The Debate about Torture We’re Not Having: Exploitation

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality

Partly by design, the debate about torture that has already started in advance of tomorrow’s Torture Report release is focused on efficacy, with efficacy defined as obtaining valuable intelligence. Torture apologists say torture provided intelligence that helped to find Osama bin Laden. Torture critics refute this, noting that any intelligence CIA got from those who were tortured either preceded or long post-dated the torture.

Even setting aside my belief that, even if torture “worked” to elicit valuable intelligence, it still wouldn’t justify it, there’s a big problem with pitching the debate in those terms.

As the Senate Armed Services Committee Report on torture (released over 5 years ago, in far less redacted form than tomorrow’s summary will be) makes clear, the Bush regime embraced torture not for “intelligence” but for “exploitation.” In December 2001, when DOD first started searching for what would become torture, it was explicitly looking for “exploitation.”

As Administration lawyers began to reconsider U.S. adherence to the Geneva Conventions, the DoD Office of the General Counsel also began seeking information on detention and interrogation. In December 2001, the DoD General Counsel’s office contacted the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, for information about detainee “exploitation.

And as a footnote explaining that reference makes clear, “interrogation is only one part of the exploitation process.”

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Some other things exploitation is used for — indeed the very things the torture we reverse-engineered for our own torture program was used for — are to help recruit double agents and to produce propaganda.

And we have every reason to believe those were among the things all incarnations of our torture were used for. We tortured in Abu Ghraib because we had no sources in the Iraqi resistance and for some reason we believed sexually humiliating men would shame them into turning narcs for the US.

Sami al-Hajj, the Al-Jazeera journalist held at Gitmo for 6 years, says the US wanted him to spy on ties between that outlet and al Qaeda for them.

SAMI AL-HAJJ: Yes, yes, three people, and one translator. And they told me, “Your story is clear. You don’t have anything. But you are now in Guantánamo, and we wait until we get some decisions from Pentagon to release you. Until that time, we want you to be patient and to cooperate with our people.” Later on, someone, he came, and they told me, “You are here to preparing you to cooperate with us in future.” I told him, “What that means?” He said, “You said in Kandahar you are ready to cooperate with us.” I told him, “Yes, I said that. But I said that I mean by ‘cooperate’ to answer question, not to work with you.” He said, “No, we understand you want to be with us, work with us.” And they starting give me some offer to give me a U.S.A. nationality and take care about my family, if I work with them in CIA to continue my job being journalist with Al Jazeera, just send for them some information about the link between Al Jazeera and al-Qaeda and the terrorist people and some people in the Middle East. Of course, I refused to do that. I told them, “I’m journalist, and I will die as a journalist. I will never work as a work, and just only journalist.”

And while I question whether we’ll ever learn the truth about Hassan Ghul, he reportedly agreed to infiltrate al Qaeda for us after we tortured him before he flipped back and got killed in a drone strike.

So one reason the CIA and DOD embraced torture was in hope of recruiting people to become our spies.

The propaganda value of torture, however, will receive far less attention still, because the implications of it are truly horrible. All reports about our torture assume that we “knew” the answers we wanted because we were stupid — we assumed al Qaeda had more plots than they did, or had grander plans than they did.

Or had ties with Iraq.

But when we consider the case of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, whose torture-induced claim al Qaeda had ties to Iraq’s WMD programs helped drag us into Iraq,

According to al-Libi, the foreign government service [redacted] “stated that the next topic was al-Qa’ida’s connections with Iraq. … This was a subject about which he said he knew nothing and had difficulty even coming up with a story.” Al-Libi indicated that his interrogators did not like his responses and then “placed him in a small box approximately 50cm x 50cm.” He claimed he was held in the box for approximately 17 hours. When he was let out of the box, alLibi claims that he was given a last opportunity to “tell the truth.” When al-Libi did not satisfy the interrogator, al-Libi claimed that “he was knocked over with an arm thrust across his chest and he fell on his back.” Al-Libi told CIA debriefers that he then “was punched for 15 minutes.”216

(U) Al-Libi told debriefers that “after the beating,” he was again asked about the connection with Iraq and this time he came up with a story that three al-Qa’ida members went to Iraq to learn about nuclear weapons. Al-Libi said that he used the names of real individuals associated with al-Qa’ida so that he could remember the details of his fabricated story and make it more believable to the foreign intelligence service. Al-Libi noted that “this pleased his [foreign] interrogators, who directed that al-Libi be taken back to a big room, vice the 50 square centimeter box and given food.”217

And when you consider that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri claimed his torturers told him he had to claim Osama bin Laden had nukes,

>Number six. Usama bin Laden having a nuclear bomb. [REDACTED]. Then they used to laugh. Then they used to tell me you need to admit to those information. So I used to invent some of the stuff for them to say Usama bin laden had a, had a nuclear bomb. And they use to laugh and they were very happy. They were extremely happy because of the news. Then after that I told them, listen. He has no bomb.

When you consider under torture Abu Zubaydah turned Jose Padilla’s web searches into an active dirty bomb plot.

And when you consider that Dick Cheney wanted to have Iraqi Mukhabarat member Muhammed Khudayr al-Dulaymi waterboarded because he was sure he knew of the tie between Iraq and al Qaeda,

At the end of April 2003, not long after the fall of Baghdad, U.S. forces captured an Iraqi who Bush White House officials suspected might provide information of a relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. Muhammed Khudayr al-Dulaymi was the head of the M-14 section of Mukhabarat, one of Saddam’s secret police organizations. His responsibilities included chemical weapons and contacts with terrorist groups.


Duelfer says he heard from “some in Washington at very senior levels (not in the CIA),” who thought Khudayr’s interrogation had been “too gentle” and suggested another route, one that they believed has proven effective elsewhere. “They asked if enhanced measures, such as waterboarding, should be used,” Duelfer writes. “The executive authorities addressing those measures made clear that such techniques could legally be applied only to terrorism cases, and our debriefings were not as yet terrorism-related. The debriefings were just debriefings, even for this creature.”

Duelfer will not disclose who in Washington had proposed the use of waterboarding, saying only: “The language I can use is what has been cleared.” In fact, two senior U.S. intelligence officials at the time tell The Daily Beast that the suggestion to waterboard came from the Office of Vice President Cheney.

Then it raises the really horrible possibility that Cheney pushed torture because it would produce the stories he wanted told. It would be difficult to distinguish whether Cheney believed this stuff and therefore that’s what the torture produced or whether Cheney wanted these stories told and that’s what the torture produced.

As Steven Kleinman said in an important Jason Leopold and Jeff Kaye story on this subject, the torture CIA used was designed to get false confessions, not accurate information.

“This is the guidebook to getting false confessions, a system drawn specifically from the communist interrogation model that was used to generate propaganda rather than intelligence,” Kleinman said in an interview. “If your goal is to obtain useful and reliable information this is not the source book you should be using.”

The people who approved torture had the means of knowing — should have known — it would elicit false confessions. It’s just that no one can prove whether that was the entire point or not.

In this respect, then, the debate we’ll resume tomorrow is similar to the debate about the phone dragnet, where the government has not fully described the purposes it serves (indeed, in both cases, the government is hiding their use of the program to obtain spies).

It’s not just a question of whether torture is “effective” at obtaining intelligence. It’s also whether the entire point of it was to produce spies and propaganda.

13 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    I think that you’re right about the point being to produce spies and propaganda for the US government. Unfortunately for them, it didn’t work out well. But it goes with so many of the other things it’s done in the last 15 years, in its ‘war on terrorism’ as well as the apparently never-ending ‘war on drugs’. (Those haven’t worked, either. But they’re not going to admit to any of the failures.)

  2. Don Bacon says:

    “Torture Report release ”
    To be precise, it’s an executive summary of the report.
    And the world already knows that the US is Torture Central.
    Freedom of speech is also freedom of non-speech, therefore torture to elicit speech.
    It’s the American Way.

  3. Anon says:

    Then it raises the really horrible possibility that Cheney pushed torture because it would produce the stories he wanted told. It would be difficult to distinguish whether Cheney believed this stuff and therefore that’s what the torture produced or whether Cheney wanted these stories told and that’s what the torture produced.

    Why not both? If Cheney KNEW that Iraq was tied to Al Quaeda, perhaps because some kingdom he trusted told him so, then why wouldn’t he seek to have it confirmed. And if it wasn’t he wouldn’t trust the refutation because he knew the truth, and so on.
    In essence as I read it there is a third and most likely possibility which is that Cheney and those below him such as the President had convinced themselves that Iraq was the next connection. Then they weren’t explicitly trying to sex things up when they waterboarded a man 87 times till he told them “the truth” they just refused to accept any alternative.
    In essence this is the problem of early commitment to a hypothesis that plagues doctors and analysts of all kinds combined with a desire for vengance in a power structure that thinks nothing of locking up a child to make a heartless political hack sleep better at night.

  4. prostratedragon says:

    That word “exploitation” sure does make a lot of appearances in the 2009 report. Planning around exploitation, academic grounding in exploitation, history of exploitation and tactics that have been used successfully on American troops for reverse engineering, training sessions for interrogators to use specific techniques for the purpose of, the “enhancement” not merely of interrogation but of exploitation, et cetera. And the counsel office for Defense, at least, kept apprised by memo. Just skimming through, “exploitation sure looks like a major objective to me.

  5. Jeff Kaye says:

    Thanks so much for mentioning the story Jason and I did. But even more thanks for pressing forward the truth about the use of torture.

    I always thought there was insufficient notice about the fact CIA torture in its 1st incarnation, the Kubark manual, was specifically part of a counterintelligence program, that is a part of the “great game,” that is, the world of spy vs. spy, of double and triple agents, and “control” of intelligence assets.

    Torture made its reappearance at the federal level as a result of the Cold War, blossoming finally in the Phoenix Program and Operation Condor. The Bush-Cheney program, still continued in somewhat attenuated form by Obama, drew upon the CIA-military past, including sometimes even the old personnel (as when James Steele went to Iraq).

    Anyway, thanks again, and much gratitude to you for championing truth.

  6. Peterr says:

    Listening to some of the morning shows, the right is throwing everything they’ve got to preemptively attack this report’s release. The most infuriating line to me this morning was “we don’t need to re-litigate all this.”
    There has been no litigation of these crimes, so claims of re-litigation are ridiculous.

  7. wallace says:

    This should be on the cover of the summary of the report. And the report itself.

    btw emptywheel. Your analysis and proof of the scope of this insidious criminality by the USG is much appreciated. Our grandchildrens greatgrandchildre deserve to know the truth of who and what they are Pledging Allegiance to. That is..if they don’t spit on it first.

  8. Kyle Hamilton says:

    This just goes to show what happens when you allow the target of an inquest to dictate the terms of the discussion. Everything about the torture program was presented as a means of obtaining intelligence. Creating spies means that it wasn’t even *directly* about obtaining intelligence, but rather it was an *investment* in obtaining future intelligence. Investing violence and poor behavior and violation of law, expecting to reap positivity… isn’t this “the fruit of the poisonous vine”?

    US ended up wasting trillions of dollars in poorly-justified wars was “throwing good money after bad”, in an attempt to cover up the fact that US was abusing people simply because it wanted to create political change in them (causing them to have a new political allegiance). In other words, Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib existed solely so that US could enter the ranks of state sponsors of terrorism, and the wars US spent money on as a result were designed to stimulate the war-based economy and cover up its sponsorship of terrorism on the world stage.

    And this behavior in Guantánamo appears to be explicitly designed to cause compliance through fear of what happens when an individual person doesn’t comply. US now doesn’t even need to have the veneer of credibility of only imprisoning its own people, or of relying on international treaties. How would US feel if Germany or Sweden or China flew onto its soil specifically to arrest and detain US citizens?

    I cannot believe that US has to this point avoided being declared a rogue state.

    I can no longer be proud of being a US citizen. I am now ashamed of being a US citizen. It used to be the greatest nation on Earth… but it has lost its moral, ethical, and legal high ground. Its infrastructure is crumbling; this would have been a MUCH better place to invest those trillions of warbucks. Its education system is lagging, getting further and further behind; this would have been a MUCH better place to invest those trillions of warbucks. It has domestic problems caused by the disconnect of the citizenry from the police; some would say that by diverting surplus military equipment to police, the warbucks were invested here… but this is exactly the *worst* way to do so, as it is nothing more than an end-run around the Posse Comitatus Act forbidding US military from acting on US soil.

    And predictably, the law-enforcement “investment” is now a financial liability. Now US itself must act via DOJ to rein in militarism by the police against non-terrorist protest activities which have had force escalated by its member states, and created mayhem as a result.

    How can US have any leadership role in the world, if it fails to adhere to its treaties and UN’s rules? Unless, of course, UN is rubber-stamping US’s abuses in the Security Council. Or perhaps UN Security Council isn’t rubber-stamping it, and Russia has noticed that it’s never gotten a veto over this, and so it’s acting up because it sees US breaking international law and thinks that it won’t be held accountable either.

    Even domestically, its law-enforcement targets and prisoners are exploited — if not for intelligence (like Sabu), then for slave labor (paying less than a dollar an hour for dangerous manufacturing work, so the prison-industrial complex can compete with Mexico prices on combat helmets and other protective gear — as well as license plates, courtesy a “prison industry fee” charged to the recipient of each license plate that exceeds the hourly wage of the prisoner-workers by a factor of 4). Every driver or rider of an automobile [even a city bus] has prison labor tacked to their vehicle, which stains and taints everyone with the fruits of an industry which cannot have its product imported into US. I wonder if Canada should allow US vehicles to cross its border, knowing this?

    I’m scared. My nation is not what I thought it was, and is antagonizing other nations to behave even more poorly than they historically have.

  9. Casual Observer says:

    Thanks so much for this E. I believe you’ve been saying this a long time, but it bears repeating.

    I suppose the only way to establish whether Cheney actually believed that torture produced effective intelligence would be a trial.

  10. REDPILLED says:

    Another point U.S. corporate media/propaganda for the Empire will most likely omit is the many violations of the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

    The U.N. Convention Against Torture was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994, making torture illegal and, due to Article VI of the Constitution, part of the oath all U.S. politicians and military swear to uphold. Obama was required by this treaty, now part of the Constitution, to prosecute all those involved with the torture committed by many members of the Bush/Cheney administration, U.S. armed forces, and the CIA. His refusal to abide by that treaty and law are grounds for his impeachment, but we already know that U.S. “leaders” only obey laws which are convenient and suit their imperialist policies. They expect us to obey the law, but they violate serious international laws of war and human rights with impunity.

  11. [email protected] says:

    On one side, we have NSA using gang-stalking with help of ASIO harassing father of USA citizen sending people to harass him daily about war on terror views at his job(cab driver in Australia) and then ultimately doing so much torture that father of USA citizen divorced her partner and a child was made fatherless.Latino and Muslims are terrorists Then ASIO gang-stalked the poor Pakistani guy so much he left Australia after being divorced and after having his son snatched.At end they wonder why Snowden got so fed up in NSA that he left screaming “stop this non-sense”.

    Jesus Christ. NSA and ASIO shame on you both.Mr president, please open you eyes and ask your intelligence agency what they are doing to minorities.

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