Saturday, June 9, 2007

We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

We truly live in Orwellian times.

Orwell was heavily influenced by the tactics of Joseph Stalin when he wrote 1984. During the late 1930s, Stalin orchestrated the Great Purge, the name given to campaigns of political repression and persecution in the Soviet Union. It was a period marked by omnipresent police surveillance, widespread suspicion of "saboteurs", imprisonment and killings. During the Great Purge, there were the Moscow trials, a series of trials of political opponents of Joseph Stalin. Today the Moscow trials are universally acknowledged as "show" trials, in which the verdicts were predetermined using extorted confessions. The defendants were accused of conspiring with the Western powers to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders, dismember the Soviet Union and restore capitalism.

In 1984, the party with its figurehead, Big Brother, holds absolute power. The physical descriptions of Big Brother mirror that of Joseph Stalin with his omnipresent pictures everywhere. The party's slogans are, "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength". The meanings of words are turned against themselves. Bush constantly asserts that America represents the beacon of democracy and freedom in the world, and that our goal in the Mideast was to allow democracy and freedom to flourish. As Bush mouths these words, turned hollow and meaningless by his actions and the events that followed, America adopts totalitarian tactics similar to those under Stalin.

We talk about democracy and freedom while our government engages in the darkest sort of behavior. We emulate our Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, in how we mete out justice.

In The New York Times article of 6/3/07, "Soviet-style "Torture" Becomes "Interrogation", the reason for the striking similarities between America's recently adopted form of questioning prisoners and the Soviet Union's is starkly etched. In 2002, the C.I.A. and the Pentagon felt their usual tactics of interrogation were inadequate for suspected terrorists. They turned to a military training program called S.E.R.E., which stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. The purpose of the S.E.R.E. program was to expose soldiers at high risk of capture to Soviet-style interrogation techniques, including:

  • Disrupted sleep
  • Exposure to extreme hot and cold
  • Hours in uncomfortable stress positions
  • Waterboarding, where a prisoner's face is covered with cloth and water is poured from above to create a feeling of suffocation

Some of these techniques have been used on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, Iraq and at the C.I.A.'s overseas jails for high-level operatives of al-Qaeda.

When S.E.R.E. trainers learned that the C.I.A. and the American military adopted the Soviet-style methods used in the S.E.R.E. program against captured al-Qaeda members, they were aghast. Charles A. Morgan III, a Yale psychiatrist who has woriked closely with S.E.R.E. trainers for a decade, asked, "How did something used as an example of what an unethical government would do become something we do?"

As discussed in the Times piece, a 1956 article, "Communist Interrogation" published in the Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry shows that methods embraced after 2001 were once considered torture that would produce false information. In other words, these Soviet-style techniques were ineffective in yielding usable information.

The 1956 report describes basic Soviet N.K.V.D. (later K.G.B.) methods:

  • Isolation in a small cell
  • Constant light
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Cold or hot
  • Reduced food rations

The effects of these methods produced disturbances of mood, attitude and behavior in nearly all the prisoners.

Other techniques were not considered "torture" by either the interrogators or the prisoners even though they produced excruciating pain, such as requiring the prisoner to stand throughout the interrogation or maintain some other physical position until it becomes painful.

American and Soviet approaches to interrogation are eerily similar. In the Soviet system, closed trials and military tribunals were standard. Just as in American law, military tribunals were not public courts, they were held in secret, with only the interrogator, the state prosecutor, the prisoner and the judges present. In the American system, evidence derived under "torture" was admissible.

The Bush administration concluded that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda detainees; similarly, the Soviets argued that international law did not apply to foreign detainees.

Communist-style interrogation routinely produced false confessions.

"The cumulative effects of the entire experience may be almost intolerable. [The prisoner] becomes mentally dull and loses his capacity for discrimination. He becomes malleable and suggestible, and in some instances he may confabulate (to fill gaps in one's memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts). By suggesting that the prisoner accept half-truths and plausivel distortions of the truth, [the interrogator] makes it possible for the prisoner to rationalize and thus accept the interrogator's viewpoint as the only way out of an intolerable situation." (1956 Report)

A more recent Times article, "Rights Group Offers Grim View of C.I.A. Jails" (6/9/07), gives a bleak description of life in the secret prisons run by the C.I.A. in Eastern Europe. This description was given in a report prepared by Dick Marty, a Swiss senator investigating C.I.A. operations for the Council of Europe, a 46-nation rights group. According to the report, prisoners guarded by silent men in black masks and dark visors were held naked in cramped cells and shackled to walls. Ventilation holes in the cells released bursts of hot or freezing air, with temperatures used as a form of extreme pressure to wear down the prisoners. Prisoners were also subjected to waterboarding and relentless blasts of music and sound, from rap to cackling laughter and screams.

The report relies heavily on testimony from C.I.A. agents.

A spokesman for the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, "There were no secret C.I.A. detention centers on the territory of the Republic of Poland." But Mr. Marty said at a news conference that the anonymous testimony of the agents was backed by thousands of flight records showing prisoner transfers, including private jets linked to the C.I.A., that made 10 flights from Afghanistan and Dubai to the Szczytno-Szymany International Airport in Poland between 2002 to 2005. That was the closest airport to a Soviet-era military compound. The C.I.A. jails were set off from the country in which they were located by a buffer zone. The jails were run exclusively by Americans.

The details of prison life were given by retired and current American intelligence agents who were promised confidentiality. As Mr. Marty said, "For 15 years I have interviewed people as an investigating magistrate and I have always noticed that at a certain point, people with secrets need to talk."

According to the report, suspects were often held for months with no contact to the outside world except with masked, silent guards who would push meals of cheese, potatoes and bread through hatches.

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