President Obama put on an impressive performance in his press conference last night. He is a formidable political talent. The journalists posing the questions, however, seemed as lame as ever. Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times gets special mention for the worst question of the night. If the Times goes under, he would be a natural for People or, even better, Us. The full text of the press conference is accessible here.
I continue to be intrigued by Obama’s knowledge of history. I think it is wafer thin, a point I tried to make with respect to his invocation of the Kennedy-Khrushchev conference during the campaign in “The Kennedy-Khrushchev conference for dummies.”
Last night he invoked Churchill rejecting the use of torture for interrogation:
I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, “We don’t torture,” when the entire British — all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat.
The relevance of Obama’s invocation depends on the accuracy of Obama’s account (I doubt it) and agreement with his assertion that the enhanced interrogation techniques approved for use on high level detainees constitute torture. Obama thinks they did, and claims the warrant of “the opinion of many who have examined the topic” as well as an electoral mandate to support his view.
The question is legal, however, not political. Congress has never defined any of the techniques in issue as torture, although it easily could have, and “the opinion of many who have examined the topic” can be invoked to support the contrary view.
Assuming for the purposes of argument that the interrogation techniques are torture, the information gleaned from KSM et al. using these techniques suggests that they can be efficacious. In his introductory remarks, Obama sought, as usual, to have it both ways. He implied that the techniques are torture, but ineffective: “We have rejected the false choice between our security and our ideals by closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and banning torture without exception.”
Obama showed himself to be a fan of “alternate history” later in the press conference. In response to a question, Obama asserted that we could have obtained the same information using other methods. This is sheer speculation, and I think a fair case study would indicate otherwise.
A close look at the information gleaned with the use of the enhanced interrogation techniques at issue in the “torture” memos strongly suggests their efficacy. Indeed, their efficacy is attested to in the redacted portions of DNI Blair’s letter on the subject.
What about Churchill? When the Allies first deliberated over the fate of the highest ranking members of the Nazis and German military who were ultimately tried at Nuremberg, Churchill supported their summary execution. He didn’t think they deserved their day in court as a matter of right.
Churchill was the leader ultimately responsible for the firebombing of Dresden. He was not particularly constrained by high minded liberal notions of wartime restraint, though late in the war (after Dresden) he opposed “the bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror.”
Did Churchill ever say “we don’t torture”? I don’t know and I wonder what Obama was talking about. Obama’s “knowledge” on this point may derive from the deep well of leaning afforded by a recent Andrew Sullivan post calling for the prosecution of Dick Cheney (why stop with Cheney?), based on a column by Ben Macintyre.
Sullivan and Macintyre hail the interrogation techniques of Colonel Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, the commander of the wartime spy prison and interrogation center codenamed Camp 020. According to Macintyre, Stephens eschewed “torure” in favor of psychological duress:
Stephens had ways of making anyone talk. In a top secret report, recently declassified by MI5 and now in the Public Records Office, he listed the tactics needed to break down a suspect: “A breaker is born and not made . . . pressure is attained by personality, tone, and rapidity of questions, a driving attack in the nature of a blast which will scare a man out of his wits.”
The terrifying commandant of Camp 020 refined psychological intimidation to an art form. Suspects often left the interrogation cells legless with fear after an all-night grilling. An inspired amateur psychologist, Stephens used every trick, lie and bullying tactic to get what he needed; he deployed threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he never once resorted to violence. “Figuratively,” he said, “a spy in war should be at the point of a bayonet.” But only ever figuratively. As one colleague wrote: “The Commandant obtained results without recourse to assault and battery. It was the very basis of Camp 020 procedure that nobody raised a hand against a prisoner.”
Drugs and drink go well beyond purely psychological duress. In any event, how do these methods stack up against those Obama has authorized? Unfortunately, that is a question that remains for another day.
PAUL adds: Recall that Obama returned a bust of Churchill that the British government had loaned to the White House. At the time, the Telegraph noted, by way of possible explanation, that “It was during Churchill’s second premiership that Britain suppressed Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. Among Kenyans allegedly tortured by the colonial regime included one Hussein Onyango Obama, the President’s grandfather.”