Yes, yes, I can already tell how excited you’re all getting about this, my first ‘serious’ post in a long time. Well, personally I’m not terribly excited about it myself. I’ve veered away from politics for awhile because I find 90% of what comes out of the Beltway these days depressing, and frankly I’ve been far busier overall this deployment and the time I used to devote to perusing the op-eds every day is a luxury I no longer have. I know this post will win me no new friends and probably piss off most of my old ones. In fact, some of you are probably thinking: haven’t you talked about this already, either here or in interminable back-and-forths with The Accidental Blogger a.k.a. the artist formerly known as Ammianus Marcellinus? You’re probably right; consider this a new afterword, incorporating previously unknown or undisclosed facts. Or consider it a waste of time on an issue in which virtually everyone has already made up their minds. Either way, I’m pressing on because I think it’s worth talking about, and that the current trend of false moral purity should not be allowed to destroy history and reason.
So, where to begin? Perhaps with a summary of the accusations against the Bush administration and its use of enhanced interrogation techniques (I’ll try to be as succinct and fair as I can). They run thus: we used waterboarding on a handful of captured terrorists. Our treatment of these individuals was illegal, violating the Constitution and Geneva Conventions; it damaged our standing in the world, created more terrorists than it stopped, and placed our troops in additional personal danger should they be captured; it produced no usable intelligence; and it was as reprehensible as war crimes committed by the Japanese, whom we in fact prosecuted and executed for precisely the same conduct. I will address each of these in turn.
I won’t pretend to be any kind of constitutional or legal scholar, but there are a few things to consider in the first argument. Most importantly, none of the three prisoners subjected to waterboarding are American citizens. The Constitution offers them no rights and nothing in that document requires the government to extend those privileges to prisoners of war. When it comes to Geneva Conventions, matters are a little murkier, but let me try to parse them. The Third Geneva Convention, which covers prisoners of war, defines precisely what a prisoner is and what treatment they are entitled to. Overlooked in the current controversy, however, are certain obligations that the captured have in their conduct prior to capture. The three were not parties to the Geneva Conventions, are not members of any group or nation that are signatories to it, and moreover, violate that clause which specifically discusses powers or group that are non-signatories; even if one belligerent is not a signatory, the other Power is obliged to extend the articles of the Convention to them, provided “the latter accepts and applies the provisions thereof”. KSM and his cohorts never accepted, and willfully flaunted, those laws of war. They wore no uniforms, did not carry arms openly, and disdained the normal ‘laws and customs’ of war in their operations. They purposefully targeted civilians (indeed, maximizing civilian casualties was their modus operandi) and treated their own prisoners (so long as they lived) brutally. Their prisoners never lived long, however, because they made no accommodation for their basic needs and preferred to saw their heads off for the world to see. Now, a clause exists which declares that there is no ‘intermediate status’ of prisoners: they are either combatants, covered under the Third Convention, or civilians, covered under the Fourth. However, even under the Fourth Convention, civilians are afforded protection so long as they do not take part in hostilities; once they do so, they are considered belligerents. However lawful or unlawful a combatant these three men may be, however, the Convention still allows them to be interned, interrogated, and prosecuted.
Despite all this – their disregard for the Conventions and their deliberate violation of the laws of war – the ‘Gitmo Three’ have been afforded unusually generous civil rights during their incarceration. They are interned in decent quarters and, as their ‘Gitmo guts’ might tell you, well fed and cared for. They have access to lawyers and probably have to turn litigators away at the door, since so many are eager to represent them. They are free to practice their religion, despite desiring the deaths of all those who don’t share their faith. At some point they will be tried, afforded a due process denied to Daniel Pearl and about 3,000 civilians on September 11th. They are no more exempt from interrogation than are American criminals. In short, they’ve been granted legal protections well outside the requirements of the Constitution and Geneva Conventions and which they and their movement have denied and violated well before terms like ‘Gitmo’ and ‘waterboarding’ became part of the global lexicon.
Next, the global repercussions of waterboarding these three. To be sure, revelation of this interrogation message inflamed the famous Muslim streets and brought all kinds of poo-pooing from various allies and non-allies. What American actions abroad, however, do not inflame the Muslim streets or generate poo-pooing from some quarter or another? Waterboarding pissed off the Muslim street; but then, so did the invasion of Iraq, the war against the Taliban, the presence of American troops in the Middle East, America’s support for Israel, America’s liberal society in general, Israel’s existence, and America’s existence (so did allegations of mishandling the Koran in Gitmo, but I don’t really count that because, as we found out, those allegations had the small flaw of being untrue). Now, in general, it’s always wise for a president to consider the global ripples of his actions before acting; however, if we made all of our economic, political, and national security decisions based on how they would play out on the Muslim street, we might as well nuke Israel ourselves. Imagine the goodwill that would generate on those perpetually inflamed streets. This is the same ‘street’ that saw people dancing and cheering as plane after plane exploded in flames on 9/11 and which considers suicide bombers ‘martyrs’ rather than the most barbaric and depraved of murderers. It seems to me that the Muslim street, not American policy, needs a values adjustment. Likewise, the criticisms of Russia and Venezuela ring hollow when they come from countries that routinely quash free speech, exile or execute political opponents, overtly or covertly fund and supply terrorist movements, and trample on the most basic civil rights of their citizens. Much has been made of the need for
As to the poo-pooing of our allies, this is a more serious issue, because collectively we operate under a similar set of values and greatly depend on each other for material assistance against terrorist groups. It’s worth noting, however, the different circumstances which we and our allies face.
Regarding the additional dangers waterboarding has exposed our military to, I ask you: do you really think it would make a lick of difference to men like Osama bin Laden, KSM, or Zarqawi whether we waterboarded or simply asked questions nicely? Bin Laden murdered 3,000 Americans on September 11th, and hundreds of other innocent civilians in the years before when waterboarding, Gitmo, and numerous other perceived offenses hadn’t yet happened. KSM beheaded Daniel Pearl while shouting God’s goodness without ever being waterboarded. Zarqawi’s campaign of terror preceded most of today’s terrorist and liberal grievances as well. Why is it so hard to understand that while men like these offer a wealth of excuses for their actions, blaming American excesses and crimes for each new act of brutality they commit, it is our very existence and that of our civilization that offends them? Our existence is one grievance we can never redress, but it’s the only one they’re interested in. Every other excuse they offer is for the consumption of the good old Muslim street and pliant Westerners who so loathe their civilization already that they’ll believe every accusation, substantiated or not. We could live in a Leave It To Beaver nation, and it would not matter in the slightest to these butchers should they ever get a hold of me. The best way to prevent them from committing barbaric acts is to know what they know, denying them the opportunity to act.
Which leads us to the question: did waterboarding help us know what they knew? Did it prevent new acts of widescale bloodshed? Former vice president Dick Cheney and intelligence officials at the time say it did; the new administration says it didn’t. The only way to know for sure is to release the results of the interrogations and let the country decide. Everyone in the Beltway is after the ‘truth’; and since we’ve already informed al Qaeda of how we pulled knowledge from their operatives, we might as well be honest about the quality of that information. I, for one, would like to know whether we prevented other 9/11s we’d never dreamed of; if we didn’t, I will gladly denounce enhanced interrogation as a waste of time and resources. But we deserve to know.
Finally, one of the most scathing accusations in this debate is that our enhanced interrogations were no better than the brutalities inflicted by Japanese war criminals on hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and legal prisoners of war. We tried and executed men for this after World War II, critics say; we are now no better than our enemies. This charge is perhaps the most damning of all; but it ignores many details and nuances of the historical record. First of all, Japanese “water torture” was not the waterboarding we know today. The CIA’s method involves placing the prisoner on an inclined board, covering his face with a cloth or cellophane barrier, and pouring water over the barrier to simulate drowning. Japanese water torture generally had no barrier: water was poured directly into the prisoner’s nose and mouth, literally drowning him. Variations included beating on the prisoner’s distended stomach after he’d ingested large amounts of water, or force-feeding dry rice to him and forcing water down his throat afterward, causing the rice to expand painfully in his stomach. Unlike the prisoners the CIA interrogated, these prisoners usually died or suffered severe physical damage. Unlike the CIA interrogations, the Japanese were not looking for information; this was entertainment. They sought to inflict pain as an end, not as a means to prevent greater bloodshed.
Perhaps these fairly crucial differences strike some as irrelevant. That would still mean that our government used methods we’d executed men for decades earlier. So, were Japanese officials convicted and executed simply for performing water torture? As it turns out, yes; but as one pundit put it, they were executed to the extent that Charles Manson received life in prison for trespassing. Such a simple interpretation leaves out the fact that these war criminals were condemned for many things, all of them worse than what KSM received. Here are some of the charges against Japanese officials who were merely imprisoned for their crimes:
- Specifications: beating using among others hands, sword scabbard, saber belt, belt buckle, bamboo sticks, rifle butts; kicking; subjecting PWs to ju-jitsu; forcing PW to stand at attention for a long period of time, sometimes in cold weather without sufficient clothing and on one occasion, in the nude; throwing a bucket of ice cold water over PW in cold weather;water treatment which entailed forcing water down PWs throat and nostrils using among others a hose, tubes; picking up and throwing PW to the ground; banging head against a wall; raising and lowering a sword on a PWs neck in an effort to make him give information.
- Specifications: beating, kicking, water torture, burning using wood, lighted cigarettes and burning pokers, forcing to stand/kneel in snow w/out adequate protection
- Specification 1: That in or about July or August, 1943, the accused Yukio Asano, did willfully and unlawfully, brutally mistreat and torture Morris O. Killough, an American Prisoner of War, by beating and kicking him; by fastening him on a stretcher and pouring water up his nostrils.
- Specification 2: That on or about 15 May, 1944, at Fukoka Prisoner of War Branch Camp Number 3, Kyushu, Japan, the accused Yukio Asano, did, willfully and unlawfully, brutally mistreat and torture Thomas B. Armitage, William O Cash and Munroe Dave Woodall, American Prisoners of War by beating and kicking them, by forcing water into their mouths and noses; and by pressing lighted cigarettes against their bodies.
As you can see, there’s a lot more to their conduct than waterboarding, and the Japanese notion of waterboarding was far more brutal than the CIA’s.
How about those war criminals actually executed for war crimes in World War II? Paul Begala recently claimed that
- Sieshiro Itagaki – was responsible for providing food and medical care to POWs and civilian prisoners on various Indonesian islands. Thousands in his charged died due to malnutrition and lack of treatment.
- Heitaro Kimura – violated the laws of war in forcing prisoners to do hazardous labor. Thousands died performing dangerous construction jobs. He also did nothing to prevent or punish atrocities inflicted by his troops against prisoners.
- Iwane Matsui – commander of the Japanese forces who captured
Nankingin 1937. His men killed over 100,000 civilians after the city’s capture, routinely torturing men and raping women before murdering them.
- Koki Hirota – held office as
Japan’s foreign minister during the sack of Nanking. He was well informed of the atrocities committed there, and received many protests from the international community, but did nothing to stop Matsui’s forces.
Waterboarding was not listed among these men’s crimes, and clearly what they did to deserve execution goes well beyond rough interrogation techniques.
This lays nothing to rest, I’m sure; but I think it’s all worth a little reflection before we decide that the previous administration, their intelligence officials, and the measures they took to prevent further mass-casualty attacks are little better than the 20th century’s worst murderers. I’m sorry that we made KSM and his friends uncomfortable; I’m more sorry that Daniel Pearl’s family will never see him again, that 3,000 American families have been deprived of their loved ones, and that thousands of other innocent people around the world have suffered greater pain and loss by al Qaeda’s actions than KSM ever will. And if the powers that be in