Wednesday, July 02, 2008

“Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War” or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Torture

I’m mixing my movie metaphors, I’m afraid. The headline is a reference to Dr. Strangelove, but an article in today’s New York Times is more reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate.

Well, part of it, anyway.

The part where the Chinese commandant brainwashes Americans such as Laurence Harvey (never mind that accent) and Frank Sinatra.

I don’t know if Richard Condon had seen the article titled Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War which was published two years before his novel The Manchurian Candidate came out in 1959, but I could not read the Times article without flashing on the 1962 film.

The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of “coercive management techniques” for possible use on prisoners, including “sleep deprivation,” “prolonged constraint,” and “exposure.”

What the trainers did not say, and may not have known, was that their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.

The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The chart was part of collection of documents made public a couple of weeks ago at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, but the connection to the Chinese version was not realized till an independent interrogation expert pointed it out to the New York Times. This chart, mind you, was taken verbatim from the Chinese version as published a half-century ago—only the title at the top was changed before the thing was brought down to Guantanamo to train interrogators there.

The 1957 article from which the chart was copied was entitled “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War” and written by Alfred D. Biderman, a sociologist then working for the Air Force, who died in 2003. Mr. Biderman had interviewed American prisoners returning from North Korea, some of whom had been filmed by their Chinese interrogators confessing to germ warfare and other atrocities.

Those orchestrated confessions led to allegations that the American prisoners had been “brainwashed,” and provoked the military to revamp its training to give some military personnel a taste of the enemies’ harsh methods to inoculate them against quick capitulation if captured.

In 2002, the training program, known as SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, became a source of interrogation methods both for the C.I.A. and the military. In what critics describe as a remarkable case of historical amnesia, officials who drew on the SERE program appear to have been unaware that it had been created as a result of concern about false confessions by American prisoners.

Is it historical amnesia, or is it willful ignorance? I gotta ask, because this is hardly the first piece of evidence we’ve had that the Bush Administration adopted a policy of torturing detainees using techniques repeatedly proven to be ineffective, and, most likely, counterproductive. Techniques that were also known to be in direct conflict with standing American policy and the Geneva Conventions. Techniques that were repeatedly labeled as torture and/or “brainwashing” by the US government throughout the previous six decades.

And, perhaps it is not only the administration apparatchiks who have pretended that they know nothing.

Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said after reviewing the 1957 article that “every American would be shocked” by the origin of the training document.

“What makes this document doubly stunning is that these were techniques to get false confessions,” Mr. Levin said. “People say we need intelligence, and we do. But we don’t need false intelligence.”

Every American—and apparently Senator Levin—would be shocked, shocked, to discover that there is torture going on in American-run establishments.

Would be shocked? Who is going to make sure that they are shocked, Senator? Who is going to shout it from the highest hill? Who is going to cut off funding to the prisons and programs that practice these cruel and inhuman techniques? Who is going to hold the perpetrators and their bosses accountable for this historical amnesia? Who is going to overturn the now thoroughly discredited Military Commissions Act? Who is going to restore Habeas rights so that more about the sub-human practices inside the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld gulag system can come to light?

I’m sorry, I’m being a little rhetorical. Perhaps I’m overacting a bit. Just imagine I’m Sinatra in high dudgeon, rendered in Black and White (lord knows I do sometimes).

The bottom line here is that the Bush Administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” were never about keeping America safe—there was far too much evidence in the public and classified record that demonstrated just how counterproductive this torture was and is. Maybe it was about an executive power grab, maybe it was done out of cowardice, panic, or shear vindictiveness, but let no one claim it was done to gain the advantage in the War on Terror™—that just isn’t credible.

As fans of the book or movie know, things in The Manchurian Candidate don’t end well. The “brainwashing” is exposed, there is a psychotic break or two, much Oedipal drama, and a great deal of blood is spilled. After seven-and-a-half years of torture, bloodshed, and Oedipal drama, is it really so shocking to discover another disgusting misuse of executive authority? And, is it really too much to ask that someone in the loyal opposition takes to heart Laurence Harvey’s final words? (No, nut-o-sphere, not his final deeds—just his words.)

You couldn't have stopped them, the Army couldn't have stopped them. So I had to.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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