The Torture Controversy

Amidst the huge controversy surrounding the story on the so-called torture memos, the bedrock issues are being almost entirely ignored in favor of political theater. And the potential for harm is enormous.

promising not to indulge in revenge politics like some downscale banana republic after a change in leadership, President Obama suddenly decided to do exactly that, opening the way for prosecution of Bush Administration officials based on the release of some previously classified memos regarding what are referred to as 'enhanced interrogation techniques' like waterboarding.

This is something new in American politics, something we haven't seen before. Even after the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination, Jefferson Davis was
never tried for treason and got off with a short spell of imprisonment at Fort Monroe. Former Union Army officers who fought on the rebel side like Robert E. Lee or James Longstreet were never even tried or imprisoned at all, and even a revenge crazed Congress under control of the Radical Republicans never considered it.

A responsible Chief Executive with an honest disagreement on a previous national security policy would have issued confidential guidelines to the agencies concerned about changes he wanted implemented. But Obama obviously has decided to throw some red meat to his angry left base in the form of a few Bush Administration Justice Department lawyers and functionaries.

I'm not sure he realizes that the witch-hunt can hardly stop there. What about the senior members of the Bush Administration who knew what was going on? For that matter, what about Ex-President and ex-Vice president Bush and Cheney? Are we going to haul them into court? And what about members of Congress like Speaker Nancy Pelosi? She was a member (don't laugh) of the House Intelligence Committee and sat in on the super-secret briefings after 9/11 where waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques were
discussed and approved. Under pressure, she finally admitted she heard something about waterboarding but claims not to remember exactly what she heard ... although other Congressmen who were in the same briefings recall things very differently.

If we're going to start Stalinist-style show trials on how al-Qaeda terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were interrogated, there some Democrats in Congress who also deserve to be in the dock as accessories. The flimsy excuse of not knowing what they were approving may have worked politically when it came to explaining why they voted for the Iraq War, but it won't fly as a legal defense if policy is going to be criminalized when there's a change of parties in Washington.

While the political fallout from prosecuting members of the former administration over policy differences is serious enough, the national security aspect is downright scary.

Releasing the memos publicly accomplished two things immediately. First, it gave our enemies an exact knowledge of exactly how far our interrogations are allowed to go, which means that even where we have probable evidence that a captured jihadi has first hand knowledge of an imminent strike, there's absolutely no weapons the interrogator has to use when questioning him except perhaps trying to bribe him with an extra portion of lamb kibbeh for dinner.

That's precisely why ex-VP Dick Cheney
formally requested that all of the memos be released publicly, so the American people can see the sort of intelligence we obtained by the enhanced interrogation techniques. It took fifteen minutes of waterboarding to break Khalid Sheik Muhammad, and it likely prevented a planned strike on Los Angeles as well as revealing a great deal of al-Qaeda's inner workings that enabled us to cripple them and successfully prevent another 9/11.

Second, the effect on personnel like CIA agents who actually interrogate terrorists and attempt to get intelligence from them has been profound. They now know that the White House is more concerned about legal and Constitutional rights for non-citizen jihadis and political posturing than it is about making a serious attempt to find out what these people might know, and none of them is going to risk being prosecuted by doing more than going through the motions. One can hardly blame them.

Political theater aside, the question remains unanswered: how are we prepared to deal with someone in our custody that likely has knowledge of an impeding attack?

The problem with most physical torture is that it can be incredibly inefficient much of the time. Given an individual with a sufficiently strong will, it can take hours, days, months or even years to accomplish the desired end.

Combining the administration of drugs like sodium penathol, baradanga, and sodium amytal with a skilled interrogator is normally quicker, more efficient and easier on the basement janitorial crew afterwards. It also eliminates the nasty problem of false confessions and information that tends to go with the territory when you get your answers by using an electric drill on somebody's hands. However, there's no doubt that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques can work quite well, especially when a threat is imminent and time is of the essence. And they're useful tools as psychological threats to promote cooperation, even if the techniques themselves aren't used.

What is really needed is exactly what the Obama Administration has made a conscious decision to avoid providing -- a clear, covert policy that can be invoked when information is needed quickly and American lives are at stake. Covert, because part of the psychological effect on terrorists necessarily consists of their not being quite sure exactly how far we might go. Making the policy public gives the jihadis an edge they frankly don't deserve when it comes to resisting interrogation techniques.

One important tool we're not using at all is the technique of humiliation. We are, after all, dealing with an honor/shame culture, and one that relies on the promise of the Islamic version of paradise in exchange for being a martyr in the jihad against the infidels as a primary recruiting tool. Eliminating that payoff with, say, the threat of an execution followed by a pigskin burial might work wonders when it comes to loosening tongues.

And actually following through a few times would get around and undoubtedly impact recruiting for people like al-Qaeda in a significant way.

Of course, to use techniques like that, we actually have to admit we are in a war. As far as I'm concerned, we still haven't.

Rob Miller blogs at