December 2, 2010

Call me a cynic, but I don’t see WikiLeaks changing much — for better or worse — about the way the government both classifies information and conducts diplomacy. But until the noise subsides, it remains a fascinating curiosity. That’s why two of my favorite takes on The Great Cable Dump of 2010 haven’t been about the political fallout, but about the literary merit of the cables themselves.

The two pieces, authored respectively by Reuel Marc Gerecht and Chris Beam, are at their most interesting where they diverge. Where Gerecht sees “bland and underreported,” Beam sees, “cables read like their own literary genre, with an identifiable sensibility and set of conventions.” I’d chalk that up to their differing backgrounds: Gerecht is a veteran of the CIA, while Beam, as far as I know, has never worked for the federal government in any capacity. One has spent a significant portion of his career mired in the American foreign policy apparatus, while the other comes to the cables, as most of us do, as outside observers getting a peek behind the curtain.

That’s probably why I’m more sympathetic to Beam’s assessment of the cables. For Gerecht, this is nothing remotely alien about the culture of American foreign relations, so there’s nothing to report. But for the rest of us, even the mundanity of these cables (and many of them are staggeringly mundane) is news. The flashes of black humor or psychological insight are even more interesting news. Reading these documents is a little like reading the letters and diary entries of historical figures. They’re history and state given individual character and personality.

Crossposted at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

Torture Without Torturers
November 21, 2010

Via Andrew Price’s Twitter feed, an article on the psychology of the great American torture debate:

2009 study by Carlsmith and Sood delves into the motivations behind support for harsh interrogation techniques. They discovered that support levels for harsh interrogation techniques did not really correlate with conceptions of the efficacy of the techniques themselves.

“Those who support harsh interrogation make an a priori assumption that a detainee is guilty of some heinous act (e.g., killing U.S. troops), and is therefore deserving of harsh treatment,” Carlsmith explains, but “those who oppose harsh interrogation, by contrast, entertain the possibility of detainee innocence, and thus reject the notion that the detainee deserves harsh treatment.” Carlsmith emphasizes that “both groups seek the same outcome — namely, that the detainee receive his just desserts; the main difference is in the “assumptions they make about the initial moral status of the detainee.”

Carlsmith’s research helps in understanding the division between Americans on the topic of torture, where a majority of Americans support harsh interrogation even while a sizeable minority opposes it. “I’m trying to understand how reasonable people can reach diametrically opposed position on seemingly fundamental moral issues,” he says. “In the case of torture-interrogation, both sides are seeking to be moral. The difference is that those who support torture focus on the detainee’s past (immoral) behavior, while those who oppose it don’t.”

It strikes me that there’s another dimension to this as well, though. I don’t have the research to back this up — though hopefully Carlsmith and Sood, or others, might do some further studying — but the people I’ve encountered who defend America’s torture regime either deny the amount of pain inflicted or categorically refuse to classify it as “torture,” or both. There’s also a distinct separation and depersonalization at work here, not just with regard to the detainees, but also to the torturers themselves. For all the talk about “giving the military the authority to do what they have to do,” and so on, we lose the main point about whose responsibility this is: ours. This is still a republic, and if we sanction members of our government to torture others without legal consequences, then the onus falls on us.

I think this changes the context of the debate significantly. Defenders of torture are willing to stand alongside authority figures who, presumably in the interests of their safety, commit unspeakable acts. But are these defenders willing to assume responsibility for the acts themselves? The less we allow them to hide behind abstraction, the better.

A “Total Miscarriage of Justice”
November 18, 2010

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani
Image via Wikipedia

That’s how incoming House homeland security chair Pete King described the Ghailani trial. Ghailani (pictured) was, of course, found guilty on only one of the 285 charges brought against him, and consequentially got off with a light slap on the wrist: twenty years to life imprisonment.

So why did the prosecution wind up with such a poor batting average? In part, because the evidence was contaminated by the Bush administration’s illegal torture policy:

Ghailani was waterboarded, i.e. tortured, into revealing his relationship with Hussein Abebe, who in turn provided the most damaging testimony against Ghailani.

As FDL perceptively wrote, it is possible that Abebe’s own testimony against Ghailani was itself coerced.

On Oct. 5, Judge Lewis Kaplan [pdf] excluded Abebe’s testimony, on the grounds that it was a a fruit of a poisonous tree, i.e. was only available to the prosecution because Bush had had Ghailani tortured (and maybe had had Abebe tortured, as well!)

That was why Ghailani could not be convicted of murder, as he from all accounts ought to have been. Had his connection to Abebe been discovered by ordinary questioning or by good police work, then the latter could have freely taken the witness stand. In fact, it seems to me very likely that Abebe would in fact have been discovered in other ways– from the record, e.g., of Ghailani’s cell phone calls, or even just from his own account of his activities.

So the court excluded evidence that was maintained illegally, but still condemned a guilty man to a very long stay in prison. Actually, it sounds like the criminal justice system acquitted itself fairly well in this case, no? If anything, the injustice here is that the people who ordered Ghailani’s torture — which, remember, made him harder to prosecute — won’t be brought up on charges themselves.

But that’s not how King sees it. The same Guardian article I linked to above says:

Congress must approve any transfer of Guantánamo Bay prisoners to US soil, something King said would never happen now his party held sway in the legislature after the midterm elections: “They couldn’t come close to getting that done when the Democrats were in charge. There’s no way they’re going to get it now that Republicans are in charge.”

This can’t be repeated often enough: King’s grievance isn’t regarding the legitimacy of the trial, but that a legitimate trial reached an outcome he doesn’t like. To him, torture is a lesser injustice than the inadmissibility of “evidence” that was extracted by torture.

And his solution is to compound injustice on top of injustice, and move to block any attempt to transfer detainees from Guantanamo to U.S. soil. That means that the Obama administration is left to either prosecute them through military tribunals (see here for why that’s a really bad idea) or let them molder in a cell without charges indefinitely, as they plan to do to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Sadly, I doubt they’ll even put up a fight.

Crossposted at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

October 15, 2010

It’s probably a little bit late for me to urge everyone to start watching AMC’s Rubicon, given that the season finale is this Sunday. But then again, this is the Netflix On Demand era, and maybe a modest boost in online sales will encourage AMC to give it a second season.

TV shows don’t get a lot of time these days to find their footing, and if this week’s episode is Rubicon’s last, that will be why. The pilot had the languid, meandering pacing of a mid-afternoon nap, which would have been fine if any of the characters had come into any sort of focus at all. But there was potential there in the way the lead performers were able to deliver dry exposition with some level of conviction, and in the creeping sense of dread. It was hard to find the show’s pulse, but at least it seemed to have one.

Turns out a lot of that was due to a major personnel switch-up: the lead show-runner (and creator) got swapped out mid-stream, and a conceptual rejiggering ensued. The first three episodes ended up being throat clearing, but the fourth, well. What was originally a fairly generic, if still intriguing, conspiracy thriller turned into a workplace drama-cum-morally ambiguous meditation on the War on Terror. The conspiracy mytharc was still there, but no longer suffocating, and the conspiracy itself started to seem less like an all-powerful Illuminati then a group of very rich, very unscrupulous men who had found that they could get even richer by toying with the lives of millions. That, to me, was a far more plausible and far more unsettling proposition. The banality of evil is always going to be scarier and more interesting than the Dark Side of the Force.

As for the workplace drama side: the supporting cast got fleshed out enormously, and the show finally started to take full advantage of its national security think tank setting. Much is made of the personal sacrifices these characters make, but the big draw for me—and probably for a significant chunk of my readers as well—is how much of the show is kind of porn for national security wonks. Most of our heroes have never fired a gun, but they spend a lot of time debating the relevance of classified documents and fighting the sprawling bureaucracy of the DoD and CIA. Somehow all of this is rendered in a way that’s engaging, suspenseful, even stylish.

Timely, as well. Most episodes remind me of the Washington Post’s Top Secret America at least once. Both draw the same conclusion: national security is a confused, murky business, now more than ever. What makes Rubicon so chilling is how it suggests how easily someone inside the enormous massive security complex to manipulate it to their own advantage and against the interests of the United States. It’s hard to imagine that sort of thing not happening on a micro scale with some regularity; Rubicon imagines it in the macro.

(This post was prompted by a well-worth-reading interview the AV Club did with Henry Brommell, the replacement executive producer. Check it out, and then track down and check out the fourth episode.)

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