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Abu Ghraib: US security fiasco

Human rights trampled in rush for worthless intelligence

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Opinion If the human rights debacle at Abu Ghraib teaches us anything - besides the routinely-forgotten lesson that people with guns and uniforms tend to go sadistic and feral unless observed openly and controlled rigidly - it teaches us that the global battle against terrorism is being waged by incompetents and fools.

The initial security blunder, of course, was invading Iraq in the first place. This was a spectacularly expensive and unnecessary diversion from the so-called war on terrorism. It was poor intelligence that brought us there in the first place. Poor intel led us to anticipate an easy campaign, and later led us to believe on several occasions that Saddam had been killed by "precision" air strikes that killed and mutilated scores of innocent civilians. Poor intel keeps us mired there now in an endless cycle of crisis management in place of strategy.

The wild scenes at Abu Ghraib have become emblems of all that is wrong with the Iraq campaign. But it is important to realize that they are also emblems of all that is wrong with the war on terrorism and the Bush administration's grasp of national security. Ham-fisted tactics are being employed by unqualified grunts, cocky CIA and military intelligence officers, and private Rent-a-Rambo contractors. This produces the tremendous amount of intelligence data that military bureaucrats demand, only most of it is rubbish.

Whatever you say

The most painfully obvious problem is that people subject to torture will say anything their tormentors wish to hear. Centuries ago, the Spaniards learned that if you get a fellow snug in the rack and surround him with grim adversaries, he'll accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior in an instant. Today, victims hauled off the streets by Iraqi police, whose motives may be little better than a desire to settle personal or political scores, are apt to invent all manner of insider details about Ba'athist plots and sleeper cells.

The traditional, time-proven use of torture is to extract false confessions from enemies who can then be condemned and executed by kangaroo courts. Torture is very good at getting people to swear to lies. That's why, throughout history, governments have done so much of it, and still do.

It's very bad at getting to the truth, however, which is what good intel is about. If your goal is to hang an innocent man, then torture is an expedient; he'll confess, eventually. But if your goal is to learn something you didn't already know, then you must use a different approach.

Intelligence sources need to be cultivated: that is, seduced, deceived or bribed, or, preferably, all of the above. Enemy organizations must be infiltrated, their movements observed, and their communications intercepted and analyzed. Hard work to be sure, but it pays real dividends. For example, Saddam himself was captured through good intel dependent on lavish bribery and decent connections with people on the ground. Torture had nothing to do with it. Twenty-five million dollars is what did the trick.

Patterns of failure

Acquiring useful intelligence, and interpreting it properly, require skill, which can be taught, and talent, which can't. Unfortunately, the 9/11 atrocity put the intelligence racket into immediate overdrive, with a "we need it yesterday" mentality. This ensured that the vast majority of MI, CIA, and special forces operators flooding the field would be amateurish and untalented, though tremendously eager and flush with patriotic hostility. Many thousands of Arab men have disappeared into secret CIA and special forces rat holes in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and Iraq, where they may languish for decades with no hope of any legal process to challenge accusations against themselves, or present evidence in their favor.

To some, this may seem fitting punishment for terrorist scum. But it's important to bear in mind that any reliable information these people might provide is highly perishable. Once a major player is captured, his compatriots will immediately begin altering their plans, so that when he finally does talk, he'll be talking about a plot that has either been called off or has been reconfigured drastically. Unless such information can be used quickly, it is valuable only as general background on the tactics of one's enemy -- assuming, of course, that any of it is truthful.

This new festival of human rights violations by the United States government is about revenge for 9/11, not about gathering useful intelligence. It is also about deterrence: it's a symbolic putting of heads on pikes near the city gates to discourage criminals. It is, quite simply, a terror tactic.

Saddam Hussein liked to torture his political enemies, and often mutilated them so that upon release they would become living emblems of the regime's core message: when you offend the government, you will regret it for the rest of your life. But his goal was to intimidate the populace, not to gather intelligence. He had a network of spies and sellouts to handle that business separately. Even he understood the difference between gathering intel and beating a confession out of some poor bugger. It's a pity that this distinction is lost on the Bush administration.

The American folly in emulating Saddam is not simply a matter of neglecting the hard, slow work of national security and intelligence gathering; it is, rather, a matter of sabotaging these efforts. The Medieval approach of throwing men into dungeons and tormenting them indefinitely is offending thousands of potential allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Indeed, it is pushing many who may have been straddling the fence firmly into the enemy camp.

Public relations

The fact that the US military's prisoner abuse has lately been revealed to the public is not the problem. The entire process is the problem. All of what's been going on has been known, suspected, or rumored throughout the Arab world for at least two years, especially in the regions most likely to produce useful sympathizers. No one, except the touchingly credulous American public, is surprised.

Meanwhile, the Washington spin machine has reinvented the affair at Abu Ghraib as a public relations problem for the United States, and the urge to see it as a matter of bad publicity has become a surprisingly bi-partisan folly. We've been warned by Democrats and Republicans alike that the chief problem is the perception of others: the widespread Arab outrage and consequent added danger to US troops from that outrage. Others fret about the loss of American prestige among allies and sympathetic foreigners.

Democrats have agonized about the loss of American face overseas while delighting in the loss of face for Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, which is sure to alienate a number of Bush voters in November. For Republicans, there has been no upside. They have struggled to paint the sadists at Abu Ghraib as a mere smattering of white-trash drifters operating independently, lest the military itself be seen as lacking discipline and virtuous leadership. And the terrorists are even nastier, many Republicans point out by way of excuse.

The politicization of who's nastier recently became surreal, as Republicans tried for about a week to use the decapitation by terrorists of Nicholas Berg as evidence that the evildoers are in fact meaner, and, even more absurdly, that this somehow justifies the torture at Abu Ghraib and numerous other US installations.

To date, there are over thirty known suspicious deaths among America's prisoners, with suffocation and beating suspected in many. Given a choice between six months of degradation -- of being painted with shit and forced to eat out of toilets and masturbate on camera, of being half-drowned for laughs and having dogs snap at your bits, and then finally being beaten to death by some Rambo wannabe on the one hand, and of suffering for fifteen or twenty seconds before expiring as Berg did on the other hand, any sane person would opt for the latter in a heartbeat.

Abu Ghraib has become political fodder, and in all cases, the emphasis has been on public perceptions and the impact of these perceptions on American prestige, ambitions, and collective self-esteem. As usual, the Washington political machine and mainstream press have grasped only the most superficial aspects of what's going on.

The Abu Ghraib disgrace is not a public relations problem. It is not merely a "stain" on the American people. It is, rather, the inevitable outcome of a breakdown in military discipline brought about by the utter failure of Bush administration strategy and doctrine in the war on terrorism. The US intelligence apparatus was let off the leash and told to get "results," which it has been doing with extraordinary relish. But you simply cannot torture your way to victory in a conflict where the enemy is mobile, dispersed, and loosely affiliated in ad hoc arrangements. You need accurate, up-to-date intelligence and friends on the ground, not a lot of terrified taxi drivers and unemployed bachelors confessing to ludicrous schemes and grassing out their neighbors to save themselves.

Big and bold and wrong

The Bush administration's entire national security strategy is a fiasco in which Iraq serves merely as a metaphor. For the Bushies, politics are the only reality, and the war on terrorism is the crown jewel of their political apparatus. There was a desire, inspired by re-election ambitions, to stage something really big in this so-called war, to dazzle the public, and to position Bush as the "strong leader" that his campaign boilerplate constantly insists, against all evidence, that he really is.

Invading Iraq was big enough, and presumed easy enough, to satisfy the basic political requirements. That the Iraq campaign has actually undermined the war on terror is of no consequence in the Bush calculus. It looked like a mighty blow against the forces of evil, which is all that he and his entourage thought necessary.

It's instructive to recall the intelligence manipulation that sold the war. On 26 August 2002, Dick Cheney announced that there is "no doubt that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction". Worse, Saddam Hussein had "resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons", the Veep insisted. It followed that invading Iraq was plain self defense.

We now know that this was untrue. But the basis for these lies was incredibly bad intelligence from several dubious sources, including a corrupt Iraqi carpetbagger named Ahmed Chalabi who has long imagined himself the next ruler of Iraq, so long as Saddam Hussein could be eliminated for him by a powerful force, like the US military, say.

Chalabi played Iago to Cheney's Othello, and rather well at that. He and his crew of silk-shirt opportunists and hustlers, called the Iraqi National Congress, told the Bush administration what they wished to hear. The Chalabi crew nourished the Bushies' fears, exploited their ignorance, aroused their ambitions, and supplied fictional intelligence which the Bush administration used to persuade the public that a bankrupt, defenseless Iraq, crippled by a decade of economic sanctions, had somehow blossomed into the most dangerous nation on Earth.

The Chalabi fiction worked because US intelligence agencies were not competent enough to find hard evidence to refute it, or were not courageous enough to leak any that they had found. It worked also because the Bush administration's understanding of intelligence and national security is so patently cynical that all contradictory reports were suppressed, rather than evaluated honestly. The Bushies liked the way Chalabi's sound-bites would play in the press, so they used them.

Now Chalabi is in disgrace. His offices and house have been raided and his outfit cut off from the $340,000 per-month pension that the Pentagon brass had kept it on as a reward for lying to them. There are even hints that he may be an Iranian double agent who funneled sensitive US intelligence to Tehran, and Iranian disinformation to Washington.

Despite all the intelligence debacles since 9/11, the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to accept responsibility for its blunders and lies. Indeed, White House spin-meisters have stage-managed Junior so skillfully that a majority of Americans still believe national security to be his strong suit, rather than his Achilles heel.

Of course, the Bush administration's true strong suit is public relations, and little more. A war that had been sold as an urgent matter of self-defense has been reinvented to fit the Bush version of reality. It was a humanitarian mission, we are now told, meant to liberate the Iraqi people from an autocratic minority leadership that tended to imprison citizens indiscriminately and torture them, propped up by heavy weapons and mass violence. Which, of course, is a spot-on description of the American occupation from the point of view of virtually every Iraqi.

The war in Iraq illustrates that the Bushies are crassly cynical about national security, willing to pervert it for political aims, as well as insatiable consumers of the lousiest possible intelligence so long as it fortifies their delusions of empire and amplifies their tough-on-terror bluster.

Abu Ghraib illustrates that they prefer it this way. ®

Thomas C Greene is the author of Computer Security for the Home and Small Office, a complete guide to system hardening, online anonymity, encryption, and data hygiene for Windows and Linux.

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