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Questioned by experts

Bush tiptoes round torture

George W Bush yesterday confirmed the existence of secret CIA prisons for the interrogation of suspected terrorists:

Many are al Qaeda operatives or Taliban fighters trying to conceal their identities. And they withhold information that could save American lives. In these cases, it has been necessary to move these individuals to an environment where they can be held secretly, questioned by experts and, when appropriate, prosecuted for terrorist acts.

Questioned by experts is a very careful phrase. Are the subjects really only questioned? And what exactly is the expertise of these experts? Are they simply experts in asking questions, like TV quiz-show hosts? Or does their expertise extend to other areas?

It seems that it does. As the speech continues, Bush’s speechwriters pile up other dainty euphemisms. Faced with a subject who wouldn’t talk, “the CIA used an alternative set of procedures”. An alternative set of procedures? To what, we may wonder, was it an alternative? Presumably, to mere questioning. So being questioned by experts might involve an alternative set of procedures. Does procedure make you think of a medical practice, a physical intervention? You are letting your imagination run away with you.

Later on, Bush also referred to the most sensitive questioning. Are the experts doing the questioning the sensitive ones, a little like psychotherapists? Or is it a matter of exploiting the sensitive subjects? Are the men being questioned by experts thought to be sensitive in the sense of having finely tuned emotions, or is there a hint of exploiting physical sensitivity? Well, perhaps we are reading too much into mere words. Bush reassured his audience:

These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used. I think you understand why. If I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe and lawful and necessary.

Ah, good, the alternative set of procedures consisted of authorized methods, of specific methods that were tough. But they were also lawful. Actually, as Chapter Seven of Unspeak documents in detail, the procedures were found to be lawful by the Department of Justice because the Department of Justice unilaterally redefined “torture” to include only acts that inflicted pain on the order of organ failure or death. Any violence that did not “rise” to this “level” was, by this new definition, not torture, even though it was torture according to an FBI observer in 2003 [pdf], and according to the Army’s own definition of torture in its Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation.

You might with reason wonder whether, if it was so uncontroversially true that these procedures were legal, why Bush decided to insist on all this in his speech yesterday. Hard to say, since he coyly refused to describe the specific methods. Well, we know that one such method has been “waterboarding”, whose name sounds sporty and whose actual effects are routinely downplayed. (See my post and the subsequent discussion on Alan Dershowitz over at Crooked Timber.) I suggest we need a new name for “waterboarding”: perhaps enforced partial drowning.

But please don’t mention what Donald Rumsfeld once squeamishly called “the torture word”. Bush said yesterday:

I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws and it’s against our values. I have not authorized it and I will not authorize it. Last year my administration worked with Senator John McCain, and I signed into law the Detainee Treatment Act, which established the legal standards for treatment of detainees wherever they are held.

We can understand this better when we know that there is a special definition of “torture” that excludes all but the most hideous imaginable acts. Further, Bush appeals to McCain’s anti-torture amendment, yet mysteriously fails to mention (as WIIIAI notes) the signing statement he added to the bill when passing it into law. As I explained in this post, the signing statement said that Bush would “construe” the anti-torture strictures “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief” – in other words, consistent with his belief, and that of his lawyers, that his wartime authority overrides any merely legal challenge.

In this way, Bush’s claim that the procedures were lawful and necessary is a clever bit of misdirection, reversing the real logic. Because, according to the administration’s lawyers, a regular invocation of “military necessity” automatically authorizes anything, the real underlying claim is: necessary therefore lawful.

Bush added yesterday that, in implementing the amended Detainee Treatment Act, he would “continue to use every lawful method to obtain intelligence”. Since, under the prevailing theory of administration lawyers, nothing done by the Commander in Chief during wartime can be unlawful (thank God for the “war on terror”), this simplifies nicely into a promise to continue using every method.

So let us sum up. The government will continue to have people questioned by experts in sessions of sensitive questioning, using a set of alternative procedures, procedures that are tough, necessary and lawful, according to a doctrine in which almost nothing can be unlawful: indeed, every method will continue to be used. You have to admire the delicacy with which Bush’s speechwriters tiptoed around the issue. Yet even through such a blizzard of euphemism and Unspeak, it is difficult to resist interpreting the real message as being this: we’re going to continue torturing people, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

17 comments
  1. 1  abb1  September 7, 2006, 10:05 am 

    Just demonstrates the obvious absurdity of the words ‘legal’ and ‘lawful’ when uttered by a l’etat-est-moi individual: everything he does is lawful by definition.

    Of course the congress could do something about it. Maybe they will next year. Not too likely, though.

  2. 2  Andrew Brown  September 7, 2006, 11:04 am 

    One of the awful things about being middle-aged is that I can remember when this sort of analysis was only needed for statements made by Stalinists.

  3. 3  C Reaves  September 7, 2006, 4:45 pm 

    I support the renaming of “waterboarding”, however I think you really meant to suggest “forced partial drowning” rather than “enforced partial drowning”.

  4. 4  SP  September 7, 2006, 4:56 pm 

    Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edn:

    Enforced, 2. That is forced upon or exacted from a person; that is produced by force; forced, constrained.

    “Forced” would be fine too.

  5. 5  C Reaves  September 7, 2006, 5:02 pm 

    I hope that Bush’s unspeak phrase “questioned by experts” comes back to haunt him.. Merely by using this phrase in speech, such as in “I hesitated to comment lest I be questioned by experts”, opponents can point a finger at the administrations willingness to torture and its tendency to use unspeak to lie about it.

  6. 6  C Reaves  September 7, 2006, 5:25 pm 

    One final comment on this issue. How far my country has fallen from the Presidents who spoke “Four score and seven years ago out fathers brought forth onto this continent a new nation…” and “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and “We choose to do these things not becasue they are easy, but because they are hard”, to one who now speaks of questioning by experts, alternative procedures, and sensitive questioning. I am ashamed.

  7. 7  SP  September 7, 2006, 5:29 pm 

    I like your suggestion in #5 very much, C Reaves. Everyone should say “Well… I wouldn’t want to be questioned by experts” at every available opportunity.

    Interesting comment re Stalinists, Andrew. Of course, Bush and Rumsfeld would like us to think that this is the Cold War all over again, but they had in mind something different…

  8. 8  Rp  September 8, 2006, 3:43 am 

    “…we’re going to continue torturing people, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” is not enough. I wish President Bush had the moral clarity to say “We’re going to continue using whatever method is appropriate to extract information from anyone bent on the destruction of American property or lives. Terrorist use kidnapping, torture, murder, bombing and more to try to achieve their objectives of harming Americans, and we don’t preclude the use of torture to uncover and hopefully stop those with such intentions.”

  9. 9  SP  September 8, 2006, 8:06 am 

    I love the use of “hopefully”. To torture hopefully is better than to arrive, right?

    But sure, if that’s what Bush thinks, then he should come out and say it. Dershowitz is right to that extent.

  10. 10  jonst  September 10, 2006, 3:02 pm 

    one wonders if the “experts” will come to form a trade association? Will they go to conferences? Publish a newsletter? DVD on standard of care measures? Hand out career achievement awards and such?

    Will a new field of medicine be formed focusing on how to keep people alive and healthy while under going “alternative interrogation”? Will this group have a subsection within the AMA? Will they select promising first year med students and process them for scholarship awards?

  11. 11  SP  September 10, 2006, 4:53 pm 

    Good questions, jonst. The Pentagon’s official line on physicians who help in sessions of “sensitive questioning”, by the way, is quite creative. It argues that they are not functioning as physicians, so any apparent trouble with medical ethics is swept under the carpet.

  12. 12  sw  September 12, 2006, 3:49 am 

    I’d be curious to find out the full citation from the Pentagon: I suspect that the physicians are considered to be functioning as physicians, but not in a physician-patient relationship – which is slightly different from saying that they are not physicians. Arguably, then, they are not functioning as “physicians”, but in a role of expertise based on their knowledge as physicians (as if the knowledge can be extracted purely from the person).

    Either way, the common term for this practice is “dual loyalty”; I have been worrying about whether “dual loyalty” is unspeak or not. “Dual loyalty” means, in essence, that the physician has loyalty to the patient and loyalty to the institution (or country, etc.), which are in conflict, and which must be “balanced”, usually by appeal to utilitarian greater goods (and therefore justified by all sorts of claims about ticking bombs, etc.) Every physician will have numerous loyalties (to patients, to profession, to cultures, even to communities), and the appeal to “dual loyalty” usually occurs when one of those loyalties (usually to the patient) is being completely stomped upon. So, perhaps it unspeaks this act of grotesque violation. Part of the problem, of course, is that there are conflicting loyalties, and there are times when physicians clearly take sides (an obvious example is enforced quarantine, enforced treatment of tuberculosis, etc.) – so there are times when an appeal to the problem of dual loyalties is not trying to unspeak anything, but trying to organise and rationalise and categorise this conflict.

    So, what sort of rule is there for determining when a word or a term is unspeak and when it is not?

  13. 13  SP  September 12, 2006, 1:44 pm 

    The citation is as I gave it from memory, except in the singular.

    There is no hard-and-fast rule for determining whether something is Unspeak. As you will know, the book sometimes finds it useful to make a distinction between terms that are inherently Unspeak, and terms that are sometimes used in an Unspeak way. Perhaps “dual loyalty” is one of the latter, but it seems to be a bit vague. To qualify, it would need to Speak one loyalty over the other, wouldn’t it?

  14. 14  sw  September 13, 2006, 12:58 am 

    Yes, but that’s the point: there is indeed a primary loyalty, and that is to the patient; “dual loyalty” is usually evoked when a second, secondary loyalty is over-riding that first loyaly. “Dual loyalty” unspeaks the established ethical hierarchy, and suggests that any number of loyalties are in (roughly equal) play. More subtly, there are in fact numerous loyalties, and of course there are times when these come into conflict; the use of “dual loyalty” often, although not always, comes up when somebody is, shall we say, pretending to discuss these competing obligations while in fact trying to justify and rationalise reneging on a primary loyalty for a secondary one. So, in that sense, it also unspeaks the opposition (“what, you think there’s only _one_ loyalty? Actually, there’s _two_!”), appropriates uncertainty as an excuse for conviction (“we are uncertain about the various roles of loyalty, so we must be allowed to torture these people who might have a ticking bomb”), and, when deployed in the defence of torture, wraps itself in the protective gauze of ethical language, ethical investigation, ethical sincerity.

  15. 15  SP  September 13, 2006, 1:09 am 

    It’s interesting to see how, conversely, “dual loyalty” is often used as an attack-phrase by anti-immigration types. We may perhaps agree that such appeals are often Unspeak practices. (The “not functioning as a physician” claim, meanwhile, seems implicitly to acknowledge the existence of a “dual loyalty”, and to recognise that it would be a problem, and so decides that one of the loyalties, as you say in fact the primary one, is simply irrelevant in the situation at hand.)

  16. 16  Club Troppo » An apology anyone?  October 1, 2006, 1:54 pm 

    [...] You see it all gets down to spin and journalists are there to participate in and amplify the endless self-reflexive developments that occur under the rule of ‘he said – she said’ reporting, not to figure things out according to some broadly agreed set of values and report and opinionate accordingly. I was reminded of this when listening to an excellent set of speakers at the George Munster awards for excellence in journalism.  They had engaged with their subject – the winner of the prize was Olivia Rousset, who in Lifting the Hood – Prisoners of Abu Ghraib; Abu Ghraib Revisited and A Torturer’s Tale had actually had the journalistic curiosity to report on those tortured – on their view of things.  She was surprised to find no-one had done it before her. If you read Steven Poole’s triffic blog unspeak on the term “questioned by experts” you’ll see that it describes ‘procedures’ which are similar in spirit to many of the things that were captured in the photos at Abu Ghraib.  In what way is ‘waterboarding’ for instance in any way less extreme than what we saw in the pictures? [...]

  17. 17  Unspeak » Serious  October 3, 2006, 1:06 am 

    [...] Questioned by experts: Bush’s names for torture [...]



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