Tuesday, 11 November 2008

"Effective interrogation"

A thought for Remembrance Day...

Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, has asked the attorney general to investigate possible "criminal wrongdoing" by the MI5 and the CIA over its treatment of a British resident held in Guantánamo Bay, it was revealed last month. The dramatic development over allegations of collusion in torture and inhuman treatment follows a high court judgment which found that an MI5 officer participated in the unlawful interrogation of Binyam Mohamed. The MI5 officer interrogated Mohamed while he was being held in Pakistan in 2002. By coincidence, I have just read Robert Harris's "Ghost", the subject of which is, effectively, the rights or wrongs of CIA torture and the initiation by the ICC of a prosecution of a former British PM.

One nasty morning Comrade Stalin discovered that his favorite pipe was missing. Naturally, he called in his henchman, Lavrenti Beria, and instructed him to find the pipe. A few hours later, Stalin found it in his desk and called off the search. "But, Comrade Stalin," stammered Beria, "five suspects have already confessed to stealing it." This joke, whispered among those who trusted each other in the Moscow of the 1950s, is perhaps the best contribution I can make to the current argument in Washington about legislation banning torture and inhumane treatment of suspected terrorists captured abroad. In March US President George W Bush vetoed legislation that would have prevented the CIA from using torture during interrogation of terrorism. Now that President Bush has made a public show of endorsing Sen. John McCain's amendment, it would seem that the debate is ending. Not that the torture will end - it will simply be hidden better. But that the debate occurred at all, and that prominent figures were willing to entertain the idea, is perplexing and alarming. Torture is surely wrong. I know the argument that torturing one 'guilty' man is better than having twenty innocent people killed by terrorist bombs but I don't endorse it. And, any way, who decides if the guilty person is guilty when they have been spirited away from a foreign country with no trial.

Having read a bit about the techniques used by the CIA I was momentarily amused when I found that one of them was that the detainees were forced to listen to rap artist Eminem's "Slim Shady" album. The music was so foreign to them it made them frantic, sources said. The fact that the prisoners were also forced to stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down and never sleep while the music was playing probably helped!

But forget, for a mement, the emotional side of the argument. Most nations can provide you with volumes on the subject of torture and nearly all of them reach the same conclusion. You can get anyomne to confess anyhting if you torture them. Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these "interrogation" practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture would destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery. It is "bad interrogation. I mean you can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture's bad enough," said former CIA officer Bob Baer. Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and a deputy director of the State Department's office of counterterrorism, recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "What real CIA field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust … than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Nazis and the Soviets."

But another senior intelligence offical said "Let's keep in mind what the objective is - to get information that will save American lives. And there is an absolute necessity to use effective interrogation to gain insights on plans to kill Americans." Mmmm. Sorry if you feel differently but in my book torture is WRONG. And no amount of justifying it or qualifying it or quantifying it or setting rules as to how much torture you can apply will ever make it RIGHT. Didn't we spend rather a lot of lives and money and effort fighting a certain German chap with a moustache because of his unacceptable approach to humanity. Or is that just hindsight, were we really just out to save British lives? Perhaps, I should go back to my pleasant little cocoon and read Agatha Christies in future.

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