Last Saturday, May 2nd, we were reading about the possibility that the Obama administration might revive the military commissions that candidate Obama had so reviled.
Today, Saturday May 9th, we again see more on the subject. Could the administration be any more obvious in their attempts to “hide” this story?
The Obama administration is preparing to revive the system of military commissions established at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, under new rules that would offer terrorism suspects greater legal protections, government officials said.
The rules would block the use of evidence obtained from coercive interrogations, tighten the admissibility of hearsay testimony and allow detainees greater freedom to choose their attorneys, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
So apparently it really wasn’t the commissions themselves, but how they were run. Of course they were run by rules that Congress had put in place. Yeah, you can figure out the rest.
And the only change I can see is the elimination of some evidence, tightning of the rules on other evidence and the ability to choose their attorney (to a point).
Yet, in the big scheme of things, it ensures that secret testimony, exposure of which so concerned the previous administration, will remain secret. Yes, that’s a good thing.
But, as the Obama administration begins to reinvent the wheel (even though it will claim that these military commissions aren’t the same as the previous military commissions – a bit like saying a Ford isn’t a Chevy. They’re still both cars) I keep remembering a very sure candidate proclaiming:
“By any measure, our system of trying detainees has been an enormous failure.”
The Obama administration is seeking a 90 day extension on the 120 day extension previously imposed on military commissions. They would be moved to American soil (given the ruling by SCOTUS that doesn’t mean as much as it would have previously). But by all appearances, they will be pretty much the very same thing that candidate Obama said was unacceptable and an “enormous failure”. In the end, it appears, it has just been justice delayed (another reason he was against them).
Of course the real critics of such commissions (those whose opposition wasn’t strictly political in nature) are not happy:
“This is an extraordinary development, and it’s going to tarnish the image of American justice again,” said Tom Parker, a counterterrorism specialist at Amnesty International.
Yeah, well he won you know Tom, and with that, he reserves the right to throw issues under the bus if necssary, especially when it becomes clear that he had no idea about the subject he was condemning. And as an aside – I suspect that the slight differences in the commissions listed above will be enough for the fevered left to roll over and accept these military commissions as “OK”.
One of the things I try to consistently feature here at QandO is the depth of intrusion of the federal government into our daily lives. Talk about “mission creep”. There’s little that we do any more that doesn’t seem to involve the government looking over our shoulder and I, frankly, don’t welcome that sort of monitoring or intrusion.
So if you’re planning on selling your kids old books (or anything else that a kid under 12 might use) and they haven’t been “tested” first, you’re liable to a $100,000 fine. Now I know you’re reading this and saying, “no way. Our government would be that intrusive”.
I guess the best way to counter that is with the CPSC’s own words:
This handbook will help sellers of used products identify types of potentially hazardous products that could harm children or others. CPSC’s laws and regulations apply to anyone who sells or distributes consumer products. This includes thrift stores, consignment stores, charities, and individuals holding yard sales and flea markets.
The next line of defense for those who support this level of intrusion, once that level of intrusion has been exposed in the government’s own words, is “well, how would they enforce it”?
It’s not a bad argument (the answer is selectively), but it misses the real point.
Obviously, it’s unlikely the CPSA goons are going to bust up your yard sale. But putting out a detailed booklet that reserves the right to do so is hardly encouraging about where the implementation of this legislation is heading.
It is about precedent. And, it’s about acceptance. When both are established, it doesn’t require much in the way of the imagination to realize that like any entity which seeks to increase its power, government will soon attempt to stretch the envelope just a little further (further precedent/acceptance).
Wash, rinse, repeat.
This guy was a Constitutional Law professor?
Yesterday, Obama laid out these requirements for the replacement for Justice Souter:
I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives — whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.
I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes. I will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role.
Jennifer Rubin, at Commentary, makes the following point:
The making of laws, which is a legislative function, is all about “the daily realities of people’s lives — whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.” Federal judges decide what those laws mean and whether they conflict with the Constitution.
So it would seem that, as with many on the left, Obama is seeking someone who would be more comfortable in Congress and would certainly be seen as a “activist” justice appointed to legislate from the bench.
Rubin also deftly identifies the real meaning of Obama’s use of the word “empathy” :
You see, empathy is a code word for favoring criminal defendants, plaintiffs, labor and other groups which happen to match up with the liberal policy agenda. It’s a peculiar sort of empathy, otherwise known as bias for litigants based on their identity rather than the merit of their claims.
I believe she’s exactly right – what Obama has outlined as his requirements for the position is a liberal’s wet dream come true but completely confuses the role of the court, judges and legislators to the detriment of the citizens of the United States.
Unfortunately, due to their own failings, about all Republicans can do is, as Martin McPhillips said, whoop, holler and dance around the rim of the volcano for a while. That’s a pity, because given the “requirements”, this and subsequent appointments to the SCOTUS may be critical to our survival as a relatively free people.
Sometimes, watching this circus of the Obama administration, you just have to shake your head and laugh a bit, even if the laughter is rueful:
The Obama administration is moving toward reviving the military commission system for prosecuting Guantánamo detainees, which was a target of critics during the Bush administration, including Mr. Obama himself.
Officials said the first public moves could come as soon as next week, perhaps in filings to military judges at the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, outlining an administration plan to amend the Bush administration’s system to provide more legal protections for terrorism suspects.
Continuing the military commissions in any form would probably prompt sharp criticism from human rights groups as well as some of Mr. Obama’s political allies because the troubled system became an emblem of the effort to use Guantánamo to avoid the American legal system.
The more this crew gets into the weeds concerning Gitmo, the more they seem to validate all the moves Bush made.
I’m sure it’s a bit maddening for them.
Officials who work on the Guantánamo issue say administration lawyers have become concerned that they would face significant obstacles to trying some terrorism suspects in federal courts. Judges might make it difficult to prosecute detainees who were subjected to brutal treatment or for prosecutors to use hearsay evidence gathered by intelligence agencies.
That was the Bush administration argument for some time. Congress passed legislation to enable it, the SCOTUS shot it down and told them how to fix it and Congress did, only to see SCOTUS change its mind and shoot it down again.
And, of course, that made it very easy to denounce from the campaign trail. But now the reality of governing intrudes:
Obama administration officials — and Mr. Obama himself — have said in the past that they were not ruling out prosecutions in the military commission system. But senior officials have emphasized that they prefer to prosecute terrorism suspects in existing American courts. When President Obama suspended Guantánamo cases after his inauguration on Jan. 20, many participants said the military commission system appeared dead.
But in recent days a variety of officials involved in the deliberations say that after administration lawyers examined many of the cases, the mood shifted toward using military commissions to prosecute some detainees, perhaps including those charged with coordinating the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The more they look at it,” said one official, “the more commissions don’t look as bad as they did on Jan. 20.”
Heh … what a surprise.
Administration officials said Friday that some detainees would be prosecuted in federal courts and noted that Mr. Obama had always left open the possibility of using military commissions.
… is pure and unadulterated BS.
Still, during the presidential campaign Mr. Obama criticized the commissions, saying that “by any measure our system of trying detainees has been an enormous failure,” and declaring that as president he would “reject the Military Commissions Act.”
But according to both Sec. Gates and AG Holder, military commissions are still very much on the table, because, as Holder said:
“It may be difficult for some of those high-value detainees to be tried in a normal federal court.”
Gee — I wonder who else’s administration said that?
An moment of sanity prevailed in the Senate today:
For the second time in two years, a provision to allow bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages died in the Senate today, handing the Obama administration a significant defeat in its plans for arresting the foreclosure crisis.
Supporters argued the measure would keep 1.7 million borrowers in their homes, but it ultimately foundered in the face of fierce financial industry and Republican opposition. The bankruptcy modification provision, which was offered an amendment to a broader housing bill, failed by a vote of 45 to 51.
I love how this is reported by the WaPo. The measure failed because of ‘fierce financial industry and Republican opposition?”
Apparently it failed because 14 Democratic Senators said “no”.
Of course, passage of such a measure would make legal contracts in this country subject to review by the courts and arbitrarily changed based on political concerns. Certainly, in this case, such power is only being given for changing mortgage amounts – but as we all know, precedent is what courts operate under, and such a precedent would just as certainly be used to attempt to give the court similar power with other types of contracts.
It’s a phenomenally bad idea, but one you can expect to see attempted again and again, as promised by Dick Durbin:
“I’ll be back. I’m not going to quit on this,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who sponsored the measure.
“At some point the Senators in this chamber will decide the bankers shouldn’t write the agenda for the United States Senate. At some point the people in this chamber will decide the people we represent are not the folks working in the big banks, but the folks struggling to make a living and struggling to keep a decent home.”
You’ve got to love the populist rhetoric and the absolute misrepresentation of what he and those that were trying to get this monstrosity passed were attempting. A fundamental change in how this country has operated since its inception. If courts can arbitrarily change the terms of a contract for social/political reasons, we’re doomed. And that’s precisely what Durbin and his ilk are proposing.
Unfortunately I have no confidence that he won’t manage, at some future time, to push this piece of legislation through. But at the moment, it’s where it needs to be – in the virtual garbage heap of bad legislation.
Patterico WLS, posting at Petterico’s “Jury” blog points out that, despite all the calls for prosecuting “former Bush officials” over the torture memos and the actions taken under their aegis, he wonders, as an actual prosecutor, who would be charged with a crime, and what, exactly, the crime would be.
In mulling over the news of the past few days, I’m curious as to what the critics of the Bush Administration see as plausible criminal charges against the officials who were responsible for the drafting/authorizaiton [sic] of the “Torture” memos.
It would be one thing to actually prosecute the CIA officials involved in carrying out the interrogations…[b]ut they would likely have the time-honored defense of “advice of counsel” which works to negate the mens rea (”guilty mind) necessary to establish knowing criminal conduct. When the top law enforcement officials of the US government tell another component of the US government that the conduct they are proposing to carry out on behalf of the government is not prohibited by statute, it’s exceedingly difficult — if not impossible — to mount a successful prosecution against any government official who acted in accordance with the advice…
Prosecuting the officials who offered the advice is a different question. But what would be the charge? It can’t be “Torture” under the statute — they didn’t do anything. They simply responded in their official capacity to a question raised by another governmental entity… Why is the ANALYSIS of the specific technique described in the memos — concluding it would not fall within Sec. 2340 — wrong?
Fair questions indeed.
The officials who wrote the memos were acting as lawyers providing legal advice over the meaning of a statute. Perhaps that advice was wrong. But is providing an erroneous legal opinion a crime? If so, what, exactly, would the crime be? You would have to prove that the advice was completely and knowingly concocted from whole cloth and/or that the concocted legal advice was part of conspiracy to commit torture. In that case, you’d have to find evidence of specific collusion between the CIA and DOJ to knowingly concoct spurious justifications.
Absent such evidence, all you have is lawyers providing legal advice that the current administration doesn’t like. In that case, I don’t see what the prosecutable offense is.
Taking it further, the CIA officials who actually conducted the torture have a very good defense, namely, that the formal legal advice they received from the government’s top lawyers at the DOJ was that the specific techniques they used fell outside the meaning of §2340. In that case, they cannot have known they were committing a crime, but rather, they believed they were, on the advice of counsel, acting entirely within the law. So, unless there’s evidence that the interrogators went off half-cocked and began using non-approved techniques in the questioning, it’s difficult to see what the crime would be on the part of the interrogators themselves.
With the above in mind, it’s difficult to construct any other scenarios in which any of these of officials are prosecuted without it becoming, in effect, a criminal prosecution for partisan policy differences.
Whatever else that might be, it is not the Rule of Law as it is commonly understood.
Rep. Jane Harman , the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.
Harman was recorded saying she would “waddle into” the AIPAC case “if you think it’ll make a difference,” according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript … In exchange for Harman’s help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win.
Seemingly wary of what she had just agreed to, according to an official who read the NSA transcript, Harman hung up after saying, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”
The fact that Harman was recorded via an NSA wiretap has some in the blogosphere declaring a victory for irony:
There’s a large poetic justice factor here in that Harman has been a big defender of potentially abusive surveillance so she doesn’t, personally, have much to stand on as an opponent of abusive surveillance when applied to her.
Thinking about that further reenforces (sic) the point that selective, unaccountable surveillance is very dangerous. A president could do a great deal to gin up pretexts to wiretap members of congress and blackmail them even without the members doing anything unusually egregious. But it’s also a reminder that we have a political system that’s substantially powered by a kind of systematic, quasi-legalized bribery.
Matthew Yglesias’ self-righteousness is supposedly justified by the fact that Rep. Harman backed the Bush Administration’s terrorist surveillance program, fondly remembered by the left as the inappropriately named “domestic warrantless wiretapping” program. However, Harman was not caught on tape by that program, but instead via a regular, old court-approved wiretap:
It’s true that allegations of pro-Israel lobbyists trying to help Harman get the chairmanship of the intelligence panel by lobbying and raising money for Pelosi aren’t new.
They were widely reported in 2006, along with allegations that the FBI launched an investigation of Harman that was eventually dropped for a “lack of evidence.”
What is new is that Harman is said to have been picked up on a court-approved NSA tap directed at alleged Israel covert action operations in Washington.
Nevertheless, thanks to Harman’s transgressions against the anti-war/anti-Bush left, in the form of her support of anti-terrorism activities, she is not getting any sympathy from Democrats. Which is a shame because it doesn’t necessarily appear that she’s done anything wrong here.
Because the article provides a paucity of specific information, I’m hard-pressed to figure out what Harman’s illegal action could have been. All the allegations are to unnamed sources, and there is no indication of what the supposed illegal activity was. The insinuation is that, based on earlier reports, Harman would help out AIPAC in return for the lobbying group raising money for Pelosi, who would then show her appreciation by promoting Harman to the Chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Yet the facts as alleged don’t even support that theory.
First of all, there is nothing wrong with Harman “waddling into” the AIPAC case merely to advocate for a lighter sentence for the Israeli defendant accused of spying. It may not have been smart, nor exactly savory, but it would not have been illegal as far as I know. If instead Harman had tried to use her official powers to alter the outcome someway (which is not alleged), I could see wher there may some problems. Merely making a case for a lighter sentence does not even begin to rise to that level, however.
Furthermore, I’m not so sure that there is any real quid pro quo here. If after Harman “waddled into” the spy case, AIPAC went to Nancy Pelosi and said “that Harman chick is one swell gal! You should promote to the head of Senate intelligence panel, or something,” what would be the problem? Does AIPAC not have the freedom of speech to say they like one congressman over another? Some might think that AIPAC is a foreign lobbyist firm (it’s not), and thus should be restricted from certain activities with respect to supporting political appointments, but that’s not true. Foreign lobbyists are more restricted when it comes to elections, but no lobbyist is prevented from advocating for the appointment of an already elected official to committee assignment or the like. So, again, based on the information provided, I’m just not sure what the charge is here.
Interestingly enough, if there is anyone who should be worried about this latest report (assuming any of it is true), it is Alberto Gonzales. According to Stein’s article, other than the fact that Harman was caught on tape, the only other new news here is that “contrary to reports that the Harman investigation was dropped for ‘lack of evidence,’ it was Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush’s top counsel and then attorney general, who intervened to stop the Harman probe.”
Why? Because, according to three top former national security officials, Gonzales wanted Harman to be able to help defend the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about break in The New York Times and engulf the White House.
As for there being “no evidence” to support the FBI probe, a source with first-hand knowledge of the wiretaps called that “bull****.”
The identity of the “suspected Israeli agent” could not be determined with certainty, and officials were extremely skittish about going beyond Harman’s involvement to discuss other aspects of the NSA eavesdropping operation against Israeli targets, which remain highly classified.
But according to the former officials familiar with the transcripts, the alleged Israeli agent asked Harman if she could use any influence she had with Gonzales, who became attorney general in 2005, to get the charges against the AIPAC officials reduced to lesser felonies.
Harman responded that Gonzales would be a difficult task, because he “just follows White House orders,” but that she might be able to influence lesser officials, according to an official who read the transcript.
According to the rest of the story, the Justice Department and the CIA were ready to conduct a full scale investigation of Harman because of the transcripts, but Gonzales stepped in and stopped it because he needed her help:
According to two officials privy to the events, Gonzales said he “needed Jane” to help support the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was about to be exposed by the New York Times.
Harman, he told Goss, had helped persuade the newspaper to hold the wiretap story before, on the eve of the 2004 elections. And although it was too late to stop the Times from publishing now, she could be counted on again to help defend the program
He was right.
On Dec. 21, 2005, in the midst of a firestorm of criticism about the wiretaps, Harman issued a statement defending the operation and slamming the Times, saying, “I believe it essential to U.S. national security, and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities.”
Pelosi and Hastert never did get the briefing.
And thanks to grateful Bush administration officials, the investigation of Harman was effectively dead.
The problem with this version of the story is that it fails to allege what wrongdoing Harman was being accused of. Lots of “sources familiar with the transcript” are quoted, although none are named, and not a single person identified which statute or regulation Harman allegedly violated. Why is that?
Of course, regardless of whether Harman had actually committed any crime, if Gonzales called the dogs off for political reasons (as the story asserts), then he has a problem. I don’t think it would be obstruction of justice per se since, after all, he was head of the DoJ. Short-circuiting a criminal investigation for political gain, however, is exactly the sort of use of public office that Harman appears to be accused of in the Stein story.
At this point it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell exactly what happened. There are tiny whiffs of spice conjured up here there, but no real meat on any of the bones. Stein even admits at the end of his story that none of the supposed gains bargained for were actually realized:
Ironically, however, nothing much was gained by it.
The Justice Department did not back away from charging AIPAC officials Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman for trafficking in classified information.
Gonzales was engulfed by the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal.
And Jane Harman was relegated to chairing a House Homeland Security subcommittee.
All of which calls the veracity of the story into question. I don’t know what actually went down, and apparently neither does anyone else whose willing to be named. Until there are some solid facts produced and names put behind them, this whole “scandal” looks pretty contrived in my opinion. Which really just leaves two questions: (1) Why this old story now, and (2) Cui bono? Your guess is as good as mine.
The over-reaching isn’t only confined to the federal government. My latest Examiner column.
Paralleling the song, the answer should be “absolutely nothing” with a testosterone laced “Huhn!” thrown in for good measure. Personally, I have my doubts.
This is not a new topic here at QandO, as my esteemed brethren have weighed in on numerous occasions, each time settling on an emphatic “No! Torture is not acceptable.” While it would be difficult, if not impossible, to put into words the esteem that I hold for my blog brothers, I have to say that I disagree. That may be because I have never been in the military, nor been subjected to anything close to the sort of forced life-or-death decision making that breeds a camaraderie distinct unto itself. And it may be because I have the luxury (thanks to said camaraderie) to simply ponder these things at my leisure. Just the same, I cannot say that I am opposed to torture of our nation’s enemies, nor can I honestly say that any experience will change my opinion.
First, the reason I even broach the subject: release of “secret torture memos” (link added):
President Barack Obama’s administration said it would Thursday release four memos, with sections blacked out, covering the Bush administration’s justification for CIA interrogations of terror suspects … The memos were authored by Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury, who at the time were lawyers for the then-president George W. Bush’s Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel.
The memos provided the legal framework for a program of interrogations of “war on terror” detainees that included techniques widely regarded as torture such as waterboarding, in which a detainee is made to feel like he is drowning.
I have not read the memos, and I probably won’t. The sole reason being that I’ve slogged through enough of these legal documents to have a pretty good idea of what’s in there, and to know that there is plenty of qualifying language to mitigate whatever damning quotes are eventually culled therefrom. In point of fact, these “memos” are little more than legal research projects specifically drafted so as to provide both the underlying judicial framework for the issue at hand, and the best guess at how the current policy might fit into that framework under certain factual parameters. They are merely legalese for “this is what the law says, and this is how the policy may not run afoul of that law.”
Leaving aside definitional problems (does being confined with an insect constitute “torture”?), let’s just assume that what the memos described was not only policy, but a policy that was carried out. Why is that a bad thing?
Tom Maguire provides some thoughts:
IN OUR NAME: The newly released torture memos are cold-blooded and clearly client-driven – the lawyers knew the answers they wanted and reasoned backwards. Quick thoughts:
1. The US concern about actually harming someone comes through on every page. In fact, at one point (p. 36 of .pdf) the legal team wonders whether it would be illegal for the interrogators to threaten or imply that conditions for the prisoner could get even worse unless they cooperate. I suppose these memos will provide welcome reassurance of our underlying civility to both the world community and the terrorists in it.
2. There are some fascinating legal gymnastics on display. My favorite might be on p. 39, where we learn that Article 16 of the Geneva Convention does not apply because the CIA is operating in areas not under US jurisdiction. Nor do the protections of the US Constitution extend to aliens being held prisoner under US control but abroad outside of US jurisdiction.
However, another contender for the “It Would Take A Lawyer To Think Of This” prize is the argument that waterboarding does not constitute a threat of imminent death because, even though the prisoner thinks they are drowning, they are not, and anyway, the mental effect is transitory and does not result in long term mental harm – call it the “Psych!” defense. (The absence of long term harm comes from the experience of US sailors and soldiers passing through SERE school in the service of their country; whether a jihadist waterboarded by the Great Satan would also rebound psychologically is not explored here). I would think that a game of Russian Roulette played with a fake bullet might pass all these requirements other than the SERE experience.
Tom’s comparison to Russian Roulette intrigues me because I think it is the perfect analogy. I’ve written before that, in my opinion, waterboarding crosses the legal line because of the way the law is written. I’ve never been convinced that the technique crosses any moral boundary because I’m not so sure that it’s any different than placing a caterpillar in the same cell as a man who’s deathly afraid of caterpillars. Playing on the mind’s fears is part and parcel of both manipulation and torture, but does not mean that the two are equivalent. Morally speaking, therefore, I have doubts that techniques akin to waterboarding amount to “torture” per se.
But assuming that they do, again, what exactly is the problem? Aficionados of the subject will say that torture is ineffectual. Yet, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed would appear to be a test case in contrast to that wisdom, as would the fact that our own soldiers are routinely informed that “everyone breaks eventually.” Moreover, if it really is ineffectual, why does it continue to happen? Clearly, somebody somewhere is getting results.
Even leaving aside the efficacy vel non of torture, does it hold such moral deficiency as to abandon it altogether? Here I plead ignorance because, in my mind, I view enemies to my country as enemies to my family. By that I mean, if anyone were to hurt, or even threaten to hurt, a member of my family, I can’t even begin to express the unholy hell I would visit upon such a cretin. When I view A Time To Kill I can’t help but think that that the murderous, rapist scum got off too lightly (which, of course, was the point of Grisham’s characterization). Other than the fear of anything nefarious happening to my children, my greatest fear is of what I would try to do to those who hurt them or even suggested that they might do so. I have the same feeling when it comes to anyone who seeks to destroy my country and her citizens with whom I’ve (gratefully) cast my lot. My morality directs me to say that what any of you visit upon the least of my fellow countrymen, I will repay you a thousandfold and more. That may be my Irish bravado speaking, but it speaks as honestly as any man possibly can.
So I am left with the conundrum of how my actions in response to an attack on my family should be any different than an attack on my country, and why I should feel any differently about the perpetrators of such actions, whether they have followed through with their plans or not. I understand that my response — i.e. the sanctioning of “torture” — may not be entirely rational. Indeed, if a firetruck runs over my child while rushing to save an orphanage, I would feel no less grief, and probably wish an equal amount of horror upon the transgressors as I would upon 19 hijackers who murdered 3,000 of of my fellow citizens. In fact, probably more. There is nothing particularly rational in such a response. But I have little confidence that, should I have the chance to avoid either disaster, I would refrain from running the perpetrators’ minds through a psychological cheese grater if there was even a small chance that the disaster could be avoided. That may be little more than a testament to my weakness as a moral human being, but I think that I’m not alone.
Torture, however defined, is not a pretty thing. I make no bones about having zero regard for my enemies (i.e. those who want to destroy my country a la 9/11). If subjecting them to extreme psychological and/or physical discomfort, or the threat of such, will prevent further attacks, then I confess that I am happy to reward those monsters with the penalty they richly deserve. I accept that I may be wrong in such thinking, but I don’t find that case has been successfully made as of yet. Indeed, I defy you to take this test and declare that “torture” can never be acceptable.
The ultimate point is, torture is a horrible thing and should be avoided if at all humanly possible. But, unfortunately, we live in a world where the “humanly possible” has limits. In those cases, why is it that torture should be off limits? Is there a rational reason? I’m willing to be convinced, but I have my doubts.
If you look at the big picture, you realize that the pirates off the Somali coast are more of a nuisance than a problem. Estimates are that 25,000 to 30,000 ships per year transit the Gulf of Aden (headed for the Suez Canal) or the east coast of Somalia. The bulk, of course, go through Suez. The successful hijackings over a multi-year period have been very low in comparison. In 2007, for instance, there were 12 successful hijackings.
The area of ocean in which these events take place cover approximately a million square miles. Here’s a great map (pdf) which shows the areas and the incidents through 2007. Obviously the pirates can pick and choose where to strike while the navies of the world can only react and hope they are close enough to prevent the hijacking. That was demonstrated quite clearly in the latest hijacking of the US ship in which Capt. Phillips was taken hostage. It took hours for the USS Bainbridge to arrive on scene and the rescue was only effected because the skiffs the pirates had used had been destroyed and they were forced to use a lifeboat.
20 countries are now concentrating naval assets within the area, most concentrated in the Gulf of Aden. A coalition of nations commanded by a US admiral constitute Task Force 151 which is strictly an anti-piracy task force. TF 151 operates in the Gulf. China and Russia have also committed naval assets to the task but do so outside TF 151. They coordinate with the TF but only escort their country’s flagged ships.
With the amount of traffic which transits the area, it is obvious that no navy has the assets to escort all of the ships.
But there is a tool through which the TF can coordinate its efforts and ensure those ships which are most likely to be attacked have a safe passage. One of those tools is a website. There vessels transiting the area can register their vessel and alert the TF of their time of arrival in the area in which hijacking is most likely. There are also tips for the masters of vessels transiting the area, maritime intelligence reports and alerts.
Obviously with that number of ships transiting the area, some are more susceptable to attack than others. What type of ship are the pirates looking for? According to Admiral Terry McKnight, (pdf) the TF 151 commander, they’re looking for ships traveling under 15 knots and with a low freeboard with aids boarding. As Adm. McKnight says, those sorts of ships seem to scream “pirate, me, pirate me”. If the TF knows ships which fit this template are going to be transiting the region, they can arrange to group them with other ships, track their movement and arrange for that movement at a time when the pirates are less likely to be out hunting.
The pirates have also adapted their tactics, especially off the eastern shore in the Indian Ocean. As shipping has moved further and further off shore to avoid the skiffs employed to board them, the pirates began using “mother ships”. Those are larger ships which carry a number of skiffs and 10 to 20 pirates. This enabled the pirates to go further and further off shore to attack shipping.
As you’ll note on the map linked above, there are three major areas on the eastern shore (to include Mogadishu) where the pirates seem to be concentrated, one on the tip of the Horn of Africa and one on the north shore of Somalia on the Gulf of Aden. Admiral McKnight said that “99.99 percent” of the pirates they’ve run across have been exclusively Somali.
The question, however, is would a land-based military mission which attacked these centers of piracy successfully end the attempted hijackings?
In my opinion, probably not. To date the risk to reward has been so low that there is a seemingly endless supply of would-be pirates. And, as long as shipping companies are willing to pay the ransom when one of their ships is hijacked, it will, in relative terms, remain a fairly low-risk way of making huge sums of money. Shipping companies know the numbers and recognize that the real chance of hijacking is very low, relatively speaking, and seem to prefer to pay off the hijackers if their ship ends up hijacked. And, of course, they’re all insured, so that is also part of the equation.
While we may clean out the nests of pirates for a short time if we mount a military operation, I find it hard to believe that others won’t step in, adapt to the new reality (perhaps by moving their base of operations frequently) and again head out into the Gulf or Indian Ocean in search of easy prey.
Punitive military operations may be satisfying in some way but in reality I would think their effect would be a very short term one. Just like war against insurgents, war against the pirates will see a constant adaptation by the pirates to any tactics the military might use. But this isn’t a military problem – it is a failed state problem. The problems ashore – a failed government, abject poverty, and few choices for gainful and legal employment – are what must be solved if we hope to see piracy in that area defeated. Until they are solved, there will be plenty of eager replacements for whatever casualties we might inflict on the current pirates, and the attacks on shipping will continue.
Meanwhile, what can be done to make attacks on the high seas less likely? Well the obvious way is to arm the merchantmen. But for various and sundry reasons, most shipping companies don’t want to do that. They range from liability concerns, to concerns about essentially untrained crewman with weapons to concerns about gun laws in the various countries the ships go. We know there aren’t enough naval ships to escort each merchant ship, so options are limited. Some merchantmen have armed their ships with high-pressure water cannons which have succesfully thwarted a few pirate attacks.
What I expect to see offered soon, perhaps by Blackwater, now known as Xe, is rent-a-gun teams. For those that want them, a team is air-lifted to the ship as it enters the pirate zone and taken back off by air as they successfully exit the zone. I’m sure there are some legal and liability concerns there as well, but it may be one of those times when showing up at the rail and pointing a few automatic weapons at a very vulnerable skiff below you would be enough to disuade the would be pirates from attempting to board.
Food for thought.