Friday, July 2, 2010

Rules of Engagement II: Torture, and Stanley McCrystal

The Iraq torture travesty seems practically like history now, seeing as little action appears to be taken. Unsurprisingly, though, revelations as to what really went on will continue to be made. Recently, for instance, this came out:
Bush-era CIA medical personnel conducted experiments on detainees in CIA custody to provide legal cover for torture as well as to justify and shape future torture techniques, a just-released report from the Physicians for Human Rights alleges.

"The CIA appears to have broken all accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War to protect prisoners from being the subjects of experimentation," said Frank Donaghue, the CEO of PHR, a nonprofit organization of health professionals.
This is not a new thing in our history. I just completed a report on the history of torture in the CIA and the Department of Defense from World War Two forward, and the first thing I found was almost immediately after World War Two, when the OSS (the CIA's precursor), initiated a project called Project ARTICHOKE which became the CIA's PROJECT MK-ULTRA. MK-ULTRA was a top-secret research program that basically tried to understand what could and couldn't be done to the human mind.

Reading through MK-ULTRA's files (declassified in the 1970s once FOIA was passed), it is clear that the CIA suffered from a lethal combination of an unsupervised budget and lack of transparency. They could do anything, and they had as much money as they needed to do it -- their budget for Fiscal Year 1953 was 587,000,000, which for a brand new intelligence agency is a pretty gigantic sum. MK-ULTRA began by looking at ESP and brainwashing -- for instance, they actually demonstrated that they could hypnotize little girls to perform complex tasks and then forget about it afterwards. That's right, they used little girls as their test subjects. But by 1950, the focus of MK-ULTRA became chemical manipulations, and the search for the truth serum (the holy grail of intelligence).

MK-ULTRA thought that LSD was a promising chemical, and it drew a lot of their focus in terms of testing. This earned them their shout-out in the movie The Men Who Stare At Goats, but it also led them to perform medical testing without the permission or knowledge of their subjects -- which, under the UN Convention on Torture qualifies as torture. At one point, a civillian researcher with the program began to have doubts (or so his family alleges). He was found dead, having jumped out of a window -- and the head of the CIA had been testing LSD on him without his knowledge or consent. Gerald Ford's administration formally apologized to the family of the researcher (leading to some fascinating memos within the Department of Defense between folks including Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who apparently has a long history of involvement with cleaning up after torture).

Testing of torture procedures shouldn't come as any surprise to people. As soon as you communicate to your armed forces that the Geneva Conventions are "quaint" and "obsolete" (the Hummel figurines of international treaties), it is pretty clear that you are going to be torturing, and once you open the door to torturing -- well, you have to be scientific about it, you can't just do things at random, you have to figure out what works.

When the torture regime surfaced, however, the Bad Apples excuse surfaced, as it would. Nobody was ordered to torture, nobody was trained to torture; it just "happened."

Investigating the details of what happened, however, it is quite clear that nobody needed to be trained or ordered: there was a deliberate atmosphere amenable to torture created. And it was created through the rules of engagement: the prisoners were handed over to Military Police (who normally do not have custody of POWs), and the Military Police were told to "soften" them. No tools were given, nor were the MPs trained for this sort of work. And then everyone closed their eyes.

Furthermore, the existence of contractors, who operate outside of the formal rules of engagement, further create an atmosphere of "who really cares?" MPs could simply leave the detainees alone with the contractors, and we still don't know what went on when the detainees were in their care.

And all of this, by the way, is crucially linked to General Stanley McCrystal. McCrystal's men when he was in charge of the Special Forces were linked to torture of their own, and part of McCrystal's cachet was that he was part of the Bush Administration's heavy-pain neocons. As you can see, he's clearly of their ilk, as it turns out he kind of hates everybody. And what was the first thing General Petraeus announced after he took over that he was going to retool the rules of engagement.

And this is not a side concern -- this is actually the core of counter-insurgency. The rules of engagement are how you minimize the recruitment of future enemies, beyond simply their effectiveness and morality on the battlefield. While McCrystal was in charge, shootings of Afghans at military checkpoints rose -- presumably, this is what Petraeus is going to fix, and this is part of the reason Afghanistan has been souring of late (amongst a lot of other reasons, admittedly).

The rules of engagement need to be put square at the heart of our national debate about the future of Afghanistan.

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