Thursday, January 22, 2009

Confusion in the Press on Torture Plans

An Associated Press story by Lara Jakes and Pamela Hess, released last Friday, reports on President Obama's intention to limit the CIA to interrogation techniques listed in the Army Field Manual. The pending Executive Orders on interrogation would also end the practice of detention by the CIA in secret prisons.(Not pending anymore, see link.) But, in a potential sop to the Agency:
[Obama's] advisers are considering adding a classified loophole to the rules that could allow the CIA to use some interrogation methods not specifically authorized by the Pentagon...
Such a "loophole" would be included as a classified annex to the Army Field Manual, which the article assures us doesn't allow threats or coercion, while also banning physical abuse and outrageous torture techniques like waterboarding. The article does single out, without explanation, that there is a special AFM technique allowed "in some cases" -- isolation.

Without knowing it, and not knowing the history of the writing of the Army Field Manual, or possibly forgetting it, or maybe suppressing it, the AP reporters misrepresent that document. There already was a controversy over adding a classified annex to the AFM -- over three years ago. That controversy ended with the publication of disputed techniques of interrogation in an unclassified appendix to the Army Field Manual (Appendix M, "Separation"). That appendix includes descriptions of coercive psychological torture techniques, including isolation, sleep deprivation, sensory/perceptual deprivation, as well as others that are included in the manual proper (such as "Fear Up" and "Ego Down" [humiliation]). These techniques are most harmful when combined together, and are similar to those used by the Stalinist countries and the Nazis to break men down. They are also similar if not identical to the main techniques of coercive interrogation and torture advocated for use by the CIA in its KUBARK interrogation manual of the early 1960s. (See this link for fuller explanation.)

With all the double talk and off-again, on-again secrecy about interrogation techniques, one shouldn't blame the AP reporters for their confusion. But they owe it to their readers to get the story right. Here's one example of that confusion:
The military rejected adding a classified annex to the manual before it was published in 2006 because it believed having two sets of rules could confuse soldiers and reasoned that the classified techniques would quickly become known once those interrogated were released.
But, if they would have only read the current Army Field Manual, they would have seen that two sets of rules already apply, and that Appendix M techniques are only for use on "unlawful enemy combatants."

The threat once more to add a classified annex of more coercive techniques serves two purposes. One, it satisfies those CIA officers who want the freedom to improvise more coercive forms of torture in the field. It also gives interrogators leverage in promoting the most basic factor in breaking down prisoners, fear, as a detainee can feel unsure just what kind of torture will be thrown at him. Worry, anxiety and fear work harder on a person's mind and body than an actual physical punishment, as a person can learn to endure the latter, or come to feel the worst has been experienced. But then I don't have to tell everybody this; it's all there, discussed in length by the CIA in its KUBARK document.

Secondly, the threat to add more coercive techniques to the AFM works as a cover for the fact that there are already abusive procedures in that document that amount to psychological torture. bmaz at Emptywheel/Firedoglake makes the point regards the latter in a recent posting, noting that Judge Susan Crawford at Guantanamo very recently described the combination of "legal" procedures upon prisoner Mohammad al-Qahtani as "torture." I would question Judge Crawford's opinion that most of these techniques were legal, but they were certainly commonly used upon prisoners, and did amount to torture. Most of those techniques are allowed in the current AFM. Some of them are not, i.e., the use of working dogs or stress positions. But just because the latter are removed doesn't mean the core KUBARK program of isolation and sleep deprivation and fear/humiliation doesn't remain.

Therefore, should the trial balloon over a special "loophole," or "classified annex" for CIA interrogation techniques should fail to pass Congressional or public muster, there is always Appendix M to fall back on, ignored in all the hubbub over some new secret techniques. This is the art of using the "Overton window", which the former administration had practiced with great mastery. One would have hoped such forms of shaping public discourse would have been abandoned in this new administration of proclaimed transparency. But I guess when it comes to CIA and military interrogation something less than full openness is preferred.

Still, it's good to see that not everybody is buying the entire package, as proven by dday's comments on Appendix M at digby's blog, Hullabaloo, today.

In general, torture and interrogation are tough stuff to read about, and the natural inclination to look away works to keep the public in a state of ignorance, the better to be fooled. Reporters rely too much on government press releases and briefings, and translate government spin into received wisdom, which is then transferred to their readers, and so the parameters of public discourse become set. In this sense, Jakes and Hess are not singled out for particularly bad reporting, as they are typical of their peers in this sense, of accepting military or CIA explanations for how things are, and not digging deeper.

Obama is to be congratulated for wanting to close Guantanamo, hold the CIA to non-abusive forms of interrogation, and in general trying to return the world of interrogation and military detention to a semblance of obeisance to international lawful standards. But there are a lot of questions about Obama's policy still on the agenda, and a lot of pressure coming from what we might call "interested parties." What will Obama's position be on extraordinary rendition? What about the hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners held in the U.S. "war on terror" in other U.S. prisons, such as Baghram?

The public must call for no special loophole for the CIA on the matter of interrogations. They must also call for the removal of Appendix M and abusive techniques like "Fear Up" before giving any pass to Obama's call for changes in interrogation. Otherwise, we will have done not much more than put lipstick on a pig. (Now where have I heard that one before?)

Update: The same threat to add coercive procedures to the otherwise supposedly sanitized AFM is repeated in today's AP story by Ben Feller, reporting on Obama's signing of executive orders that will lead to the eventual closing of Guantanamo, a shut-down of CIA prisons, an affirmation to the right of habeas corpus by detainees, and an end to the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques". From now on the CIA will have to rely on the Army Field Manual techniques. While this will aggravate the agents in the field, it will still leave much leeway for certain traditional CIA forms of interrogation, as described above.

Obama's changes are in general positive. But they do not go far enough, and the status of what exactly will be changed, as in the case of future adjudication of the Guantanamo prisoners, or how "terror suspects" will be handled in the months or years to come, await the conclusion of review task forces. The latter are headed by the main administration bureaucracy at State, Defense, and the intelligence agencies, and coordinated by the Attorney General. Their trustworthiness is yet to be determined, and in some cases these people are already known and not very untrustworthy, given their support of the Iraq War, or over-identification with intelligence and covert operations.

Isn't it funny that no one thinks that it would be a good idea to have some on the spot oversight by human rights groups? Obama has strengthened the Freedom of Information Act as a tool of non-governmental oversight. But why is there not input in these "task forces" by prominent human rights groups or individuals? What's even more remarkable is that no one even sees fit to ask.

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