Friday, January 20, 2006

Playing KISS Covers

This account of the legal defense of one of the soldiers accused of pushing aggressive interrogation techniques too far is indicative of the problems created by the Bush administration's confusing and often conflicting legal maneuvering concerning definitions of torture, acceptable interrogation methods, the applicability of the Geneva Conventions and the importance of prisoner classification (POWs vs. enemy combatants).

Two intelligence officers testified Friday in the trial of an interrogator accused of killing an Iraqi general that guidance on how to treat detainees was hard to come by in the first months of the war.

Capt. Jesse Falk, who supervised the defendant, Army Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer Jr., said he had never seen any documents outlining which interrogation techniques were approved and which were forbidden.

Retired intelligence officer James Reese, who also worked with Welshofer in Iraq, said he found guidelines only after searching for three months. [...]

Defense attorney Frank Spinner has said Welshofer was using a technique approved by his commander and was under intense pressure to extract information to help stop an increasingly lethal Iraqi insurgency. [...]

Welshofer testified Thursday that he received an e-mail from his unit's commanders saying there were no rules for interrogations because officials still had not determined how to classify detainees. He said the e-mail claimed officers were "tired of taking casualties and that the gloves were coming off."

Welshofer said his company commander approved his use of a sleeping bag, but he had not mentioned that he might straddle a detainee's chest, pour water over the detainee's face or cover the detainee's mouth while using the sleeping bag.
While Welshofer claims the method was authorized, he doesn't claim that his commander signed off on the full array of techniques he would be using - and that's kind of important. But at the same time, there was also a pretty alarming lack of clear guidance, and there were other pressures pushing in the direction of being more aggressive, with the "gloves" coming off so to speak. But the lack of clear guidance is enough to move the blame up the chain of command. This passage in George Packer's The Assassin's Gate explains the problem well (p. 326):

Over time it became clear that the ultimate responsibility lay in Washington, at the Pentagon, the Justice Department, and finally the White House. The memos on torture and the Geneva Conventions written by the president's counsel Alberto Gonzalez [sic] and others made abuses inevitable. One administration official who had served in Vietnam said, "There's no doubt in my mind as a soldier that part of the responsibility for Abu Ghraib and for Afghanistan belongs wit the secretary of defense and the president of the United States. There's an old aphorism: Keep it simple, stupid. KISS is the acronym. You always have personalities in uniform - I had them in Vietnam - who will take advantage of any ambiguity, any lack of clarification in the rules of engagement, and kill people, or whatever his particular psyche is liable to do. You don't have rules for your good people. You have rules for that five or six percent of your combat unit that are going to be weird. You need those people, because sometimes they're your best killers. But you need the rules. And when you make any kind of changes in them, any relaxation or even hint of it, you're opening Pandora's box. And I fault Gonzalez [sic], the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, the chain of command, Myers, Abizaid, Sanchez, the whole bunch of them."

All of these men kept their jobs. One was even promoted.
I believe that this analysis should be considered when apportioning blame. Even absent express orders to commit torture, that result will inevitably follow when those in control begin to tinker with long held standards especially when they fail to replace them with a new set. To this day, can anyone really explain our policy on interrogations and detentions? Are the Geneva Conventions still "quaint"? Is waterboarding off-limits? Rendition? Black sites? And to whom do the aforementioned rules apply and in what scenarios? Something tells me we're not adhering to the KISS doctrine.

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