I guess, is because the language around this element is quite vague. Fascism, for example, has a long history of scholarship built around it and it's still rather unclear what the term means. In some ways, using this language can have a deleterious effect on the ability to engage in convincing, concrete criticism of the administration. They have no problems tossing around such terms to describe their opponents, including over half of the American population, and there's a certain amount of success in doing so. But it's rhetorical political success.

I suppose what I'm trying to do by discussing things like torture is, well, first, because torture is wrong for myriad reasons. But, second, this is a more concrete entryway into what I think is a stronger criticism of the administration. Once those concretes are established, the terms "imperial" and "fascist" start to take on a concreteness they otherwise don't have. So, there's a strategic thing here as well.

As for Libya, I just don't know. Revenge? Total submission? Since it's unclear to me at least that anyone, including Libyans, really thinks the doctors/nurses are guilty of anything, I would tend to go with the latter. Torture is an expression of power on negative grounds - making others submit to one's will by instilling fear in a broader population.