Monday, 14 May 2018

Gina Haspel and the curious case of US torture and secret prisons


This is Gina Haspel.

She's not everyone's image of a CIA officer.

Ms Haspel is under consideration by the US Congress to become the new CIA director as a replacement for Mike Pompeo who now leads the US State Department. Nearly everyone who has worked with Ms Haspel says she's a great candidate, perhaps not the best of all possible candidates, but certainly is someone who will lead the CIA competently. The problem is, she's tied to the what some people call torture of enemy combatants and terrorists.

Don't confuse the egregiousness of her actions with obvious crimes. Crimes must be stated explicitly in the statutes. Unless you're prepared to bring a criminal conspiracy charge against her, and you can identify and get the testimony of everyone in the chain of command all the way down to the guy who poured the water, you are never going to prove your case. Simply concluding that bad stuff happened on her watch isn't enough. Bad stuff still happens under every president.


Only in Yankee America could Ms Haspel's legal job under the explicit direction and oversight of a Justice Department of a previous administration be considered a black mark on someone's career two administrations in the future. Clearly, there is confusion on the issue of what "torture" is or there wouldn't be so much debate about it.

The torture debate is part of a wider American understanding that it can only win wars that no one will ever fight, such as armoured warfare on the North European Plain. There are ways to win the Islamist war, but America isn't willing to perform those actions. It may be moral or less immoral for the US not to resort to the necessary tactics to win - but in the eyes of the enemy it is weakness.

Americans have tortured the enemy in every war they've fought. Americans have illegally tested chemical and biological weapons on their own soldiers and citizens. Is it really moral to spare your enemies the same fate? Or is it immoral to treat your people worse than you treat the enemy?

Is it really moral to use satellite-guided weaponry to bomb a restaurant where the leader of al-Qaeda is suspected of eating, knowing the strike will kill civilians as well? Was it moral to carpet bomb Germany to end the WWII? Or to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force them into unconditional surrender, when doing less may have led to a cease-fire? Was it moral not to nuke Moscow and instead leave the Russian people, and Eastern Europe, under a totalitarian oppression for a few more decades?

How do these acts compare to beating the shit out of some guy in a CIA black site who has a 1% chance of being the guy who knows who might kill your fellow soldiers two weeks from today, so you can find out the name of his boss? Or is it only immoral when the beating becomes public? Maybe the Romans had it right when they said: "Inter arma enim silent lēgēs."


Let's put morals aside. What does "possession" mean? Is your car in your possession? How about your TV? If the cops find drugs at your house but you aren't there, can they charge you for possession?

Possession is defined explicitly in the law. Torture is not. Is water-boarding torture? Not everyone agrees, and that matters because there is no statute that states "water-boarding is torture." Some people say torture is wrong, and I would respond with: says who?

Guess what? Killing is wrong too. But I can think of six instances where it's lawful:

1. Self-defence
2. Defence of another
3. Home invasion
4. As a criminal penalty for capital crimes
5. Abortion
6. As an agent of the military in war or in the execution of a mission

It seems illogical that killing can be acceptable but something less severe than killing can never acceptable. You want moral clarity? Sorry, there isn't any. A suicide bomber believes his actions are moral. You don't. That's moral ambiguity, and this is always the environment at the boundary between two cultures. That's why laws take the moral ambiguity out of the equation.

Why is there a distinction made about POWs and torture? Why do international conventions on war require warring parties to wear identifiable uniforms and not intermingle with civilians or disguise themselves as medical or religious personnel?

They made these distinctions because you only get treatment as a prisoner of war if you are behaving like a soldier of an enemy government. You don't punish the soldier for the war he was ordered to fight - it is not really his choice to fight at that place and time. If you do not obey the rules of war and choose to be some religious psychopath running around killing people, then you're not accorded the respectful treatment of a soldier. Simple as that.

I agree that what the US did was torture as that term is generally understood. Where I disagree is that I don't think it meets the legal definition of "torture," nor do the surrounding facts support a criminal charge against the people who oversaw the programme, such as Ms Haspel. And people should be careful what they wish for. If they launch a prosecution and it fails, they will essentially have endorsed water-boarding as a legal interrogation technique.

Torture is more analogous to killing than rape, for instance, in that is is an extreme dimension of the state's acknowledged authority to use physical force to enforce the law (clubs, tasers, dogs, etc). How much worse than a taser is water-boarding? You might argue this means tasers should be illegal and maybe they should, but the law does not now consider tasers to be torture. Frankly, the best argument that water-boarding is torture under the law presented thus far is past US prosecution for water-boarding by Japanese soldiers. And that one is still problematic.


The state and its citizens justify plenty of killing, and some of the state and some of its citizens seek to justify torture in the service of the same state interests that justify a lot of the killing.

Historically, states and armies did use rape as a tactic to get the conquered to submit, hence the phrase "rape and pillage." But we progressed and evolved and now see the error and brutality of this. In the same way, we have to move beyond the brutality of torture which may once have had a place in European or American culture in the past, but no longer does. So let's abandon it and its excuses, along with eliminating the proclivity and necessity for violence in the state's administration of law and justice.

People are confusing two different things. On one hand, we have the statement "torture is never excusable" and as a completely separate question, we have the legal issue of whether waterboarding was a crime at the time it was performed.

To the first question: torture is morally wrong and I will draw an analogy to killing which is also always wrong. But in this world, there are instances where killing is justified (a better word is "excused"). It is a very strong statement to say that torture, like killing, is always wrong, but unlike killing, it is never excusable. You can't make this absolute statement unless you have contemplated every single conceivable scenario. Wrong, but excusable - you have to hold both concepts in your head at once.

I can easily construct a scenario in which every single person would water-board a perfect stranger and for that action to be excusable. All you would argue with is the realism or outlandishness of my scenario as a way of avoiding the question. But that doesn't change the fact that, given the scenario, everyone would engage in behaviour they think is wrong, thereby disproving the statement that it is never excusable.

These scenarios aren't outlandish. They have played out over the course of history. The world does not exist as you wish it to, or even as you perceive it to be. It exists independent of you, and your perception of it contemplates only parts and aspects of it skewed by your biases both cultural and personal. So it is for all of us. That you don't want to engage with the complexity doesn't mean it doesn't exist, it means you don't want to see the world for what it is: a jungle populated by 7 billion upright apes.


The second point is not relevant to the first because the question of the morality of torture or its excusability is completely irrelevant to the specific facts.

Those scenarios are not the situation with Ms Haspel's water-boarding during the Bush administration. Water-boarding is an interrogation technique for alleged enemy combatants who did not adhere to the rules of war requiring them to wear a uniform and not hide among civilians or target them in attacks. That's the situation.

Saying something is morally wrong and wanting to prosecute on that basis is a cop-out. It is easy, sloppy thinking. Abortion is morally wrong too. Even pro-choice advocates acknowledge that. Abortion is legal for reasons completely divorced from questions of morality. Walking past the homeless guy in the street is morally wrong. Everyone does that, even though it is extremely easy to do the morally right thing. We're wasting breath saying torture is morally wrong. We know it's wrong. But no one has done anything to stop its use worldwide.

What annoys me is that whenever anyone suggests something outside the standard echo chamber arguments, they're called crazy or stupid. Those are the only alternatives. No one can be coming at this issue from a different angle or with a different perspective. No one is allowed to articulate that subtle problems can fail an argument just as thoroughly as obvious ones. Why is that? Why is it so important not to hear what you don't want to hear? Why is it threatening?

You have your model of the world and I have mine. People with a different model to mine are shocked and amazed at the stuff that happens and they often resort to a child's view - Ms Haspel is evil. There is no good and evil. The villain is the hero of his own story. There is morally right and morally wrong, but there is nothing in the universe enforcing aside from each individual for themselves. The law slightly overlaps with morality with an enforcement mechanism that is imperfect, unfair and often corrupt. If the villains are running rampant, it isn't because of moral confusion, it's because of legal ambiguity.

You might say, "I hate inflicting pain, so I would never conduct torture."

Oh yes, you do, my fellow homo sapien. You just haven't come across the right target yet. You may one day find yourself out of time, out of words and out of options facing a horrible and imminent reality. At that point and to your amazement this entire other dormant thing in your brain will come to life. An impossibly huge and unstoppable monster will emerge from behind the delicate lattice of your mind, and it will seize control of your eyes, adrenaline, muscle and bone. And you will let it because at that moment you will realize that these parts of you actually belong to this monster, and it knows how to use them better than you do. As the monster takes over, you will withdraw to the background, a spectator to your own brutality.


And don't even get me started on the "but it doesn't give you any information, torture doesn't work" nonsense. It absolutely reveals information, it's just that the accuracy is unknown. The information could be:

1. accurate as the prisoner has related it
2. wrong in fact, accurate representation of belief
3. wrong, but the prisoner knows the truth
4. prisoner doesn't know the truth but relates false information anyway
5. prisoner reveals all but knows nothing

From the interrogators' point of view, he only receives information or receives nothing. He can't assume the information he receives is false, nor can he assume it is true. But whatever he gets is a lead, dead end or otherwise. This doesn't justify torture as moral, but neither is cutting journalist's heads off or setting bombs on a public street. War is not about being moral. It's about winning.

Say you round up 100 people to torture about whether they take drugs. Assume all prisoners admit to taking drugs under torture. Then you can ask them who sold the drugs and can go arrest those new people.

If any single one of those named people are caught selling or have drugs on them, then torture worked, even if the first 100 people lied about ever taking drugs and just named the first random person they could think of. If none of the named people has anything to do with drugs, just torture them for a new set of suspects and repeat. Eventually, you will catch a drug dealer.

The reason this works is that there are a lot of people buying and selling drugs. In Iraq, there are people making bombs and I assume the CIA doesn't think everyone they catch is a terrorist mastermind. Afer a few iterations, you will catch terrorists. I'm not saying this is a good idea or that the CIA operated like this, only that you can't say torture doesn't work.

Ask yourself this. Having no knowledge of the actual activities of the people within a radius of 200m from where you sit now, how many would I need to interrogate before I found a major drug trafficker? Note, I don't need to find a person who is a drug dealer, I just need to find either a person who is a drug dealer or a person through whom some x>=1 degrees of separation is a major drug trafficker.

So how many would I need to sweep up? 100? 10? 1? How many interrogations would I have to perform to get to the drug trafficker? 6? 20? 200?

Replace that with Iraqi males under 30 and "drug dealer" with "bomb maker" or "insurgent" and you get the picture. Again, I am not endorsing torture, I'm simply explaining that it may result in useful information eventually and that, given the circumstances, it may be the fastest route to that information. Keep in mind, the cops can get results in this fashion without the torture and by cutting plea bargains.

You get the picture.


Another thing Ms Haspel is being questioned over is her involvement with secret prisons, which is another important point. But I actually think this part of her job is more interesting than discussing the utility or morals of torture.

Something I never quite understood was if the rounded up jihadists have no information and are of no strategic or military value, why hold them for so long?

It would be logical to conclude the CIA at least believes these people do have some strategic value (even if it's wrong about that). But if they have value and the prisons are, by the CIA's own admission, extra-legal then why release them ever? Why can't the spooks just get the information and then kill them? After a while, whatever information you think a person has goes stale. If you hold a jihadist for a year, whatever he knows, even if he tells you, is probably useless. It just doesn't add up. If the CIA thinks these guys are bad, they would disappear and we would never hear about them.

I wonder if the CIA is doing someone else's dirty work with these prisons, the way we imagine Pakistani or Egyptian prisons do Washington's dirty work. For example, I wonder if part of the programme was a worldwide sweep of people hostile to the Saudi or Israeli governments? Osama bin Laden was an anti-Saudi agitator, after all. And the al Qaeda leader said outright that the ultimate objective was not to bring down the US or Israel but to bring down Saudi Arabia.

The CIA was sloppy here. If someone ever tells you about a "black" operation, it's not black. We aren't supposed to know where those jihadists were being taken, and a group like Human Rights Watch shouldn't have lists of people who are missing. No one was supposed to know any of this and yet there are websites that track the flights of the "torture taxis."

Do we know the names of Soviet spies the CIA killed or interrogated during the 80's? Nope. So why do we know this? I can't help but think we know their names because Washington has to communicate to people outside its official or secret channels who need to know.

The projection of emotional pain makes some amount of sense, but the scale of the secret prison programme is way too small for the population it is intended to terrorise. And it presumes a media penetration in Iraq and the Middle East that I think is ambitious, to say the least.

If was just a propaganda tool, why bother with real people at all? Grab a few jihadists here and there, so their families can star on Al Jazeera to project the requisite anguish, but for every real jihadist why not invent another dozen fictitious captives? Surely lying to the enemy is more ethical than torturing or holding them?

This is the CIA we are talking about here - playing fast and loose with the enemy's impression of the truth is their job. The agency is supposed to be secretive and invisible. The mess Ms Haspel is now being grilled for has been all over the news for a decade. Maybe it's time to suspect this story is being blown so totally wide open because it serves some notice function to interests that want very specific people dealt with.


Both the torture and secret prison decisions are tough to judge in hindsight. In 2018, it's hard for me to remember what 9/11 felt like. I can't imagine what fog-of-war fear American intelligence went through to even consider doing what it did. Gina Haspel was part of those decisions, and I think she deserves everyone's applause, not scorn.

Ask yourself: "what would I do if I genuinely believed these were evil men and only I stood between them and the lives of thousands of innocents?" And then imagine yourself surrounded by like-minded people with little outside input or questioning. Go down that path. Be honest with yourself. Become immersed in it. I bet many you'll be surprised what you can do and how well you rationalise it. Even the Nazi's needed a "good reason" beyond mere fear and hatred to send people to death camps.

To some extent, evil is an emergent property of behaviours that in the micro seem reasonable. The individuals who are part of these immoral bureaucracies are not evil. They may commit evil collectively, and even on occasion individually - but they still need to view themselves as decent people. Hence, the overall behaviour of the system is, in a sense, inconsistent: Kindnesses do occur. A notion of fairness and justice is never totally eradicated. You can hear that in Ms Haspel's words.

This is especially true for Americans because its civic ethos profoundly resonates with a deep respect for individual rights, justice and fairness. Those who admonish the US about its need to "have the stomach to do what needs to be done" are really trying to get them to leave their consciences behind as they walk onto the killing floor.

But that's tough to do for any culture which hasn't already descended into total savagery. And regardless of how it looks, even Yankee America isn't there yet. Narcissism isn't one of the circles of Hell, but it is the stones paving the way to the underworld.

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