Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Richard Cohen's Torture Excuses

In a remarkably dishonest opinion piece today in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen argues that the decision of Attorney General Eric Holder to open a preliminary investigation of CIA interrogators who may have crossed the legal boundary set by Justice Department lawyers of what constitutes torture will harm America's national security. Cohen begins the article with a hypothetical scenario, in which America has captured "Ishmael", a fictional suicide bomber with knowledge of future terrorist plots against America and her allies. Cohen postulates at the beginning of the article:

Call him a terrorist or suicide bomber or anything else you want, but understand that he is willing-- no anxious-- to give his life for his cause. Call him also a captive, and know that he works with others as part of a team, like the Sept. 11 hijackers, all of whom died, willingly. Ishmael is someone I invented, but he is not a far-fetched creation. You and I know that he exists, has existed and will exist again. He is the enemy.

Nevermind that "Ishmael" and our other supposed enemies that "hate America" almost unanimously have strong objections to our foreign policy, especially in the Muslim world, and our blinding support for Israel at the expense of an entire nation of displaced people (the Palestinians), and not primarily with the American people or way of life. Our "enemies" are our enemies because of our foreign policy generally and current policy specifically in the region. It is no wonder that the people of the Middle East have strong objections to the US invading sovereign nations based on faulty, exaggerated, and, one could make the argument, pre-determined intelligence; the ruthless and brutal campaign of unmanned-aerial drone attacks that inevitably kill innocent civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan; the immoral and illegal treatment of countless numbers of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places of US jurisdiction (think of the former CIA "black sites" in Europe); the general disregard by US policy-makers of the people in the region, who instead focus on backing and strengthening the corrupt ruling elite for insider deals on natural resource exploitation for multinational corporations. Given our current and past policy in the region, of course one would expect to find a dedicated, highly determined enemy willing to give their life in order counteract the relentless, exploitative nature of US policy in the region.

Cohen continues by hypothesizing what will happen to "Ishmael" now that he is in US custody:

Now he is in American custody. What will happen? How do we get him to reveal his group's plans and the names of his colleagues? It will be hard. It will, in fact, be harder than it used to be. He can no longer be waterboarded. He knows this. He cannot be deprived of more than a set amount of sleep. He cannot be beat or thrown up against even a soft wall. He cannot be threatened with shooting or even frightened by the prospect of an electric drill. Nothing can really be threatened against his relatives-- that they will be killed or sexually abused.

Nevermind the fact that torture does not work, has not worked, and will not work in any reliable way for effective intelligence gathering purposes. After all, torture was historically used to induce false confessions. Cohen makes it seem unfortunate that detainees, many of whom are illegally held, now cannot "even be frightened by the prospect of an electric drill." As if that were some noble, humane, effective way of gathering intelligence and assessing what an individual has knowledge of. If someone were to shackle me to the ground after, in one form or another, making me stay awake for days on end and then reeved up a power drill next to my blindfolded head, I would say just about anything to end this situation. The whole point of torture is that it does not work and only induces false confessions and intelligence, further corrupting the justice system if that evidence is used against other suspects (you cannot, in good faith, convict someone of crimes that were the result of evidence gained through torture!).

Cohen goes on:

No one can possibly believe that America is safer now because of the new restrictions on enhanced interrogation and the subsequent appointment of a special prosecutor.

I disagree. Looking into this conduct and prosecuting those that bended the law to conform to their policy preference or outright broke the law will show the world that we are a nation of laws, not of men, as the old saying goes.

And, in by far the most dishonest statement of the article, Cohen claims:

The CIA inspector general's report on the quite brutal interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammed , the so-called Sept. 11 mastermind, suggests he only turned cooperative once he was repeatedly waterboarded and that the information he provided saved lives.

Talk about taking a play right out of Dick Cheney's torture Public Relations playbook!! As many commentators have detailed, the claim that Mohammed cooperated only after being brutally tortured is completely bogus. We know that anyone, when subjugated to brutally harsh interrogation techniques, will do and say anything to end their suffering, thus rendering their "intelligence"to the US military establishment useless. For any doubt on that contention, see here.

What we know from past investigations into the torture regime and from the CIA IG report is that the US government, at the highest levels, enacted a policy that was directly counter to international and national law regarding the treatment of prisoners or detainees in US custody. The law was bended to fit what the high-level political leaders in the Executive Branch, military, CIA and other national security agencies wanted to do, not the other way around. That, in itself, is illegal. An outstanding Q&A regarding the torture regime between Scott Horton and David Cole is highly recommended and can be read here. Posted below is an interview Keith Olbermann did with Jeremy Scahill regarding the torture regime and prospects for prosecution.


  1. Cohen--not to be mistaken with Cohen from the NY Times--is consistently putting his foot in his mouth. The story of "Ishmael," as you make plainly clear in your post, is an absurdity on a number of levels. Most importantly--and despite some claims otherwise--we have yet to see any evidence of torture producing any credible and real intelligence.

  2. After all, torture is a hallmark of corrupt authoritarian regimes historically. It was used, and is being used now, to conjure up "intelligence" and "evidence" against detainees and suspected "terrorists". This "evidence", i.e. confessions and testimonials given by detainees after being tortured, is then used in the justice system to justify detention and other forms of punishment (usually death) by these individuals. So far, this has been at least limited in the US, but the government is always coming up with new theories of executive power and state secrets. The problem is that torturing people does not produce solid intelligence. And basing assumptions about other people and basing US foreign policy off of "intelligence" gained through torture is not only unwise, but illegal and unethical. Besides the fact that potentially allowing evidence gained through the torture of another individual would completely debased the justice system in question.