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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Torture Just Doesn't Work

I know it seems like, no matter what President-elect Obama says, we are already post-Bush in this country. The messy economic picture, the war drums sounding from India and Pakistan, and the imminent celebration of Christmas in January (Obama's inauguration!) make the chore of looking back on the last eight years truly disheartening. But as a history student, I am a firm believer that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And one lesson I hope was learned by the 110th Congress is how truly awful and nation-staining our interrogation policy is. We should do whatever we can to rewrite those rules immediately.

Matthew Alexander led a Special Forces interrogation unit in Iraq during the bloody chaos of 2006. The title of his op-ed piece in Sunday's Washington Post says it all- 'I'm Still Tortured By What I Saw In Iraq'.

Our new interrogation methods [investigative instead of physcially and mentally punishing-Ed.] led to one of the war's biggest breakthroughs: We convinced one of Zarqawi's associates to give up the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader's location. On June 8, 2006, U.S. warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs on a house where Zarqawi was meeting with other insurgent leaders.

But Zarqawi's death wasn't enough to convince the joint Special Operations task force for which I worked to change its attitude toward interrogations. The old methods continued. I came home from Iraq feeling as if my mission was far from accomplished. Soon after my return, the public learned that another part of our government, the CIA, had repeatedly used waterboarding to try to get information out of detainees.

I know the counter-argument well -- that we need the rough stuff for the truly hard cases, such as battle-hardened core leaders of al-Qaeda, not just run-of-the-mill Iraqi insurgents. But that's not always true: We turned several hard cases, including some foreign fighters, by using our new techniques. A few of them never abandoned the jihadist cause but still gave up critical information. One actually told me, "I thought you would torture me, and when you didn't, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That's why I decided to cooperate."

Torture and abuse are against my moral fabric. The cliche still bears repeating: Such outrages are inconsistent with American principles. And then there's the pragmatic side: Torture and abuse cost American lives.

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.

The damage our interrogation policy has done to our image as a beacon of light to the world will take many administrations to correct. Terrorism is a crime, and it should be dealt with by trained criminal investigators. There is no armed military solution to terrorism, as Gen. Petraeus has shown us during his tenure leading our forces in Iraq. If you beat people enough, they will tell you they are Santa Claus. That is the truth.

24 is a popular TV show. It is not the real world. When you torture people you exacerbate crime, not eliminate it.

- On the same tip, in Sunday's New York Times Jonathan Mahler writes that the war on terrorism will never be only fought through our judicial process.

Mr. Obama may be more inclined to prosecute suspected terrorists in the federal courts than Mr. Bush has been, and he may even avoid referring to the battle against terrorism as a “war.” But ceding the military paradigm altogether would severely limit his ability to fight terrorism. On a practical level, it would prevent him from operating in a zone like the tribal areas of Pakistan, where American law does not reach.

“If you seriously dialed it back to the criminal-justice apparatus you will paralyze the executive branch’s ability to go where they believe the bad guys are,” says Benjamin Wittes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “When people talk about a return to the criminal-justice system, they’re ignoring the geographical limits of that system.”
OK, then we need to set up a national security court which provides some recourse for those apprehended in other countries. Flying around the world and picking off the bad guys will continue to bite us in the ass. We need to make sure we are giving all detainees as much due process as we can. We're America, for God sakes. We don't stand for unwarranted imprisonment.

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