Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Don Asmussen's Bad Reporter on Waterboarding

The full strip is here. He also references waterboarding here and here.

At its best, Asmussen's strip is delightfully absurd with some sharp satire. Plus, it's awfully hard not to like this slogan:

He'd make a fine press secretary.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

"Torture is the method of choice of the lazy, the stupid, and the pseudo-tough."

So said retired Rear Admiral John Hutson during the Mukasey nomination process. Here's the very long transcript; this line comes near the end. (Thanks to Garry Trudeau for highlighting the quotation.)

Hutson's entire testimony is worth reading. However, here's his specific response (emphasis mine) to a question from Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) about Mukasey's waterboarding-torture testimony:

The United States as a nation and the attorney general as an individual has to be absolutely unequivocal. We can't dance around definitions. We can't dance around, you know, what is torture and what's cruel and what's inhumane and what's degrading as we have done.

In the past, we never had to worry about that, because we were never close to the line. We were always a long ways away from the line.

Now, we want to be right up next to the line, so suddenly what those definitions are become important.

I think that is a terrible mistake for this country, because that same cleverness is going to come back to bite our troops, because it's our troops who are forward deployed.

When Eisenhower and Marshall and Senator Vincent and others looked at the Geneva Conventions, they were not looking at them as a limitation on our behavior. They were looking at them as a limitation on the enemy's behavior. They were there to protect U.S. troops. That's what we were thinking.

Now, suddenly, we're looking at ways to dance around it, so that we can engage in that kind of activity, and as then-Legal Counsel Gonzales said, so that we can avoid the War Crimes Act.

My goodness. How did we get to that point?

You know, torture is the method of choice of the lazy, the stupid and the pseudo-tough. And that should not be the United States. No matter how you define torture. It's unconstitutional, it violates statutes, it violates the UCMJ, it violates Common Article 3, it violates what your mother taught you and it violates what you learned in kindergarten. And we ought not be even close to it.

To the lazy, stupid and pseudo-tough, I would add the cruel, and perhaps the frightened. Still, Hutson's characterization is one of the best I've seen.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Writers' Strike Roundup

Today's day sixteen of the Hollywood writers' strike. Many blogs have done a superb job covering it, and it's been nice to see at least a few conservative blogs among the supporters. If you haven't been following all of the story, I hope this post will bring you up to speed.

Here's "Why We Fight," which lays out the basic issues. In a nutshell, the studios make immense profits, but still want to pay writers miniscule royalties — or none:

Here's "Voices of Uncertainty," which examines some of the studios' skullduggery (via Crooks and Liars):

This is Not the Daily Show, but made by its writers, it's fantastic:

As Jonathan Schwarz notes:

If I were Viacom, it would be worth a lot of money to me to get them to stop making fun of me this effectively… and not to get all political on you, but there's a sense in which "paying them a lot of money to not make fun of Viacom" is exactly what the Daily Show is.

Here's another one of my favorites, a piece that imagines "A World Without Writers":

"The Office is Closed" explains the exploitation of telling writers to write "webisodes" for no compensation:

(That WGAAmerica account hosts a number of great videos.) Telling writers to work for free to provide web content is hardly isolated. Brian at Incertus relays Battlestar Galatica showrunner Ron Moore's account of the same damn thing. It's nice to see BG's fans turn out to support the strike. As Bradley at Incertus notes, "I've been to comic book conventions, and I can assure you that an army of pissed off nerds is more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

NPR's had some pretty good coverage, including "Costs High for All Sides in Hollywood Writers Strike" early on (11/5/07). They've also been good to note that the public backs the writers.

For some historical background on previous Hollywood strikes and related issues, check out Digby's piece "Solidarity," and LA-based NPR station KCRW's show The Business, most of all Monday's show "What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting, Part 1." I found both extremely educational about some lesser-known Hollywood history.

Of course, there's always room for shallow, asinine coverage. Here's Slate's Jack Shafer, complaining that the coverage is slanted in favor of the writers, and this (assuming it's even true) is apparently bad or something. It's a silliness dutifully picked up by Howard Kurtz both in his blog column and on his TV show. Perhaps the most painful bit is Kurtz expressing surprise that Hollywood stars would join the picket lines. (Sigh. And remember when Michael Medved was just a crappy film critic, and not also a crappy cultural critic and historian?)

But fear not! LA-area bloggers come to the rescue! Digby skewers Shafer and Kurtz' ideas on the media coverage. Besides the propensity of big media for anti-union guests and hosts, there's LA-station KNBC. As an anonyomous writer asks:

You're telling me when 4,000 people show up in the streets of LA, shut down a main thoroughfare in the city, a laundry list of celebrities are on hand, Jesse Jackson addresses the crowd and the subject is an industry-wide strike some experts say could cost the local economy hundreds of millions of dollars, such an event only warrants 15 seconds at the end of the newscast?

Sure, when, as the same writer notes, "KNBC is owned by one of the companies on the other side of the negotiating table." Oh, but some more media consolidation will clear that right up!

Also from LA, Skippy sees the back of John Edwards' head at the strike, and has been closely following this story. You might also want to check out the November archives of these writers' blogs, Ken Levine and Kung Fu Monkey (especially "Why We Strike II", with a host of other great links).

Via Kung Fu Monkey, here's producer Marshall Herskovitz explaining why and partner Ed Zwick won't be producing for television in the foreseeable future. Via Blue Gal at C&L, here's Larry Doyle in The New Yorker and 93-old screenwriter Irv Brecher on how some things just haven't changed. (Blue Gal's on the coast too, if you count Alabama as one of the coasts.)

The key site, though, is United Hollywood, and there's also Writer's Strike.

What can you do? You can send a box of pencils to media moguls. (Via Skippy. They're even environmentally friendly pencils, since writers care about that stuff). Media moguls are among those Hollywood people, as Larry Beinhart put it, don't write, but tell the people who do write what they should be writing. Still, this isn't about asinine creative interference (as opposed to useful creative input); this is just good ol' fashioned exploitation. Not that all media moguls are brain-eating zombies or anything. Just some of them.

Naturally, as a writer and a theater and film guy, I'm in complete support of this strike. (Come to think of it, when I was in college some classmates and I made a doc about a workers' strike that occurred at our school.) The strike doesn't even address a myriad of other forms of abuse of writers in Hollywood, but that's another post (or just read/listen to William Goldman's accounts). While this strike may be cosmetically different than some others, it shares with them the key, eternal dynamic: exploitation perpetrated by the powerful. Especially in the digital age, content is key, and if the studio is making millions or even billions off of that content, it's only fair they adequately compensate the people who create it.

Every so often, I've run into someone who decries that unions are even allowed to exist — as some of those idiots and scoundrels on the airwaves are blathering now. Honestly, I don't think I've ever seen a strike where the workers weren't forced to it reluctantly. Recapping the entire history of the labor movement and why workers' rights are important is beyond the scope of this post, but since we're talking about film and television, here's some films that make for a nice introduction. John Sayles' Matewan (1987) is fictional, but dramatizes many of the key issues coal workers and other laborers faced back in 1920, and boasts an impressive cast. (Of particular note to me is how the company uses race to divide and conquer; more on that in another post.) The documentary features Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) and American Dream (1990) both won well-deserved Best Documentary Oscars (and the director of both, Barbara Kopple, is a very cool, sharp, talented woman). In American Dream, Hormel (perhaps best known for making spam) decides to slash workers' wages despite making record profits, just because they can. Meanwhile, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) is yet another reminder that companies just cannot be trusted to do right by their employees, their shareholders or their nation when left to their own devices unchallenged. Hell, let's also throw in Norma Rae (1979), Our Daily Bread (1934) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). I'll also link one of my favorite newspaper features of the past several years, from a Pulitzer-winning NYT series on race, "At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die." (I'm long overdue for a post on it.) None of this occurs in a vacuum.

For the last word, let's go to Bill Lawrence, creator/showrunner of Scrubs. I heard Lawrence say the same thing at a talk a few weeks back, but from The Washington Post's TV chat last week:

Washington: Would a long-term strike impact the conclusion of "Scrubs" this year? Not all the episodes are written, so if this does drag on into April or May, could viewers be left without any closure (given that Bill Lawrence, Zach Braff and NBC want to move on)?

Lisa de Moraes: Bill Lawrence said he refused to turn the last episode he wrote into one that could serve as a series finale and that he would write the series finale the way he wanted to, even if he had to call everyone on the phone and read it to them. All 20 of his viewers. What a guy!

If it comes to that, I'll be one of 'em! Now, off to send those pencils…

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Right-Wing Cartoon Watch #26 (10/1/07 — 11/11/07)

The 26th installment of RWCW is finally here, otherwise known as "the ridiculously long debunk of right-wingers - with pictures! - done by some guy with undiagnosed OCD."

In this larger-than-usual installment, covering five weeks, conservatives pretended the news from the Middle East was both great (Iraq) and dire (Iran), attacked one of their favorite bugbears, and massively ramped up the assaults on their presumptive foe for 2008. Somehow, a few of them still managed to find time to attack health care for kids and defend torture.

Pace yourself, now! And skip whatever you like! Too much wingnuttiness consumed too quickly can lead to toxic overload!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

11/11 Armistice Day 2007

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

Amen, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving.

This post is mostly a repeat, since I find it hard to top Kelly. I hope to have several more posts on war and peace done today and throughout the week.

In the meantime, though, there's also "How to Hear a True War Story."

(crossposted at The Blue Herald)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

To the Point on Waterboarding

L.A.-based NPR show To the Point, hosted by the superb Warren Olney, today focused on "The Next Attorney General and Waterboarding." Olney speaks with Malcolm Nance, whose definitive piece on waterboarding we discussed earlier here and here (in addition to a few other pieces on torture).

Olney's second guest is Lee Casey, a lawyer who worked for Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Casey is clearly a good defense attorney, civil and articulate, performing accomplished (and infuriating) hack work for the Bushies here.

Luckily, Scott Horton of Harper's is brought on to rebut him. Horton's written quite a bit on torture, but his three most recent pieces are "The Bellinger-Sands Debate" (11/5/07) , "The Justice Department’s Culture of Torture" (11/5/07), and "DOJ Torture Memo # 6 Identified" (11/7/07). As Horton points out a few times, Casey's arguments for Mukasey and the Bush administration really only make sense as a legal defense, and Casey's dead wrong about the law being unclear about waterboarding's illegality.

And we all know the farce here. The Bush administration has tortured, and has specifically used waterboarding. Quoted at Blue Herald earlier today, Dan Froomkin's "Exposing Bush's Weakness" provides a good roundup on torture and Mukasey (as do his pieces for the previous two weeks). The standout may be a passage he quotes from Keith Olbermann's latest special comment:

It is a fact startling in its cynical simplicity and it requires cynical and simple words to be properly expressed: The presidency of George W. Bush has now devolved into a criminal conspiracy to cover the ass of George W. Bush.

Pretty much everyone knows this. The question remains for some as to whether they're aiding and abetting the Bush administration, or pursuing justice.

(An additional note: Casey adds some interesting hackery right at the end, where in a throwaway he argues that special prosecutors are bad and that they destroy lives and what not. He's intentionally vague, so who knows specifically what he really means versus what he tries to imply. I suspect he's hoping most people will think of Ken Starr, who was a disgrace and wasted millions of dollars roaming far afield of his appointed task, instead engaging in a partisan witchhunt. However, Patrick Fitzgerald was about as impeccable as one can be, and his work was ridiculously cheap to the taxpayer. Meanwhile, the truly despicable Iran-Contra gang, whom Casey no doubt knew quite well, didn't have their lives destroyed, but that should have happened. Alas, independent Lawrence E. Walsh was stonewalled by the lies by the Reagan administration and then undercut by Congress granting immunity to several of the criminals — and then Bush I issued pardons. Oh, and Cheney said they should all get off scot-free, because the president is above the law and can do anything he damn well pleases. Reagan deserved to be disgraced, and Oliver North, Caspar Weinberger and the rest should have done substantial jail time. Bush and the gang certainly deserve the same, not that Casey would like to see that, either. Of course, in the Bush gang, we've got the Nixon and Reagan gangs all over again, only worse, and they'll never stop wrecking havoc voluntarily.

Update: I should have mentioned Casey was dismissing the idea of a special prosecutor because he claimed the Justice Department could be trusted to investigate itself. Umm, yeah.)

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Feed the World Through a Better Vocabulary

Via Gene Weingarten's chat today, here's a dangerous charity — or rather, a game for charity that's dangerously addictive. Free Rice poses vocabulary questions, and for each question you get right, they donate 10 grains of rice to combat world hunger through the United Nations World Food Programme. It seems to be on the level; the FAQ explains that the rice is paid for by the rotating ads for each screen.

So far, I've gotten up to vocab level 47. As Weingarten, who "got to 48, then tanked badly," says, anything above 44 is quite good. Plus, it's not hard to burn out for a stretch!

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Monday, November 05, 2007

More Opposition to Waterboarding

Four retired JAGs have written to Senator Patrick Leahy to express their grave concerns about waterboarding and Mukasey's hedging on it (via Nicole Belle at Crooks and Liars). Here's their superb letter.

Dear Chairman Leahy,

In the course of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of President Bush’s nominee for the post of Attorney General, there has been much discussion, but little clarity, about the legality of “waterboarding” under United States and international law. We write Because this issue above all demands clarity: Waterboarding is inhumane, it is torture, and it is illegal.

In 2006 the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the authority to prosecute terrorists under the war crimes provisions of Title 18 of the U.S. Code. In connection with those hearings the sitting Judge Advocates General of the military services were asked to submit written responses to a series of questions regarding “the use of a wet towel and dripping water to induce the misperception of drowning (i.e., waterboarding) . . .” Major General Scott Black, U.S. Army Judge Advocate General, Major General Jack Rives, U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General, Rear Admiral Bruce MacDonald, U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General, and Brigadier Gen. Kevin Sandkuhler, Staff Judge Advocate to the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, unanimously and unambiguously agreed that such conduct is inhumane and illegal and would constitute a violation of international law, to include Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

We agree with our active duty colleagues. This is a critically important issue - but it is not, and never has been, a complex issue, and even to suggest otherwise does a terrible disservice to this nation. All U.S. Government agencies and personnel, and not just America’s military forces, must abide by both the spirit and letter of the controlling provisions of international law. Cruelty and torture - no less than wanton killing - is neither justified nor legal in any circumstance. It is essential to be clear, specific and unambiguous about this fact - as in fact we have been throughout America’s history, at least until the last few years. Abu Ghraib and other notorious examples of detainee abuse have been the product, at least in part, of a self-serving and destructive disregard for the well-established legal principles applicable to this issue. This must end.

The Rule of Law is fundamental to our existence as a civilized nation. The Rule of Law is not a goal which we merely aspire to achieve; it is the floor below which we must not sink. For the Rule of Law to function effectively, however, it must provide actual rules yhat can be followed. In this instance, the relevant rule - the law - as long been clear: Waterboarding detainees amounts to illegal torture in all circumstances. To suggest otherwise - or even to give credence to such a suggestion - represents both an affront to the law and to the core values of our nation.

We respectfully urge you to consider these principles in connection with the nomination of Judge Mukasey.


Rear Admiral Donald J. Guter, United States Navy (Ret.)
Judge Advocate General of the Navy, 2000-02

Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, United States Navy (Ret.)
Judge Advocate General of the Navy, 1997-2000

Major General John L. Fugh, United States Army (Ret.)
Judge Advocate General of the Army, 1991-93

Brigadier General David M. Brahms, United States Marine Corps (Ret.)
Staff Judge Advocate to the Commandant, 1985-88

I'm interested to see how Uncle Jimbo and the torture apologist crowd respond to this one. The JAGs have also opposed stripping prisoners of their habeas and other rights. They understand the importance of rule of law and due process.

Meanwhile, Countdown (also via Crooks and Liars) has the appalling (but sadly, not surprising) story of former acting Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin. He volunteered to undergo waterboarding to see what it was like, and quite sensibly affirmed previous laws that it was torture and unacceptable. Because of this, the Bush administration pushed him out of the Department of Justice.

NPR's Fresh Air recently ran two interviews on Guantanamo. The first one, with Clive Stafford Smith, is extraordinary. He covers the systemic mistreatment of prisoners, the deeply corrupt process by which many prisoners were arrested in the first place, and the government's apathy (or outright hostility) toward due process and freeing the innocent.

Daniel Levin's case shows yet again that the Bush administration was warned that their horrendous judgment was wrong but they just didn't give a damn. Not only did they ignore the sane, wise, moral and legal opinions, they moved to destroy those that held them. Broder and the usual gang of idiots will continue to pretend that if only Bush's critics — over 70% of Americans at this point — were polite, Bush would listen to reason. Nevermind the mountain of evidence to the contrary. The Bush administration and the neocons are stupid, cruel and vicious. They're also astoundingly arrogant, in inverse proportion to their actual competence. They are reckless at best, truly evil at worst.

If you think such terms are too strong, ask yourself, what kind of people go to such extraordinary lengths to subvert the rule of law, all vetting and all normal decision-making? I don't see how any normal terms can apply to them. What kind of human being fights so hard and viciously to torture other human beings? How pathetic, weak and morally bankrupt is Bush that he not only let Cheney, Addington and the rest run roughshod over his own Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, but even egged them on — for torture? Even for people so stunted as to seek a war and lie to get it, it's atrocious. Not even all the obtuse, pompous hawks still congratulating themselves for invading Iraq are for torture (although sadly but surprisingly, some are). What sort of human being thinks, however unconsciously, "This shall be my life's work. I must crush all opposition to achieve this. Centuries of laws, testimony, common sense, basic morality and religious teachings are all wrong. My political opponents and my own colleagues are all wrong. All the experience of all our own interrogators and of torture victims are wrong and have no bearing. I am right, as I have been about everything. Everyone who says that torture is illegal, immoral and ineffective is wrong. I shall not be budged. We must inflict great pain on other human beings. We must torture."

They clearly have always known that others will view what they do as wrong. Theirs are not the honest mistakes of people trying to do good, and it's naive and dangerous to think so. It may be in part egomania, megalomania or some other form of mental illness on their part (and a psychiatrist could probably make a better evaluation), but "sociopath," with its egomania and lack of empathy and remorse seems to be the strongest fit.

(For that matter, what kind of person is more upset by harsh words for the Bush administration than he or she is by torture?)

Bush wants to leave his mark in the history books, and he will. He is and shall be remembered, among many other well-deserved epithets, as the Torture President.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Friday, November 02, 2007

A Little More on Uncle Jimbo and Waterboarding

Shamanic at The News Hoggers has a good post on Uncle Jimbo as well (via Melissa at Shakesville). She focuses on a section of Jimbo's post I didn't cover in depth, and in the interests of fairness (and thoroughness) wanted to examine. Here's the featured section, from the end of Jimbo's post:

I will grant that the procedure is horrifying and repulsive, but that is part of it's effectiveness. The fact that it causes no lasting damage at all is another reason to favor it's use. But the number one reason to use it is because it works. It is the perfect answer to the lie that you cannot coerce useful information from bad guys. KSM broke very quickly and the info we got from him allowed us to scarf up dozens of AQ killers and saved countless lives. While other methods may have eventually procured this intelligence, the time spent doing so made it more likely his info would be out of date and we would miss the chance to capture or kill the terrorists. As awful as that makes me, I think that means we have an obligation to do it and I would consider it's banning a blow to our security.

Points to Uncle Jimbo for acknowledging that waterboarding is indeed "horrifying and repulsive" and for being reasonably polite. I also believe that he and other Blackfive posters do care about the safety of our military personnel and citizenry, even if I'd say they're mistaken in thinking that torture achieves that.

I left a response in the thread for Shamanic's thoughtful post (her post features a great reductio ad absurdum, and is more witty than this piece shall be). You can read the response there, but I'll adapt and expand on it somewhat here.

I still hold Uncle Jimbo is being fundamentally dishonest by ignoring the key points of Nance's piece, for all the reasons I explained in my earlier post. Perhaps that isn't deliberate. Use "misses the point" if you prefer. But when someone dodges the central questions and introduces a convoluted rationale for why torture is actually legal, in opposition to long-standing laws, principles and common sense, an honest mistake in good faith ain't the most likely explanation that springs to mind.

As several folks commented over at Shamanic's post, what do we really know about what KSM (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) said, apart from the Bush administration's claims? He said some pretty outlandish things, even as reported. Many of the Bush administration's previous claims about foiling terrorist plots have proved to be false or vastly overblown. Their statements about KSM, obviously politically advantageous, hardly constitute proof of torture working, regardless of what they want to call it. They certainly don't possess enough credibility for "trust us" to cut it. In contrast, as I explored in "Jack Bauer versus Maher Arar," there's plenty of evidence that torture doesn't work, including the recent study cited in this featured New York Times article. There have been several prominent pieces saying the same thing for years, not to mention fairly recent, well-covered statements on the subject from John McCain and other torture survivors. Most directly, the piece by Nance that Uncle Jimbo purportedly responds to certainly covered the point that torture doesn't work. Torture is extremely unreliable for obtaining the truth. For eliciting confessions, often false of course, it's great. If we're after the truth, there are far better methods, as many skilled interrogators have explained many times now.

Plenty of examples exist of false confessions, and of torture not working. One I didn't cover in the Bauer-Arar post but did previously comes from The One Percent Doctrine. The Bush administration publicly touted Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah as a criminal mastermind, when in fact he was mentally ill and essentially "a travel agent." I have more excerpts in the original post, but for a sample:

"I said he was important," Bush said to Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?"...

"He received the finest medical attention on the planet," said one CIA official. "We got him in very good health, so we could start to torture him."...

He was stabilized by mid-May and, thus, ready. An extraordinary moment in the "war on terror" was about to unfold. After months of interdepartmental exchanges over the detainment, interrogation, and prosecution of captives in the "war on terror"—as well as debates over which "debriefing" techniques would work most effectively on al Qaeda—the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.

Maha has more on this. Torturing Zubaydah led to some of those mall alerts, among other things, as covered in more depth in Suskind's book. Obviously, tracking down outlandish, false plots ties up important resources. What a shock that a man who was tortured would say what he thought his captors wanted to hear to make it stop.

Clearly, torture also didn't "work" on Maher Arar or the many innocents we've tortured, or rendered to be tortured. But it's very rare to see any conservatives acknowledge that. Theoretical positives trump proven negatives for them all the time. The fantasies trumps reality.

Returning to Jimbo's post, it's interesting that he acknowledges that waterboarding is "horrifying and repulsive" yet refuses to say it's torture. Again, it's especially striking since he's read Nance's article. As I wrote before, he could have written that "waterboarding is torture, but we still need to use it," and he sorta does that in this last paragraph. But instead, he basically says, "waterboarding is terrible, but we still need to use it, and by the way it's not torture, and by the way if it is torture it's legal because of Congress." That reads like one of the many dodges by Bush and his administration. If it's not torture, why construct such a convoluted argument for why torture is legal? If it is torture, if torture works and it's necessary, why not just argue that? Wrong though they are, many conservatives have done exactly that.

I've got a post on Bush and Mukasey in the works, but their contortionist stances seem based on an attempt to avoid the consequences of their actions and positions, not some more noble principle. There's a reason Bush says "we don't torture" but refuses to define what torture is. It's not as if he or his administration is inviting an honest discussion of the issues at hand. Perhaps Uncle Jimbo will explain himself further in the future, but currently I don't see him engaging the crucial issues raised by Nance and many others any more than the Bush crew.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Waterboarding and Right-Wing Logic

In their continuing "shorter" series, Gavin M. at Sadly, No! offers "Shorter Uncle Jimbo":

The counterterrorism expert Malcolm Nance wrote an informative, definitive and persuasive piece for Small Wars Journal titled Waterboarding Is Torture, Period which nonetheless fails in that I shall keep on quibbling smugly over the definition of torture.

Here's "Waterboarding is Torture… Period" by Malcolm Nance (he's since added a ton of links) and here's "My Increasing Support of Waterboarding" by Uncle Jimbo at Blackfive. (Yes, that is his real post title. Oh, and here's one of my earlier posts on torture, "Jack Bauer versus Maher Arar," which explores the subject and links several significant pieces on it.)

Who is Malcolm Nance? Here's his blurb at Small Wars Journal, but as a SERE trainer his qualifications to speak on the issue are pretty strong. His piece itself is extraordinary, and should be read in its entirety. (Go ahead. This post will wait.)

Let's look at a key excerpt:

There is No Debate Except for Torture Apologists

1. Waterboarding is a torture technique. Period. There is no way to gloss over it or sugarcoat it. It has no justification outside of its limited role as a training demonstrator. Our service members have to learn that the will to survive requires them accept and understand that they may be subjected to torture, but that America is better than its enemies and it is one’s duty to trust in your nation and God, endure the hardships and return home with honor.

2. Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning.

Pretty blunt and clear, right? Apparently not to Uncle Jimbo. Let's go to the key section of his post:

[The Nance article] was an excellent piece. I still think so, it was informative, definitive and persuasive. It just didn't and won't persuade me. I disagree on the judgment that the act of waterboarding fits the proper definition of torture or even the more restrictive definitions employed by human rights groups and the left.

Without going into the whys of that, let me pose a simple question.

If waterboarding is torture and torture is illegal, then didn't Congress break the law every year when they passed a military budget that contains funds specifically dedicated to conducting waterboarding as a matter of course?

Mr. Nance conducts waterboardings professionally or did, and yet he believes that the procedure is fine for our troops, but somehow not fit for our enemies? I have a very hard time wrapping my brain around that concept. Congress banned the use of torture in the Detainee Treatment act of 2005. So, if it is torture we shouldn't be doing it to ourselves, but if Congress authorizes the military to do it, then it can't be torture. Congress is not allowed to authorize money for patently illegal activities, therefore their knowing authorization explicitly says that waterboarding is not torture.

How many bizarre arguments can you spot?

Uncle Jimbo disagrees that waterboarding is torture. Acknowledging that waterboarding is torture but arguing it's necessary would make more sense (even if that argument fails miserably as well). But asserting that waterboarding isn't torture is extraordinary for anyone after reading Nance's piece; as Nance points out, it's been an infamous torture technique for centuries. Readers can decide for themselves how much credibility Uncle Jimbo has after that one, especially since he chooses not to go into the "whys" of his views.

Uncle Jimbo next argues that torture isn't illegal because he claims Congress authorized it. Perhaps he can point to the line item for "funds specifically dedicated to conducting waterboarding"...? The U.S. has been and still is signatory to the Geneva Conventions, which ban torture. The Constitution's 8th Amendment bans "cruel and unusual punishments." The Uniform Code of Military Justice has long banned torture as well, and has regarded waterboarding specifically as a war crime. It's also not as if this sensible stance has been some big secret. In contrast, it was a surprise and shock to learn that the U.S. would torture, and that the Bush administration had authorized torture in secret memos. As Hilzoy points out, this was "an absolutely radical, 180 degree change in US detention and interrogation policy." And when even the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor in Bush's own administration only learned about such memos — that directly affected their jobs and our nation — from a newspaper report two years after the fact — it's probably safe to say that Congress might not have been aware of what was going on. Uncle Jimbo himself mentions the DTA of 2005, which merely reaffirmed that torture was illegal — and which Bush signed against his will, and to which he affixed a signing statement regally claiming he could ignore the law just passed. Afterwards, the Bush administration issued new memos redefining torture. As Uncle Jimbo might say, why would Bush need to do any of that if they weren't torturing anyone? In any case, the Frontline episode "Cheney's Law" can bring him up to speed on most of the key points.

But I fear I've made the mistake of presuming that Uncle Jimbo was arguing in good faith and in line with common sense. Uncle Jimbo is actually arguing that because Congress authorizes the military budget, and that in turn funds SERE training, which subjects selected military personnel to waterboarding, waterboarding cannot be torture. Wow. Jimbo's the latest of several right-wing bloggers to argue along these lines. It's, um, sorta clever parsing I suppose, but somehow various shades of "crazy" and "immoral" spring to mind instead. Let's return to the heart of Uncle Jimbo's argument:

Mr. Nance conducts waterboardings professionally or did, and yet he believes that the procedure is fine for our troops, but somehow not fit for our enemies? I have a very hard time wrapping my brain around that concept.

Insert your own snarky comment.

I don't buy that Uncle Jimbo doesn't understand the difference between training select American personnel to withstand torture in case they're captured and subjugated to such horrors on the one hand, and our government torturing people as a matter of course and entrenched policy on the other. As do many right-wingers and torture apologists, Jimbo also assumes here that everyone detained is guilty and an "enemy" (unless he's instead just offering a straw man argument in bad faith). We wouldn't want to discuss the many innocents we know we've abused, tortured or rendered to be tortured, now would we?

Only because he's not the first nor shall be the last to offer such arguments, let's dissect this further. Jimbo's argument yet again ignores Nance's article, where Nance explains at some length the history of waterboarding, the purpose of torture, and how it's been applied. As we've covered before, torture is designed to elicit a confession, not the truth. It often produces lies to justify imprisonment, execution or other goals. In contrast, as Nance explains, "SERE was designed to show how an evil totalitarian, enemy would use torture at the slightest whim." SERE attempts to help these personnel withstand possible inhumane treatment in the future. It's not designed to break them physically, emotionally and mentally, as torture is. The U.S. military also employs safeguards to try to protect the trainee from permanent harm. As Nance explains:

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team... A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

Despite all this monitoring:

Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again.

I'm reminded of Rumsfeld's statement that "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing [at Gitmo] limited to four hours?" Rumsfeld's aides had to point out to him that he could choose to stop at any time, move about at will, and so on. A torture victim has no way of knowing when their ordeal will end, if ever, and in most cases has reason to fear winding up dead. They have no control, and generally no avenue of appeal, no matter how innocent they may be. Military personnel undergoing SERE know there will be an end, even if fear understandably takes over during the actual training, which is brutal. In addition to the physical dangers of undergoing such training, Nance points to another grave one:

Many waterboard team members, even in training, enjoy the sadistic power of making the victim suffer and often ask questions as an after thought. These people are dangerous and predictable and when left unshackled, unsupervised or undetected they bring us the murderous abuses seen at Abu Ghraieb, Baghram and Guantanamo.

Jimbo writes that "the procedure is fine for our troops, but somehow not fit for our enemies." We've discussed why that's specious on several levels, but here's another. Jimbo yet again ignores one of Nance's key points (emphasis in original): "If you support the use of waterboarding on enemy captives, you support the use of that torture on any future American captives." Nance is hardly the first to point out that an American policy of torture endangers the same troops Jimbo claims to support. At best, Jimbo is arguing backwards and offering a false equivalency (although I think that's far too kind). Furthermore, not everyone in the military undergoes SERE training. Anyone training in SERE knows, at least in a general sense, what they're getting into, and there's some element of volition. Like Gavin M at Sadly, No!, I find it really hard to believe that Jimbo doesn't know this. Regardless of his motives, Uncle Jimbo's essentially arguing that a triathlete choosing to go for a long run is the same thing as being subjected to the Bataan Death March.

Not that it should even need to be said, but obviously terrorists should be pursued and legitimate suspects should be interrogated, but torture is immoral, ineffective and counterproductive. It's kind of amusing that Uncle Jimbo respects Nance enough not to attack him, but still refuses to be persuaded by reason. What's not amusing at all is that Jimbo's mentality is shared by powerful people making horrible, disastrous decisions on an important issue that most folks figured out long ago. (It would be nice, too, if Uncle Jimbo and those of like mind at least acknowledged that theirs is a minority view, contrary to history, the law, expert and popular opinion, and so on, but that's probably far too much to hope for.)

Sadly, No! dispenses with Uncle Jimbo more succinctly and with more wit and snark, while Nance's exceptional piece effectively refutes every aspect of Jimbo's response more authoritatively than I can. I did want to note two definitive elements of Jimbo's piece in closing, though.

The first is a signature conservative move, the distraction/dodge. Jimbo chooses not to discuss the "whys" behind his "disagree[ment] on the judgment that the act of waterboarding fits the proper definition of torture." That's because he really can't. He cannot refute Nance on the substance. But if he introduces a ludicrous argument that Congress has somehow legalized torture despite clear laws to the contrary, perhaps you won't notice. Perhaps it will stall or derail the pretty definitive case Nance makes, or otherwise "muddy the waters." It's a tactic we've explored many times before . (The deflection of blame from the directly culpable Bush administration is also a nice, familiar touch.)

The second element is a dynamic we explored in "Jack Bauer versus Maher Arar." Once again, liberals, independents and rule of law conservatives have stepped up to directly take on an argument of torture apologists, in this case the ridiculous assertion that waterboarding is not torture. Once again, those same apologists have either ignored, or in Jimbo's case side-stepped, extremely strong refutations of their views and have refused to consider the very real consequences of their positions. Whatever the root causes of element one, that distraction/dodge tactic, it isn't a fluke — it's a definitive characteristic of movement conservatism (as Digby likes to say, it's a feature, not a bug). Either Jimbo's "very hard time wrapping my brain around that concept" isn't an act, he's in something akin to Bush's happy, self-constructed bubble, or he's simply arguing in bad faith (not that any of those possibilities is exactly a revelation). I trust that most people can judge Nance versus Jimbo on their own. Still, it's useful to dissect how the game is played, and know if someone's living in the reality-based community or not when you're combating bullshit.

Update: Welcome, Crooks and Liars readers! If you're so inclined, I have a follow-up post here.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)