Thursday, July 26, 2007

Torture, US-Style: Slip-Ups in Mike McConnell's "Meet the Press" Interview

You'd think a National Intelligence Director would be a little more discrete. But the revelations about torture that Mike McConnell let slip last Sunday on "Meet the Press" are such that he's probably had his lips sewn shut this week. Or at least he might've, if the US public gave a shit about what he said. So far, there's been remarkably little flap, and almost all of it comes from the marginalized independent media that don't reach especially large audiences anyway. Yet McConnell said several things that ought to be red flags. None of them is brandnew information, true. But the fact that they were confirmed on national television by the US intelligence czar is sobering.
Admiral McConnell, who after all is new on the job and so not yet adept in spin, was asked by "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert to comment on The Decider's "new" policy on torture. Here's the pertinent section of the interview (the entire transcript can be read here):

MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about the executive order the president issued about enhanced interrogation measures. What does that allow a CIA-held target—what kind of measures can they use to get information from them?
Admiral McCONNELL: Well, Tim, as you know, I can’t discuss specific measures. A variety of reasons for that. One, if I, if I announce what the specific measures are, it would, it would aid those who want to resist those measures, measures to train to understand them and so on. So I won’t be too specific. Let, let me, let me go back to a higher calling in this context. The United States does not engage in torture. President’s been very clear about that. This executive order spells it out. There are means and methods to conduct interrogation that will result in information that we need. And what I would highlight, I was, I was concerned and worried and quite frankly appalled by Abu Ghraib. My view was America risked losing the moral high ground. And so I focused on this when I came back. What I can report to you is that was an aberration. The people who were responsible for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib have been held accountable, and, and they’re serving a sentence for that. That is not the program the CIA was administering. It is not the program that the president approved in the recent executive order.
MR. RUSSERT: But by the use of the term “enhanced interrogation measures,” there clearly are things that are used to elicit information. Have we eliminated waterboarding? Can you confirm that?
Admiral McCONNELL: I would rather not be specific on eliminating exactly what the techniques are with regard to any, any specific. When I was in a situation where Ihad to sign off, as a member of the process, my name to this executive order, I sat down with those who had been trained to do it, the doctors who monitor it, understanding that no one is subjected to torture. They’re, they’re treated in a way that they have adequate diet, not exposed to heat or cold. They’re not abused in any way. But I did understand, when exposed to the techniques, how they work and why they work, all under medical supervision. And one of the things that’s very important, I think, for the American public to know, in the history of this program, it’s been fewer than 100 people. And so this, this is a program where we capture someone known to be a terrorist, we need information that they possess, and it has saved countless lives. Because, because they believe these techniques might involve torture and they don’t understand them, they tend to speak to us, talk to us in very—a very candid way.
MR. RUSSERT: Does this new executive order allow measures that if were used against a U.S. citizen who was apprehended by the enemy would be troubling to the American people?
Admiral McCONNELL: I can report to you that it’s not torture.
MR. RUSSERT: How do you fine—define torture?
Admiral McCONNELL: Well, torture is—an attempt to define torture in the, in the executive order, it gives examples: mutilation or murder or rape or physical pain, those kinds of things. Let me just leave it by saying the, the techniques work, it’s not torture. They’re not subjected to heat or cold, but it is effective. And it’s a psychological approach to causing someone to have uncertainty and in a situation where they will feel compelled to talk to you about what you’re asking about.
MR. RUSSERT: And we would find it acceptable if a U.S. citizen experienced the same kind of enhanced interrogation measures?
Admiral McCONNELL: Tim, it’s not torture. I would not want a U.S. citizen to go through the process, but it is not torture, and there would be no permanent damage to that citizen.
Now, take a look at some of the extraordinary assertions/admissions in the transcript.

  • What isn't said by McConnell is much more revealing than what is said. He can't discuss specific interrogatory techniques--he won't even deny, when asked pointblank, that waterboarding is one of them--but he asks viewers to accept on trust that the US government follows a "higher calling" and so doesn't torture. Enhanced interrogation, the going euphemism, doesn't include, per The Decider's newest Executive Order, murder (whoever said that murder was a torture technique, anyway?), mutilation, rape, or physical pain (this an benignly stretched version of the Executive Order's "cruel or inhuman treatment"), sexual degradation, or religious denigration. But McConnell knows, The Decider knows, and Jane and John Q. Citizen know, that there's a lot of space in between these categories for some down-and-dirty torture. So there's a unsettling coyness to McConnell's remarks. His claim of clean hands is transparently false, and he doesn't seem to care.
  • Perhaps he doesn't care in part because at least some US torture is terroristic, as he let slip. State-sponsored torture generally comes in two varieties: interrogatory and terroristic. The purpose of the first is, obviously, to gather intelligence. The purpose of the second is to terrorize potential dissenters or enemies with the threat of torture: If you cross us, this is what we'll do to you. That the US uses torture as a terroristic deterrent comes across clearly in McConnell's remarks: torture doesn't work unless not-yet-captured detainees are convinced that horrible things will be done to them unless they cooperate.
  • McConnell insists that whenever the US government appears to get caught torturing, it's really a few bad apples, like the ones at Abu Ghraib, who are responsible. Does anyone really believe this anymore? Yet apparently the US government works under the assumption that a lie told often enough becomes truth.
  • McConnell admits that the US practices "white torture," the brutal psychological malfiguration favored by nations like Iran, and speaks as if this is a humane alternative to old-fashioned physical torture. Something sinister seems to be going on with the administration's latest understanding of torture: if you don't physically touch 'em, it ain't torture. This isn't to say that there's not one helluva lot of physical touching going on--waterboarding, for example--but the denial that white torture techniques are real torture is alarming, bespeaking either egregious stupidity or equally egregious malevolence.
  • McConnell says on more than one occasion that torture is practiced under "medical supervision." Extraordinary! Medical doctors, who presumably have taken the Hippocratic Oath to "do no harm," are overseeing the abuse of prisoners. When German doctors or Chilean doctors or Russian doctors similarly supervised torture, the US denounced them as monsters. Why isn't McConnell's admission front page headlines across the nation? Why has it gone almost unnoticed?
  • Finally, McConnell admits that even interrogatory torture is more often a fishing expedition than a focused intelligence-gathering. There's a big difference between the two. In the latter, the torturer goes after the answer to a specific question. Theoretically, at least, when the answer is gotten, the torture ends. But torture as a fishing expedition has no specific goal. The torturer inflicts pain just to see what might bob up to the surface. Since there's no focused goal, there's no anticipated end to the torture. Prisoners can be fished again and again and again. Detainees held at Gitmo are such fish.