On Taking A Stand

Regarding yesterday's post, Mark Bowden offered some, I think, gracious criticism in the form of a comment, which I will reprint here:
Two quick points I would like to make about your thoughtful commentary, Madison:
1) The essay of mine you quote was published in 2003, before we learned of the excesses of the Bush administration. So when I endorsed the administration's public posture, it was one that condemned all forms of torture, with a tacit acknowledgement that coercive methods may be employed interrogating some of the premier intelligence targets, like KSM. The essay did predict that if the administration attempted to authorize coercive methods in any way, which, as we later learned, it secretly had, widespread abuses were inevitable.

2) The use of coercion in those rare instance where critical intelligence might be obtained has nothing to do with nationalism. It has to do with preventing mass murder, whether in New York, London, Bali or Mumbai.

Mark Bowden
On the first point, I can second Ross Douthat and say that I have taken these quotes out of context and that readers would do well to read the whole essay.

Even so, I still disagree with the idea that an official "no" but a private "yes" to coercion is necessary, effective or even desirable. But I will address this in greater detail below.

On the second point, I must issue a mea culpa. Towards the end of my post, I juxtapose a quote from Bowden’s article and a quote from George Orwell’s essay, "Notes on Nationalism." Transitioning from the quote by Bowden to the quote by Orwell is, structurally speaking, the weakest part of my argument. Bowden is a thoughtful writer, and not a Nationalist in the sense that Orwell uses the term. I may not agree with Bowden, but he does not, as a rule, place America beyond good and evil or argue that coercive techniques are wrong except when we use them.

I disagree, however, with the notion that Nationalism--Nationalism as Orwell defines it--has no part in the grave overreaches of the Bush administration or the unshakable support of their defenders. Reading Orwell's words, I cannot help but think of people like William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld:
A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. ...his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. ...having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.
But, to be fair, Bowden's argument isn't really about Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz or The Weekly Standard; it's about the necessity of coercion in a few, exceptional cases in order to prevent terrorist attacks.

Bowden has made a well researched and well reasoned case for the use of coercion in situations where so-called "life-saving intelligence" can be gained. His arguments are more intricately detailed and of greater complexity than most of the simplified opinions currently being written that rely on ticking-bomb hypotheticals. To read "The Dark Art of Interrogation" is to wade as deeply into those morally muddy waters as you can without actually having to make policy decisions or conduct interrogations. I would advise anyone who wants to take a public stand on these issues to read it thoroughly and think hard on its arguments.

Having done that, I maintain my central points:

1) There is no essential difference between acts that we all recognize to be torture and coercive acts used in combinations that are physically and mentally debilitating. If one opposes torture, then I think one must also oppose coercion.

2) Coercive techniques are useful if the goal is to elicit confessions, but not if the goal is to gain intelligence. I think that even the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) demonstrates this. As the Army Field Manual puts it:
Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.
In 2007, Bowden wrote another article on interrogation for The Atlantic: "The Ploy." In it, he details a successful interrogation that did not rely on physical coercion or psychological punishment. In fact, even the 2003 article is largely devoted to interrogation techniques that I think few of us would shy away from, such as the nonsense questioning of "Alice in Wonderland" or any of the techniques regularly employed by the New York Police Department. I am no expert, but it seems that "verbal trickery" and "psychological ploys"--methods allowed by the Army Field Manual--are more powerful and less odious than pain and deprivation.


I believe, as I imagine most thinking people do, that intelligence is among the most important aspects of the "war on terror." But the single most important aspect has to be the conflict of ideals. These include, but are not limited to, conflicting visions of the rules of engagement and of basic, human rights. Debilitating combinations of coercive techniques--even if only used in rare circumstances--cannot be a part of the strategy on the intelligence front, or else we lose on the ideological front.

I recognize that to some, this will sound reckless and irresponsible--a sacrifice of American, Indian, Pakistani and other civilian lives for the sheer sake of principle. But I maintain that coercion is not only inhumane, but ineffective, both tactically and strategically. In a fight over ideals, we cannot afford to lose our ideals.

Now, I know it would be naive to say that coercion is totally un-American, that it has never happened before and that this dark chapter is nothing more than an aberration. But is it naive to say that we want it to stop? We have a chance to end this--not just in the military, but in the broader intelligence community as well--once and for all.

So what does this mean in real terms? Should the CIA be subject to the rules of the Geneva Conventions? Perhaps that would be an overreaction. After all, part of the problem in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay is that for a long time we didn't have anyone with adequate interrogation experience, hence the reliance on SERE techniques. But should the CIA be prohibited from destroying human beings in our custody? The answer, for me, is an unequivocal yes.

Update: In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer makes a convincing argument that the CIA should be subject to the Geneva Conventions. I've yet to see an adequate refutation of her claims.

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