Saturday, April 25, 2009

Needed on the Torture Issue:

Real World Facts and Real World Understanding

Back in December 2007, when I wrote "Torture is Wrong, Illegal and It Doesn't Work", I mentioned that "the FBI agent who reportedly had the best chance of foiling the 9/11 plot, Ali Soufan, the only Arabic-speaking agent in New York and one of only eight in the country, and who has since resigned from the FBI, could and should tell people the truth of how the CIA's tactics were counterproductive."

Well, guess what?! He finally did so yesterday!!!

"My Tortured Decision" is how former FBI Agent Soufan titled his New York Times op-ed, speaking out to specifically refute a number of Dick Cheney's lies about how torture "worked". The truth, according to Soufan, is quite the opposite:
My Tortured Decision
By Ali Soufan
FOR seven years I have remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. I have spoken only in closed government hearings, as these matters were classified. But the release last week of four Justice Department memos on interrogations allows me to shed light on the story, and on some of the lessons to be learned.

One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn't been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn't, or couldn't have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions -- all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mr. Padilla. This is false. The information that led to Mr. Shibh's capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods. As for Mr. Padilla, the dates just don't add up: the harsh techniques were approved in the memo of August 2002, Mr. Padilla had been arrested that May.

One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An F.B.I. colleague of mine who knew more about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed than anyone in the government was not allowed to speak to him.

It was the right decision to release these memos, as we need the truth to come out. This should not be a partisan matter, because it is in our national security interest to regain our position as the world's foremost defenders of human rights. Just as important, releasing these memos enables us to begin the tricky process of finally bringing these terrorists to justice.

The debate after the release of these memos has centered on whether C.I.A. officials should be prosecuted for their role in harsh interrogation techniques. That would be a mistake. Almost all the agency officials I worked with on these issues were good people who felt as I did about the use of enhanced techniques: it is un-American, ineffective and harmful to our national security.

Fortunately for me, after I objected to the enhanced techniques, the message came through from Pat D'Amuro, an F.B.I. assistant director, that "we don't do that," and I was pulled out of the interrogations by the F.B.I. director, Robert Mueller (this was documented in the report released last year by the Justice Department's inspector general).

My C.I.A. colleagues who balked at the techniques, on the other hand, were instructed to continue. (It's worth noting that when reading between the lines of the newly released memos, it seems clear that it was contractors, not C.I.A. officers, who requested the use of these techniques.)

As we move forward, it's important to not allow the torture issue to harm the reputation, and thus the effectiveness, of the C.I.A. The agency is essential to our national security. We must ensure that the mistakes behind the use of these techniques are never repeated. We're making a good start: President Obama has limited interrogation techniques to the guidelines set in the Army Field Manual, and Leon Panetta, the C.I.A. director, says he has banned the use of contractors and secret overseas prisons for terrorism suspects (the so-called black sites). Just as important, we need to ensure that no new mistakes are made in the process of moving forward -- a real danger right now.
Former Agent Soufan is to be applauded for speaking out after seven years, something even FBI Director Mueller has not really found the courage to do (although Mueller was forced recently to truthfully admit that no attack on America has been disrupted as a result of intelligence obtained through "enhanced techniques").

Friday, April 24, 2009

Agenda Overload and the Harry Chiti Option

Who was Harry Chiti?

Sometimes in baseball, a team will trade off a player to another team without specifying a player it expects in return. This is referred to trading for “a player to be named later”: the team receiving the specified player will propose a short list of players to sacrifice in return. This practice had to inevitably result in a player eventually being traded away to another team for himself.

That happened to Harry Chiti.
The Mets acquired him from the Cubs in 1962 for a player to be named later. Later, Chiti was sent back to the Cubs as that player to be named later.
This obscure event strikes me as epitomizing ambivalence, indifference and indecisiveness.

In a sense, I also find the event as personally applicable. I feel like I am trading for a Harry Chiti everyday.

As a huge change from posing as a political pundit, I find myself focusing a good deal on yacht racing these days. That’s racing both on the real wet ocean and the make-believe dry, Internet-based Volvo Ocean Racing Game (VORG) -- which takes place in real-time and parallel with the real Volvo Ocean Race.

Unlike baseball, real and virtual yacht racing involves an infinite number of opportunities to make and reverse decisions.

In baseball, there is time available between plays to contemplate the next play in the context of the game and give appropriate signs to the pitcher, fielder, batter, or runner. Only a finite number of choices are available while play pauses and then resumes.

A yacht race offers continuous action and infinite choices as to course angles and sail trim. Even though a sailboat race might appear boringly slow and static, everything in this nautical sport is always in ‘play’. In boat racing, when nothing appears to be happening, things are happening, and their observation is pivotal. Is the water dark over there? What are other boats doing? Why are they doing it? Should we be doing it? Especially, on my (real/wet) boat, where crew have so little to do that they think they can afford to offer Harry Chitises to the helmsman every freaking moment.

In my VORG virtual racing, Harry Chiti punctually re-appears every morning at 2:00 am, when the real-time weather is updated. As soon as I rub the ground glass out of my eyes, he appears on my monitor. “Trade me!” he whispers to me insistently, “Trade me!”. Out of the 200,000 plus virtual boats lurking out there on the Internet, there are 75 boats I track with my charts. They are not only the critical standards by which I measure my progress. (Am I edging forward or falling back?) More importantly, they offer me innumerable examples – good and bad – to follow or avoid.

But the Harry Chiti Option is usually the one I select. After an agonizing ninety minutes of nocturnal analysis, I realize I am returning to bed without having changed anything. More accurately, in the 85th minute I reversed the change I made in the 5th minute. After all is said and done, I return to my bunk leaving Harry Chiti at the helm.

Agenda Overload:

Maybe that’s why I have not been posting on politics anymore.

In the post-Busheney world - in the wake of eight years of the most ruinous and negligent policies imaginable - we are faced with only catastrophic choices. Open wounds abound: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraqistan. Intractable world-wide crises wait in the wings: earth warming and global economic collapse. What of the self-inflicted damage to our own once-great republic such as torture, illegal spying on citizens, and politicization of our justice department. Shall we investigate, indict, prosecute and convict?

The Harry Chitis among us scream out, “Let bygones be bygones”. I hope Barack Obama is not going to sell out to them.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Message

For my Easter Message, I have selected a passage from an article read several weeks ago.

It is by Wade Graham, an author in environmental science, policy and politics. I am selecting this passage because it is appropriate for Eastertime in terms of content, and because it Graham achieves in it a level of eloquence I don't often find.

In The Independent, Graham is writing of the Gardens of Santa Barbara and The Search for an American Eden: Love, Sex, and Garden Magic.

He concludes by describing the penultimate garden, Lotusland. The designer of Lotusland, he says uniquely did not "fetishize the views of distant peaks", but instead "looked down or in, not up, as she carefully framed not mountains but intricate, surreal compositions of light and color and textures of plants and stones". And that,
Walking through Lotusland is remarkably like walking through the insides of someone’s head, each garden room a fantasy or a dream, a mental space ....

The sum is beyond category, in the sense that it transcends canons of style or period and rejects anxieties of influence, borrows from many sources, and recombines them into something utterly new, because each moment is utterly passionate and personal. The result is garden magic; it suffuses the place. Here, in a garden made by a Polish immigrant in a long-running opera of self-creation, is a fully formed, completely American style: free, individuated, and intelligent, relentless in its gathering of bits of everything in the world, botanical and cultural, immersed in history but ultimately free of it, garden magic untethered.
Happy Easter, friends, bloggers, and aspirant writers!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Al Qaeda -vs- the NRA (Pittsburgh Sequel)

22-year-old Richard Poplawski is the trigger-man this time. He opened fire with a high-powered rifle and an AK-47.

Poplawski was anti-semitic, anti-government, anti-police and convinced there is a plot afoot to take away the arsenal of guns he had amassed. Poplawski's posts are here, authored under the handle, "Braced For Fate."
(Oops! They have been taken down.)

Edward Perkovic, who described himself as Mr. Poplawski's lifelong best friend, said
He was really into politics and really into the First and Second amendment. One thing he feared was he feared the gun ban because he thought that was going to take away peoples' right to defend themselves. He never spoke of going out to murder or to kill.
More of this is to come. Perhaps to your previously 'quiet neighborhood'. And mine.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Al Qaeda -vs- the NRA

Weapons of Individual Destruction are massed within the United States.

NRA says if we outlaw assault weapons, then only outlaws will have assault weapons. Assault weapons are not effectively banned now.

What do we have now? Do outlaws have guns?

Look at the score for the last year in the continental United States:

Terrorism in the United States from Outlaws: 66
Terrorism in the United States from al Qaeda: 0

Case Histories:
  • Alger, Washington. September 2008. A mentally ill man who had been released from jail a month earlier shoots eight people, killing six.

  • Covina, California. December 2008. A man dressed in a Santa Claus suit opens fire at a family Christmas party at his ex-wife's home and then sets fire to the house. Nine people are killed in the home. The gunman later kills himself.

  • Geneva County and Coffee County, Alabama. March 12 2009. In a shooting spree that tears through several towns, a 28-year-old out-of-work man kills 10 people, including his mother and a toddler.

  • Oakland California. March 21, 2009. A 27-year-old Oakland resident shoots four Oakland police officers to death.

  • North Carolina. March 29, 2009. A heavily-armed gunman shoots dead eight people, many elderly and sick patients, in a North Carolina nursing home.

  • Santa Clara, California, March 30, 2009. Six people are shot dead in an apparent murder-suicide at a home in an upscale Silicon Valley neighborhood.

  • Binghamton, New York. April 3, 2009. Up to 13 people are killed as a gunman goes on a rampage at a civic center in the town of Binghamton.
Who's the greater source of danger to us? al Qaeda or the NRA?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Book of the Century

(Both of which are still very young...)
Every once in a while a book comes along that totally blows your mind and wakens you to the existence of frontiers and horizons you never before imagined.
This day is also extremely young.