Like everyone else who is following U.S. policy and the war in Iraq I’ve been thinking a lot about torture recently. What lines should draw when confronting terrorists? What methods are appropriate? What went wrong at Abu Ghraib and why? Here are some of my thoughts on this. These conclusions are subject to change as more information comes to light but I think it is important to publish where I am coming from on all this any why.
First, the torture memo, when the President decided to aggressively confront terror, to disrupt their organization and capture and kill as many terrorists as possible there are a few ways he could have gone about setting the policies for interrogation of terrorists.
He could have ignored the issue completely trusting that the existing practices for interrogations were sufficient to the task, legal, and moral. I think this would be a mistake. Evaluating these policies is something that every President should do, especially when you are engaging in a global war on Terror and hoping to capture a bunch of terrorists and gain information from them.
He could have told the Dept. of Justice what he thought should be done with the prisoners for interrogations and asked them if each of these things was legal. There are two problems with this approach. First, and most importantly, he would be signaling what he wanted by doing this, thus applying pressure on the DOJ to find a way to make those items seem legal. Secondly, from a political perspective if he had asked for a method that the DOJ said wasn’t legal and the fact that he has asked for such a thing, even if he never implemented it, would be a political mess, if it leaked, that would make the current memo scandal seem like small potatoes.
Lastly he could have asked for a review of what is and is not allowed by American law, International treaties, and the constitution and used this as the starting point for his policy decisions. This is exactly what the torture memo represents. I am certainly not an international or constitutional lawyer so I can’t say if the conclusions in the memo are legally correct or not. Ideally, for a decision of this import several different opinions may be asked for. There could be several ‘torture memos’ only one of which has leaked. People have different views on what laws apply and what constitutes different crimes. That is one reason we don’t just have one Supreme Court Judge and why few decisions of the Supreme Court are unanimous. Even if there is only one torture memo, only one opinion was asked for, and it’s conclusions are totally off base there is no scandal here. If, and I repeat if, erroneous conclusions from this memo translated into illegal policy that would be a scandal. So far I haven’t seen any evidence of that.
As my countless readers are aware I am deeply offended by the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal. I think though that I should make it clear what in particular offends me and what I think was wrong about it.
Things that are wrong:
The fact that the cameras were there to begin with. I am not upset about this because the picture got out and caused a trouble. I am upset with this because I really don’t think a POW facility is a good place to get souvenirs of your time in Iraq. Taking the pictures of POWs in this manner IS a violation of the Geneva Convention. I expect, although I have no proof, that the presence of these cameras also contributed to the abuse. If the soldiers had not had the ability to record their activities in this manner I think they would have had less motivation to abuse the prisoners in this manner. I also strongly doubt that having these cameras in the POW and taking care of the prisoners was approved of by the military. The very existence of the pictures is evidence to me of a lack of discipline at the facility and that these soldiers were not simply following orders in what they were doing.
Simulated sex, genital fondling, etc. This is wrong and there is no excuse for it.
Things that might not be wrong if used in the proper context:
Hoods. Having a prisoner in a hood doesn’t seem to me to be wrong in and of itself. Obviously the when and why can make a difference.
Nakedness. Obviously in a jail situation there are times when prisoners will be naked. Nakedness as a tool for humiliation, to weaken the will of the prisoner for interrogation doesn’t seem wrong either.
Stress positions and Sleep deprivation. Some of this sort of thing is ok as far as I am concerned. Obviously there is a point when it is too much and I am not qualified to say when that is, but these techniques are not inherently wrong.
Things I am unsure about:
Threatening with Dogs. I am unsure that threatening with a dog is morally or legally wrong. Letting the dogs eat the prisons is obviously wrong.
Simulated Executions. Telling the prisoners they are being executed or that they will be killed if they step off the box. This obviously would cause a lot of mental stress but no physical harm.
The big policy wrongs:
I don’t think that guards should be in the business of softening up prisoners for interrogations. The guards function is to keep the prisoners under control and safe. Period. If the interrogators can’t handle the load or need help then we need to get more interrogators. If there were not enough there should have been. There was plenty of time between when the war or terror started and when the Abu Ghraib abuses happened for our military to acquire and train more personnel and it didn’t take a crystal ball to see that they would be needed. I am unsure who should bear the blame for this policy failure. Along with this the interrogators need to be highly trained, fully versed in the legal ramifications, and given clear guidelines. Oh, and screened to make sure they aren’t sadists.
I also don’t think that reservists should be used to guard prisons. This is probably an ok situation for a temporary POW processing facility but not as a long-term job. Once again if we didn’t have enough trained personnel for this role this is something that could and should have been foreseen.
I think the media has done a terrible job with this story. They have focused on shallow sensation rather than in depth substance. I don’t fault the media for publishing the photos or publicizing the story but I do fault them for not going in depth and for not doing much more than investigation than getting loud sound bites.