The Right Way

“The whole world is watching what we do here. We’re going to win or lose this war depending on how we do this.”

Ali Soufan

The story of the United States of America joining the long and black list of nations who abuse and torture prisoners and then invent all sorts of justifications for it is dribbling out slowly. «A new article in Newsweek» is one of the best I’ve seen so far at laying out both the nitty-gritty and some of the bigger cultural issues at play.

The article centers on the story of Ali Soufan, one of the FBI’s top experts on Al Qaeda who also ‘had a reputation as a shrewd interrogator who could work fluently in both English and Arabic.’ It was Soufani who successfully discovered both the Jose Padilla dirty bomb plot and the identity of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (one a preventive and one a prosecutorial piece of detective work) within the rule of law, without using torture:

“Last week Soufan, 37, now a security consultant who spends most of his time in the Middle East, decided to tell the story of his involvement in the Abu Zubaydah interrogations publicly for the first time. In an op-ed in The New York Times and in a series of exclusive interviews with Newsweek, Soufan described how he, together with FBI colleague Steve Gaudin, began the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. They nursed his wounds, gained his confidence and got the terror suspect talking. They extracted crucial intelligence—including the identity of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the architect of 9/11 and the dirty-bomb plot of Jose Padilla—before CIA contractors even began their aggressive tactics.’ … “I was in the middle of this, and it’s not true that these [aggressive] techniques were effective,” he says. “We were able to get the information about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a couple of days. We didn’t have to do any of this [torture]. We could have done this the right way. ” [Emphasis added.]

What did ‘the right way’ look like?

“As the sessions continued, Soufan engaged Abu Zubaydah in long discussions about his world view, which included a tinge of socialism. After Abu Zubaydah railed one day about the influence of American imperialist corporations, he asked Soufan to get him a Coca-Cola—a request that prompted the two of them to laugh. Soon enough, Abu Zubaydah offered up more information—about the bizarre plans of a jihadist from Puerto Rico to set off a “dirty bomb” inside the country. This information led to Padilla’s arrest in Chicago by the FBI in early May. ”

But Bush/Cheney and the CIA didn’t want ‘the right way,’ followed (it was too calm and too much namby-pamby ‘police action’ for them) and manufactured, through the compliant devices of the likes of John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the means to ramp up torture. And the only objections that seemed forthcoming appear to have been centered on the potential political blowback, not on the inhumane, immoral, and illegal acts being undertaken:

“Pasquale D’Amuro, then the FBI assistant director for counterterrorism … and other officials were alarmed at what they heard from Soufan. They fretted about the political consequences of abusive interrogations and the Washington blowback they thought was inevitable, say two high-ranking FBI sources who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters. According to a later Justice Department inspector general’s report, D’Amuro warned FBI Director Bob Mueller that such activities would eventually be investigated. “Someday, people are going to be sitting in front of green felt tables having to testify about all of this,” D’Amuro said, according to one of the sources. ”

The issue, as usual, follows America’s cultural fault lines. There are (hopefully a minority) Americans who, in this case, are so steeped in fear and anger that they have no problem using any means necessary, including those of history’s worst human offenders as well as contemporary terrorists, in order to feed that fear and anger. The fault lines not only run through society, but through all government service as well:

“… in early 2002, Soufan flew to Guantánamo to conduct a training course. He gave a powerful talk, preaching the virtues of the FBI’s traditional rapport-building techniques. Not only were such methods the most effective, Soufan explained that day, they were critical to maintaining America’s image in the Middle East. “The whole world is watching what we do here,” Soufan said. “We’re going to win or lose this war depending on how we do this.” As he made these comments, about half the interrogators in the room—those from the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies—were “nodding their heads” in agreement, recalls McFadden. But the other half—CIA and military officers—sat there “with blank stares. It’s like they were thinking, This is bullcrap. Their attitude was, ‘You guys are cops; we don’t have time for this’.” ”

Americans on one side committed to the rule of law and cognizant of the possible price that has to be paid to follow it; on the other side those who would jettison it when the going gets rough and their fear and anger get control of them. The same is true in the general society. There are Americans who are so fearful and anger that they stock the house with guns and loudly tell anyone who will listen that ‘if anyone tries to break in their house, they’ll blow ‘em away!’ and then tries to pass laws that arm teachers (ostensibly to prevent more Columbines) and carry guns into restaurants and so on and so on. There are Americans who accept that life is sometimes dangerous and short and that if something happens the police are there to ‘protect and serve.’ And then get on with their lives.

Meanwhile, the torture story goes on. The documents being examined tell the story about how our nation willfully abrogated the rule of law and committed acts for which we prosecuted and executed or jailed perpetrators in other nations within our living memory. And the perpetrators, like many Germans and Japanese of the 1933-45 period and communists of the Soviet and People’s Republic periods, will probably never be brought to heel for what they’ve done. Especially if they think like Torturer James Mitchell:

“Although Soufan declined to identify the contractor by name, other sources (and media accounts) identify him as James Mitchell, a former Air Force psychologist who had worked on the U.S. military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training—a program to teach officers how to resist the abusive interrogation methods used by Chinese communists during the Korean War. Within days of his arrival, Mitchell—an architect of the CIA interrogation program—took charge of the questioning of Abu Zubaydah. He directed that Abu Zubaydah be ordered to answer questions or face a gradual increase in aggressive techniques. One day Soufan entered Abu Zubadyah’s room and saw that he had been stripped naked; he covered him with a towel. The confrontations began. “I asked [the contractor] if he’d ever interrogated anyone, and he said no,” Soufan says. But that didn’t matter, the contractor shot back: “Science is science. This is a behavioral issue.” The contractor suggested Soufan was the inexperienced one. “He told me he’s a psychologist and he knows how the human mind works.” Mitchell told Newsweek, “I would love to tell my story.” But then he added, “I have signed a nondisclosure agreement that will not even allow me to correct false allegations.” ”

How convenient. And how very … American. And human. And disgusting.