Sunday, September 17, 2006

Idle Speculation (on the Need for Not-Quite Torture)

In a previous post, I raised a number of questions about George Bush's defense of not-quite-torture, including the ratio of true to false information and whether alternate sources of information were available.

At least a little more information has come to light on questionable statements made under not-quite torture. One of Bush's allegations I did not mention was that Abu Zubaydah began by giving information he considered nominal, but that such information included a hitherto unknown plot and led to the arrest of an operative in the United States. I did not mention this allegaton because Bush claimed to have gained this information by orthodox interrogation. Anonymous Liberal links to a New York Times article that this actually refers to the dubious Jose Padilla plot. Zubaydah appears to have given Padilla up as a harmless bone to toss to his interrogators because he did not believe Padilla was capable of any actual operations. More details have also come out about al-Libi's false statements under not-quite torture.

None of this has weakened George Bush's defense of his "program." The opposition of the JAG Corps, and the pleas of Powell, Vessey and other retired generals do not move him. Nor is he satisfied with the bill backed by Senators Warner, Graham and McCain, Republicans and respect veterans all, that bans detainee abuse but effectively disallows any enforcement mechanism. It seems too far-fetched that Bush would incur so much embarrassment simply to rally his base. I can only conclude, therefore, that he sincerely believes that his "program" of not-quite-torture is vital to fighting terrorists and that there is no alternative.

The question still remains, why is it so important. After all, when terrorist leaders are captured, documents, computers, contact information etc. is captured along with them. Al-Zarqawi in Iraq did not live long enough to be interrogated. No matter, he told us literally volumes from beyond the grave in the form of the volumes of documents captured. These, in turn, led to other hideouts, which led to yet more documents and so forth until we have effectively rolled up al-Qaeda in Iraq. So why can't we undertake a parallel action against al-Qaeda through captured documents, suveillance leads generated and the like? Granting that this would be slower than not-quite-torture, why would it not be ultimately effective?

I do not know the answer, and Bush is unlikely to declassify it, but allow me to offer an idle speculation. It is no secret that Bush is on poor terms with the reality-based intelligence community. The cynical might go so far as to suggest that he prefers not-quite-torture to reality-based intelligence because, unlike reality-based intelligence, not-quite-torture always yields the results he wants. But I am not prepared to be that cynical. On the other hand, it is also no secret that Bush's attempts to force the reality-based intelligence community to give him the answers he wants have hurt their effectiveness. The attached article in American Prospect gives further details.

Since Goss [since replaced] took over, between 30 and 90 senior CIA officials have made their exit, according to various sources, some fleeing into retirement, others taking refuge as consultants. Others, unable to retire, have stayed, but only to mark time at the agency. Morale, already low after several years during which the CIA was accused of a series of intelligence failures related to September 11 and Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, is now at rock-bottom. The agency’s vaunted Near East Division, in particular, which served as the “pointy end of the spear,” as one CIA veteran put it, in simultaneous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the “global war on terror,” has been decimated.


And later

The purge was felt down the line, with various chiefs of station, division heads, and other top officials bailing out. No section was harder hit than the already rattled Near East Division. At least two consecutive Baghdad chiefs of station have quit or been fired, and division’s staff at headquarters has been nearly swept clean of its experienced officials. “All over the agency, the talk is about the steady stream of people leaving,” says one veteran CIA officer. “People are disillusioned, and there seems to be no relief from the sense that there is no fixing this.” In the Near East Division, especially in the section that focuses on Iraq, many are gone. “What you’ve got left is a bunch of kids,” this officer said. “You’ve got a bunch of newbies in there -- some very smart, but with no experience.” Another former CIA chief of station said: “There aren’t any Arabists left in the CIA. They’re gone. They weren’t with the program. It’s like Pol Pot, who killed anybody wearing glasses because they might be able to read.”

Most troubling to agency watchers -- including Harman, who says that the CIA’s “free fall” is a “very, very bad omen in the middle of a war” -- is that the people exiting the CIA are those with decades of experience. “The intelligence process is based on experience,” says one grizzled CIA veteran. “It’s the 10,000 at-bat syndrome. It’s more an art than a science, and it is very difficult to teach. We’re talking about an agency that has no bench. When you take out the A-team, there’s no one.”


So here is the idle speculation. Is it possible that George Bush is convinced of the need for not-quite-torture, not only because it is faster and easier than painstaking intelligence work, but because his insistence on loyalty over competence had seriously undermined the CIA's capacity for painstaking intelligence work to thwart terrorist plots? In other words, is it possible that Bush sees the need for not-quite-torture at least in part because his own policies have undermined the alternative?

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