Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Sunday, November 16, 2008

  Sorting out Bush's torture techniques

To find a vocal critic of the Bush administration's torture regime stumbling around while discussing its components is a little disconcerting. It confirms what I've long suspected - that even as bits of the torture program have been exposed little by little, the Bush administration managed never the less to sow confusion over those revelations. People really need to sort this out before the Obama administration comes to grip with its predecessor's vile record.

Briefly, the background is this: James Gordon Meek reported that Democrats like the "anti-torture views" of John Brennan, Barack Obama's chief adviser on intelligence matters. Brennan was the deputy to former CIA director George Tenet at the time that Bush's torture regime was implemented. It does seem strange to describe Brennan as "anti-torture" just because he's renounced waterboarding in the last few years and allowed that "the dark side has its limits". Glenn Greenwald documents how Brennan has advocated or made excuses for extraordinary rendition specifically and Bush's detention and interrogation policies generally.

Meek and Greenwald then got into a back and forth over Brennan's anti-torture credentials. Meek argues faux-naively that extraordinary rendition per se can be dissociated from the torture that awaits prisoners handed over to countries that routinely practice torture. Meek says nothing about the spiderweb of America's own secret prisons where Bush administration prisoners have been flown to be tortured.

In any case, Greenwald responded to Meek's tendentious argument with a certain degree of confusion about what is what in Bush's torture regime:

The most incriminating aspect of Brennan's views, in my opinion, is his support for the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation techniques." Since he says he opposes waterboarding and isn't on record opposing anything else, one can reasonably assume that must include some combination of things like stress positions, forced nudity, hypothermia, sleep deprivation, exploitation of paranoias, extreme isolation, hanging by the wrists, threats, and other previously forbidden techniques authorized by the Bush administration.

This needs sorting out. Several of the things Greenwald lists are not, apparently, part of what the Bush administration terms "enhanced interrogation techniques".

To judge by published reports, these consisted of a discrete and detailed list of coercive techniques, including waterboarding, to be used only with high-level authorization against specific prisoners...those who are described typically as "hardened" or "high-value" al Qaeda suspects. The CIA has claimed that "enhanced interrogation techniques" have been used against only about 30 prisoners. The list of "enhanced techniques" originally was approved at a White House meeting (in 2002, it seems) of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Colin Powell, and John Ashcroft. During the next year or more, requests for authorization to use "enhanced" techniques against specific prisoners were, reportedly, discussed at several further meetings of the National Security Council Principals Committee.

But "enhanced interrogation techniques" are far from the only forms of abuse meted out to prisoners under Bush. They shouldn't be confused with the underlying programs of abusive treatment that were inflicted on many or all detainees abroad. For the latter, the Bush administration has used the term "exploitation". It was partly to clarify the distinction between the much-discussed "enhanced interrogation techniques" and the less understood but more widespread "exploitation" that I wrote this Abbreviated History of Exploitation Processes.

Abuse of prisoners in Bosnia and Afghanistan began shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. By December 2001 at the latest, the Bush administration began to try to systematize that abuse by reverse-engineering techniques used in the military's SERE training schools. These existed to train US military personnel in techniques they'd need if captured by an authoritarian regime. The training included systematic psychological abuse of the kind practiced on American POWs during the Korean War. It was these "exploitative" practices in particular that the Bush administration decided in 2001 to adapt and apply against terrorism suspects. They became the baseline standard of abuse meted out to nearly all detainees held in secret prisons or transferred to Guantanamo. "Exploitation" focuses principally on prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation/overload, disorientation, stress, extremes of noise, light, and heat, forced nakedness, sexual humiliation, and generally creating psychological confusion and a state of infantile dependency. The result frequently is extreme mental degradation. Prisoners often become suicidal.

A few of these methods were later incorporated into the "enhanced interrogation techniques" so there was some overlap with baseline "exploitation". But it's absolutely vital to keep them distinct. Because the Bush administration and its apologists have tried to minimize the extent of their crimes by focusing all attention on the victims of "enhanced" techniques – who are few in number and can be depicted more easily as dangerous terrorists.

"Exploitation" is used to establish mental conditions favorable to manipulative interrogations. Many of the prisoners "exploited" were never in fact interrogated, or only in a very cursory way. Even after the US military and CIA lost interest in prisoners or concluded that they had no connection to terrorism, the prisoners often continued to be subject to "exploitation" for months or years on end. More to the point, "exploitation" has continued to be the standard for mistreating prisoners at Guantanamo down to this day. It's not the exception, it's the rule.

And since John Brennan has sought to justify extraordinary rendition flights, during which prisoners are "exploited" most repulsively, then it's very difficult to see how he has done anything other than align himself with the Bush administration's policy of torture.

crossposted at

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