November 14, 2005

Monsters with Borrowed Souls: The Horror Magnifies

Along with many other people, I've learned one especially painful lesson during the Bush administration's tenure: no matter the depths of depravity and inhumanity to which this group of thugs descends, and even when you are convinced that no additional atrocities can outrage you further, Bush and his fellow gang members will continue to astonish you. When you think it is absolutely impossible for them to do something still worse (and leaving aside for the moment, as we must to maintain what they have left us of our sanity, the unleashing of Armageddon), they do.

And so it is with this NYT article by M. Gregg Bloche and Jonathan H. Marks: "Doing Unto Others as They Did Unto Us." The authors pose this question at the outset: "How did American interrogation tactics after 9/11 come to include abuse rising to the level of torture?" They then focus on "the strategic error that...has been overlooked":
The Pentagon effectively signed off on a strategy that mimics Red Army methods. But those tactics were not only inhumane, they were ineffective. For Communist interrogators, truth was beside the point: their aim was to force compliance to the point of false confession.
This point is crucial, and the authors state it still more plainly toward the end of the article:
Yet the Pentagon cannot point to any intelligence gains resulting from the techniques that have so tarnished America's image. That's because the techniques designed by communist interrogators were created to control a prisoner's will rather than to extract useful intelligence.
Let's make certain we understand what this means: all the rationalizations utilized by the administration and its defenders in this matter -- every one of which relies on the notion that torture may help to save lives and prevent an attack, that is, that torture may "extract useful intelligence" -- has been and is a lie. This was never about obtaining intelligence at all. That needs to be repeated, because it is so monstrous in its implications: This was never about obtaining intelligence at all.

What appears to be new in this column is the history of how the U.S. military came to adopt these methods:
Fearful of future terrorist attacks and frustrated by the slow progress of intelligence-gathering from prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Pentagon officials turned to the closest thing on their organizational charts to a school for torture. That was a classified program at Fort Bragg, N.C., known as SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. Based on studies of North Korean and Vietnamese efforts to break American prisoners, SERE was intended to train American soldiers to resist the abuse they might face in enemy custody.

The Pentagon appears to have flipped SERE's teachings on their head, mining the program not for resistance techniques but for interrogation methods. At a June 2004 briefing, the chief of the United States Southern Command, Gen. James T. Hill, said a team from Guantánamo went "up to our SERE school and developed a list of techniques" for "high-profile, high-value" detainees. General Hill had sent this list - which included prolonged isolation and sleep deprivation, stress positions, physical assault and the exploitation of detainees' phobias - to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who approved most of the tactics in December 2002.

Some within the Pentagon warned that these tactics constituted torture, but a top adviser to Secretary Rumsfeld justified them by pointing to their use in SERE training, a senior Pentagon official told us last month.
Pause to reflect how commonly this technique is used by the Bush administration, and how committed they are to their idea of "creating other new realities." This is exactly how a large part of the propaganda campaign leading up to the Iraq invasion worked: administration officials leaked misleading information (and sometimes outright falsehoods) to willing reporters like Judith Miller, the propaganda was then dutifully reported on the front pages of our major newspapers -- and when challenged about their assertions, administration officials would say, "But it was published in The New York Times! Look at this article! Obviously it's true!" The "new realities" the administration creates consist of its own previous lies and falsehoods, which it then relies on to further "prove" its case, in a kind of neverending loop. Not coincidentally, this is why it can often seem impossible to untangle the infinite web of lies, which turns back on itself over and over again. The only way to combat this intricate, systematic kind of falsehood -- the systematic behavior typical of a pathological liar, by the way, a description which appears to apply to the entire administration -- is to blast it entirely at the foundation.

The article continues:
When internal F.B.I. e-mail messages critical of these methods were made public earlier this year, references to SERE were redacted. But we've obtained a less-redacted version of an e-mail exchange among F.B.I. officials, who refer to the methods as "SERE techniques." We also learned from a Pentagon official that the SERE program's chief psychologist, Col. Morgan Banks, issued guidance in early 2003 for the "behavioral science consultants" who helped to devise Guantánamo's interrogation strategy (we've been unable to learn the content of that guidance).

SERE methods are classified, but the program's principles are known. It sought to recreate the brutal conditions American prisoners of war experienced in Korea and Vietnam, where Communist interrogators forced false confessions from some detainees, and broke the spirits of many more, through Pavlovian and other conditioning. Prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, painful body positions and punitive control over life's most intimate functions produced overwhelming stress in these prisoners. Stress led in turn to despair, uncontrollable anxiety and a collapse of self-esteem. Sometimes hallucinations and delusions ensued. Prisoners who had been through this treatment became pliable and craved companionship, easing the way for captors to obtain the "confessions" they sought.

SERE, as originally envisioned, inoculates American soldiers against these techniques. Its psychologists create mock prison regimens to study the effects of various tactics and identify the coping styles most likely to withstand them. At Guantánamo, SERE-trained mental health professionals applied this knowledge to detainees, working with guards and medical personnel to uncover resistant prisoners' vulnerabilities. "We know if you've been despondent; we know if you've been homesick," General Hill said. "That is given to interrogators and that helps the interrogators" make their plans.

Within the SERE program, abuse is carefully controlled, with the goal of teaching trainees to cope. But under combat conditions, brutal tactics can't be dispassionately "dosed." Fear, fury and loyalty to fellow soldiers facing mortal danger make limits almost impossible to sustain.

By bringing SERE tactics and the Guantánamo model onto the battlefield, the Pentagon opened a Pandora's box of potential abuse.
The article then describes one particular instance of this "abuse": the murder of Iraqi major general Abed Hamed Mowhoush, using these same SERE techniques.

And here is the authors' damning conclusion:
A full account of how our leaders reacted to terrorism by re-engineering Red Army methods must await an independent inquiry. But the SERE model's embrace by the Pentagon's civilian leaders is further evidence that abuse tantamount to torture was national policy, not merely the product of rogue freelancers.
Every expert on the subject emphasizes over and over again that torture does not work for the purpose of extracting good intelligence: if you inflict enough pain on anyone, he will tell you whatever he thinks you want to hear, whether it's true or not. And as these authors emphasize, truth was never the goal. Instead, "their aim was to force compliance," or, as they put the point more generally: "Americans desperately wanted mastery over a world that suddenly seemed terrifying." Our leaders felt out of control, as well they should have (and which was even understandable and justified to some degree, at least as an initial reaction). They wanted to reestablish control as quickly as possible, and to believe they directed events rather than the other way around.

To achieve this goal, they resorted to the most brutal methods of our former enemies: they sought to bend men to their will by means of brute force. The point was not what the prisoners might tell their captors: the point was that the prisoners' will had to be destroyed. They had to be made to obey. Just as was true of communist interrogators, the only goal was "to control a prisoner's will." Period. Our leaders deluded themselves that if the enemy was destroyed in this manner, they and we would be safe. But this particular kind of delusion should not properly be viewed as falling within the category of military strategy: it belongs in a textbook on clinical psychology, in a chapter describing exceptionally severe and destructive neurosis.

Thus, insofar as this aspect of our "national policy" is concerned, we are now a nation of inhuman brutes, committed to a policy that embraces the most grotesque and horrifying cruelty. This is the defense of "freedom" brought to us by the Bush administration. This is the "democracy" that Bush wants to establish around the world by means of military might.

In this context, it is impossible to say which is worse: that these monsters might have dreamed up these methods of torture on their own, out of their own diseased minds -- or that they simply copied these methods from those we ourselves had once fought, the very people we had once considered inhuman monsters. But, as you can always be sure will be true with this particular group of monsters, the second is probably worse -- and that is the route chosen by the Bush administration.

In their inhumanity, cruelty and barbarity, they are the crudest and most sickening kind of imitators. They have to rely on others to devise the means of torture first. They are the worst kind of monsters: monsters who borrow their corrupt, repellent souls from those who have gone before, because they are unable to originate anything on their own -- not even torture.

I would say that I find it hard to believe that my capacity for horror can still be further exceeded. But I dare not, for Bush and his fellow monsters will undoubtedly prove me wrong, still one more time.