The Consequences of Torture

The advocates for torture in the Bush administration were so convinced it was the only way to get actionable intelligence in the misnamed “war on terror” that they never considered basing an interrogation program on any other methods and never asked themselves how evidence gained through torture would affect the government’s ability to prosecute.

Well, today, the judge responsible for deciding which Guantanamo cases will be brought to trial provided the answer:

The top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial has concluded that the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a “life-threatening condition.”

“We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

Al-Qahtani was subjected to multiple interrogation techniques that had one thing in common: They did not leave any physical evidence on the body. Most of these techniques would not be considered torture in and of themselves. But when used for prolonged periods of time and in combination, their effect is devastating:

Crawford, 61, said the combination of the interrogation techniques, their duration and the impact on Qahtani’s health led to her conclusion. “The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent. . . . You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge” to call it torture, she said.

This is some of what was done to al-Qahtani:

“For 160 days his only contact was with the interrogators,” said Crawford, who personally reviewed Qahtani’s interrogation records and other military documents. “Forty-eight of 54 consecutive days of 18-to-20-hour interrogations. Standing naked in front of a female agent. Subject to strip searches. And insults to his mother and sister.”

At one point he was threatened with a military working dog named Zeus, according to a military report. Qahtani “was forced to wear a woman’s bra and had a thong placed on his head during the course of his interrogation” and “was told that his mother and sister were whores.” With a leash tied to his chains, he was led around the room “and forced to perform a series of dog tricks,” the report shows.

The interrogation, portions of which have been previously described by other news organizations, including The Washington Post, was so intense that Qahtani had to be hospitalized twice at Guantanamo with bradycardia, a condition in which the heart rate falls below 60 beats a minute and which in extreme cases can lead to heart failure and death. At one point Qahtani’s heart rate dropped to 35 beats per minute, the record shows.

The right naturally continues to miss the point. Pat Dollard reproduces the entire WaPo article under the headline “We Did A Bad-Bad Thing To A Poor Filthy 9-11 Terrorist Bastard.”

Yeah, Pat! But you can take comfort in the fact that the “terrorist bastard” will not be prosecuted and that if no untainted evidence can be found against him, he will have to be given his freedom. I mean, if the only way we can bring terrorists to justice is to not torture them, who wants to bring them to justice? It’s just not worth it, eh, Pat?

Here is Jules Crittenden whining about that interestingly timed Pentagon announcement that former Guantanamo detainees are returning “to the battlefield” (no evidence provided, but the Pentagon never lies or gets anything wrong):

Quite apart, it turns out large numbers of former guests of the United States have returned to the battlefield. It’s a sticky issue for the incoming Obama admin. Some cynics might observe that’s exactly what Nazi POWs would have done, if they had been returned to the bosoms of their families in 1944. But others might suggest this assortment of cab drivers, halal butchers, businessmen and foreign exchange students, all abducted while minding their own business in Afghanistan, were radicalized by the cruelty they experienced at the hands of the hated Crusaders. Which also means, due to our historic national failure to understand why they hate us, we have it coming.

Time for some good advice from Mark Adams:

Next time you hear some bloviating asshat mocking the bleeding hearts on the left who they claim want to invite terrorists over for slumber parties (yes I’m talking about you Joe Scarborough), remind yourself that it was Bush, Cheney, Gonzales, Rumsfeld, Yoo and their fellow cretins who made the conscious decision that the information they thought they would get through torture was worth the risk of eventually tainting any evidence they received to the point where the prisoners might go free and their own freedom would be at risk for authorizing felonies and war crimes.

Since you can never state the obvious too many times when talking to wingnuts, here is Andrew Sulllivan to make the same point:

Notice that torture renders bringing terror suspects to justice legally impossible. So we get bad information; and they get to avoid true legal or moral accountability for their acts of terror (if they committed any).

Even if they committed any. You don’t get to hold someone forever because they “may be very dangerous,” or because the evidence is true but just happens to be tainted:

These decisions have to made for a relatively small group of individuals, maybe a dozen. And really, the answer is that the government should have thought of this before deciding to torture. As it is, they’re going to have to do some investigative work and find the evidence of Al-Qahtani and other suspects’ involvement rather than relying on unreliable confessions gained through torture. If you can find that, and it should be fairly available, you charge them. If not, you are going to have to release them. This is popularly known as “the legal system.” […]

In other words, where there is no uncoerced evidence to hold someone, they cannot be prosecuted and must be released. And if we accept that, then the logical corollary is that where there is real, reliable, confirmable, actionable evidence of criminal activity, then those persons must be prosecuted and must not be released — or forgiven:

This is one reason why veteran interrogators and criminal investigators always tended to be extremely skeptical of the enthusiasm for torture coming from the top of the command chain and some of the other government agencies — they have an understanding of the value of doing things the right way. Evidence obtained via torture is useless.

It’s also a reason why I have some doubts about the viability of a “let bygones be bygones” attitude toward Bush-era war crimes. We have here a legal determination that a captive in US custody was tortured. And if he was tortured, that means someone tortured him. And torture is a crime. And most likely, someone ordered the torture. And someone knew about the torture and didn’t do anything about it. And as we attempt to regularize the legal status of various other people being held by the United States similar findings will be relevant to future questions about who can and can’t be prosecuted and for what. To me, it doesn’t make any sense to say that we’re going to have determinations that people were illegally tortured and yet we’re just not going to do anything about it. It’d be one thing to pardon people for this kind of thing as part of some larger legal or investigative strategy. But to just leave it hanging? If Crawford thinks Qahtani can’t be prosecuted because he was tortured, then it stands to reason that there’s someone who can be prosecuted for the torturing.

I’m not a lawyer, but I’m doubtful there is any credible law-based argument to counter this.

13 Responses to “The Consequences of Torture”

  1. gcotharn says:

    Of all the cases Crawford investigated, she found no instance of individual torturous technique being employed. Qhatani is the exception which proves the rule: we are not torturing prisoners at Guantanamo. Crawford’s finding actually comprises evidence of the humanity of U.S. policy. Qhatani’s torture only occurred when proper procedure was not followed.

    I make no assertion about the effectiveness or the wisdom of the interrogation techniques employed at Guantanamo. I only note those techniques, properly applied, do not rise to a level where they can be labeled “torture”. If anyone wishes to damn the ineffectiveness of the interrogation techniques: I assert no quibble with their characterization.

  2. Chief says:

    You say “Of all the cases Crawford investigated . . .” which leaves out the (at least) several deaths that occurred to foreign nationals whike they were in the custody of most likely the CIA.

    Putting a hood on a person’s head whose hands are handcuffed behind his back and then suspending him by his arms so his feet cannot touch the floor and then that person dies from asphyxiation consistent with the way a person who is crucified dies sounds like torture to me.

    Not to mention the deaths of prisoners at gitmo who died that did not come under the purview of Crawford.

  3. Mark says:

    I don’t know if you saw James Joyner’s post on this, but it made a pretty important point: even if you accept all the numbers as true, the recidivism rate for Gitmo prisoners is less than 15%, whereas for ordinary prisons the recidivism rate is close to 70%. This suggests a couple of things – 1. A lot of Gitmo prisoners weren’t terrorists in the first place; and 2. the rate would be almost negligible if the government could have actually procured admissible evidence allowing them to prosecute the guilty persons in a court of law.

  4. Kathy says:

    Of all the cases Crawford investigated, she found no instance of individual torturous technique being employed. Qhatani is the exception which proves the rule: we are not torturing prisoners at Guantanamo. Crawford’s finding actually comprises evidence of the humanity of U.S. policy. Qhatani’s torture only occurred when proper procedure was not followed.

    First, Crawford has not investigated all the Gitmo cases coming to trial. There may yet be more cases like al-Qahtani’s.

    Second, the use of individual cruel, degrading, and/or environmental manipulation techniques together, in combination, and for prolonged periods IS a torture technique. It was the North Koreans and the Soviets who pioneered the use of torture techniques that don’t leave marks on the body but very effectively break down and destroy the human psyche. The North Koreans, in particular, found that when more than one of these techniques were used together for long periods of time, the destructive effect was greatly increased. The Bush administration got the idea to use psyche-destroying techniques in combination from studying North Korean interrogation manuals.

    So what happened to al-Qahtani was not an anomaly — it was policy.

    Third, the use of low-level personnel who were not trained in the use of these techniques was a deliberate choice. They were given a list of 18 approved techniques from Rumsfeld and told to use them however they wanted. The predictable result is the responsibility of those who left people who had no professional experience or training in interrogation to use very dangerous, destructive, harmful techniques on detainees who, in large part as Mark points out, knew absolutely nothing of the matters they were being questioned on.

    Fourth, it is true that individual techniques such as sleep deprivation, isolation, yelling, insults, etc., do not usually rise to the level of torture when used singly and for short periods of time. But the point is that senior Bush officials were operating from the start on a deeply held, unshakeable belief that actionable intelligence could only be obtained through force. If a detainee was believed to have particular knowledge of terrorist plans or connections that the government wanted to get out of them, forcing it out of them was, in their view, the only way to get it. Given that mindset, when any given detainee did not have the information the government was convinced the detainee had, the answer was not that the detainee did not have the information; the answer was that the detainee did have the information but would not give it over unless more force was used. That was the whole point of using these techniques in combination. The point is, the Axis of Evil in the White House — Bush, Cheney, Addington, Gonzales, Yoo, Haynes (and most particularly the second two) *knew* that the techniques we are discussing, when used singly and not for long periods of time, were not torture. And that’s precisely why they wanted them used in a way that *would* cause extremely high levels of distress — because, in their twisted view, these men, who had already been tried and convicted of being terrorist masterminds in the heads of Cheney, Addington, et al., would never, ever give up what they knew if treated humanely. If some force was not enough, the answer was more force, not less.

    For all these reasons, Crawford’s finding does NOT comprise evidence of the humanity of U.S. policy.

  5. gcotharn says:

    Chief,

    I don’t credit your assertions. If we were murdering prisoners at GITMO, it makes sense such would have widely come to light by now.

    As far as what happens away from GITMO: I make no comment. My only point is this: Crawford’s revelation casts the U.S. in both positive and negative light. Across world media, like a drumbeat, we’ve heard “Torture at Guantanamo, Torture at Guantanamo, Torture at Guantanamo”, etc., to such extent that GITMO detention will be closed down at some point. However, Crawford’s revelation effectively points to Qahtani as the exception which proves the U.S.A. is not torturing detainees at Guantanamo. Her revelation is evidence the steady drumbeat has been wrong.

    Mark,
    Apples and oranges.

    Kathy,

    Your fourth: Got it.

    Your third: Has this accusation been accurately investigated or proven re Guantanamo?

    Your second, I only mention this: When lesser and lesser experiences are characterized as torture, the negative impact of “torture” as a concept is lessened. Young Americans will soon enough hear “Egypt tortures her enemies”, and will respond “So? The U.S. Military tortures their own enlistees during training. Big deal.”

    Your first: Crawford investigated more than Qahtani, as indicated by both the parameters of her position and her statement to WaPo:

    “There’s an assumption out there that everybody was tortured. And everybody wasn’t tortured.”

  6. Mark says:

    gcotharn:

    Simply stating “apples and oranges” doesn’t refute my point, which was an attempt to explain why the numbers are so disparate.

    Regardless, if you really do think it’s “apples and oranges” then you need to explain why. Simply stating so doesn’t make it true.

  7. Kathy says:

    If we were murdering prisoners at GITMO, it makes sense such would have widely come to light by now.

    No murders that we know of at Guantanamo, but there have been dozens of attempted suicides and three that succeeded.

    At other U.S.-run detention and interrogation centers, such as Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air Force Base, there have been confirmed murders. And at the C.I.A. black sites all over the globe, which nobody knows how many there are or where they are or what goes on inside them, nobody will ever know — at least, not for many years to come — whether any prisoners were murdered and, if so, how many.

    … Crawford’s revelation effectively points to Qahtani as the exception which proves the U.S.A. is not torturing detainees at Guantanamo. Her revelation is evidence the steady drumbeat has been wrong.

    This statement is absurd on its face. How does a judge’s finding that al-Qahtani was tortured prove that al-Qahtani was the only Gitmo detainee who was tortured? In fact, Susan Crawford explicitly acknowledges in the WaPo article the possibility that others were tortured.

    Crawford herself has only been in this position of Gitmo trial judge overseer since 2007, and Guantanamo has been a detention and interrogation facility since early 2002. Based on what logic, then, do you say that Crawford’s finding that al-Qahtani was tortured means he was the only detainee at Gitmo who was tortured?

    Crawford investigated more than Qahtani, as indicated by both the parameters of her position and her statement to WaPo: “There’s an assumption out there that everybody was tortured. And everybody wasn’t tortured.”

    And how do you find that “everybody wasn’t tortured” means that Crawford’s finding that al-Qahtani was tortured is proof that no one else was tortured?

    In other words, could you at least try to make sense?

    Your third: Has this accusation been accurately investigated or proven re Guantanamo?

    Yes.

    When lesser and lesser experiences are characterized as torture, the negative impact of “torture” as a concept is lessened. Young Americans will soon enough hear “Egypt tortures her enemies”, and will respond “So? The U.S. Military tortures their own enlistees during training. Big deal.”

    Americans are already hearing that, because too many people are intentionally ignorant about the meaning of torture, such as yourself. If you can opt out of “torture,” as enlistees can, simply by not volunteering for programs like SERE, then it’s not torture. Torture by definition is something you do not volunteer for.

    Torture is torture. There is no such thing as torture lite. Either something is torture or it is not torture. There really is not any ambiguity. Depriving someone of sleep, forcibly, for one night is not torture. That doesn’t mean it makes sense to do it, but it’s not torture. Depriving someone of sleep for months by interrogating them for 20 continuous hours, allowing four hours for sleep, then waking them and interrogating them for another continuous 20 hours, on and on like that as I said, for months, is torture.

  8. gcotharn says:

    Mark,

    Fair enough.

    U.S. criminals have a high incidence of chemical dependence. Not so jihadis.

    U.S. criminals often return to shattered families and little social support or opportunity. Jihadis often return to welcoming, strong families; and return to ages old stable tribal culture which welcomes them, and inside of which they know their place, and inside of which they know how to live functional and fulfilling lives.

    U.S. criminals are often amongst the least disciplined, least motivated, least virtuous members of U.S. society. Jihadis are often amongst the most disciplined, most motivated, most virtuous members of their societies.

    U.S. criminals are released after shortened sentences; benefitting from time off for good behavior. They are not released b/c they are rehabilitated. Jihadis at GITMO are released when a judgment has been made that they are ready to return to productive society. If they are judged unready to return to society; if they are judged to still be high risk for attacking the U.S.A. at first opportunity: they are to this point not released. This is a huge difference. U.S. criminals are released when they’ve paid their debt to society. GITMO prisoners are released when they are adjudged ready to resume peaceful living. GITMO prisoners also benefit from deprogramming-type rehab conversations with professionals. U.S. criminals often receive not much effective rehab for the help they really need in integrating into American society and into the American economy.

    Therefore, I think the 11% Jihadi recidivism rate and the 67% U.S. criminal recidivism rate represents and apples and oranges comparison. If you disagree, I respect that.

  9. Kathy says:

    Gcotharn wrote: Jihadis at GITMO are released when a judgment has been made that they are ready to return to productive society. If they are judged unready to return to society; if they are judged to still be high risk for attacking the U.S.A. at first opportunity: they are to this point not released. This is a huge difference. U.S. criminals are released when they’ve paid their debt to society. GITMO prisoners are released when they are adjudged ready to resume peaceful living.

    Mark, I am going to take a wild guess: Your mouth is hanging open and you are absolutely speechless at this moment. Am I right?

  10. gcotharn says:

    Kathy,

    I am not quibbling with any allegations regarding what has happened outside of GITMO.

    Crawford said the following (as I believe you’ve already noted):

    The techniques they used [on Qahtani] were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent. . . . You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health.

    This is why I say Qahtani is “the exception which proves the U.S.A. is not torturing detainees at Guantanamo. [Crawford’s] revelation is evidence the steady drumbeat [Torture! Torture! Torture!] has been wrong.” The way I read WaPo/Crawford, excepting for waterboarding and the “combination of things that had a medical impact [on Qahtani]”, Crawford sees no torture at GITMO. Crawford sees techniques she disagrees with; Crawford does not believe those techniques meet the definition of torture.

    Re Crawford’s “everybody wasn’t tortured”. My only point: Crawford is indicating she has investigated more than one case at GITMO.

  11. gcotharn says:

    Kathy,

    I believe it’s correct that, to this point, we’ve not released hardened, unrepentent jihadis whom we believe will again wage war against us. Is there some other aspect of my statement which you are speaking of, and which I am blind to?

  12. Kathy says:

    Crawford said the following (as I believe you’ve already noted):

    The techniques they used [on Qahtani] were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent. . . . You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health.

    This is why I say Qahtani is “the exception which proves the U.S.A. is not torturing detainees at Guantanamo. [Crawford’s] revelation is evidence the steady drumbeat [Torture! Torture! Torture!] has been wrong.” The way I read WaPo/Crawford, excepting for waterboarding and the “combination of things that had a medical impact [on Qahtani]“, Crawford sees no torture at GITMO. Crawford sees techniques she disagrees with; Crawford does not believe those techniques meet the definition of torture.

    Well, for one thing, the fact that any given technique was authorized by the Bush administration does not mean those techniques are not torture. We’re talking about the people who decided they did not have to follow the Geneva Convention or any other laws regarding the treatment of detainees — or, in fact, any laws at all.

    But the bigger point is that the Crawford quote you use to “explain” to me why you are saying that al-Qahtani “is the exception that proves the rule” that detainees at Gitmo were treated humanely doesn’t, actually, um, explain why you say that. You are drawing a conclusion from the Crawford quote that is not stated, supported, suggested, or in any way concludable from the quote.

    That’s all I can say to you on this point, Greg. I know you will not understand and you will still want to know why the quote doesn’t support your conclusion, but there is a limit as to how far I can reasonably go to aid your reading comprehension.

  13. Kathy says:

    Is there some other aspect of my statement which you are speaking of, and which I am blind to?

    Yes, there is. But I don’t feel confident enough about my ability to explain it to you in a way you will understand.

    I’m sure Mark will do a better job if he chooses to reply.

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