Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Reporting on the Work of Ending Torture


Here are some excerpts from a piece in the Washington Post of December 3 2008 about the hazards facing the new administration in attempting to dismantle the Torture Industrial Complex.

I assume that all such pieces, and there have been several others recently in prominent news outlets, are as much trial balloons as they are hard reporting, since few actual decisions are being reported.

In the balloon context, this piece seems to me more hopeful than some earlier ones. It speaks more favorably of several issues, like closing Guantanamo and stopping rendition flights.

But it is very weak and wobbly on the matter of secret prisons, and whether to permit torture in "special" circumstances. The comments by Senator Dianne Feinstein, for instance, also indicate that such wobbliness extends to many in Congress as well.

Such weakness should be no surprise. Most Democrats on the Hill went along with all this torture mess, and at least a few cheered for it.

But no one should be fooled by such concern for loopholes. The secret agencies have a record of driving trucks (and renditions airplanes) through every such allowed exception.

Certainly the prospects for reform now are more promising than they were before the election. But as this piece and others should make clear, those who want to REALLY end torture have our work cut out for us, and plenty of it.

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Washington Post December 3, 2008

After Sharp Words on C.I.A., Obama Faces a Delicate Task

WASHINGTON — For two years on the presidential campaign trail, Barack Obama rallied crowds with strongly worded critiques of the Bush administration’s most controversial counterterrorism programs, from hiding terrorism suspects in secret Central Intelligence Agency jails to questioning them with methods he denounced as torture.

Now Mr. Obama must take charge of the C.I.A., in what is already proving to be one of the more treacherous patches of his transition to the White House.

One of the first issues Mr. Obama must grapple with is the future of C.I.A. detention: will the agency continue to hold prisoners secretly, question them using more aggressive methods than allowed for military interrogators, and transfer terrorism suspects to countries with a history of using torture?

During the presidential campaign, a constant theme for Mr. Obama was the need to restore “American values” to the fight against terrorism. He pledged to banish secret C.I.A. interrogation rules and require all American interrogators to follow military guidelines, set out in the Army Field Manual on interrogation.

In a speech last year, Mr. Obama cast the matter as a practical issue, as well as a moral one. “We cannot win a war unless we maintain the high ground and keep the people on our side,” he said. “But because the administration decided to take the low road, our troops have more enemies.”

On Wednesday, a dozen retired generals and admirals are to meet with senior Obama advisers to urge him to stand firm against any deviation from the military’s noncoercive interrogation rules.

But even some senior Democratic lawmakers who are vehement critics of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies seemed reluctant in recent interviews to commit the new administration to following the Army Field Manual in all cases.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who will take over as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in January, led the fight this year to force the C.I.A. to follow military interrogation rules. Her bill was passed by Congress but vetoed by President Bush.

But in an interview on Tuesday, Mrs. Feinstein indicated that extreme cases might call for flexibility. “I think that you have to use the noncoercive standard to the greatest extent possible,” she said, raising the possibility that an imminent terrorist threat might require special measures.

Afterward, however, Mrs. Feinstein issued a statement saying: “The law must reflect a single clear standard across the government, and right now, the best choice appears to be the Army Field Manual. I recognize that there are other views, and I am willing to work with the new administration to consider them.”

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, another top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said he would consult with the C.I.A. and approve interrogation techniques that went beyond the Army Field Manual as long as they were “legal, humane and noncoercive.” But Mr. Wyden declined to say whether C.I.A. techniques ought to be made public.

C.I.A. officials have long argued that publishing a list of interrogation techniques only allows Al Qaeda to train its operatives to resist them. But they say the secrecy has led to exaggeration and myth about the agency’s detention program. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama’s aides said he would consider allowing the C.I.A to continue holding prisoners in overseas jails, but would insist that inspectors from the International Committee of the Red Cross be allowed to visit them.

They also said he would end the practice of “rendering” terrorism suspects to countries that have used torture.

One of the retired generals meeting with the Obama team on Wednesday, Paul D. Eaton, who oversaw the training of Iraqi forces for the Army in 2003 and 2004, said in an interview Tuesday that it was crucial for leaders to send the right message on the treatment of prisoners.

General Eaton pointed out that Vice President Dick Cheney once dismissed waterboarding, the near-drowning tactic considered by many legal authorities to be torture, as a “dunk in the water” and said such statements influenced rank-and-file soldiers to believe that brutality was not really prohibited.

“This administration has set a tone problem for the military,” General Eaton said. “We’ve had eight years of undermining good order and discipline.”

The flap over Mr. Brennan, who served as a chief of staff to George J. Tenet when he ran the C.I.A., was the biggest glitch so far in what has been an otherwise smooth transition for Mr. Obama.

Some C.I.A. veterans suggest that the president-elect may have difficulty finding a candidate who can be embraced by both veteran officials at the agency and the left flank of the Democratic Party. . . .

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