Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Keeping Up With the Wickershams

I have an article in the current print edition of Counterpunch on the Wickersham Commission report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, under the pen name of Peter Lee.

This article will provide enlightenment to anyone who ever wondered why the abusive apes in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who were named the “Wickersham Brothers”.

More significantly, this report, prepared eight decades ago for Herbert Hoover by Harvard law professor Zechariah Chafee, the most distinguished guardian of civil rights in the first half of the twentieth century, anticipates and repudiates virtually all of the arguemnts in favor of—and abuses committed under the color of—“enhanced interrogation techniques” or, as they were known back in the Roaring Twenties, “the third degree”.

Chafee identified four reasons why beating people up to get information was a bad idea: false confessions, the corruption of police procedure as “fists trump wits”; the tainting of prosecutions; and the collapse of police reputation in the public eye.

Somewhat prescient, n’est pas?

If the Bush administration held motivations beyond mere retributive atavism, it might have referred to the Wickersham Report—which underlies the current federal protections against self-incrimination in the United States—before it embarked on its ruinous program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in 2002-2003.

As it is, EIT is a signature Bush policy: dishonest, ineffective, and with catastrophic consequences that will long survive its morally and intellectually obtuse authors.

Typically, the Bush administration spent more mental energy defending the program than it did in its design or execution, first in the reams of bogus legal opinions enshrined as the “torture memos”, and currently with the non-stop spin by ex-Bush officials concerning the purported efficacy of the odious methods.

A good deal of rhetorical gymnastics is devoted to efforts to evade the “torture” label for enhanced interrogation techniques. As far as the impact, consequences, and shortcomings of coercive interrogation, it’s a distinction without a difference. Chafee uses the terms “torture”, “abuse”, and “the third degree” interchangably in his report.

The only reason everybody is loath to apply the description of “torture” to the intense mental and physical duress inflicted on detainees during the Global War on Terror is that the U.S. is a signatory to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which is specifically designed to remove any and all justifications for giving torturers legal impunity…and Congress, in the reign of Bush I, enshrined the obligation to prosecute U.S. torturers under U.S. Statute 2340, the domestic enabling legislation for the treaty.

The Obamas administration is also determined to obfuscate the issue, because frankness and honesty on the issue would expose U.S. practitioners and sanctioners of torture to prosecution both under U.S. statute and, under the principle of” universal jurisdiction” by other signatories to the U.N. Convention Against Torture and cause no little political heartburn for the current administration.

Coercive interrogation is an issue that’s the subject of a lot of confusion, muddled thinking, and outright dishonesty. Hopefully the article on the Wickersham Commission will help clear things up.

The subscription link for the Counterpunch print edition is here.

The one issue that the Wickersham Report does not address is the favored excuse of those who condone torture: the ticking time bomb defense.

The fact that torture has defused few if any ticking time bombs has not dimmed the ardor of its champions.

I can bring some perspective to this issue from Asia and justify a China Matters link to the debate.

The historical record indicates that motivated and trained terrorists and insurgents anticipate torture and have already developed effective countermeasures to protect their conspiracies and their networks.

As Claude Shannon, the father of information technology, might put it, the problem with torture is the signal to noise ratio.

All that’s needed to degrade the transmission of useful information is to bury it in increasing amounts of useless noise.

China in the 1930s and 1940s witnessed the life-and-death battle between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party.

It seems the only successful organization inside the dysfunctional KMT was Dai Li’s burgeoning and remorselessly efficient secret police empire.

Did Dai Li waterboard?


Among other things.

In 1932 [Harold] Isaacs summarized the Guomindang methods of torture as follows: beatings, pouring kerosene, urine, and feces through the nose of the victim and having the guards drive their knees into the stomach of the victim; strapping prisoners to chairs and giving them intermittent electric charges; placing pieces of bamboo between the fingers, which were then crushed; intermittent dislocation of bone joints; “tiger’s bench”, an ancient Chinese method of torture “by which the ligaments beneath the knee are pulled out”; imprisonment for months in cages where the prisoner must crouch like an animal for weeks or months; single or double pairs of shackles; and mutilating the reproductive organs of both sexes.

From Frederic Wakeman, Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service, University of California Press; Berkeley 2003

Dai Li had an unwavering commitment to torture.

And torture, in its simplest iteration works. Everybody breaks down sooner or later.

But, as the Chinese say, for every tactic there is a countertactic.

In its struggle with Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT, the Chinese Communists figured out how to deal with torture of their operatives, as Wakeman writes:

In fact, most people broke sooner or later under secret police torture. What Communist prisoners appeared especially skillful at doing—perhaps because they were trained ahead of time for the experience of interrogation—was providing false information that would help other members of their organization get away. Often, for instance, a CCP agent being tortured in the zhencha dadui would pretend to reveal the location of the headquarters organization but actually give an address one or two blocks away. Until the secret police caught on to this trick, they would launch a raid against a totally harmless address close enough to the real headquarters to alert the party leadership to seek safer refuge elsewhere.

Apparently energetic application of torture sans scruples, restraint, or any legal hindrance was unable to save the KMT from eventual defeat by the Communists.

One might notice how insidious the red herring defense is.

Once Dai Li’s secret police “caught on to this trick”, they would have to torture beyond the original legend to get at the truth.

But what if the second confession was still a fraud?

And how would they know?

The more Dai Li tortured, the more the noise of additional bogus confessions would overwhelm the unrecognized signal—the truth.

It wasn’t just a problem for Dai Li.

As someone who participated in coercive interrogations of high-value targets inside Iraq told Human Rights Watch:

If [the detainees] were going to lie, they were going to stick with it—
unless it became too harsh and they would break, or whatever. But then
you get into the too-harsh area. . . and that’s when you don’t know if
you’re getting the right information—are they doing it just because of
the pain or the discomfort?

Jeff said he was concerned that harsh tactics were not as effective as more traditional
interrogation methods. When detainees provided information, yielding to abusive or
harsh techniques, it would take time to corroborate and determine whether the
information was accurate, whereas with traditional techniques, interrogators would
usually determine immediately whether the information was accurate.

You know, the time difference of checking out the story, and this and
that. Because if you’re talking to somebody and you break them using a
mental tactic or so forth, you just know when that person breaks. But
from what I’ve seen of harsh physical tactics, where they supposedly
break, that’s harder to tell [whether the information is accurate] because
they’re just saying something to stop the discomfort.

From No Blood, No Foul; Soldiers' Accounts of Detainee Abuse in Iraq, Human Rights Watch, 2006.

Recall that Khalid Sheihk Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times. Potentially, that’s 183 different stories.

KSM’s statements at his Combatant Status Review Tribunal offer little reassurance that the United States got a lot of actionable, real time intel out of him:

…be under questioning so many statement which been some of them I make up stories just location UBL. Where is he? I don’t know. Then he torture me. Then I said yes, he is in this area …KSM CSRT transcript pg. 15

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Attention Watchmen Fans!

Brad Bird Has Your Squid!

Watchmen, created by Alan Moore and David Gibbons and issued in twelve installments in 1986-87, is acknowledged to be one of the apex achievements of the graphic novel. An intoxicating combination of detective noir, science fiction, alternate history, and political critique, it was selected in 2005 by Time Magazine as “One of the hundred best English-language novels” (from 1923 -- when Luce-time began—to “the present”).

The property finally received its big-screen/mega-budget due in 2008, courtesy of director and uberfan Zack Snyder, after decades in development hell (and Moore’s refusal to participate in or endorse any filmed version or even accept an on-screen credit). The movie achieved $180 million in box office and awaits its entry into the Valhalla of celluloid profitability upon the release of the 186-minute Blu-Ray/DVD director’s cut on July 21.

Watchmen is a damn good novel. It cleverly deconstructs the superhero genre, depicting its costumed crime fighters—Comedian, Rorschach, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Ozymandias—as marginalized eccentrics who exercise their compulsions for kicks, suffering, self-esteem, fame, and fortune by dressing up in bizarre outfits to dispense vigilante justice.

In one of the book’s sliest moves, the only character with genuine superpowers—the accidentally irradiated time-and-space-shifting immortal blue giant Dr. Manhattan—becomes increasingly alienated both from humanity...and his government-issued costume.

First Dr. Manhattan sheds his headgear, then his trim black uniform—he wins the Vietnam War while swanking around in a Speedo-esque pair of skintight shorts—and finally, in a move that caused the faithful Zack Snyder a certain amount of R-rated heartburn—abandons clothing and modesty altogether for the rest of the book.

Aside from the fate of the universe, Doc Manhattan’s main preoccupation is his love life, a perpetual cycle of abandonment of inexorably aging girlfriends for new, nubile partners to his eternal and eternally on-display full-frontal azure perfection.

On the other hand, the all-too-mortal Nite Owl, his insecurities writhing beneath the ineffectual shield of a middle-aged pot-belly, discovers to his embarrassment that he can only overcome his sexual dysfunction while wearing his borderline-absurd bird costume.

The Snyder movie version eschews this kind of subtlety for a straight reading of the story from the point of view of the book’s narrator, Rorschach, a virtuous psychopath dealing out street justice from beneath a mask made from a swirling swatch of textile that had belonged to the martyred Kitty Genovese (!).

Snyder’s amped-up Mickey-Spillane-goes-to-Toontown approach contains enough violence and sadism (further elevated in the Director’s Cut) to gratify the all-important and hypercritical fanboy base.

However, discriminating viewers may decide that the definitive Watchmen movie, one that captures the subversive essence of the book, was already made in 2004: Brad Bird’s Oscar-winning animated feature The Incredibles.

Perhaps because of a dread Pixar/Disney code of omerta, the only detailed examination of The Incredibles’ debt to Watchmen that I could find in mainstream media outlets was one article by the Baltimore Sun’s movie critic, Michael Sragow.

However, the parallels have been noted and discussed on message boards for years, and acknowledged, albeit very briefly and gingerly, by Watchmen’s co-creator and artist, David Gibbons.

They include:

· Forcible retirement of superheroes by government edict
· A mysterious campaign of extermination against said superheroes
· A plot to wreak an enormous calamity under false pretenses when the superheroes are out of the way
· A lot of asides about moonlighting superheroes, the dangers of capes, etc.
· The squid

Warning: here be spoilers.

I read Watchmen blithely oblivious to the plot similarities between Moore’s remorselessly dark and adult superhero fantasy and Bird’s hit movie (which, in the company of a junior family member, I have watched a gazillion times but also commend to adults as one of the finest pieces of mass entertainment unleashed by Hollywood in the last twenty years), until one image in Chapter 12 of the book triggered a Proustian flood of associations.

Chapter 12, the finale of Watchmen is, quite frankly, a train wreck.

Constrained by a pre-determined 12-issue format, Moore and Gibbons abandon the highly effective and mysterious noir atmospherics of the previous chapters for a blizzard of exposition, advanced by the villain blabbering unchecked at his superhero captives--a fatal breach of the fourth wall infamously mocked in The Incredibles as the dreaded “monologuing”.

The action is capped by a deus ex machina or, more accurately, the corpse of a genetically-engineered mind-melting supersquid barfed into New York at the villain’s behest in order to persuade humanity—for plot purposes that don’t withstand very close examination--of the imminent threat of invasion from an alien dimension.

This bizarrely unsatisfying out-of-left-field apparition was abandoned decisively and early on in Watchmen’s twenty-year hegira through the Hollywood development process and replaced with a plain-vanilla last-act hazard that made less onerous demands on the audience’s credulity: a simultaneous nuclear attack on the world’s capitals.

Only the most ardent fans mourned the banishment of the squid from the silver screen.

Only the fans…and Brad Bird.

When I viewed the deceased supersquid’s despondent tenticular mass in Chapter 12 of Watchmen, I had my epiphany: involuntarily, I recalled the strikingly similar attitude of the overthrown Omnidroid at the conclusion of The Incredibles.

Brad Bird had figured out a way to integrate the problematic squid into the film when the rest of Hollywood had given up on the challenge.

In other words…

The Squid Stays in the Picture!

With the release of the Watchmen film on home video, viewers have the opportunity to discover and dissect the parallels between three remarkably complementary and rewarding works—the triptych of the original novel, Zack Snyder’s film, and The Incredibles--at their leisure…

…complete with squid.

(If you don't see the links below to Amazon for the various works cited in this post, click the Refresh button)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Obama to Africa: Drop Dead

I have a certain respect for what I see as President Obama’s clear-eyed exercises in foreign affairs triage.

Obviously, his plate is full with Iraq/Iran/Pakistan/Afghanistan and keeping Europe on board for the whole global-recession-fighting deal, and the Obama administration has shown little interest in looking for solutions (or trouble) in strategic backwaters of the world like Burma and North Korea...and, apparently, Africa.

I was rather surprised at the favorable response not only by the middle-finger humanitarians who populate the Wall Street Journal's editorial page but also by some reform-oriented Africa aid activists to President Obama’s July 11th speech in Ghana and its signature statement: “We must start from the simple premise that the future of Africa is up to Africans”, followed by the condescending get your house in order/good governance/democracy tropes that have been a mainstay of Western rhetoric toward Africa for the last few years.

That line might have had more credibility in the pre-recession boom years, when there was a rising tide to lift all boats and the prospect of economic growth and increased trade and investment justified calls for Africa to do its fair share of bootstrapping (clamping down on corruption and capital flight, getting governments’ fiscal houses in order, liberalizing economic policies, bringing the informal economy into the banking system, etc.) to generate more internal capital for investment.

But now that the geniuses of Western finance have sent the global economy off a cliff, the three vital engines for market-based economic growth in Africa—international trade, foreign direct investment, and inward remittances—are all taking 20%-plus hits as a result, and the United States and Europe are putting billions on the line to stimulate demand and prop up their financial institutions while at the same time honoring the commitments of the Gleneagles G8 summit for increases in aid to less developed countries “in the breach” as it were, it takes a certain amount of crust to tell the Africans to suck it up.

China doesn’t see it that way. I have an article up at Asia Times under the pen name “Peter Lee”, entitled “China Doubles Down in Africa”, describing some major post-crash initiatives Beijing is undertaking in Africa.

I also look at signs that China’s position in Africa is evolving into a more sophisticated engagement in response to the stresses of the global recession and China’s own shortcomings in Africa policy, and conclude:

It appears that China hopes to emerge from the global recession not only with its economic standing intact; it intends to enhance its position and present itself in Africa as the responsible, perhaps indispensable stakeholder that the West has claimed to yearn for but is perhaps not anxious to see materialize.

Hey, read the whole thing!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Going Forward on North Korea with Kurt Campbell

Kim Jung Il has been very good to me. I have an article up on North Korea at Asia Times under the pen name Peter Lee, titled A convenient North Korean distraction.

Kim Jung Il has also been very good to the United States and Japan, providing a conventional security threat that plays to America’s most conspicuous advantage and justification for continued involvement in Asian affairs: our unchallenged military pre-eminence.

The point of the article, however, is that we won’t have Kim Jung Il to kick around forever, but we—especially the Japanese--don’t seem to be making contingency plans for what to do in Asia once the DPRK ceases to exist in its present form.

The two money quotes from the article are:

The North Korean crisis represents a collision of two anachronisms: the world's last Stalinist state versus a fading Cold War alliance ill-equipped to face the challenge of China, a burgeoning regional power determined to expand its influence through investment, trade and diplomacy and avoid confrontation on the United States' primary terms of advantage: military power.

North Korea is going to open up someday. Probably not through reform, regime change or collapse, or through the application of American or Japanese military force.

But it will open up.

There is too much money and strategic advantage at stake for the interested nations of North Asia to stand idly by and simply watch North Korea disintegrate.

Maybe change will come by means of a controlled implosion, jointly managed by China and South Korea, the two neighboring regimes that covet North Korea's cheap labor, resources and markets, and abhor the consequences of Pyongyang's chaotic disintegration in equal and extreme degree.

If and when that happens, Chinese and South Korean businesses will flood into North Korea and the entire Korean Peninsula will become part of the zero-sum equation bedeviling Tokyo. Japan may find itself on the outside looking in at North Asia's burgeoning new economic frontier ... together with the United States.

The article draws on the confirmation testimony of Kurt Campbell, founder of the Center for a New American Security, as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia. Laura Rozen reported on June 25 that he was finally officially confirmed when some Republican senator withdrew a hold.

To me, Campbell’s testimony was remarkable for three things:

First, Campbell’s clear unwillingness to support any attempt by Japan to establish its own regional security presence by unleashing the Self Defense Force, presumably since he realizes it will come at the expense of American influence and credibility in the region. That’s bad news for the LDP, which sees a forward military presence in Asia for Japan under the U.S. aegis as one of the few measures available to it to counter China’s rise.

Second, the unrelenting use of the term “going forward”. Apparently this is Obama-speak for “We don’t want to get dragged into politically distracting and costly battles over the transgressions and lapses of the Bush administration, so let’s just assume we’re starting with a clean slate.” Of course, the slate is nowhere near clean, the GOP will not display any gratitude or restraint toward the Obama administration for turning a blind eye to its eight-year reign of error, and it remains to be seen whether the president’s unwillingness to openly identify and repudiate the numerous authors of our national economic and foreign policy clusterfugue turns into a political advantage or a liability.

Third, the Democratic chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Jim Webb of Virginia, has a genuine bug in his ear about rapprochement with Myanmar.

He spent most of his question period pressing Campbell to acknowledge the logic of reaching out to the junta, instead of letting the situation fester indefinitely. Campbell, obviously unwilling to expend any political capital on this diplomatic backwater by needlessly antagonizing the left and right-wing supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, awkwardly but determinedly dodged the question several times.