Sunday, May 22, 2011

Giving Up Our Values: Been There, Done That

I suppose one of the reasons I have so little patience with the argument that Islamic terrorism poses such an existential threat to us that our moral value are a luxury we just can't afford is that I am old enough to remember hearing such arguments before during the Cold War.

Granted, at least back then no one was arguing that we should torture. But we had plenty of allies who tortured, and we often abetted them and encouraged them. Any concern for freedom, democracy or human rights beyond our borders was dismissed as simply expendible in view of the emergency. Even within our borders, there had been revelations of shocking abuses by our government -- domestic spying, harassment of political opponents and the like. Plenty of people argued that the Russians had a hopeless advantage over us because they were not constrained by democracy and open government, that democratic accountability was an unsupportable burden, and, in short, that the only way to defeat the Soviets was to become as much like them as possible. To anyone who argued that if we became just like the Soviets, what was the point of beating them in the first place the answer was simply survival. We and the Russians had enough nuclear missiles pointed at each other to destroy each other many times over. With the stakes that high, maintaining our values and remaining free and democratic had to take second place to protecting our existence.

I remember those times and those arguments. As I listened, I hoped they were wrong and feared they were right. And then 1989 came along, Communism collapsed all across Eastern Europe, and doomsayers were proven gloriously wrong. The Soviet Union was unmasked as nothing but a Third World country with nuclear missiles. Its despotism and secrecy, far from being sources of strength, were continually undermining it. Our openness and accountability were not fatal weaknesses, but vital strengths. Arguments by many that the Soviets had a hopeless advantage in intelligence because they controlled the flow of information and we did not turned out to be false. In fact, the Soviets found our free flow of information baffling if not incomprehensible.

With freedom and openness so vindicated at the end of the Cold War, I had hoped such debate was at an end. But with the September 11 attack came the same arguments, often by the same people, that against such a ruthless and devious enemy, our freedom and values were a luxury we simply could not afford. Well guess what. The Soviet Union was a nation spreading from Leningrad to Vladivostok, with more people than the US and enough nuclear missiles to destroy us many time over. Al-Qaeda never had more than a few thousand members, hiding and sneaking around, with no more than small arms. It's late in the game to be saying this, I realize, but if we could survive the Cold War and keep freedom intact, we can do the same for the War on Terror. If enough nuclear missiles to destroy us many times over couldn't turn us into a dictatorship, then neither should terrorist with box cutters. Anyone who would argue that our values can't survive a challenge should read up on old Cold War literature making the exact same arguments -- and remember how it all turned out.


Some Very Unoriginal Thoughts on Torture and Finding Bin Laden

I know it's late to be addressing the role of torture and finding Osama Bin Laden, but now that everyone else had put their two bits worth in, I might as well, too. In fact, it may have been better to delay and allow more information to come out.

Let me begin with a qualification. Every report that comes from insiders with an agenda to promote should be take with a grain of salt. I remember too well the story of John Kiriakou, the CIA agent who implied that he was personally involved in the interrogation of Abu Zubayda. By his account, Abu Zubayda gave only limited information in response to conventional interrogation, but after a single water boarding broke and gave extensive information. It later turned out that Kiriakou was not present but was merely repeatig what he had been told, that Abu Zubayda was treated far more brutally that he had been led to believe, and that his role was much exaggerated.

That being said, this account by top investigative reporter Michael Isikoff appears to be based on multiple sources, many of which were not inteded for public disclosure, and may be treated as the best account we currently have. He gives the following chronology:

Even before 9/11, US intelligence knew that Bin Laden communicated with the outside world by way of couriers. Identifying his couriers was therefore a high priority among US interrogators.

December, 2001, Mohammed al-Qahtani, believed to be the 20th hijacker for 9/11 is captured at the battle of Tora Bora and taken to Guantanamo. Once is identity is learned (by fingerprints) he is savagely tortured and reveals that he was trained in computers by "Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti," a high level courier working for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM). This is what is generally reported as giving the courier's nickname or nom de guerre. It also reveals an important bit of information since "al-Kuwaiti" means exactly what it sounds like -- he was from Kuwait. (That Abu Ahmed was an associkate of KSM, also a Kuwaiti, further established that they were different people). Abu Ahmed means father of Ahmed and may mean that he actually had a son by that name, or it may be purely symbolic. The torturers also learned that the Kuwaiti was at Tora Bora, but, of course, not what became of him after that.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Al-Qaeda association uncertain, arrested in Mauritania September 29, 2001, bounced around various countries and tortured, and ends up in Guantanamo, where he is also tortured. He reports that the Kuwaiti was killed at Tora Bora. (Note: Since Slahi was arrested in another country before the battle of Tora Bora, he could not possibly know what had become of the Kuwaiti).

March 1, 2003, KSM is captured in Pakistan. He is savagely tortured, including being waterboarded 183 times, in various black sites. Months later, when asked about the Kuwaiti, KSM acknowledges his existence, but denies that he was of any importance and says he is retired.

January 23, 2004, Hassan Ghul, whose role in Al-Qaeda and identity remain a mystery, is captured i Iraq and sent to a black site. After apparently brief torture, he confirmed the Kuwaiti's importance as a trusted messenger in the very top ranks of the Al-Qaeda hierarchy, but said the Kuwaiti had disappeared and he (Hassan Ghul) had no further contact with him. He also identified Abu Faraj al-Libi (the Libyan) as the new number three in Al-Qaeda. Hassan Ghul is no longer in US custody, and his fait remains unknown.

May 2, 2005, More detailed account of the phone callAb Faraj al-Libi is captured in Pakistan. Subjected to torture but not to waterboarding, the Libyan denied knowning the Kuwaiti and gave a made-up name for Bin Laden's courier. KSM also denied Hassan Ghul's account.

According to Isikoff, there were many mentions of the Kuwaiti by many detainees and many tidbits gleaned about him -- that he spoke Pushtun as well as Arabic (very useful when operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan), that he was good with computers, that he was a member of the inner circle, and that he was present at Tora Bora. Much of the information was false. But sorting through it, the CIA reached the conclusion that the mysterious Kuwaiti, true identity unknown, was probably Bin Laden's contact with the outside world. Hassan Ghul's statement that he had dropped out of sight was taken as evidence that he was hiding with Bin Laden. KSM and the Libyan's denials of his importance were taken as signs that they were hiding something.

Unknown date in 2007, the CIA determines the Kuwaiti's identity, though not his location. How they did that remains unknown, as does his original name. It should be noted that this took place during the Bush Administration. This means that at least some of the Bush officials touting the value of torture (though probably not all) know how this was determined. No one from either the Bush or Obama Administration is revealing how the Kuwaiti's real identity was determined. This probably means it involved some source that is still active.

Unknown date, 2009, courier's phone call to someone being monitor reveals his location. The CIA begins tracking him.

August, 2010, CIA tracks the Kuwaiti courier to a compound in Abbottobad. Its extreme security measures draw their attention. By September, they increasingly begin to suspect the compound houses Bin Laden.

March 14, 2011, although aerial surveillance has not actually spotted Bin Laden (apparently he never left the house, even within the compound), the CIA is confident enough to begin discussing options.

So what are we to conclude from all this? First, torture did not lead any Al-Qaeda operative to reveal the location of Bin Laden, the location of his trusted courier, or the true identity of the courier. Quite possibly, none of the captives knew this information. Neither is it clear that anyone under torture even revealed that the Kuwaiti was Bin Laden's contact with the outside world at all. Abu Faraj, the Libyan, had to have known this information, but gave a false name. It is unknown whether any of the others knew.

Second, torture apparently did yield many partial leads that the CIA was able to compile into a composite portrait of Bin Laden's trusted courier, who they determined to be the unknown Kuwaiti. This appears to have taken some time, and to have involved some blind alleys, such as the false name the Libyan gave.

Third, once the CIA had assembled its portrait, it turned to conventional intelligence gathering methods. In other words, it appears to have relied on torture, 2001 to at least 2005 and conventional intelligence gathering, 2007 to 2011. It is not clear what was going on 2005 to 2007.

To offer this as a defense of torture moves into some very disturbing territory. After all, all defenses of torture up until now have presupposed some degree of urgency. Ticking bombs give way to slow fuses, but the assumption has always been that there is some sort of a deadline and some sort of dire consequence if it is not met. Here there was no deadline. It took five years from when the CIA first learned of the Kuwaiti and three years from Hassan Ghul's confirmation of his importance to learn his identity, another two years to locate him, another year to trace him to the compound, and many months of surveillance to be comfortable (without ever positively confirming) that Bin Laden was there. And what would the consequences of not finding him have been? Simply the continuation of a status quo that we had learned to live with quite comfortably.

What proponents of torture are essentially arguing for is the mosaic theory of intelligence gathering. This amounts to the view that every scrap of intelligence, no matter how tiny, is worth while because it can be assembled into a larger picture. I have no general quarrel with this view. It is, as I understand it, how much of intelligence gathering works. But in the Bush Administration, the mosaic theory was used to justify indefinitely detaining and torturing anyone, innocent or guilty, high level or low level, for any scrap of information that might fit somewhere in the mosaic. My answer to anyone who would argue that torture was necessary because it filled in vital part of the mosaic would be that I would hold the mosaic theory to the same standard as the ticking bomb. We will never know if, in the absence of torture, we might have gleaned enough information from conventional interrogation, captured documents, and the like to assemble an adequate portrait of the mysterious Kuwaiti courier. To this day, we do not know how the CIA determined his identity.

The ticking bomb argument itself is dangerous -- how can we possibly know any situation is not a ticking bomb? But the mosaic theory of torture pushes the justification beyond any limits whatever. Or, as this Daily Kos poster puts it, "[I]f torture is acceptable to gain a sliver of information that MAY, given 6 years of hard conventional intelligence work down the line, be of value, then why have any rules at all on anything? After all, anything MIGHT work at some point in the future, including massacre of civilians."

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Some General Thoughts on Killing Bin Laden

I know it's a little late to weigh in on Bin Laden, but let me give a few general thoughts. I hope to get to the question of torture soon. But let me add a few, mostly bureaucratic, thoughts.


Look, I know this isn't very original, but when I heard that for all these years Bin Laden had been hiding, not in the Pakistani border areas, but in a town only about 30 miles from Islamabad, my first thought was that the Pakistani intelligence service must be either grossly incompetent, or more complicitous than we ever suspected.

Our intelligence services

First and most obviously, congratulations to our intelligence services for a job well done. This is the sort of cooperation among agencies that everyone has been advocating. That being said, it is also easier to achieve this sort of triumph given (1) unlimited time and resources, and (2) a narrow and limited objective. The second point is the more important. It is always easier to achieve a narrow and specific objective like "find Bin Laden" than than an extremely broad, general, open ended one like, "identify and stop all possible threats to us." And yes, I know, in order to avoid tunnel vision we really do need broad, open-ended mandates like figuring out what threats are out there. My point is not that we should give up broader objectives for narrower ones, but that we should not expect this impressive success to mean that our intelligence agencies are now infallible. They aren't.

Raid vs. bombing

From what I understand, Obama was presented with three choices -- send in special forces, bomb the compound, or watchful waiting. Without claiming any special information, I would guess that the military probably favored bombing (it would be their men whose lives were on the line, after all), and the intelligence services favored the raid. I would expect the intelligence services to favor a raid in hopes of capturing documents, laptops and other such information. By all accounts, their hopes have been well vindicated. Bombing would have destroyed all this valuable information. Bombing would have had other drawbacks as well, most notably the risk of collateral damage. After all, the compound was in a residential area, and might not have housed Bin Laden. (Apparently he never left the house, so aerial surveillance was not able to confirm his presence). So, once again, congratulations on a job well done.

The birth certificate

Yes, seriously. Seeing the raid come so soon after Obama released the long form certificate reminded me of The Essence of Decision, a history of the Cuban Missile Crisis with a particular focus on the bureaucratic operations of the respective governments. It discusses how Kennedy sought to conceal preparations for the confrontation by carrying on with normal activities, such as meeting with astronauts and foreign dignitaries and making commitments in Connecticut and Cleveland. He succeeded in distracting the Washington press core and (through them) the general public. But there were signs of a crisis brewing that could not be hidden from more sophisticated observers in Washington. Lights were burning late in the Pentagon and the State Department. Cots were being moved into offices. Certain prominent officials became inaccessible while their cars assembled together at the White House. Observing which sections were lighting up revealed where the crisis would be. British intelligence was able to figure out what was happening within 36 hours. Top investigative reporters for the New York Times and Washington Post figured out what was happening withing five days and had to be persuaded not to print the story ahead of the President's public announcement. One organization that was not able to figure out what was going on, despite an extensive intelligence apparatus in Washington, was the KGB.

It seems safe to assume that al-Qaeda does not have anything like the KGB's intelligence network in Washington, to say nothing of the slowness of communication by courier, but Obama still had to keep the attack secret until it was over. So a part of me wonders whether the timing of the birth certificate was a clever (and highly successful) ploy to distract. The timeline, if nothing else, is interesting:

March 14, 2001: The first of five national security meetings on how to respond to the compound.
Thursday, April 21: White House counsel asks the President's personal counsel to contact Hawaiian officials about how to request a waiver.
Friday, April 22: Obama sends the request to the Hawaii Department of Health
Monday, April 25: Counsel goes to Hawaii to pick up the birth certificate
Tuesday, April 26: Birth certificate delivered to the White House
Wednesday, April 27: Obama releases the long form
Thursday, April 28: Obama is asked for the final decision on the attack
Friday, April 29: Obama authorizes the commando attack on the compound, but it is delayed by inclement weather
Saturday, April 30: Obama attends the White House Correspondent's dinner and roundly mocks Donald Trump
Sunday, May 1: Bin Laden killed

It will, no doubt, be some time before we learn about all the meetings going on in Washington in the days leading up to the attack, but top officials must have had some idea it was near at hand. So I wonder if close observers of the Washington scene, ones too shrewd to be distracted by Birther nonsense, could observe signs of a crisis brewing, similar to the ones before the Cuban Missile Crisis.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

What I Really Don't Get about the Debt Ceiling

Why didn't Congress just raise it during the lame duck session?


My Take on the Debt Ceiling

As the game of chicken continues over the national debt, I might was well put in my two cents' worth.

The Republicans ultimately backed down from a government shutdown, for reasons that are no secret. Three times the President and Congress have reached an impass over spending that led to a government shutdown, once between Ronald Reagan and a Democratic Congress and twice between Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress. In all three cases, public opinion backed the President. The Clinton era shutdowns made a particularly strong impresion on Republicans. They ran for office proclaiming the federal government a monster of tyranny and government spending an outrage that called for massive, MASSIVE cuts, made with a meat axe, if not a chain saw. Voters lapped it up and gave the Republicans a landslide. Republicans then took voters at their word and assumed they actually hated government as much as they claimed to. They assumed that if the voters hated government that much, a shutdown would be popular. So they allowed a shutdown. It quickly turned out that, in fact, the American people considered the federal government a monster of tyranny and government spending a outrage that called for massive, MASSIVE cuts, made with a meat axe, if not a chain saw -- unless it caused any sort of personal inconvenience, in which case, forget it.

Republicans have taken that lesson to heart this time and backed down from a government shutdown. But they have convinced themselves that refusal to raise the debt ceiling is different. I believe about 40% of the federal budget is now financed by borrowing. The more extreme budget cutters believe that cutting off the federal government's ability to borrow will force an immediate 40% budget cut. More moderate Republicans, including the House leadership, recognize that instant 40% cuts are not realistic, but hope to use that prospect to leverage less immediate and less drastic cuts. No doubt bolstering Republican confidence are numerous polls showing that the American people overwhelmingly oppos raising the debt ceiling. The unpopularity of raising the debt ceiling has convinced Republicans that they will pay little political price for refusing to do so.

I am unconvinced. So far as I can tell, refusal to raise the debt ceiling will act as a sort of partial shutdown in slow motion. As we have been told numerous times, once we hit the debt ceiling, the federal government willimmediately lose its ability to borrow. But, by resorting to "extraordinary measures," it can keep from defaulting for about two and a half months. Simply put, those "extraordinary measures" mean shutting down more and more government services until current expenditures come into line with current revenue.

Such cuts will be painful. The focus of cuts has been on discretionary non-defense spending. Assume it is cut to zero. This will mean, among other things, shutting down the Veteran's Health Administration, the FBI, the federal prison system and all national parks; laying off all federal civilian employees (payroll is part of discretional non-defense spending); and cancelling all federal contracts. Drastic as such cuts would be, discretionary non-defense spending makes up only about 15% of the total budget. Assuming the deficit is about 40% of the budget, these drastic measures would go less than half way towards balancing the budget. We would still have to make 25% cuts in defense and entitlement spending, including Social Security and Medicare. Does anyone consider such a prospect politically realistic? Can anyone seriously believe the American people would simply bite the bullet and accept such cutswhen a far less painful alternative, in the form of raising the debt ceiling, was available?

The same consideration applies to a lesser degree to people who think the unpopularity of raising the debt ceiling will make it a good bargaining tool. The Clinton era shutdown also began as a dispute over raising the debt ceiling. It lasted considerably less than two and a half months. Raising the debt ceiling is unpopular now. How long will this principaled opposition last when it turns out that refusal means closing national parks, suspending clinical research, halting cleanup of toxic waste sites, and other inconveniences of the sort that accompanied the last shutdown? My own guess is that the American people will be dead set against raising the debt ceiling -- until the refusal begins to cause them any personal inconveniece. At that point, political pressure will start risig fast to reach some sort of resolution, principled opposition be damned.