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Law Morality National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The War on Terrorism

Name, Rank and Serial Number

[digg-reddit-me]Our enemies do not subscribe to the rules of the Marquis of Queensbury. “Name, rank and serial number” does not apply to non-state actors but is, regrettably, the only question this administration wants us to ask.

Porter Goss, former director of the CIA, in the Washington Post.

Right-wingers from the National Review to Rush Limbaugh to Porter Goss has repeated this line ad infinitum – this constant suggestion or occasionally accusation that opponents of torture only want to ask members of al Qaeda for their “name, rank and serial number.” This is a distortion of the position many opponents of torture take – that the Geneva Conventions do apply even to terrorists. A commenter called salubrius provides a decent breakdown:

There are two standards for interrogation in the Geneva Convention. One standard applies to POWs or prisoners of war. These prisoners have a preferred status in that they may not be coerced to provide information other than their name, rank and serial number. The other standard applies to those who do not qualify as POWs. These are also referred to as unlawful enemy combatants. The Supreme Court in 1942 referred to this classification of lawful and unlawful combatants. 

Terrorists and suspected terrorists are still protected under the Geneva Conventions – though not to the extent of prisoners of war or civilians. Geneva provides certain mininimal protections for “those who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals.” Namely, Geneva provides that such persons “shall nevertheless be treated with humanity” and “shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed by the present Convention.” This is the position held by most if not all of those who insist that Geneva still applies to terrorists.

Proponents of torture try to mislead those not following the political conversation closely by disingenously claiming that their opponents consider asking anything more than “name, rank, and serial number” to be torture. In fact, the most successful interrogators of terrorists so far have also been opponents of torture – from Ali Soufan of the FBI to Matthew Alexander of military intelligence.

Categories
National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The War on Terrorism

Torture, Plain and Simple

David J. Morris, a former Marine, attended the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program whose purpose was to train US soldiers to withstand torture but whose techniques migrated to interrogation of prisoners after the Bush administration pushed for “enhanced interrogation.” Morris writes of his experience being subjected to these techniques:

I was incarcerated at SERE for only a few days, but my mind quickly disintegrated. I became convinced that I was being held in an actual prisoner of war camp. Training had stopped, from my point of view. We had crossed over into some murky shadow land where the regulations no longer applied.

Categories
Morality National Security The War on Terrorism

Does Torture Work?

Lt-Col Vandeveld, a former military prosecutor at Guantanamo:

Torture may result in reliable information — no question about that. But is torture reconcilable with our basic humanity or with America’s desire to be an example to the rest of the world? The answer is no. Torture, however you define it, is wrong, appalling, immoral.

While the overall point Vandeveld is making – that America should not torture – is one I would expect, his initial hedging – “Torture may result in reliable information” surprised me. Aside from top-level political appointees, I’m not sure that I’ve seen anyone in the military in fields related to interrogation acknowledge that torture might work. And many spoke out against it.

What I’ve seen more of are comments like that of “Matthew Alexander” – a pseudonym used to protect the interrogator’s identity. He was one of the interrogators whose information led to the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He wrote:

I should have felt triumphant when I returned from Iraq in August 2006. Instead, I was worried and exhausted. My team of interrogators had successfully hunted down one of the most notorious mass murderers of our generation, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the mastermind of the campaign of suicide bombings that had helped plunge Iraq into civil war. But instead of celebrating our success, my mind was consumed with the unfinished business of our mission: fixing the deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American way the U.S. military conducts interrogations in Iraq. I’m still alarmed about that today.

I’m not some ivory-tower type; I served for 14 years in the U.S. Air Force, began my career as a Special Operations pilot flying helicopters, saw combat in Bosnia and Kosovo, became an Air Force counterintelligence agent, then volunteered to go to Iraq to work as a senior interrogator. What I saw in Iraq still rattles me – both because it betrays our traditions and because it just doesn’t work. [my emphasis]

This refrain comes up again and again among interrogators. Most of the public debate though has been driven by people like Senator John McCain and Captain Ian Fishback opposed torture for moral reasons.

McCain:

The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away.

Fishback:

…the most important question that this generation will answer [is] Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is ‘America.

This should be our primary reason for opposing torture. But a secondary reason is that most interrogators have stated that it simply doesn’t work if your goal is to get quality information from detainees. Most torture techniques were designed as punishment or to elicit confessions – not to get information. For example, the techniques we use were used by the Soviets to get confessions for show trials and the North Vietnamese for propaganda videos.

Most experts seem to acknowledge that torture is good for one thing – breaking down a person’s will, perhaps driving them insane, and forcing them to agree with the torturer. This is what has happened in America’s torture program – as detainees confessed to things they did not do and gave information about connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda that Americans wanted to know about but did not exist.

Whether or not torture works is a secondary question – but an important one nevertheless.