A Menagerie of Outspoken Opinions on Science, World Politics, and Geek Culture

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Will Talk For Food

There's another side to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. This AP article concerning the Red Cross report on Iraqi Prisons remarks on the treatment of prisoners who were deemed to be of "high intelligence value":

The delegates saw in October how detainees at Abu Ghraib were kept "completely naked in totally empty concrete cells and in total darkness," the report said.

"Upon witnessing such cases, the ICRC interrupted its visits and requested an explanation from the authorities," it said. "The military intelligence officer in charge of the interrogation explained that this practice was 'part of the process.'"

This apparently meant that detainees were progressively given clothing, bedding, lighting and other items in exchange for cooperation, it said.

The article goes on to say that there was some evidence of rough handling during arrest and such, but also that:

... the abuses took place primarily during the interrogation stage by military intelligence. Once the detainees were moved to regular prison facilities, the abuses typically stopped, it said.

Okay, let's get something straight: Beating a helpless prisoner (beyond the point of a few "we're serious here"-type slaps) is abuse. Making someone stand on a box and telling him he'll be electrocuted if he falls off is abuse. Lashing naked prisoners together for the purposes of humiliation is abuse. But depriving prisoners with valuable information of comfort and companionship is not abuse. It is interrogation.

Some of these folks are hard-core insurgents and Baathists. Since we don't do the bamboo-under-the-fingernails routine, the only real way to get them to talk is to make them want to talk ... to take away everything and then let them earn it back slowly as they cooperate. And yes, we do need to get the information they have; every weapons cache we discover and every plan we foil saves American and Iraqi lives. When the chain of command is followed and things are done right there is little abuse or humiliation and no murder, but we still have to have a way of learning what we need to know from these men. The "deprivation and reward for cooperation" schitk is our only real tool for getting these hardcore prisoners to give it up.

I suppose that I'm largely in agreement with Rachel Lucas on this one. I have a problem - a big one - with the senseless, random abuse of prisoners who might well be innocent; I have no problem, however, with military intelligence officials using rough means to learn important information from thugs and terrorists.

Those soldiers responsible for torturing "average Joe" prisoners need to be punished. If it is found that there were killings, that punishment should be appropriately severe. But we can't become so shy of using force that we loose our most effective tools of interrogation, because to do so would deprive us of staggeringly valuable intelligence. We must learn form this mistake, not be hobbled by it.