Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

The Tortured Compass

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 14, 2009

This morning the Washington Post is carrying a story largely dealing with the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, a man who sought entry to the United States in August of 2001 with the intention of participating in the September 11th hijackings. al-Qahtani was subsequently captured in early in the Afghanistan War and shipped to Guantanamo Bay in January of 2002 for interrogation.

That al-Qahtani was treated at Guantanamo in a way that nobody reading this blog would ever wish to be treated goes without saying. Findings of an investigation by Susan Crawford, who is in charge of the military investigations into Gitmo, show that al-Qahtani was deprived of sleep, clothing, and heat, was forced to appear naked and was strip searched by female interrogators, was ordered to perform “dog” tricks while on a leash, was menaced by a military working dog and was interrogated for between eighteen and twenty hours a day for forty-eight of fifty-four days. According to Ms. Crawford, this meets the legal definition of torture, despite the fact that no single grave application of pain or injury was performed.

I do not believe that torture should be used as an interrogation technique in almost any circumstance. I believe that most of my fellow Americans would agree with that, but only because of the qualification at the end of the sentence– “…in almost any circumstance”.  Like most moral-legal issues in the United States, I believe that there are ten percent of Americans at one pole– “No torture, ever, under any circumstance”– and ten at the other– “Heh, did you see what Jack Bauer did to that guy?”. That vast middle is gradated, surely, but it is also where most of us reside; persuadable by a good argument, but also clinging to both emotional response and what we see as clear pragmatism.

Taken so soon after September 11th and what we thought might be the related anthrax attacks, al-Qahtani was without question a valuable intelligence asset and one worthy of thorough interrogation. There was the possibility that he was privy to other planned operations or to the network infrastructure that disseminated the 9-11 plans down to the field operatives who carried it out. He may have had contact with command nodes, he may have had contact with logistics support people, he may have had contact with unknown planning and ops cells active in Europe and the United States– clearly we needed to know what he did (and didn’t) know so that we could gain a better insight into the enemy’s organization and perhaps head off further attacks. Again, given the temporal proximity to the attacks and the fact that the clock might be ticking towards the next attack, it is understandable that the CIA, DOD, and whatever other acronyms took a shot at him wanted to get his information quickly, while it was still fresh and before alQaeda could adapt to his capture.

But torture?

Here’s where we run into the sticking points. Interrogation, done in the correct way, is a lengthy, carefully conducted process of plucking just the right strings often enough that the subject confuses his loyalties, loses hope, or sees benefit to giving up what he knows. That is obviously in contravention to what those controlling his interrogators felt that they needed– quick, accurate information to head off what might be impending plots that could kill thousands of Americans. Faced with that set of circumstances and a “forgiving” command authority in the Bush-Cheney White House, it is understandable– though not palatable, from my perspective– that they might turn to more aggressive   interrogation with the correct prisoners designed to provide quick and dirty answers that could be refined later. I believe that those who made the decision to greenlight aggressive interrogation techniques had no illusions about the overall accuracy of their take– torture produces lousy info– but they needed something, quickly, that would give them an indicator into the mind and planning of an enemy we didn’t understand at a time when he could be moving again.

In the case of al-Qahtani, I do not believe that they acted in the way that I as an American would want to see my government’s organs operate. We understood that a guy like al-Qahtani was muscle, not brains; he was only told enough to carry out the operation he was assigned to and nothing more. That’s nothing new– you can go back to the Narodnaya Volya of the 19th Century and see this kind of cellular terror organization– and we knew that he likely didn’t know a damned thing.

Let’s change up for a moment though and exchange al-Qahtani for someone like al-Zawahiri, the #2 in al Qaeda and the alleged brains of the operation, or someone like Khalid Sheik Muhammed, who planned and ran the 9-11 operation. If we had taken one of them in the first weeks after the attacks, what then? They would have the data in their heads to destroy any current attack planning and potentially to roll up the entire alQaeda network if we acted quickly enough to get that information. Is this where that phrase, “…in almost any circumstances…” meets its application?

I’m guessing that the middle would agree that “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, etc would be called for in the interest of stopping an attack. I bet those on the further reaches of the middle spectrum would also be OK with blowtorches, electric generators and anything else someone in a Romanian CIA detention center could think of. I also bet that those same people are kind to their neighbors, adopt shelter dogs and cats and give to charity.

This great American middle, this body of people that the world thinks it has figured out, are a fickle bunch that defy easy description. They’re (we’re) a topic I plan to touch on quite frequently in this blog as I don’t think there’s a cultural phenomenon at work in this world right now more interesting or with a greater capacity for joy or pain. Principled, yes, but too pragmatic to rely solely on principles; too emotional to rely solely on pragmatism, too. Are they just uncommitted, weak willed and willing to blow in the wind, or are they something else, a force that moves towards reality when confronted with the ethereal? We torture ourselves over torturing those who wish to hurt us, but we still do torture them despite outrage and pity that I think many feel in their hearts when looking at the aftermath.

North is always in the same place, but we can only find north by looking at the shifting arrow of the compass.Is the case of al-Qahtani a point that the compass moves toward, or is it the center that it pivots around?

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