Saturday, 24 January 2009

Turning the Page on Torture

By virtue of one of Obama's first executive orders, America has turned the page on torture, and restored much of the moral authority her previous leader had so recklessly discarded. Obama aptly harkened back to the wisdom of our Founding Fathers noting that they insisted we should "observe core standards of conduct not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard"

Not surprisingly, this order and the one closing the detention center at Guantanamo within a year are being hailed internationally and by human rights organizations here in the United States. As someone who worked vociferously to block the nomination of Alberto Gonzales four years ago, based on his authorship of rules loosening our compliance with the Geneva conventions when interrogating suspects, I am delighted and relieved that our new President wasted no time in righting these wrongs. I am especially happy with the unequivocal language of the order, and its application across all branches of government and the military.

It will be interesting to watch reaction in the coming days and weeks from those in the CIA and the military who are or were most impacted by such policies. The outgoing CIA chief, Michael Hayden, defends the now banned procedures, and the outgoing Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Michael McConnell, has repeatedly claimed that enhanced interrogation was critical in obtaining needed intelligence over the past six years. These men, however were Bush appointees. The story changes it seems when talking to career CIA agents who are more closely involved with interrogation.

Dan Froomkin in his most recentWashington Post column quotes an experienced interrogator of terrorists
"'It [Obama's order] is a significant step toward saving American lives,' said Air Force Reserve Maj. Matthew Alexander - the lead interrogator of terrorists who betrayed Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before his 2006 killing.

"'When I was in Iraq, the No. 1 reason foreign fighters said they were coming into the country to fight was Abu Ghraib,' said Alexander, author of 'How To Break A Terrorist.'"

Retired CIA officer, John Kiriakou, has an even more sweeping positive reaction to Obama's executive order:
Kiriakou said that the reaction to Obama’s harmonization of interrogations policy would get “a very positive reaction” inside the CIA. “There are people at CIA who engaged in what were certified as enhanced [interrogation] techniques, but were never supportive of it,” he said. “This should make people very happy. No one wants to be in harm’s way [legally]. Despite what the Bush White House and Bush Justice Department said was legal, I think people at the CIA understood that this was not legal and [the techniques] were torture.”

Tyler Drumheller, a former chief of CIA operations in Europe during the Bush administration’s first term, agreed. “These people aren’t monsters,” Drumheller said. “They were doing what they were told, and what was the policy of the [Bush] administration.”

Though apologists for the "enhanced interrogation techniques" championed by the Bush Administration will fret aboutimagined lost intelligence resulting from limiting interrogation to humane techniques, they do not do justice to the success of many perfectly legal interrogations, or wish to acknowledge the real harm done to our national interest, our international reputation, or the interrogators themselves when limits are not uniformly enforced and understood. They scoff at a desire to "curry world favor", as if we are not harmed by failing to so, but instead are greatly helped when we lead by example, and generate global good will rather than hatred and animosity.

Human Rights First offers this contrast of reality vs. portrayal of interrogation on TV. Watchblog's own Stephen Daugherty competently debunked the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques in a December article.

The task force that Obama created did leave the door open for future creation of a separate set of guidelines for CIA interrogation of high risk detainees, so that high level terrorist operatives cannot use the Army Field Manual as a blueprint for preparing themselves for resisting interrogation. Obama did not equivocate, however, in asserting that no US operative, employee, or agent would engage in torture, humiliation, or degradation in their treatment of our prisoners.

With the stroke of a pen, the most grievous policy of our recent past has been reversed, and we have returned to the principles on which we were founded.