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September 13, 2006

Military commissions and national security

My first PostGlobal question:

President Bush this week proposed legislation to reauthorize military commission trials at Guantanamo Bay. But these commissions strip detainees of Geneva Convention rights and permit evidence obtained by physical coercion into the courtroom.

In the wake of Abu Ghraib, how will these proposed military commissions affect national security? Will this plan expose our troops, now deployed around the world, to similar treatment?

- NEAL KATYAL, Won Hamdan v. Rumsfeld; see his hamdanvrumsfeld.com

Bush's proposed legislation is a threat to our national security.

The legislation would seriously damage America's credibility in the war on terror. If Congress passes this legislation, it will send a very dangerous message: The US flouts international law, embraces torture, and rejects due process.

American troops will be among the first to suffer. Proponents of torture dismiss this concern, arguing that the terrorists aren't signatories to the Geneva Convention. This is a dangerously short-sighted attitude. Our adversaries will be less likely to surrender on the battlefield if the US rescinds any assurance of humane treatment or due process. Therefore, more US troops will be killed fighting adversaries who would otherwise have surrendered peacefully.

Torture also creates popular sympathy for terrorists. The United States bills itself as a paragon of democracy and human rights, but the pictures from Abu Ghraib told a very different story.

How many torture victims will go on to become torturers, or even terrorists? Surely, many of apolitical detainees who were tortured at Abu Ghraib joined the insurgency because they were tortured? How many more terrorists will be created by the CIA in the "long war" ahead?

On a practical level, if the US wants to torture suspects, other intelligence agencies will hesitate to cooperate with us. Apparently, Condoleeza Rice clashed with Dick Cheney over the CIA's secret prison program because she realized that the program was undermining security by alienating our allies.

Other countries don't look kindly on the US for kidnapping and torturing their citizens. Extraordinary rendition and torture have already strained relations between US and its allies.

If these suspects were proven guilty of heinous crimes, then our allies might be sympathetic and even grateful to the US for locking them up at Guantanamo in the name of international security.

However, Bush's plan would also deny terror suspects any semblance of due process. These secret military tribunals wouldn't even allow the accused to see the evidence against him. Evidence obtained under torture could also be used against him. Presumably, a suspect could be tortured into confessing terror ties and executed for those confessions. Such a spectacle recalls the Spanish Inquisition and the Stalinist show trials. Saddam Hussein also liked to execute people for what they confessed under torture.

The president is demanding the right to try suspects in secret and execute them at his personal discretion. Given Bush's zeal for executions as governor of Texas, this is a truly frightening possibility.

Without real trials, the world has no assurance that these people are guilty of anything. We are being asked to trust that the president is just, benign, and well-informed. Yet, this is the same president who flouts treaty obligations and champions torture. The civilized world would rightly regard such a leader as a despot.

If this legislation passes, the global war on terror could cease to be global. In the grand scheme of things a few extra confessions from squalid cells in secret prisons are worthless compared to the respect and cooperation of our allies.

Update: Please check out the discussion threads at PostGlobal. PG editor Amar Bakshi says he's really enjoying the commentary here and hopes that readers will join the discussion at PostGlobal.

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Bush's proposed legislation is a threat to our national security.

I thought that line was a bit over-wrought, but by the end you'd made the case very well.

I might quibble with a point or two, but on the whole you make an excellant practical argument.

In a better world, of course, you'd just point out that torture and show trials are evil and we're supposed to be the good guys, and everybody'd go "Oh, yeah, that's right, we'd better cut it out."

There is another "practical level" issue besides international cooperation (and it'll probably resonate better with the mean spirited who seem to make up a plurality of the electorate, who think "international cooperation's for wimps", etc.): that is secret evidence, etc. (including torture) not only don't work but when you got someone based on faulty evidence/statements, you are letting guilty people run free that much longer. It's the flip side of innocent A. Dreyfuss being tried and convicted based on secret evidence that, had it seen the proper light of day would have quickly been discredited and set Dreyfuss free -- namely that once the evidence would have been discredited, the authorities would have known they were barking up the wrong tree and got to punishing the guilty parties that much sooner.

Perhaps we should always be responding as if crime fighting is a zero sum game of sorts, even if it is appealing to the baser instincts of the 'murkin people (heck, it works for the GOP): "for every innocent person convicted because of lack of challenge to evidence, coerced confessions, etc., a guilty person goes free ... and if you believe gummint never makes mistakes, I got a bridge to nowhere to sell you".

How many torture victims will go on to become torturers, or even terrorists? Surely, many of apolitical detainees who were tortured at Abu Ghraib joined the insurgency because they were tortured? How many more terrorists will be created by the CIA in the "long war" ahead?

This is a good point.

Torture also creates popular sympathy for terrorists. The United States bills itself as a paragon of democracy and human rights, but the pictures from Abu Ghraib told a very different story.

This is a huge concern. After 9/11, we had the sympathy of the entire world, besides the small cadre of terrorists who perpetrated it, and their supporters. I suppose the world understood that we couldn't go into Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, but they all supported us in Afghanistan. When we switched gears from going after the perpetrators in Afghanistan, to for some reason going into Iraq, most of the world smelled a rat and said "What the _hell_ are you doing? They had nothing to do with 9/11!" (as George W. Bush eventually was forced to admit).

But the signal image of the whole war has been--on the cover of the Economist, no less, a staunch supporter of the war--the figure of the hooded man being tortured, er, "coerced," standing on a box, before the words: "Resign, Rumsfeld." Our enemies have made the same blunders by their countless kidnappings and beheadings, but the fact is that it's _insane_ that we've squandered the world's goodwill and support, given so generously after 9/11, because of our willingness to torture. The world now sees us as someone willing to use all the tactics of Saddam Hussein, and worries that it is the US that needs to be stopped. This should _never_, and need never, have happened. We should never for one instant have become identified either with torture, or with false imprisonment. This is a huge, stupid blunder, that has caused the US, formerly an example to the world in terms of human rights, into something approaching a pariah state. We're not a pariah state yet; but we have far less political or diplomatic influence in the wider world than we did in past decades. This is destroying the very goal we're ostensibly fighting for, that of spreading democracy. It's destroying our popular support throughout the world, which should have been a slam-dunk surety. It's such a colossal blunder. Let us stop being torturers.

Surely, many of apolitical detainees who were tortured at Abu Ghraib joined the insurgency because they were tortured? How many more terrorists will be created by the CIA in the "long war" ahead?

I don't really see how that assumption warrants a "surely." It certainly seems feasible or even likely, but we're not talking about a set of people large enough that I'd translate that "likely" to a "surely."

That particular subsec of your response isn't really necessary to your broader point, which I think the mass exposure of the images can support by itself. I probably would've left that out or documented it with a good example if possible.

Otherwise, congrats on a response to a question that isn't perfectly suited to any of your specific areas of expertise. That's never fun.

I'm certain that among the hundreds of people tortured at Abu Ghraib, at least one victim joined the insurgency who wouldn't otherwise have done so. Imagine how you'd feel if soldiers of an occupying army tortured you, or a loved one, and proclaimed their transcendent right to torture anyone they wanted as part of their endless war on terror.

Now, maybe you don't want to call all armed resistance to American occupation "terrorism." I have no particular reason to believe that being tortured by Americans would make a person more likely to blow up Iraqi civilians at mosques. However, I see a direct connection between being tortured by Americans and subsequently attacking the American troops occupying your country.

If this legislation passes, the global war on terror could cease to be global. In the grand scheme of things a few extra confessions from squalid cells in secret prisons are worthless compared to the respect and cooperation of our allies.

What global? What respect? What cooperation? And what allies?

I think there's only one sensible response to the question, "What will torture do to national security?": "I have to unask your question."

Maybe torturing people will help American national security; the level of respect people have for the US right now is so low that instigating one more atrocity can't harm it. The problem is, asking that question in this context is no different from asking whether Bin Laden's fatwa against the US is theologically sound. It's the modern equivalent of asking how many angels can dance on a pin's head.

When a state tortures innocent civilians for no reason other than sadism, its national security is the last thing any moral person should care about.

Alon, I was thinking about the current situation in Afghanistan. British, Canadian, and Dutch forces have committed thousands of troops to Afghanistan between them.

NATO is asking for more troops for a fall offensive against the Taliban. However, public opinion is increasingly divided in these countries about whether the Afghanistan mission should continue at all. I think opposition to American human rights abuses and power grabs contributes to the backlash against the Afghanistan mission.

There are international efforts to track and arrest terrorists. However, if the United States insists on its right to torture whoever it wants, and/or imprison them for life, other may countries will hesitate to share information with American authorities.

It's one thing to share tips on terrorism, it's quite another to run the risk that American CIA teams will show up in your territory and drag some of your citizens away.

The US hasn't hit rock bottom in international support for counter-terrorism, but it seems determined to do so.


I'm certain that among the hundreds of people tortured at Abu Ghraib, at least one victim joined the insurgency who wouldn't otherwise have done so.

But that's not what you said. First, you said "many." Second, you presupposed that the individuals in question were previously apolitical. It seems much more likely that the shift would be in individuals who were previously sympathetic but uninterested in joining.

It's not a huge point - and, again, not one that I see as terribly central to your thesis. But it still strikes me as needlessly over-speculative.

Where are you getting the "hundreds tortured" number from, by the way? I'm not questioning it, just curious.

Nicely written piece, with many good points clearly and persuasively laid out.

The main quibbles I would have are ones you might expect from me by now: you don't signal awareness of the fact that the Administration asserts a distinction between physical coercion and torture, or that it denies it endorses or was really responsible for Abu Ghraib. And you don't address or acknowledge the security-related reasons the Administration gives for its proposals (need to keep sources and methods secret, abuse of trials as platform for terrorists, etc.), and how it argues that coercion will save lives of soldiers. I know you don't credit these points as sufficient justifications, but their omission will be marked by some as a defect in your case. On the other hand, I'd guess most Post readers won't care about those points, and dealing with or even just acknowledging them would take more space.

The question itself struck me as oddly leading, but I gather that's because it came from a critic of the Administration?

Thanks for the feedback, everyone. I really appreciate it.

Eli, I think hundreds of detainees tortured is a reasonable estimate. I'm speculating, of course. Here's why I think so: Salon's Abu Ghraib files alone include 279 photographs and 19 videos of detainee abuse. (173 of Salon's pictures were taken with Cpl. Charles A. Graner's camera.) It's hard to tell how many individual victims are depicted in this archive. Some people may have been photographed repeatedly. Then again, some shots depict multiple detainees being abused simultaneously. I think it's safe to say not every abused prisoner got photographed.

The abuse was systemic, as various official reports and human rights observers have concluded, it seems reasonable to assume that hundreds of people were abused at AG, especially considering the Defense Department's brutal standard operating procedure.

A large percentage of people held at Abu Ghraib were common criminals. It was, after all, a major Iraqi prison.

The Taguba report estimated that:

60% of the prisoners at the site were "not a threat to society" and that the screening process was so inadequate that innocent civilians were often detained indefinitely.

If 60% of the detainees weren't even a threat to society, and some unspecified percentage of bona fide non-political criminals, it's safe to say that many people tortured at AG weren't political to begin with.

SP, I don't recognize a difference between physical coercion and torture. Less serious forms of physical coercion are just less serious forms of torture. If the US government can define its terms, I can define mine.

“the Administration asserts a distinction between physical coercion and torture, or that it denies it endorses or was really responsible for Abu Ghraib.”

Most of the world now regards a distinction between physical coercion and torture by the US and a distinction between Pfc. Lynndie England and George Bush as distinctions without a difference. My guess is that those who are actively fighting US forces might be among this group.

“And you don't address or acknowledge the security-related reasons the Administration gives for its proposals . . .”

Outside the Bush cult, no one on planet Earth believes or gives a crap about the Administration’s reasons, least of all anyone who might harm US interests (like our soldiers).

“I'd guess most Post readers won't care about those points . . .”

Got that right.

NATO is asking for more troops for a fall offensive against the Taliban. However, public opinion is increasingly divided in these countries about whether the Afghanistan mission should continue at all. I think opposition to American human rights abuses and power grabs contributes to the backlash against the Afghanistan mission.

I'm not so sure. People's capability of ignoring their own side's atrocities can astonish any rational thinker. Americans have no trouble dismissing Abu Ghraib as an isolated incident, just like non-Jihadist Islamists have no trouble dismissing Bin Laden as a lone nut who has nothing to do with Saudi madrassahs. This suggests that Europeans and Canadians never supported the US in the first place, which fits well with the fact that public opinion about Iraq outside the US and Israel has been negative since it became an issue in 2002.

In other words, American torture won't make any pro-American think less of the US. American invasions of random countries that give no good results will, but it's not as if the US military is capable of mounting another invasion right now.

In short, national security will be weakened when we have fewer and fewer allies upon whom we can rely when we need them most. The population of the free world tends to frown on what they consider to be lawless regimes, which is how we are perceived by growing numbers. We are starting to become like other members of the so-called "Axis of Evil" in yet one more way: Poor relations with the international community.

Bush shouldn't be villifying Kim Jong Il; he should be inviting him to a state dinner. Beggars can't be choosers.

The growing doubts of Canadians regarding Afghanistan are an empirical fact. I haven't followed public opinion as closely in the UK or the Netherlands, but I get the impression that the electorate is grappling with similar issues.

It's not a question of being pro- or anti-American. It's the realization that the Americans are setting the agenda and running this series of wars and police operations on their own terms.

Every time the US violates human rights, it gives anti-interventionist critics more ammunition to scale back commitments abroad.

I supported the effort to unseat the Taliban, in the abstract. But as I said at the time, I didn't trust that the US was committed to seeing this effort through.

If you're a small country shouldering a big part of a daunting mission, you have to think carefully about whether you can justify this contribution. The fact that American conduct in the so-called war on terror is looking more and more like terrorism isn't heartening.

There are international efforts to track and arrest terrorists. However, if the United States insists on its right to torture whoever it wants, and/or imprison them for life, other may countries will hesitate to share information with American authorities.

(Adopting Rasputin's bold instead of italics method of quoting others--hat tip to Rasputin)

As to counter-terrorism intelligence, or other kinds of intelligence, the British, Canadians and Americans share so much of their intelligence with one another (95% of their intelligence, according to an ambassador I spoke with), and have for so long, that they're not likely to stop doing so unless an extremely antagonistic and hostile relationship develops between America and one or other of those countries.

Of course, I am in general agreement that 1) torture or "physical coercion" (which I agree with cfrost seems like nothing but a euphemism) is damaging the world public's view of us (not to mention much of our own view of ourselves) beyond repair, and must be stopped; 2) Iraq has been a colossal blunder; and that 3) Afghanistan was a well-justified response to 9/11, but that our blunder in Iraq and our insistence on creating a safe place for torture is endangering the assistance the European and Canadian public is willing to offer us there (which has been substantial, in the thousands of troops, so far).

Lindsay, I'm pretty sure that people in Britain were dead set against the war in the first place, and that Tony's popularity has been steadily declining in the last three years precisely because of that (and possibly also because of his religious fundamentalism, but I'm not sure about that). The Abu Ghraib incidents don't seem to have mattered that much: they were released at the same time as another set of photos depicting British troops engaged in similar atrocities, which obviously raised a bigger outcry; the photos later turned out to be forged, which largely killed the argument from torture against the war.

I'm in the middle of a post about Coturnix's pledge incident, but after I finish it I'll post about Britain and ask a few people I know on another forum, who include a Brit, a Dutch woman, and a New Zealander, to tell me how things are going on in their countries.

Or, in short:

>The fact that American conduct in the so-called war on terror is looking more and more like terrorism isn't heartening.

The fact that that statement even _seems_ true, after we were the ones hit with the worst terrorist attack in our history five years ago, indicates that torture and false imprisonment must be stopped, stopped now, and given up for good. Or at least until those countries, like Britain, who are also suffering such terrorist attacks, conclude that torture is an absolute necessity too. Otherwise, their public will rightly say: "_we_ don't do this; why must you?"

NATO is very nearly broken and Tony Blair and GWB are responsible. No other NATO partner will send troops to Afghanistan; that's a direct result of the US & British governments' illegal actions in Iraq, not to mention Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, secret prisons, the rendition of EU citizens...

It seems to be the general consensus here in NL (I am British) that although Afghanistan is seen as a potentially justified conflict because of its being a centre of narcoterrorism (cheap heroin is flooding Europe), we should withdraw our troops now or seriously review the leadership of the venture and the terms of engagement - ie, kick out the useless Yanks who're charging around like bulls in a chinashop, killing civilians, making matters worse.

The whole exercise was sold to the Dutch and British forces by Bush and Blair as action in support of nation-building - hearts and minds, not IEDs - when in fact the levl of conflict has been escalated by US actiosn. No wonder so many ill-equipped EU soldiers are being killed.

In addition any new troops sent to Afghanistan by other NATO partners will be ultimately under US control. No sensible country wants those reckless crazies in charge of their forces.

Denying this request for support is one of the few ways in which international pressure can be put on Bushco - because Bushco've broken their own army and now they desperately need ours.

The trials should be modeled after The Nuremberg Trials, which were public. With all of this posturing lately compare this struggle for civilization against the evil islamocommienazijihadifacists to nazis, it seems to be the sensible thing to do.
The point being, if public trials were good enough for nazis, they are good enough for the islamocommienazijihadifacists.

The fact that the military commissions act is even up for debate nauseates me. Sending prisoners to countries that did not sign the Geneva Convention for “interrogation” still qualifies as a violation of the Convention: no torture means no torture, it doesn’t matter who it is, or where it is. Also, how does detaining possible terrorists without due process and with inhumane treatment help America’s image, or the war on terror? You are absolutely right to address the idea that torturing prisoners will only create more torturers and terrorists, especially if they are wrongly accused of terrorism. According to Patrick Quinn’s article in Associated Press, seventy to ninety percent on Iraq detentions in 2003 were “mistakes”. One prisoner interviewed in the article describes is eight months with the Americans as “living in hell”. If the detainees weren’t anti-American before being arrested, they certainly would be after being released. And the torture and lack of due process would only make anti-Americans fight with even more fervor. Not only are the actions that would be deemed permissible by the military commissions act violations of the Geneva Convention, they counter the goals of the Bush Administration’s war on terror. It seems as though everyone loses, especially the U.S. in terms of support from the international community.

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