What You May Have Missed Over The Weekend; Bush Veto’s Waterboarding Ban

While many people, myself included, spend an awful lot of time discussing the negative aspects of the Democratic primary going on right now, one drawback that doesn’t get very much coverage is what’s happening while everyone’s back is turned.  The fact of the matter is, the ongoing battle between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama has become so prominent among blogs and in the media that it has a tendency to drown out everything else going on in Washington.

For President Bush’s latest feat, he would use that camouflage and then some.

While Friday’s are typically “throw out the trash” day in American politics, this last Saturday was just as good if not better.  The blogosphere tends to quiet down some, and people are spending more time with their families then they are scouring headlines.  Even the Wyoming primary, which was just another event in the ongoing saga that is sucking up the news cycles one after another, didn’t get all that much press.

So Bush announced it.  But he didn’t announce it from the Rose Garden or some other high profile backdrop in front of a gaggle of barking reporters.  No, he announced it during his weekly radio address, an address that one could hardly say has an awe-inspiring market.

He vetoed legislation that would have banned waterboarding and restricted the CIA to the interrogation standards set forth in the Army Field Manual.

I had sent off an email to investigative journalist and author of the book American Torture, Michael Otterman, who had this impression of the move:

Hey Kyle– not much to say here except that the veto makes my job, and
that of historians, a whole lot easier. There is no gray area, and no
debate– Bush has proclaimed an unequivocal stance in favor of
torture. When given the opportunity to ban serious and debilitating
tortures like waterboarding, sexual humiliation, and electric shocks,
he did not. His legacy as the ‘torture president’ is stamped,
notarized, and published for the world to see.

Though it was bold, I was not surprised to see Bush defend “the
program” he pioneered. Now, for McCain to follow suit– to support the
veto– that was indeed disappointing. It shows just how low a man can
sink in the pursuit of political gain. Truly disgusting.

The second point is particularly significant.  No one really expected Bush not to veto the legislation.  What does come as a shock is presidential candidate John McCain’s support for the veto.  As the local news reported it here in Virginia, “McCain takes a more nuanced approach–he opposes the use of waterboarding, but supports the president’s veto.”

Of course, this isn’t nuance.  Nuance is having a complex and detailed stance on a subject that may seem contradictory at first, but upon further investigation is not.  John Kerry had nuance.  Al Gore had nuance.  John McCain does not.

Indeed, as the New York Times reports:

Senator John McCain, now the Republican presidential nominee, has been an outspoken opponent of torture from his own experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In this case, however, he supported the administration’s position, arguing as Mr. Bush did on Saturday that legislation would have limited the C.I.A.’s ability to gather intelligence.

“Limited the C.I.A.’s ability to gather intelligence.”  There are only two ways to read this.  The first is simply that McCain is hypocritical; abandoning a principled stance in favor of political expediency because he knows the base that he’s going to have to get to trust him in the fall strongly supports the use of torture.  One can say there is a hint of nuance here if one is to take one of the principals of Bush’s argument at face value.

That being we can’t telegraph our interrogation techniques because if we do, terrorists can inoculate themselves against them.  Indeed, we do that–it’s called SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape).  SERE is a class provided to military members of all services which introduces them to torture techniques to increase their ability to withstand torture should they be captured in the field.  And of course SERE was reverse engineered by the US to provide a means of applying torture as well.

But the idea that this ban will somehow prevent our enemies from knowing and preparing themselves for the techniques that we use is naive at best as Otterman’s co-blogger, Valtin, points out in depth (In fact, you should read the entire thing).

So I suppose this is what Bush is referring to when he says that the government had to create “alternative procedures” to counter the presumed wiliness of the “hardened terrorists.” Except this is a lie. As regular readers of my blog know, government torture has been well-researched for over 50 years. It also went operational around the same time. The not-unsavvy terrorists certainly know where to go on the Internet to read the CIA’s KUBARK Counter-intelligence Interrogation Manual, declassified by the United States in the 1990s, or any of a number of books openly for sale that describe the same.

The KUBARK manual describes the use of fear, isolation, sensory deprivation, temperature extremes, sleep deprivation, fear, and other techniques to induce regression and dependency in prisoners, in order to make them malleable to an experienced interrogator. SERE techniques were derived from presumed extreme sorts of torture that could be encountered by U.S. servicemen who found themselves prisoners of a government or group who didn’t follow the Geneva Conventions. How ironic that the most famous state to announce it wouldn’t follow Geneva protocols would be… the United States!

Bush does have a point. Knowledge of torture techniques and counter-measures can help a prisoner subjected to torture or cruel treatment, up to a point. Personality factors play a much larger role, as the KUBARK manual points out (including a CIA bibliography on the subject). Besides, there a multitude of sources available for the enemy government or sophisticated organization to gather such information. The Congressional bill does not discuss torture counter-measures, to my knowledge.

Point being, when it comes to torture, we’re not exactly sitting on a bunch of trade secrets people don’t already know about.  Topping that list is waterboarding which has received so much press over the past year or so that it would be simply ludicrous to expect foreign entities to not know that it’s in the playbook.

In the end, it comes down to personality and politics.  When I say personality, I’m discussing the fact that it takes a certain personality that refuses to even entertain the idea that torture is actually effective to the point where it offsets any kind of risks inherent to the practice.  It is a more feral and rudimentary thought process that insists that if you want to get someone to do something for you, you hurt them.  If hurting them doesn’t work, you hurt them some more.  All other factors are pushed off of the periphery because this very basic logical concept must work.  It is the only explanation why any administration would continue to engage in a torture based policy even after it has been proven that rapport-building is a more effective technique and that engaging in torture vitally wounds the integrity of the employing state on the world stage.

This creates a political situation wherein a core constituency will all engage in the same group-think type behavior that will solidify the value of torture despite evidence to the contrary, yet outside this core constituency is a populace that is not so quick to adhere.  Unlike those rooted deeply in the pro-torture constituency, however; those outside the group represent a broad spectrum of people from those who think torture might be right in some instances to those who normally would not condone torture under some circumstances but would if the level of fear was considerable enough to those who stand behind their principle of no torture ever under any circumstances.

Thus torture has become the newest issue to enter dog-whistle and code-word politics wherein the political leaders of the pro-torture constituency use targeted language not only to solidify their own base of support, but to manipulate the political landscape in such a way that as much of the spectrum outside the core constituency is put in a place where torture is okay.

There’s another name for this political manipulation, a practice that has been employed time and again over the past seven years and is almost as disgusting and unbecoming of this country as the use of torture itself.

We call it the politics of fear.

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