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Extreme interrogation

Hitchens on torture again

Christopher Hitchens thinks the CIA ought to be abolished, according to his befuddled latest column in Slate. What is the latest example of its unfitness? Why, the destruction of those interrogation tapes from 2002. But wait. The reason the CIA destroyed the tapes, according to Hitchens, is a stunningly Machiavellian one:

At a time when Congress and the courts are conducting important hearings on the critical question of extreme interrogation, and at a time when accusations of outright torture are helping to besmirch and discredit the United States all around the world, a senior official of the CIA takes the unilateral decision to destroy the crucial evidence. This deserves to be described as what it is: mutiny and treason.

What exactly is Hitchens trying to say? Unspeak.net reader Peter offers his interpretation:

The implication of the word choice there, so far as I can see, is that the CIA is so set on destroying Bush, even though he’s about to leave office, that it has erased proof of its own agents’ innocence of torture.

Comical though it is, I believe Peter is right in thinking this is what Hitchens is saying: America doesn’t do “outright torture”, and so the CIA has destroyed the video proof that it doesn’t torture so as to hurt America’s reputation. Cunning! But let us trudge more slowly through this swamp.

The paragraph opens by contrasting two notions — that of extreme interrogation and that of outright torture. Now, Hitchens is tediously fond of saying, when it suits him, that a distinction between two things is a “distinction without a difference”, a term borrowed from the law. For example, there is a linguistic distinction between calling someone an “unmarried man” and calling him a “bachelor”, but no substantive difference in the claim of fact before the court. But Hitchens likes to use the concept more widely, glibly to shovel aside inconvenient phenomena. Earlier in this same column, for example, he calls the difference between civilian and military uses of nuclear power a “distinction without much difference”, which might be news to the IAEA.

But presumably Hitchens wants his distinction between extreme interrogation and outright torture to carry some weight, actually to denote a real difference. Extreme interrogation is a “critical question”, the kind of thing about which you soberly conduct “important hearings”; but “accusations of outright torture” are such as to “besmirch and discredit the United States all around the world”, and surely cannot be true.

But what exactly is extreme interrogation? Is it like being questioned by experts? Is it like extreme sports, say snowboarding or BMXing? Or is it more like that sportily named form of torture, waterboarding forced partial drowning? Is it the kind of thing it obviously makes sense to practise on extremists, since extremity of action is the only language they understand? Or is it just a wordcake that Hitchens impatiently ovened to denote the most macho possible interrogative behaviour that nonetheless falls short of what he, personally, without saying, considers “outright torture”?

We know, for example, that Hitchens smirkingly approves of “rough” interrogation in a fantasy “ticking-bomb” scenario, as he explained in this column in 2005.1 Of course, that “rough” interrogation was itself torture. Is “extreme interrogation” even rougher? Are we finally invited, absurdly, to try to hold in our minds an idea of extreme torture, much worse than your ordinary kind of torture?

No, I don’t think it’s meant that way. Of course, Hitchens doesn’t say what he thinks “extreme interrogation” is, and how it fails to be “outright torture”. I suppose we can be sure, from his indignant protests about presumably ill-founded “accusations of outright torture”, that he thinks waterboarding forced partial drowning is not torture, since no one denies any more that waterboarding forced partial drowning has indeed been perpetrated against certain “high-value detainees” or clients or what have you. But waterboarding forced partial drowning is torture, and to call it even “extreme interrogation” is to trivialize it. So “extreme interrogation” vs “outright torture” is, in the end, a distinction without a difference. One is merely a clumsy euphemism for the other.

And yet, what power a clumsy euphemism has! It can make all the difference between America’s name being “besmirched” or not; and all the difference between the CIA’s destruction of tapes showing them doing what they were ordered to do by the administration representing a case of cover-your-ass, and it being a plot to bring down the government through “mutiny and treason”! Such is Hitchens’s commitment to obfuscatory Unspeak — even when, as here, it is quite sloppily executed.

  1. Discussed at length in Unspeak, pp180-2.
24 comments
  1. 1  John Fallhammer  December 12, 2007, 1:19 pm 

    See also Michael Mukasey. If it’s torture it’s illegal. Therefore it’s only torture if it’s seen to be illegal (and nothing ordered by the Chimp-in-chief is illegal, by definition).

  2. 2  Stuart A  December 12, 2007, 5:17 pm 

    On the “distinction without difference” front I’d say he’s guilty of more than just glib shovelling:

    The acquisition of enriched uranium and of plutonium, for any purpose, is identical with the acquisition of a thermonuclear weapons capacity.

    Firstly, enriched uranium comes in different levels of enrichment, most of which are only usable for power generation.

    Secondly, nobody (at least before Hitchens) has accused Iran of pursuing “thermonuclear” (that is, fusion) weapons. They have accused Iran of pursuing fission weapons, which are less powerful and much easier to make. I imagine Hitchens selected the word purely because it sounded more threatening. (I note, irrelevantly, that Oliver Kamm quotes this passage and responds with an “Exactly so.”)

    He seems to be suggesting, through his use of the word “identical”, that acquisition of the right metal isotopes is all that is required to produce thermonuclear weapons. That, or acquisition of anything that can be used as part of a thermonuclear weapons programme is “identical with the acquisition of a thermonuclear weapons capacity”, in which case the acquisition of steel or aluminium or an on-off switch is “identical with the acquisition of a thermonuclear weapons capacity”. The claim is surely either false or meaningless.

  3. 3  Alex  December 12, 2007, 7:02 pm 

    True, but the chance of Hitchens being aware of the actual meaning of the word “thermonuclear” is minimal. I would suspect that to him it means something like “nuclear, but even MORE nucleary and awesome – like a fighter jet made of BICEPS.”

  4. 4  ozma  December 12, 2007, 8:47 pm 

    This is not a witty comment but I often wonder why these people don’t ever imagine themselves undergoing the experience and what it would do to them. I guess when I think ‘torture’ I sort of intuit what it might be like to undergo something–would it be humiliating and degrading and terrifying, make me powerless, destroy my sense of self and traumatize me forever? Then I would assume it is torture.

    I know it is not clever to say that they truly have dehumanized the people they think will be experiencing these forms of interrogation but to me realizing that opens up so much about where they are going politically. None of these individuals are human beings to them and that’s where it all starts. How obvious I know–but that’s the part that freaks me out the most about these justifications of torture. Damn, it’s just so easy for them to do it and that scares me.

  5. 5  Dave Weeden  December 12, 2007, 10:37 pm 

    “The mullahs are steadily amassing the uranium and plutonium ingredients of a weapon and will indeed soon be able to pause, along with other countries, like Japan, at the point where only a brief interlude and a swift spurt of effort would put them in full possession of the bomb.” I thought the opening sentence was disingenuous: I think it comes down to ‘Bush may have known something, or perhaps not, I don’t know – perhaps he comes across as an idiot because he is one, or because of some other reason. I have no idea at all either way and I’m writing verbiage because they print it. God knows why.’ But everything in the sentence at the bottom of page 1 is wrong: bombs are either uranium (like the one dropped on Hiroshima) OR plutonium (like the one used at Nagasaki). There are no uranium/plutonium bombs. I don’t understand ‘amassing’: while you need a lot of plutonium for a bomb, it’s not an amount that the government of an oil-rich country couldn’t just buy in one shipment. And ‘pause’ before a ‘brief interlude’ – does he even read what he writes these days? The spurt bit seems to mean “when they’re nearly there, they won’t have far to go, so if they move quickly, they won’t take long.” That makes more sense than pausing before having a pause. I think Hitchens has managed an all-time content-free article.

  6. 6  Steven  December 13, 2007, 12:18 am 

    like a fighter jet made of BICEPS

    That is brilliant.

    StuartA: good points, thanks:

    The claim is surely either false or meaningless.

    I’m tempted to go with false and meaningless, if that’s possible.

    Ozma:

    None of these individuals are human beings to them and that’s where it all starts.

    I think that or something like it must be true. It would be an interesting experiment maybe to send Hitchens on a Buddhist meditation retreat, instead of just one where he gets his balls waxed.

  7. 7  Stuart A  December 13, 2007, 2:21 am 

    like a fighter jet made of BICEPS

    That is brilliant.

    Agreed!

  8. 8  Alex  December 13, 2007, 11:50 am 

    It’s not original, sadly: this is the source.

  9. 9  Alex Higgins  December 13, 2007, 10:21 pm 

    What staggering bad faith on Hitchens’ part. (And ‘staggering’ refers not to any element of surprise on my part, but the way his arguments wobble and collapse so shortly after they are made).

    As far as language goes, this is interesting:

    “…the removal of Saddam from the chessboard has had more effect in curbing the outlaw WMD business than it is normally given credit for.”

    Not for the fact it is a false claim, which is widely known, but for the use of the word chessboard to describe the planet on which we live and share with its other inhabitants, most of whom are not a part of any of the world’s governments.

    The word is associated in foreign policy with the ‘realist’ school (whose actual realism is exaggerated) of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski (author of ‘The Grand Chessboard’). Hitchens has long excoriated them and their general worldview. It is noteworthy that he has decided to use their amoral metaphor.

    Then there’s this:

    “The briefing that I was given by the British Embassy in Tehran in 2005, showing the howlingly glaring discrepancy between what Iran claims and what Iran does…”

    Now, even if the British government had a really great track record with this kind of thing, it would still be embarassing for a self-respecting journalist to repeat what he was told by it and then expect us, without details or evidence, to accept its claims on his word.

    To get an example of just how prepared you should be to accept Hitchens’ judgement on this, this is what he wrote after Colin Powell made his notorious presentation to the UN in February 2003 with scaracely a single honest or accurate claim (it’s so good, I will give you a lot of it – it deserves to be remembered):

    THE sneer on the face of Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, never quite disappeared during Colin Powell’s 90 minutes of solemn oration yesterday.

    But there were times when it contracted a bit. Perhaps the performance was not up to his level of sophistication.

    …Too many of the promised photographs were simulations or mock-ups but Powell managed an especially persuasive improvisation when it came to the aluminium tubes

    …Colin Powell’s words carry more weight coming as they do from a former sceptic. The evidence, too, is accumulating fast. What precisely is Mr Zarqawi doing, flitting in and out of Baghdad and Kurdistan? And, since he is wanted for numerous crimes in other countries, why will Iraq not extradite him?

    Furthermore, why does the ricin trail, once it’s confirmed by detainees and captives, turn out to lead both to and from the places they specify? A thing you keep hearing around Washington these days is that those prisoners in Guantanamo Bay turned out to be a great deal more informative than anyone had hoped.

    …If you still insist on a “smoking gun”, then the photographs of frenzied activity at the chemical warfare base in Taji is probably it. That, and the documents concealed in private homes, the recurrence of the name of the al-Kindi factory and a few other things. Those prepared to give Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt are in some ways evidence-proof.

    So why did Hitchens have to hear from the British Ambassador of Iran’s duplicity? Wasn’t Colin Powell available?

    Or how about that “thing we keep hearing around Washington these days”? It sounds better than “the thing that self-serving, mendacious, cynical GOP hacks tell me a lot these days”, but not much.

    Personally, I quite like the old slogan ‘Abolish the CIA’, though I preferred it when it was a principled anti-war slogan back in the 1970s, rather than a rallying call of those frustrated by the reluctance of intelligence analysts to lie more fervently on their behalf.

    Hitchens accuses the CIA of, among other things:

    “…predicting the indefinite survival of the Soviet Union…”

    Left out of this is the fact that Hitchens’ neoconservative “temporary allies” (with whom he hopes to get Giuliani elected in 2008) constantly pressured the CIA to make such claims about the decaying Soviet Empire, and even established a parallel pseudo-intelligence agency – Team B – to make fantastic claims about Russian weapon systems.

    To accuse the CIA of having the “Clouseau-like record” while making the neoconservative critique is roughly like Ken Lay complaining about accounting practices at the IRS.

    The record of the CIA rank-and-file on Iraqi weapons systems was often pretty good – which is why Sy Hersh and Walter Pincus were able to get that story right back in 2003, while Hitchens was scoffing at the incredulity of the arrogant French who did not heed Powell’s wise words about mobile weapons laboratories or Iraqi-sponsored ricin factories in London.

    After his more thoughtful piece on the late Mark Daily, I was hoping Hitchens would stop acting as a witless and ignorant flak for the Republican Party and gradually become more like his better self. He has chosen not to.

  10. 10  Gavin  December 13, 2007, 11:16 pm 

    Steven.

    That is a horrible picture.

  11. 11  Steven  December 13, 2007, 11:24 pm 

    Hey, don’t shoot me, Gavin, I’m just the messenger. But still, think of it. Hitchens has wonderfully smooth balls.

    Alex H: to be fair, metaphorical uses of chess in international affairs go back at least to the Renaissance eg with Middleton. (There’s a reason why the pieces are called what they are.) But your other points are excellent. As I keep saying (once to the disgust of a certain oafish American journalist whose work I had greatly admired from afar), the idea that the CIA and other agencies had an “intelligence failure” with regard to “WMD” is simply a lie.

  12. 12  Michael  December 16, 2007, 3:00 am 

    And why does Hitchens want to emphasize “outright torture”? Is it different from plain torture?

  13. 13  richard  December 17, 2007, 3:51 pm 

    why does Hitchens want to emphasize “outright torture”?

    This is rather the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Because the alternative to “outright” (or “forthright”) torture would be equivocated torture, which we all know is acceptable.

  14. 14  Alex Higgins  December 17, 2007, 8:22 pm 

    “…to be fair, metaphorical uses of chess in international affairs go back at least to the Renaissance eg with Middleton. (There’s a reason why the pieces are called what they are.)”

    Oh, I’m quite sure use the chessboard metaphor is not new – and I’m not about to credit Henry Kissinger with originality.

    But – and perhaps someone will butt in if I’m mistaken about this – who on the left talks about international affairs like it’s a game of chess? I don’t mean in discussing the intrigues of the great powers, but in the course of advocating policies?

  15. 15  John M  December 18, 2007, 4:00 pm 

    Blimey, this is a lot of huffing and puffing over what someone has pretended that Hitchens has said. The only thing we can all agree that he actually has said is that the CIA is wrong to have destroyed the tapes and that this should be treated as a serious crime. And we all agree with him, don’t we? I know that makes some people a little uncomfortbale (I agree with Hitchens! Oh no! Let’s pretend he is saying something else) but some things are true even if Lord Halifx says they are true.

    On the ‘extreme interrogation’ against ‘outright torture’ point, that is just Hitchens being careful with his terms. He doesn’t suggest that ‘extreme interrogation’ is acceptable and we all agree (surely) that there is a sliding scale of stress from legitimate interrogation to torture with, presumably, extreme interrogation somewhere short of torture. Noone can say scientifically where one becomes the other (how many grains of sand make a heap?) but it is silly to pretend there is no difference for empty rhetorical purposes and to point it out does not make one an apologist for torture.

  16. 16  Steven  December 18, 2007, 5:52 pm 

    that is just Hitchens being careful with his terms

    Oh, I agree he’s being careful, all right.

    there is a sliding scale of stress from legitimate interrogation to torture with, presumably, extreme interrogation somewhere short of torture. Noone can say scientifically where one becomes the other (how many grains of sand make a heap?)

    Well, it is mighty convenient if you demand a scientific definition of torture. That leaves a lot of wiggle room; or, if you will, a grey zone. But legally, clear definitions do in fact exist of torture, if anyone cares to look them up (or change them, as the Justice Department had such fun trying to do).

  17. 17  John M  December 19, 2007, 12:04 pm 

    “Well, it is mighty convenient if you demand a scientific definition of torture.”

    Convenient how? Convenient for whom? I am not demanding a scientific definition, I am just pointing out that there is no objective means of deciding when, at what level of severity, something becomes torture. Of course there are legal definitions and I assume the actions included in them would be regarded by most right-thinking people and certainly by Hitchens (unless you have information to the contrary?) as ‘outright torture’. But legal definitions notoriously offer loopholes as well as protection. People who practice ‘extreme interrogation’ measures that are inhumane and barbaric but which do not precisely meet the definition for torture laid down in law can, if you want to rstrict your criticism to legal definitions of torture, escape condemnation or censure. Hitchens, it seems to me, wants to close that sort of loophole or at least be alive to it. It is you, it seems to me, who wants to keep it open.

  18. 18  Michael  December 19, 2007, 2:14 pm 

    John M,

    Surely the same points still apply when you add “outright” to torture. I can’t see how the addition suddenly results in an “objective means of deciding when….something becomes torture”. Your reference to “legal definitions” only further confuses your argument as those legal definitions refer to “torture” without any need for outrightness.

  19. 19  Alex Higgins  December 19, 2007, 7:34 pm 

    This is me:

    “After his more thoughtful piece on the late Mark Daily, I was hoping Hitchens would … gradually become more like his better self.”

    This is Steven:

    “As I keep saying (once to the disgust of a certain oafish American journalist whose work I had greatly admired from afar)”

    And this is John M characterising us:

    “I know that makes some people a little uncomfortbale (I agree with Hitchens! Oh no! Let’s pretend he is saying something else)”

    I’ve seen some wonderfully-crafted straw men over the years, but that isn’t even Worzel Gummidge.

    “The only thing we can all agree that he actually has said is that the CIA is wrong to have destroyed the tapes and that this should be treated as a serious crime.”

    Are we unable to agree, then, that he also argued that:

    1) Libya agreed to disarm weapon systems in response to the US invasion of Iraq; 2) that Iran has lied about its nuclear programme; 3) that there is no meaningful distinction between a civilian and a military nuclear programme that can be drawn, (even though a war may be fought over preicely that issue); 4) that Iran “continues to strive” for a “thermonuclear weapons capacity”; 5) that Iran may also have ceased such striving, or at least some “overtly military elements” and this may be attributed to the US invasion of Iraq; 6) that Iran does not require nuclear energy for domestic energy consumption; 7) that the CIA has gleefully sabotaged efforts to impose sanctions on Iran required to protect us; 8) that releasing the NIE was an act of lawlessness and insubordination which subverts US democracy; 9) that the CIA has a poor record of predicting developments in international affairs and should be abolished on those grounds (this one was in the title, John); 10) and implicitly – that a British ambassador of another country’s view of the nuclear programme can be regarded as compelling evidence without any further elaboration?

    I think you’ll find they are all things that “he actually said”, regardless of what views you might hold on them, and we may also note that they are contentious.

    “…we all agree (surely) that there is a sliding scale of stress from legitimate interrogation to torture with, presumably, extreme interrogation somewhere short of torture…”

    “Extreme interrogation” is just straight euphemism (you really have missed the entire point of this website, haven’t you?) – what do you actually mean?

    We already know that techniques used against prisoners in US custody include sleep deprivation, driving prisoners to insanity through total sensory deprivation or overload, rape, setting dogs on prisoners, beatings (up to the point of death), keeping prisoners in their own excrement, denial of medication and drowning.

    That’s just some stuff to start us off. It’s not a secret or a mystery – in fact, an astonishing amount of information from legal memos, to internal military investigations, to photographs, to survivor testimony has been available to the public for years.

    I am not interested in your proposed dilemma about the grains of sand required to make a heap. But just one broomstick handle rammed up a prisoner’s anal passage, one punch, one dog bite or one session on the waterboard counts as torture.

    In Hitchens’ statement, this reality is bypassed with weasel words and empathy only for the pain felt by the US government:

    “…a time when accusations of outright torture are helping to besmirch and discredit the United States all around the world…”

    Not only is this coming from someone famous for denouncing “casuistry when I see it”, it is also from someone who has in fact, offered consistent apologetics for official US internment and torture policy for a few years now, and has attacked its critics, such as Amnesty International in vile terms (sympathy for al-Qa’ida etc.). (See, for instance ‘Unspeak’ pp180-2 for examples).

    “Convenient how? Convenient for whom?”

    For the torturers, John. Convenient because weasel words allow George Bush to claim that his administration does not authorise torture when it blatantly does.

    “Hitchens, it seems to me, wants to close that sort of loophole or at least be alive to it. It is you, it seems to me, who wants to keep it open.”

    Yeah, Steven, why are trying to keep legal avenues to torture open? I’m shocked! No, hang on a minute, that doesn’t make any sense…

  20. 20  Steven  December 20, 2007, 1:09 am 

    It’s like watching someone use a minigun to kill a tiny and annoying but pathetically defenceless beetle!

    A propos the question:

    who on the left talks about international affairs like it’s a game of chess?

    Yes, it’s an interesting point. I suppose Stalin probably did, but I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head nowadays. And how does this tie into the famous “domino” analogy? And has anyone spoken of international affairs in terms of backgammon or Operation?

  21. 21  dsquared  December 20, 2007, 11:14 am 

    I have an as yet unwritten post suggesting that what international relations desperately need is fewer chess players and more backgammon players, precisely because the nearly the whole skill of backgammon at any level above the most basic is in recognising the difference between a bad but salvageable situation and a lost position that needs to be abandoned (notoriously, there is no standard of checker-play that can make up for mistakes with the doubling cube in the long run).

  22. 22  Alex Higgins  December 20, 2007, 12:51 pm 

    “It’s like watching someone use a minigun to kill a tiny and annoying but pathetically defenceless beetle!”

    It had it coming.

  23. 23  Steven  December 20, 2007, 3:28 pm 

    Oh, I agree, it was begging for it!

    Dsquared, you tease us with another of your classic unwritten posts. One day you could write a book containing descriptions of all the brilliant blog posts you have not as yet written. It would be like Borges meets George Steiner (who has a book coming out in the new year about the books he didn’t write).

  24. 24  Andrew  December 21, 2007, 1:16 am 

    Is bombing the shite out of Iraq with depleted uranium bombing the shite out of Iraq with depleted uranium or liberating the people and spreading democracy? Is Hitchens a truthless, gutless, fascist apologist or a loathsome coward and an idiot? All these words- we are spoilt for choice.



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