Wednesday, May 20, 2015

FRONTLINE: “Secrets, Politics and Lies” (WBGH/PBS, aired May 24, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved 

The program was a PBS Frontline episode called “Secrets, Politics and Torture,” ostensibly about the CIA’s program of putting alleged terrorist detainees through what was euphemistically called “EIT’s” (short for “enhanced interrogation techniques”) but which were clearly torture: waterboarding, sleep deprivation for days on end, forcing them to go naked, locking them in coffin-sized (or even smaller!) boxes, forcing enemas on them and all sorts of highly imaginative and sadistic practices that, as one writer put it, seemed to have less to do with information-gathering than revenge: with Osama bin Laden and the other major perpetrators of 9/11 still at large, the U.S. military and especially the CIA took out their anger and desire for revenge on the poor unfortunates whom they had been able to catch. The program presents the issue in the context of the Congressional investigation of 2011-2014 and the internal review one of Obama’s appointees as CIA director, Leon Panetta, ordered — both of which came to the conclusion that the “EIT” practices did amount to torture — versus the opinions of virtually all Senate Republicans as well as the makers of the film Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, that EIT’s not only didn’t count as torture but were instrumental in the most successful campaigns of the “war on terror,” including the ambushing and killing of bin Laden himself. Having read John Rizzo’s book on his career as a CIA attorney, I wasn’t surprised to see him turn up as one of the apologists for the EIT program — or to see him repeat one of the most chilling anecdotes in his book, in which he shows a list of the EIT’s to Senator John McCain and McCain looks at it and says, “It’s all torture.” (The fact that McCain was the only prominent Republican to oppose the EIT program led me to the rather bitter joke that the only way to get a Republican to admit that torture is wrong is to torture him.) The most interesting part of the program was actually early on, dealing with the capture of Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaeda member (though, it turned out, a considerably less important one than we thought when we captured him) and his interrogation first by the FBI — who assigned Ali Soufan to question him because Soufan was a Muslim, of Arab descent, and could quote the Koran and build a rapport with Zubaydah. Soufan succeeded well enough that he got Zubaydah to identify Khalid Shaikh Muhammad (or “KSM” as he was referred to for short by American authorities) as the organizer and operations chief for the 9/11 attacks at a time nobody else in the American government knew who he was. Then the CIA took him over and started waterboarding and — let’s use the correct term — torturing him, and he clammed up. The person the CIA put in charge of Zubaydah’s “enhanced” interrogation was identified in the Senate report by the pseudonym “Grayson Swigert” but was really James Mitchell, a psychologist who had been instrumental in developing the U.S. Army’s SERE (“Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape”) program aimed at training American servicemembers how to handle the experience of being tortured while held captive by enemies who did that sort of thing. (It was apparently started in response to the Korean War and the so-called “brainwashing” of U.S. and United Nations prisoners by the Communist Chinese.)

Mitchell decided to reverse-engineer SERE so instead of training American servicemembers to resist torture, it would train CIA agents to torture detainees — and when Khalid Shaikh Muhammad was finally captured, he was waterboarded over 180 times and proceeded, according to classic intelligence training, to give his interrogators fanciful tales of the sort he could tell they wanted to hear, including a bizarre story that al-Qaeda was training Black recruits in Montana (of all places) to stage further terror attacks against the U.S. As far-fetched as this might seem in reality, the FBI mounted a major offensive to find and arrest these Black Montanan al-Qaeda recruits and spent weeks on the case before finally realizing (and acknowledging) that there were no such people: KSM had been lying. That’s the real problem with interrogation under torture: not only that it’s immoral, wrong and contrary to America’s professed values (John McCain has said on more than one occasion that one of the things that kept him going while the North Viet Namese were torturing him was the thought, “My country would never do this to anybody”) but it doesn’t freaking work. A person you’re interrogating under torture will tell you whatever he thinks will get you to stop torturing him — and when the torturers are people who are pushing an agenda whether or not it has anything to do with facts (like the U.S. search for people who knew where Saddam Hussein was hiding his weapons of mass destruction — which, of course, did not exist), it will be relatively easy for the torture victim to figure out what his torturers want to hear and give it to them. (The CIA interrogators claimed they were able to tell when KSM was lying and when he was telling the truth, but they obviously weren’t if they were willing to “buy” the Montana story and transmit it to the FBI for legal action.) The most depressing aspect of the program is the extent to which the whole question of torture has become yet another example of the partisan split, with Democrats insisting that EIT’s constituted torture and Republicans saying they didn’t, and with Democrats (including Dianne Feinstein, hardly a beau ideal of liberalism) fighting to have both Leon Panetta’s internal CIA report and the 6,000-page full Senate report declassified and publicly released, while the Republicans are equally determined to keep both of them classified forever and return all the purloined (by Democratic staff members to the original investigation) copies of Panetta’s report to the CIA so they can be deep-sixed forever.

At the end of the program Peter Baker, who has covered the issue as a reporter for the New York Times, rather ruefully says, “The fight right now is for history. There’s no more investigations that are going to happen. There’s no more legal consequences that we know of at this point. And there’s no policy debate. Why did it happen? Was it the right thing? Was it the wrong thing? And how should we look at it in generations to come?” I think Baker is wrong in claiming that there’s “no policy debate” on the issue; by whitewashing the CIA in particular and the torture (so-called “EIT’s”) in general, the Republicans are making it quite clear that if they regain the Presidency in 2016 you can expect that the U.S. will start torturing people again, especially given the rise of ISIS a.k.a. ISIL a.k.a. Islamic State a.k.a. Daesh (the initials of its Arabic name and close enough to an Arabic insult that Arabic speakers who don’t like them pronounce it with a sneer). We can expect, if the next President is a Republican (and probably if the next President is Hillary Clinton as well), to hear the same excuses — that we don’t have time for classical counterintelligence rapport-building, that terrorist attacks will take place on our soil if we don’t use EIT’s to find out about them, and that EIT’s are effective — just as President Obama defended the NSA’s spying program by citing the case of an alleged terrorist who had supposedly been identified and brought to justice through it, when it turned out eventually that the person had left behind such an obvious trail to his terror-supporting activities the feds would have had no trouble getting a fully Fourth Amendment-compliant warrant for a specific search on him. Obama did end the torture program, but it seems all too likely, whichever way the 2016 Presidential election turns out (i.e., whether it’s Hillary or a Republican), the U.S. will start torturing again and the tortured (pardon the pun) justifications for it in legal memoranda and the meager (or, worse, outright deceptive) results of “enhanced interrogation” will once again be with us.