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May 20, 2005

A Legitimate Beef With Army Intelligence

I'm going to talk about some painful stuff here, but you should read it. But first read this NY Times Article about torture and/or abuse that went on at Baghram Air Base.

I don't have a problem with the NY Times running this article, and in fact think it's actually a public service. Admittedly, the Times does overreach, trying to tie the so-called torture memos to the maltreatment. Moreover, this isn't exactly new news - the reports on this incident came out three years ago, and it was mostly investigated two years ago, and charges and plea agreements have been ongoing. So I am forced to wonder whether the Times has been keeping this story in their hip pocket, in order to counterattack the Administration during the next big press scandal - the timing is just odd, and the timing makes it fit in with the Times' apparent policy of doing everything it can to aid and abet the enemy.

Nevertheless, it has the ring of truth to me, unlike some of the crazy allegations from a lot of the Gitmo detainees. (Flushing Korans... please... what, do they have pre-1996 toilets with 5 gallon flush, inside their interrogation rooms?) It appears some serious abuse, and manslaughter or perhaps even murder of a couple of detainees occurred at Bagram, at the hands of Army intelligence and military police soldiers. It's better this scandal be out in the open and that the Army be pressured to nail some people for the crimes they committed, including one crime that appears to have been committed against an innocent man.

It's a public service because it demonstrates what kind of country we are, which is especially useful in the wake of the Koran / Newsweak debacle. We find a problem, we sort it out, we tell the damn world about it. We even put up with Times' bullshit, and in a slightly less free world, like that which exists in maybe half of today's Earth, their editors and writers, including the preciously named Jennifer 8 Lee, would have long ago been lined up and shot three or 8 times by the ruling junta. Bushitler my ass.

But back to this story - the truth hurts. Somtimes our guys are capable of abuse, or terrible, inhuman things. That's what appears to have happened in these two cases. A long time back - maybe 18 months ago - a very liberal friend sent me an article about the two men who were killed. I said I didn't know what happened, I was withholding judgment until I knew more. Well, now I know more, and what I know tells me that some American jackasses soiled their uniforms, and our flag.

A word about battlefield interrogation and the law of land warfare is appropriate here.

Even if a person is an unlawful combatant and therefore not entitled to any particular protections under the Geneva Conventions, their treatment should be humane. That means even if you were to try them in a court martial for being illegal combatants and out of uniform, and aummarily sentence them to death, you couldn't execute them by beating them to death. There are lines that cannot be crossed, and this is customary and accepted in international law. This custom is described as the law of land warfare.

Even where the Geneva Conventions apply, you can treat enemy prisoners of war quite badly. Contrary to what many human rights groups are now pushing, you can do some very tough things with enemy POWs to get them to talk. The Conventions have some nice language, but these same groups will be the first to admit that "custom" dictates how treaties are interpreted, when they can use custom to pin back the U.S. government's ears in human rights cases.

Thus, given the normal way Enemy Prisoners of War are treated by decent nations, I believe sleep deprivation and dietary manipulation (not starvation, mind you) are within the law. Exerting fairly extreme coersive pressure is okay too, traditionally. ("I'll tell your colleagues that you cooperated and sold them out, then when you are alone with them in the cell block, they'll tear you apart.") You can even subject them to humiliating and uncomfortable administrative searches. ("Bend over. I have to make sure there's nothing secured up your hindquarters.") I happen to think you can keep a prisoner in restraints, as long as they aren't of the kind that will cause dislocation of the joints or actual injury (like hanging by the arms). I think discomfort positions are okay as well, as well as naked interrogation, or making crazy threats, as long as they are not direct death threats and as long as they are not carried through on. Now this is just talking about the law, not whether or not these things are good policy, or decent/indecent, or even good interrogation techniques. There is a lot of context to the harsh pragmatic decisions a nation at war must make, and I can't sit here cozily ensconced in the D.C. suburbs, mug of cruelty free fair trade coffee at my elbow, and start chuckin' stones. I ain't there. But for the most part, I trust the military to make those kinds of discretionary decisions, even though I know sometimes they will screw up badly. Baghram air base is a long way from here, and I'm not qualified to make battlefield judgments from where I sit.

Yet although the military has a great degree of discretion, and international law (a fiction really, since there isn't a big book of it, it's just habits and treaties) isn't clear, there are legal lines you don't cross, and battlefield commanders are entrusted with keeping their soldiers inside the lines. That didn't happen here.

Presuming you've read that NY Times story by now, you probably have a good idea where the lines were crossed. The beatings of a frail man, the creation of conditions where the chieftain's brother was likely to have medical problems - these are far over the line. I'll say something shocking here - if bin Laden is captured, and there are bombs ticking, I think we'd be morally justified in putting him in the most extreme pressure we can, including flat out torture, to save the lives of thousands. Illegal, but moral. But some chieftain's brother, isn't even close to meriting that level of ill treatment, not even in the same universe. And the apparently innocent cab driver - please. Morally, he merited kid glove treatment, that probably permitted much less pressure than the law allowed.

The use in these interrogations of a restraint technique - a knee to the thigh - which is only appropriate for prisoners who are physically resisting, was unacceptable. Moreover, once the frail taxi driver asserted that he was an innocent civilian, it was incumbent on the interrogators and military police to notify their officers, and for those officers to initiate a field tribunal to adjudicate his claim. The failure to do so was a violation of the Fourth and possibly Third Geneva Conventions. I happen to agree with the Bush Administration that the Geneva Conventions don't apply to Al Qaida - but if there is a good chance somebody isn't a member, their claim has to be adjudicated as swiftly as possible, and they must be granted the legal protections that their station merits. That didn't happen here, and it's a serious breach of the law.

What did happen, is abuse, and/or torture.

I make a distinction because the two things are different, as borne out at Abu Ghraib. Abuse is the deliberate infliction of pain or suffering, for fun, kicks, or no reason at all. Torture is the infliction of pain beyond a certain degree, for the purpose of inducing an individual to provide information. What went on at Abu Ghraib - the free lancing with dog piles of naked prisoners and dog collars - was abuse. What went on in the two cases profiled at Baghram, was torture, although there was some free lance abuse thrown in, apparently just for good measure.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I am compelled to do so, but that's what it was, and it was apparently condoned by a number of lower level leaders within the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, and this signals a loss of integrity among those leaders and in that unit. But the fact remains that the chain of command, especially that with close proximity to the interrogations, had a responsibility to see that abuse and torture did not occur. Both did.

Why did it happen?

Well, first of all, soldiers are human too, and in my experience, anybody who is worth a damn, is capable of doing great good, or great evil. To be fully human, is to possess the potential to reach to the sky, or to sink deeper into the muck than the dirt itself. There are moral hazards associated with interrogating people. You ask them to betray their country, their friends, their brothers in arms, and their selves, and to talk to you and give up information. This is subverting ordinary human morality. To make it happen, you apply cruel pressure, forceful psychological coersion and maybe some physical discomfort - and that is when interrogation is clean and within the laws. It's a nasty process, and it has been known to corrupt men, and turn them cruel. To paraphrase Coppola's Colonel Kurtz character in Apocalypse now, you need to find men of the highest character, and then teach them to commit brutal acts, if you wish to win a war, or successfully interrogate the enemy. Not all men are of this character, and the power to coerce, can turn into the tendency to abuse all to easily.

Second, there was a clear lack of training relating to some of these interrogators. The story notes that some of the interrogators were actually counterintelligence soldiers, with no particular interrogation training. That doesn't excuse them - human decency and common sense are never off on holiday - but it explains how it could happen. There is also evidence that the pre-deployment training relating to South Asian culture was completely inadequate. In the account relating to the interrogation and beating death of the frail taxi driver, it is noted that:

The other interrogator, Sergeant Salcedo, complained that the prisoner was smiling, not answering questions, and refusing to stay kneeling on the ground or sitting against the wall.

When I read that, I knew immediately, that Sergeant Salcedo didn't have a clue about South Asian culture. When people from Pakistan or Afghanistan are nervous or terrified, they will smile and become very agitated. It may be almost impossible to get them to sit still. They may stand there with a rictus-like smile, almost paralyzed like a deer in the headlights. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, just that the culture in that part of the world has inculcated different reflexive behavior. Here, when a cop talks to you, you talk back. What's he going to do? Over there, a guy in a uniform talks to you (and the cops and Army usually dress the same), you make submissive gestures, you don't talk back if you talk at all, and you put on a nervous smile. Or at least you do that if you don't want to get shot, or disappeared. That Salcedo didn't know this basic fact, is a stunning example of the lack of training for these interrogators.

Third, we are paying the price for the gutting of HUMINT in the 1990s, not just at the three letter agencies but within the military as well, where it took the form of a reduced force, and lower standards for qualification. This was very unwise because an army can't build intelligence skills overnight, they are accreted over 20 or 30 years. So the peace dividend really came back to bite us in the ass here. Battlefield interrogation and counterintelligence are two different art forms. I remember from my days in the service that some handful of top troops were cross trained in both skills, but that was a tiny number. The interrogators I knew in the First Gulf War were very controlled, very disciplined in their approach. The key to interrogation, as I understand it, is to use precisely meted control techniques, to induce psychological reliance in the prisoner, to get him to look to the interrogator as the savior, the controller. Ultimately, the prisoner opens up. You can't get a prisoner to this stage by acting willy nilly. When I read this account, I see a lot of undiscipline, an unfocused approach to interrogation. In other words, individuals who may be prepared to do their own jobs, but who are unprepared (yet still pressed into service out of necessity) to do somebody else's job in the interrogation room. This is as dumb, and as deadly, as asking your dentist to sub for your heart surgery this week, on the basis that the dentist is a doc just like the cardio surgeon.

So where does this leave us? It's hard for me to judge. The Times article indicates that a lot of people from the 519th MI Battalion, at least one platoon of it, are in trouble, along with some military police. That is as it should be, if these allegations are as the Times report. A few people have been charged with crimes, and at least several more are in the hopper. A number of folks have been given "nonjudicial punishment," which means reduction in rank and/or a hefty fine. That's a good start.

But the more important issue is that the Army needs to work on reconstituting its HUMINT and Counterintelligence workforces, if it has not started to do so already. This area more than any other suffers when the practitioners are devalued, viewed as an asset that can be cut and built back up on a whim. You can't learn tough foreign languages, complex psychological techniques, interviewing skills, and good interpersonal skills in just a few months of training. As we are seeing from the stories about where it goes wrong, it takes mad skills to be a good intelligence professional, and you can only develop those kinds of skills (similar to what a good detective would have) over time.

There is one other thing. When we hear an allegation about the troops, we should suspend judgment, but still press for an investigation. Where we have rot, we need to lance the infection and clean it out, or it spreads. That won't happen if we go around saying that it could never occur here. But also, like I said, we need to suspend judgment and not jump to conclusions. As any cop could tell you, bad guys make a lot of complaints, and there are far more complaints, than abuse cases. In being open to investigation allegations of abuse and wrongdoing, we also scrape away the disguise of the false accusers, showing that our troops, most of the time, do it right; and that when they don't, we address their failings with integrity. Like I said, I think the Times does a service here for a change, even though I wonder about the timing.


[Postscript: What is Murdoch's Sun doing publishing pictures of Saddam in his underwear? Are they trying (along with Newsweak and the Times) to get a full blown war of civilizations going? I don't think it would be unreasonable for Muslims to raise hell over this, and question whether or not the U.S. will treat them decently in the long run. Jeeeeebus, this pisses me off. Moreover, the pictures are violative of the Third Geneva Convention, which prohibits making a spectacle out of military prisoners. Saddam, as former Commander in Chief, probably fits under this heading. Wankers.]

Posted by Blackavar at May 20, 2005 12:52 AM | TrackBack
Postscript:
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