Friday, March 18, 2005

Italian Antidote

If you haven't seen this Italian blog, go check it out now: I Love America. It's in Italian, so you can use this translator.

More importantly, check out the comments that they've made at two of my posts, here and here, regarding the confusion as to what Berlesconi said regarding Italian troops in Iraq. It'll make your day.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Bloggers Beware!

Have you heard?

The Federal Election Commission is beginning the process of extending its controversial 2002 campaign finance law to the Internet, potentially threatening political blogging and online punditry.

I heard about this earlier today in an E-Week email, but was unable to link to the associated story until just a few minutes ago. But this isn't news, is it? We've been hearing rumors out there in the blogosphere for months about potential "censorship of the internet". But I always thought it would be censorship of pornographers or something like that. Not bloggers! Not grassroots efforts in support of candidates. Whatever happened to "free speech"? McCain-Feingold apparently don't care much about the right to free speech of bloggers.

In an interview with CNET, Smith warns that the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance restrictions may soon be applied to the Internet, thanks to a recent ruling by a federal judge that any coordinated political activity over the Internet must be regulated.

This new decision essentially overturned the FEC's vote in 2002 to exempt most Internet communications from the notoriously restrictive McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

The results could be devastating for online free speech.

Some examples:

* Blogs and other Web sites -- even personal home pages -- could be fined by the federal government for merely linking to a candidate’s Web site.

* Forwarding a political candidate's press release to a mailing list, or extensively quoting a candidate’s literature via email, could be a crime.

* Blogs might be faced with having to hire a lawyer to approve their political commentary and linking, or just stop speaking out on political issues.

This is serious business.

What are they afraid of?

Monday, March 14, 2005

Outsourcing Torture?

Last week several Democrats charged that the administration was trying to get around prohibitions on torture by "outsourcing" it to other countries where legal niceties are, to put it mildly, not always strictly observed. One of the accusers was Rep Edward Markey, and the practice he condemned is a procedure known as "extraordinary rendition":
"Torture is morally wrong, whether it happens in Abu Ghraib at the hands of U.S. interrogators or in the prisons of Syria due to a White House directive," Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) told about a dozen lawmakers, activists and reporters who attended a news conference on Capitol Hill. "We must put an end to this morally repugnant policy immediately."

Markey defined extraordinary rendition as "an extrajudicial, secret process in which the CIA or some other U.S. government entity acts as prosecutor, judge and jury and without any due process may send a detainee to any country in the world, including some of the planet's most notorious human rights abusers."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says that even in cases involving extraordinary rendition, the U.S. does not "export" suspects to countries where we believe they will be tortured. He admitted, however, that once out of our hands, we cannot be sure as to whether the suspected terrorists, are, in fact, tortured or not.

Markey and the others with him were having none of it:

Markey asserted on Thursday that extraordinary rendition:

-- violates international treaties the U.S. has signed and verified, including Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture;

-- undermines the moral authority of America in the eyes of the world; and

-- ensures that American captives are likely to be tortured in the hands of our enemies, who will justify such actions by arguing that they are doing nothing more to our people than what our government is doing to those we have captured.

To accomplish these goals Markey has introduced a bill, H.R. 952, the Terror Outsourcing Prevention Act.

There are several questions involved here:
  1. What exactly constitutes "torture"?
  2. Does torture work? That is, is it useful in extracting useful information?
  3. How far should interrogators be allowed to go before we deem it unacceptable? In other words, if torture works, should we use it? If so, how far should we go?
  4. If torture works at extracting information, but we ban its use in general, are there "special circumstances" in which it might be acceptable to use it? The classic scenario is the "ticking bomb" that will go off unless a captured suspect provides information necessary to disarm or remove it.
  5. Again, if torture works, is it morally acceptable to send suspected terrorists to other countries where we have reason to believe (indeed hope) that they will use torture to extract useful information?
Wretchard, author if the indispensable Belmont Club blog, wrote at least two posts on this subject in January. In the first of these, Wretchard makes two points: One, that in this country we uphold moral standards even in the face of great provocation and at great sacrifice to ourselves, and two, that rather than grandstanding, we must provide specific guidance to our troops and interrogators.

Here is Wrechard on the first point:

At one level the debate over the use of torture in the War on Terror is moot. The United States military has a long operational history of forgoing possible practical advantages in favor of upholding certain national values. The most obvious modern example are rules of engagement in the use of fires. During the recently concluded assault on Fallujah and in current operations in Iraq, military restrictions on the use of firepower around mosques or populated areas are enforced with the foreknowledge that such steps will result in statistically higher casualties to troops.

He the goes on to reject the use of torture in "special circumstances", arguing that it will lead to a slippery slope that is itself fraught with dangers. To avoid confusion, we must provide better guidance to those in the field:
The first is that sacrosanct principles are upheld even at great cost. Limits on allowable behavior are imposed even in the presence of a literally ticking bomb. As pointed out earlier, the US has a long history of accepting the consequent suffering of its men as a price for prosecuting war under nationally accepted principles. If Iraq is not proof of that, then Vietnam certainly was. But the second is that the preservation of those sacrosanct principles is never carried to the point where action becomes impossible. Upholding national values must never come at the cost of defeat and extinction; must never become 'a death pact'. Hence abstract rules of engagement are meaningless; they acquire a significance only in their practical effect. This implies that the debate on torture, if is to have any relevance, cannot simply be a carping or grand restatement of principles. They must meaningfully determine what American fighters are allowed or not allowed to do with the specificity that even now controls the use of force in Iraq.

In the second post, Wrechard argues against the practice of rendition, and explores the spectrum of techniques ranging from obvious acts of torture such as rape and crucifixion, burning and beating, to "activities like putting panties over people's heads, playing loud music, forcing suspects to drink whiskey to loosen their tongues or imposing sleep deprivation."

I'll let you read the entire post (it's worth it), but here is his conclusion:
Here, returned to earth, it should be plain that whatever the letter of the Geneva Convention, rendition and raping boys should be classed as like abominations while photographing prisoners or putting women's underwear over their heads should be left out of the reckoning altogether. The real task is to create a practical and ethically acceptable regime for interrogating prisoners while strengthening the safeguards against real torture -- two sides of the same coin, for we are charged by the spirit of humanitarian law to safeguard not only prisoners, but all protected persons. We are adjured to prevent the torture of Margaret Hassan no less than Abu Musab Zarqawi, and in so doing must give the troops such means as can be countenanced by our moral values. This process should not be cheapened by the tacit understanding that no embarrassing questions will be put to Roberto Gonzalez if none will be addressed to William Jefferson Clinton.
I'll admit that the hardest thing for me is to think about this without considering what the anti-American left thinks. If they had their way, the War on Terror would not only be reduced to a "police action", but terrorists, even those captured on the field of battle, would immediately be read their Miranda rights and provided with ALCU lawyers.

It is only fair to answer the questions that I posed above before asking for comments. It's a difficult subject, and reasonable people can disagree. I am hardly an expert on these matters and am going off of the top of my head and intuition, but here goes:

  1. Torture - Most definitions I see, such as this one, tend to define it as "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental." The key, of course, is ones definition of "severe." After considering this a bit all I can say is that one almost has to look at it technique by technique. I've no problem with slapping a suspect around, but oppose beating or kicking. I've no problem with sleep deprivation, but oppose forcing one to lie in excrement.
  2. Does it Work - It seems to depend on the situation. During the Vietnam War, our POWs were tortured mercilessly, yet told nothing but lies. Soviet NKVD agents could get their prisoners to "admit" the most fantastic tales, none of them true. A quick survey reveals that opinion is all over the place, but most seem to say that "strong techniques" short of physical abuse do produce results.
  3. How far can we go - First, let's stress that we're talking about enemy soldiers (whether legal or illegal combatants does not matter) captured in the War on Terror. I'm not going to list techniques, but in general I support mental and physical stress short of physical abuse. As mentioned above, I've no problem with slapping suspects around and the like, but keep those bunsen burners out of the interrogation room please. And whatever we decide, let's spell it out so there is no confusion.
  4. Special circumstances - It is tempting to make exceptions. And I don't know what I'd say if presented with a nuclear bomb about to go off in a U.S. city. Reality tends to make a hash of theory at times. All I can say is that no, we should not slacken our standards, but must think this out carefully.
  5. "Extraordinary rendition", or outsourcing - Rep Markey may be a left wing whacko for all I know, or he may be a reasonable Leiberman-type Democrat. I didn't investigate for fear of prejudicing my decision. I'm going to come out in favor of ending the practice of extraordinary rendition, although I'm not quite sure that I support his bill because it refers to the UN Convention Against Torture, and I think that we can darn well come up with our own statutes without reference to "international law" (Justice Kennedy take note).
Ok folks, your turn. Tell me what you think. I'm not stuck on any of this and may be persuaded to change my mind on any of it.