Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, July 06, 2008

If you care about the torture issue

An article in today's NYTimes "News of the Week in Review" reviews the intense anxiety in the US during the Korean war when many believed that our POWs were being "brainwashed." It turned out not to be the case, but in the meantime the fear had been bolstered even by The Times itself, back in 1954.

Today's article by Tim Weiner says:

The technique was called "brainwashing." And suddenly it’s worth recalling what brainwashing was about. Because now we know...that in a new time of anxiety [post-9/11], America’s own interrogators drew lessons from China’s treatment of American prisoners of war for their treatment of prisoners in the war on terror.

Weiner then writes:

Flash forward to 2002. American military and intelligence officers, looking for better ways to interrogate prisoners in the war on terror, went combing through government files. They found that the best institutional memory lay in the interrogation experiences of American POWs in Korea. They reprinted a 1957 chart describing death threats, degradation, sleep deprivation — and worse — inflicted by Chinese captors. And they made it part of a new handbook for interrogators at Guantánamo.

The irony is that the original author of that 1957 chart, Albert D. Biderman, a social scientist who had distilled interviews with 235 Air Force P.O.W.’s, wrote that the Communists' techniques mainly served to "extort false confessions." And they were the same methods that “inquisitors had employed for centuries"...

Brainwashing was bunk: no secret weapon to control the human mind existed, America’s best experts concluded in the 1960s. Yes, the Communists used time-honored and terrifying interrogation tactics during the cold war. Some, like waterboarding, had been perfected during the Spanish Inquisition. But Mr. Biderman concluded that "inflicting physical pain is not a necessary nor particularly effective method" to persuade prisoners of war.

Some veterans of the war on terror say that lesson should have been relearned, despite the urgent need to uncover whatever possible about terrorist planning — the administration’s principal justification of its harsh interrogation policies.

Alberto J. Mora, the Navy's general counsel from 2001 to 2006, told a recent Congressional hearing, where the Biderman chart resurfaced: "Our nation’s policy decision to use so-called 'harsh' interrogation techniques during the war on terror was a mistake of massive proportions."