Tuesday, November 29, 2005

News: CIA Flights and the War on Terror

The issue of whether or not the CIA has been using German airbases and airspace to transport detainees between interrogation camps, some of them believed to be in Eastern Europe, has become one of the major foreign policy issues for the new government. The fact that the Council of Europe is now investigating the issue has created widespread interest in these flights and camps just at the time that the new government looks to improve relations with the United States following the tensions of the Schoeder-Fischer era.

The topic has been covered in Der Spiegel (The Hunt for Hercules N8183J) and Deutsche Welle (German Foreign Minister concerned about reported CIA flights) and the whole topic raises some important questions about not only American and European policy, but also on how you fight a "war on terror" in general.

One thing that concerns me is that there seems in general to be a failure to learn the mistakes of the past when it comes to dealing with terrorism. Secret interrogation camps where "unique and innovative methods" are employed may bring some intelligence, but how useful can information be that comes from someone who is suffering from sensory depravation having been made to stand in an ice-cold cell for 40 hours? And beyond that, what are the wider costs?

One of the things that the British government learned in Northern Ireland was that methods such as internment without trial and shoot-to-kill policies not only worked as the greatest recruiting sergeant the IRA ever had, but also swung opinion of the wider community against what they were trying to do. Every instance of what can be perceived as human rights violations by the Americans or British, be it in Iraq, Afghanistan, at home, or in the skies above Europe not only pushes more dissatisfied youth towards the cause of radical Islam, but also threatens the credibility of those nations within the wider world.

If the CIA or any other agency is seen to be above international law, how can politicians then demand that other nations comply with, for example, nuclear non-proliferation treaties? How can European nations who turn a blind eye to these interrogation camps tell Turkey that their human rights laws don't come up to scratch? If the most powerful nations in the world ignore the Geneva Conventions, then you might as well tear the document up. Nobody likes to be told what to do, and especially not by those they perceive as being hypocrites.

Another thing that concerned me about the whole case, specific to Germany, was that of the abduction by the CIA of a German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, in Germany, at the end of 2003. The issue of national sovereignty is at the heart of international law. Imagine the uproar if the Iranian secret service abducted an American citizen in upstate New York. This shows a phenomenal arrogance on the part of the CIA, and sets a very dangerous precedent. The fact that it also happened in Italy, and who knows where else, makes it a very worrying development indeed. In these instances it doesn't even matter to me if they didn't torture those they abducted. The fact that they by-pass the national sovereignty of the country in which they are operating, extradition treaties, laws of arrest and evidence, and all the other cornerstones of fair and proper justice are outrageous enough.

Of course, this is an unusual war, and maybe it needs some unusual methods to win it - if it is even possible to 'win' a war of this nature. And perhaps torture, abductions and secret interrogation camps where no rules of justice or legal processes apply will win the war. But I think that it takes us down a very dangerous road indeed, and the price of that victory too high. The next time the USA tries to put together a 'coalition of the willing' to act in the Middle East or elsewhere, who is going to believe them when they say they are trying to promote democracy or the rule of law, when in their foreign policy they respect neither?

My mum always told me, when someone was being mean to me, not to lower myself to their level. In fighting the war against radical Islam the American government and their friends are doing just that. After September 11th the United States held the moral high ground. Abandoning it has been a grave mistake.

As always, I would be interested to hear what others think - especially on the wider question of: Do the ends justify the means? As you can probably guess I would say no, but I have no doubt there will be those that disagree with me!

Some other links:

An interesting post on German Foreign Policy and the United States: The Capital Letter
Review of the German media response to the CIA Flights: Der Spiegel

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few comments to your post.
First off, torture is not a digital, two-state ( 0 and 1 or yes and no) process of 'torture' versus 'no torture'. I am not a historian, nor an ethicist, though to me there is a clear diffference between tearing someone's limbs off vs. sleep deprivation. We are talking about a continuum in which presumably, taking a terrorist's favorite teddy bear away could be construed as causing unbearable mental anguish and thus, for a more delicate audience, would be tantamount to torture.
One must have a tough-minded analysis of the balance between the acquired information and the duress one must subject a fellow human being to, in order to obtain said information. Also the question is whether such information could be otherwise acquired. Further there is the 'ticking bomb' idea of saving lives in a desperate and temporally constrained situation.
My concerns with torture include the fact that every such instance generates not only a victim but also a perpetrator. The ability to harm our fellow beings is programmed in all of us (yes, even the very pious!), and these are not traits that any enlightened community should encourage. So without clear guidelines we are facing low-level, unprepared people being forced to make ad-hoc decisions under confusing and stressful situations. This is not a good thing. Also those people would later return into our communities with this baggage to carry all their lives.
My solution is to have a broad public debate and delineate who, when, why, on whom, for how long and with whose permission/supervision can and should use coercive methods. Instead of a nuanced debate and policy formulation, all we have is the vacuous demagoguery of European politicians (maybe they should take a quick trip to Tuzla or Sarajevo or Srebrenica as a refresher in the life-saving utility of empty talk). A broad debate and a temporary and circumscribed acceptance under judicious and judicial supervision ('coercion warrants'?) would also signal to our enemies that (1) our sensitivities will not hinder our will to survive (as we say, 'our Constitution is not a suicide pact') and win and (2) we can stay faithful to our democratic decision-making and rule of law while vanquishing them.
Otherwise all the European bruhaha amounts to nothing more than words to the wind.

Second, you are all worked up over instances in which Americans are the culprits. Yet, tragically, torture happenes all the time, all over the world. I may have missed some of your posts, but anyways, I failed to notice the ones in which you lose sleep over Russians giving the going over to Chechens, Arabs being tortured by their own governments, genocide in Darfur, the Chinese gulag, etc, etc. You can bet your *ss that Algerians caught by the French get their those of sleep deprivation, at a minimum. This selective outrage detracts somewhat from your loftiness of your position.

Third, we actually don't know whether information thus obtained is useful or not. At least I don't know.

Fourth, although I am by far not a legal expert, it is unclear how the Geneva convention applies to un-uniformed combatants from a non-state (thus non-signatory to the Convention) who have harmed civilians and/or were conspiring to continue the same?

Fifth, it is axiomatic that intelligence agencies do things that your street cop can't do, otherwise, ...well your street cop would be asked to do them. So yes, it's still OK to demand that Iran complies with NPT.

Sixth, next time we try to put together a coalition of the willing, the willing will come.

Seventh, your Mom's advice was (and still is) useful in the setting it was given, ie. child-rearing in a presumably civilized and safe neighborhood. With due respect to your Mom, her advice does not transfer well to global affairs. Sometimes it is important to signal that we mean business, lest people will take our polite ways as weakness and become emboldened.

Finally, in your post you seem to be confused about the scope of the rule of law, as in "who is going to believe them when they say they are trying to promote democracy or the rule of law, when in their foreign policy they respect neither". The rule of law is principally a domestic concept, as is democracy, by the way. It is a curious European delusion to imagine that some transnational rule of law already exists. Yeah, it's nice that Germany is not periodically attacking Holland, for example, but that really does not mean that the international, extra-EU system operates under the same premise. This is a big (and faulty) leap of logic, that is available only to those whose security has been subsidized and given as gift from the outside (but that is a debate for another day).

Just my two cents.

5:22 am  
Blogger gunther said...

Excellent response, Anon, even though I still stand by most of what I said. I have to go to work, but I will respond to a couple of things...

(1) Yes, torture takes place elsewhere...but the issue of the USA is different in my mind because I expect better. This might be seen as unfair or double standards, but it is BECAUSE of the US Constitution, and all that it stands for, that I expect better from those operating in its name.

(2) My mums advice was a flippant comment at the end of the post...but I do think that actions such as these, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay do impact on the credibility of what the US is trying to do, and potentially its success.

In general the point I was making was that these things upset me precisely because I think that if the west wants to play exporting democracy and the rule of law in the middle east then they should think about the way in which they do it.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to make such a reply to my post. Maybe my position is idealist, and if I was a politician I might have to think and act differently for pragmatic reasons.

8:36 am  
Blogger P. said...

I would like to add that although I agree broadly with what Gunther wrote, I think this point from anon is very interesting:

So without clear guidelines we are facing low-level, unprepared people being forced to make ad-hoc decisions under confusing and stressful situations. This is not a good thing. Also those people would later return into our communities with this baggage to carry all their lives.


I also think that there must be a sense within the US administration or within the CIA about what the response would be if this became public, which was why they tried to keep it secret. So in this sense I don't see how it can be sending a message that 'we're not to be messed with'...so the debate as proposed by Anon would be useful.

12:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

gunther, I'd expect a more substantive, more analytical and yes, more intellectual reply.
The fallback position of "yeah we are so bitterly against you at every turn, because we really, but really love you too much and expect a lot more from you" just doesn't count as analysis in my book, friend.
BTW, it's OK if you "still stand by most of what I said." I realize that you (probably) developed and live your entire life in a deeply anti-American milieu (you may not even recognize it as such, casue you possibly have no external reference). My point is not to try to convert you to any position, but rather to challenge the ostensibly high-minded, but in reality, facile and empty anti-Americanism that you echo from your press.
Look, what we have in Europe in general and in Germany in particular is a failure of leadership. Unimaginative leaders faced with stagnant economies, aging and shrinking population, unsustainable "social" models, lack of innovation, large unassimilated Muslim populations, intellectually rigid populations dragged without consent into the pie-in-the-sky building of "Europe" by their elite.... So instead of tackling these huge issues, your leaders of opinion (politicans as well as media and culture types) find it a bit too tempting to distract you with blaming someone else for something else. Today it's the CIA planes, yesterday it was the ICC or Kyoto, or whatever.
In this context, Schroeder's failure was that, faced with mounting economic problems, instead of leading Germany into reform, he pandered to anti-Anericanism. That is not leadership. Merkel may turn out not to be much better, despite changes in style, because the main elephant in the room -- economic reform -- is out of bounds, even if she wanted to address it in the first place.
You (and the rest of the European electorate) deserve better, you just have to recognize this and begin asking for it. In my view, being well-intended is not enough and claiming idealism as a fall-back position, is no good either.
I have no problem with you as a person, but really have a problem with the haughty, talking-down style of the European press (which is then dutifully regurgitated by the European Joe Average) in which we are referred to as simpletons, savaged internally by unfettered darwinistic capitalism, lacking culture and sublety and prone to savage militarism.
It may sound like a platitude, though it is clearly worth stating and worth remembering that our freedom and constitutional order have been maintained despite historic vicissitudes without any foreign guarantor, and without any need for foreign intervention to save us from ourselves. This is more than can be said of Europe which had to be rescued repeatedly from its own culture, whose peaceful order is de facto a creation of the US, and whose security has been (and still is!) guaranteed by us. Yet reading the European press, it sounds as though we are retards who need a European (or UN) warden to keep us from straying. Pathetic! My concern is that persistent European antagonism will completely erode the goodwill that has traditionally existed in the US vis-a-vis Europe. The French have begun to recognize this and their diplomats are all over the US on charm offensives, yet the damage is lasting. An irreversible transatlantic fracture is noone's interest, yet the Europeans keep pounding at the US relentlessly.
So what you can do is -- don't take your own (political, media or cultural) leaders' word like it were the revealed truth, try to learn about the American perspective, develop a sense of appreciation that your and my freedom to have a peaceful and comfortable life (and incidentally, the ability to debate these things without fear) are true only because some people (more likely than not, Americans) somewhere are ready to do the things neither you nor I have the courage, determination or stomach to do.
Finally I recognize that not all Europeans are alike -- I know the Brits, the Dutch the Danes and (very few) others were less inclined to nibble at our heel, yet despite these exceprions, European sentiment is unmistakeable.
By the way if our planes soil your virginal, clean and oh-so-moral continent, we can probably do in-flight refueling. We have that technology, you know. So the Council of Europe can resume its moribund state, or as we say, go and f*ck itself.

4:42 pm  
Blogger gunther said...

Ok Anon, I'll try...mainly because you have obviously taken so much time over your own posts.

Regarding the first post:

Para.1 First off, torture is not a digital, two-state...

Of course there is a difference between sleep-depravation and tearing off people's limbs, but even the milder 'coercion' which is what we appear to be talking about concerns me. Mainly because I don't think that is what civilised countries do. This may be too simplistic, or not intellectual enough for you. Fine.

Also, and probably more importantly actually, I don't believe it works. Evidence given under torture or force is notoriously unreliable. The cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, also part of an anti-terrorism campaign, attest to that.

Para 2 Second, you are all worked up over instances in which Americans are the culprits...

I am anti-torture in general, and what goes on elsewhere is horrific. But I expect better of democratic nations, and the people who are given the duty to protect them. Possibly naive, but there you go.

Para 3 Third, we actually don't know whether information thus obtained is useful or not. At least I don't know...

Of course. And if it were to save lives in an immediate situation, and were the exception, I could probably accept it. But again, I have my doubts about the reliability of information obtained under duress...It also does not seem to be a exception, rather a systematic policy. Once again, I honestly don't understand how you defend values by undermining them.

Para 4 Fourth, although I am by far not a legal expert, it is unclear how the Geneva convention...

I always liked this one. We are fighting a "war" but we don't have to obey the rules of war because in the end it isn't really a war and they are not soldiers in any case. Does a uniform make a difference?

Fifth, it is axiomatic that intelligence agencies do things that your street cop can't do, otherwise..

With regards Iran...my original point was, if there is a perception that a nation is breaking international laws, rules, etc, it is going to be hard for that nation to then demand in other spheres that other nations stick to their international obligations. If the attitude is actually, "we do what is in our interest, regardless, and demand others do what we want because we are the strongest" then I just wish they would be honest about it.

Sixth, next time we try to put together a coalition of the willing, the willing will come

Well, of course. It all depends on who though, doesn't it.

Seventh...Sometimes it is important to signal that we mean business, lest people will take our polite ways as weakness and become emboldened.

Then why the secrecy? Why have secret interrogation centres and not big fat big ones and tell everyone: mess with us and look what happens? It is not going signal anything to anyone if you hide it.

As for your second post, I am not interested in getting involved in an US-European pissing match. Your previous post was interesting and well thought out. The second post was both patronising and bordering on the arrogant.

5:30 pm  
Blogger gunther said...

Apologies for the last comment Anon...but I get a bit wound up when I feel that us as 'Europeans' are being blindly led into anti-Americanism and that we need to open our eyes to the real world. Some of us do read all viewpoints and try and make their own minds up. I have read the different arguments - including yours - a still believe that certain forms of coercion are beneath a civilised nation. Maybe I didn't argue my point as well as I could but I am no Professor nor am I a professional journalist.

BTW - There is an interesting article in the Guardian (yes, yes, pinko leftie Euromedia) by Timothy Garten Ash that is very interesting on the issue of civil liberties and the war on terror. He ends with this quote:

It wasn't any of the CIA's covert assassinations or dirty tricks that won the cold war. It was the magnetic example of free, prosperous and law-abiding societies. That was worth a thousand nuclear bombs or stealth bombers. No weapon known to man is more powerful than liberty in law.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1644028,00.html

Looking forward to the next round :-)

6:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apologies accepted.

" I am no Professor nor am I a professional journalist."
Rest assured, I am an amateur, too. Sometimes journalists and academics get it wrong, too, so no sweat.

re: the Guardian being pinko leftie.
You sensed well, I generally don't enjoy reading the Guardian, yet try to refrain from 'pinko'-style epithets, sometimes succesfully. T Garten Ash is well know in the US for op-eds and articles on E Europe; didn't know he opposed the Iraq war, but regardless he has a point about the magnetic example of the freedom in the West. I suppose many Arabs want to live enjoying the same level of freedom. Comparisons with the Cold War only go so far, though. This is a new, differnet type of war, yet just like the cold one it may last a generation or two. So we better find a way to maintain the transatlantic community, 'cause our staying power is likely to be tested.

Remember how Ronald Reagan was vilified in the European media in the 1980's? While historians continue to argue (along their ideological biases) about his direct role in the demise of communism, I am of the opinion that his then critics appear now less than insightful. Some were naive, some were idelistic, some reflexively anti-American, some bought over by the Russians. Plus ca change...

" Ok Anon, I'll try...mainly because you have obviously taken so much time over your own posts."
It's great we can disagree, yet be civil about it.

I am not familiar with the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, so, won't comment.

"But I expect better of democratic nations, and the people who are given the duty to protect them. Possibly naive, but there you go."
I think most people in the West have profound, instinctive discomfort/revulsion against torture. As you may have noted, I have serious misgivings, too. I just feel the argument is too simple, too facile.

What if we don't have the luxury of the high moral ground, yet we have to make a choice? Thank God I was never put in this situation, but I think in this sentence you'll find much of the disagreement around coercion.

In my personal and thus by necessity limited experience, generally speaking such clear cut moral judgments are the privilege of sheltered people, who actually don't have to make such decisions (by extension, librarians are some of the most uncompromising ethicists I've ever met). If you descend from the ivory tower into the real (hence imperfect) world, suddenly confusing shades of gray pop up everywhere. Perhaps that's why business people, who are, by definition deal meakers and practitioners of reality (I am not a businessman) are rarely proponents of clear-cut high-brow moral theory (also perhaps that's why business people tend to go to jail more freqently than librarians). I am glad we can afford to hold such uncompromising views, though our judgment should perhaps be tempered by the realization that those pesky shades of gray are real, if you get close enough.

Likewise looking forward to the next one.

4:58 am  

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