Enforcing the Laws

So this morning I was reading about how, in a shocking and uncharacteristic development, Dick Cheney took to Fox News to defended Bush era torture policies and criticized AG Holder’s investigation as “political,” (the White House’s administration’s desire to “move forward” apparently notwithstanding). I’m not going to delve into the substance of the argument right now — Cheney basically argues that enforcing the law might discourage future illegal activities (heaven forbid!) — but instead make a related point about something Dianne Feinstein says.

But, speaking on “Face the Nation” on CBS, she warned that “the timing of this is not very good.” She said that her committee was nearing completion of a bipartisan study of interrogation and detention practices and that it should have been allowed to complete its work before a decision was made about an investigation.

Look, bipartisan is not the same thing as nonpartisan, which is how relatively clear violations of the law should be evaluated. So-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” violated the Geneva Convention and in some cases violated laws of the United States. Suspected law breakers, if reasonable evidence exists, should be investigated. If you want to make the case that all politically sensitive acts that violate laws should be treated on an ad hoc basis, then people should say that, but laws exist partly to provide people with a framework for evaluating whether behavior is acceptable. If we decide that the enforcement of our laws should be subject to political expediency, then they aren’t worth much in the first place and won’t do much to discourage activities that have damaged our interests.

Self-Compromise and the Torture Investigation

As I am wont to do, I think Stephen Walt makes a compelling argument that those who decry the release of Abdel Basset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi because it represents an abrogation of the rule of law should by the same token be supportive of Eric Holder’s investigation of Bush era torture policy. Laws are laws, irrespective of politics, and the legitimacy of laws stems from the evenness of their enforcement. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like to make a completely unrelated point based on something Walt says.

I have no doubt that the president would prefer to “look forward,” because an investigation and/or prosecution will drive both the CIA and the right-wing media types crazy and because he’s got enough alligators to wrestle with already.

I think by now we can mostly agree there’s simply no appeasing Republicans. When they see an opening to exploit something for political gain, they’re going to do it. John McCain, after all, came up with a health care plan. Now it’s not the right time for health care reform. Not long ago, Republicans supported death panels. Now they don’t. Legislators in the Finance committee even dropped the provision, and there’s still no sign of compromise on health care. Shall I go on? Republicans were apoplectic over the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, who by any reasonable standard was a relatively moderate selection for a Democratic nominee. But the point is that she wasn’t John Roberts or Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas. The lessons is that Republicans are going to oppose any measure that is Democratic so it just doesn’t make any sense to base policy on what is going to be the most palatable for Republicans; they’ll find things that can be exploited and then they exploit them. You can’t win, so don’t even bother.

Sure — Republican hypocrisy is absolutely galling — but that’s the name of the game. They’ve been doing it for years, and nobody seems to care. What led to defeat for the Republicans in 2008 were the results of a bad policy in power and a little bit of bad luck. It wasn’t because Republicans claim to steadfastly oppose wasteful spending but still voted for a bloated Medicare drug benefit.

Anyway, as it relates to an investigation of torture, it’s the right thing to do because the law should not be subject to the caprice of political expediency. But even on a crassly political basis, there’s almost nothing you can do that’s remotely liberal that won’t ignite febrile rage among Republicans. If you try to appease them, the only thing you’ll do is wind up compromising with yourself until you realise you’re getting your pants pulled down. The thing for Democrats to do when they possess legislative majorities is to pass the best policy they can muster and hope the results speak for themselves.


Speaking about the possibility of AG Holder weighing appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Bush era torture policy, Matt Yglesias wonders if the possibility of political derailment is really something Democrats should worry about.

Holder’s quite right to say that he’s not supposed to think of the impact on the domestic legislative agenda. But I think it’s something we here in the peanut gallery both can and should think about. Back during the transition, I had a lot of concern about this derailment possibility. But from the vantage point of July, it doesn’t look to me as if there are any substantial number of Republicans interested in voting “yes” on a universal health care bill or on a clean energy bill. So how derailed can the agenda become?

Granted, the data is a bit outdated (May 2009), but polling suggests 57 percent of Americans don’t favor Congressional investigation of torture policies and slightly less (50 percent) actually approve of waterboarding, even though 60 percent believe it to be torture. I think the risk then isn’t in losing a Republican vote on health care or energy legislation, but giving Republicans a political bludgeon that will help shift the momentum of all political debates by handing the GOP an issue with which they enjoy a modicum of support. You can envision a scenario wherein growing support for the GOP allows centrists like Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, or Mary Landrieu the shred of political cover they might need to vote no on cloture.

Unfortunately, I think the prosecution of Bush era war criminals is the sort of thing that can’t be driven without wide margins of public support. After all, such a high profile investigation isn’t merely about bowing to the rule of law. It’s also a very public disavowal, and if the support for that type of mea culpa doesn’t exist, it’s going to be highly unpopular.

This Movie Is A Fantasy

So anyone who has HBO will know that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight has been playing quite a bit, so forgive me for the commentary on a movie released eons ago (at least in blog time). Anyway, I was watching it this morning in half-drunken a drunken torpor (thanks Adams Morgan!) and was thinking about how conservatives probably love this movie. And as it turns out, they do! After all, the plot involves the use of illegal surveillance activities and enhanced interrogation techniques in the name of stopping an ultra-violent, misanthropic nihilist.

Like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight earns its dread, draws us into a world enough like our own that it can’t be dismissed as fantasy. It reaches into your bones and gives them a good rattle, and you may still feel the vibrations long after the house lights come up. (The Dark Knight, much more than Batman Begins, allows itself to slip into a few wildly artificial moments, such as when Aaron Eckhart’s D.A. Harvey Dent badgers a witness into pulling a gun on him in open court, then dispatches him without mussing his hair.) The Spider-Man movies can barely be endured once; Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies demand repeat viewings.

Now, insofar as the point the movie makes, it does seem that in a world filled with nihilist mass murderers hell bent on sowing destruction for the sake of it, I don’t have an overwhelming problem with superhero use of illegal surveilance techniques. But of course it’s important to note that despite Pajamas Media’s assertions otherwise, The Dark Knight is really quite unlike the world which we inhabit. For starters, though terrorists are indeed mass murderers, they aren’t nihilists. Rather, they have political goals, and though it’s pretty clear there’s no reasoning with a man like Osama bin Laden, there are concrete reasons that animate terrorist activity. This shouldn’t be interpreted as an apologia for terrorists — violence of the sort employed by terrorists is without condition wrong, but the fact remains that until we actually have villians like the Joker, there will always be options for dealing with enemies that don’t necessitate infringing on civil liberties or basic conceptions of human rights.

On Torture and Propaganda

Matt Taibbi has a nice, if likely fruitless post explicating why it is that people who condemn torture are not pro-terrorist. Anyway, I think this issue has lost some cultural salience without an Administration or Congress capable of effectively using this specific illogic as a political bludgeon, but I take issue with this:

My group, the anti-torture group, believes that what should make us superior to terrorists is respect for law and due process and civilization, and that when we give in and use these tactics, we forfeit that superiority and actually confer a kind of victory to the al Qaedas of the world, people who should never be allowed any kind of victory in any arena. We furthermore think that the war on terror doesn’t get won with force alone, that it’s a conflict that ultimately has to be won politically, by winning a propaganda battle against these assholes, and we can’t win that battle so easily if people in the Middle East see us openly embrace these tactics.

I understand the point Taibbi is trying to make here — and I bet he doesn’t mean this — but reducing these conflicts to a simple matter of propaganda is a dangerous misreading of the situation. The fact is, extremisim won’t be wiped out with the right PR campaign. What will ultimately suffocate large scale extremism is the development of equitable and humane governments and civil societies that allow for constructive airing of political disagreements. Obviously, propoganda plays an important role insofar as messages suffer from lack of credibility, but we can’t afford to ignore the very real socioeconomic and political factors that breed extremism. The “winning a propaganda battle” approach is essentially a tacit nod to the Bush era dictum “they hate us for our freedoms” — a postulate Osama bin Laden has explicitly denied.

Pain And Suffering

I’m a little late in posting this, but here’s waterboarding by song.

FBI Interrogator: Torture Didn’t Work, Hurts Capacity, “Emboldens” Terrorists

I’m glad former FBI Agent Ali Soufan’s Op-Ed ran in the times today to counter the idiotic “news analysis” explaining that the effectiveness of torture lies at the heart of the public debate on the matter and features primarily arguments advanced by should-be discredited villain, Dick Cheney. But since I’m not bound by any need to adhere to “one-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand-bullshit”, I’ll spare you the tired arguments of Cheney and just highlight some of the Soufan piece.

FOR seven years I have remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. I have spoken only in closed government hearings, as these matters were classified.[…]

One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

[…]It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

[…]There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

There’s more in the piece itself, like a simple chronological debunking of the claims bandied about by the pro-torture folks. Maybe more importantly though, Soufan makes the astute point that illegal and clandestine acts like torture serve to corrode our legal system from the inside. Agencies unwilling to break the law are restricted from working with agencies with less scruples and a great deal of expertise and institutional capacity is completely wasted.

I’m really not sure why we can’t all just agree that this part of our national securit policy was utterly dispicable. The whole thing is simply disgusting.

Bush Administration Used Torture to Not Find Links between 9/11 and Iraq

As I wrote earlier, one defense tactic employed by the pro-torture crowd is to make the argument that “ticking time bomb” scenarios justified the inhumane interrogations. But then we learned that Abu Zuybadah was waterboarded 183 times in one month, which at the time the information came available, either suggested the presence of an improbably high number of time bombs or revealed that the interrogations were pervesely used as punishment. Now that the Senate Armed Services Committee has released a report on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” we found there was another reason: complete stupidity. McClatchy reports.

Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn’t any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies.”

Senior administration officials, however, “blew that off and kept insisting that we’d overlooked something, that the interrogators weren’t pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information,” he said.

The article itself goes in to a fair amount of detail, so I’d suggest a full read. That the torture techniques employed were based on methods aimed at extracting false confessions from U.S. prisoners of war only makes the Bush Administration look worse, if that’s even possible. Not only were intelligence gathering agencies unable to produce any legitimate link between Iraq and al Qaeda (though they did hire Doug Feith to fabricate such “intelligence”), they couldn’t even extract a false confession to make the connection and still prosecuted the war anyway.

To call the Bush Administration morally bankrupt would be an insult to sociopaths everywhere. These people were truly reprobate degenerates.

For some good reporting on the issue, check out Spencer Ackerman here.

Intelligence Was Fine Before Torture Policy

In the New York Times must-read on the the harebrained Bush Administration efforts to assemble a torture program, you see some form of the rationalization that “it’s easy to look back now,” or the “ticking time bomb defense” used to defend torture policy. For example:

If they shunned interrogation methods some thought might work, and an undetected bomb or bioweapon cost thousands of lives, where would the moral compass point today? It is a question that still haunts some officials. Others say that if they had known the full history of the interrogation methods or been able to anticipate how the issue would explode, they would have advised against using them.

I’m not going to wade into the murky moral waters of events that never happened, but I will take the opportunity to point out that well before institutionalized torture became a feature of U.S. national security policy, the intelligence community was capable of putting together an August 2001 report presciently titled, “Bin Laden determined to Strike in US,” which was summarily ignored by George Bush.

24’s Introspection

On 24, Kevin Drum remarks:

It’s turned into exactly the train wreck that I was afraid of when the season started.  Back when Jack Bauer merely tortured people as part of the script, that was one thing…  But this season Jack isn’t just spontaneously beating up on bad guys who know where the ticking time bombs are buried.  No.  This season Jack is beating up on the bad guys as part of a premeditated strategy and then talking about it endlessly.  And so is everyone else.  The writers are no longer content to merely suggest that (in their fictional universe) a bit of extralegal torture might sometimes be justified because it gets results.  They’re bound and determined to explicate it on screen every single time it happens and demand that we, the audience, actively approve of it.  This is not only depraved, it’s lousy storytelling too.  All the usual 24 preposterousness aside, it’s made the show cringe-inducing this season.

I am forced to agree with a lot of this. What’s been most remarkable about 24 this season is how little it’s adapted to reflect changing attitudes about the world we inhabit. Following 9/11 it was far more foregivable to produce a show — a fantasy — in which the United States is almost constantly fending off nefarious terrorist plots, but it seems that general anxiety no longer exists, I think primarily because we’ve been better able to gain perspective on the attacks. Our civilization is not under everpresent terrorist threat, and more importantly, I think there’s a better sense that terrorism does not result explicitly from “hatred of our freedoms” but from “hatred of our policies.” As such, the entire premise of the show just feels contrived — even more so than in the past — and any message the show may try to offer suffers for it.

That said, it still makes for pretty entertaining TV from time to time.