Connecting the Dots: Torture, Iraq, and the Creation of Propaganda

So given that the Bush Administration was repeatedly advised that torture was not only illegal but an unreliable way to gather intelligence… why did they pursue it anyway?

I’m not usually much of a “plotting men in smoke- filled rooms” conspiracy theorist. In fact, I’ve written against the reflexive tendency to assume conspiracy. I’ve argued that conspiracy theories are often unfalsifiable, with no possible evidence that could persuade the theorist that they’re mistaken… thus making them articles of faith rather than conspiracies. And I tend to agree with the old saw that we shouldn’t ascribe to malevolence what can be ascribed to stupidity. Conscious, calculated malevolence is just not that common.

But I’ve been following the unfolding story about torturing detainees under the Bush administration. I’ve been connecting the dots. And I’m being led to a disturbing conclusion — even more disturbing in some ways than the revelations about the torture itself.

First, here are the known facts — the dots that I’m connecting.

Hussein bin laden
It was revealed last week the reason — or one of the reasons — that the Bush administration pursued the torture of terrorism suspects. The reason was that they weren’t finding evidence of a connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq (a connection for which, to this date, absolutely no evidence has been found)… so they pursued torture to get that information.

It was revealed — for the bezillionth time — that the Bush administration pursued the torture program against the best advice of multiple military and intelligence advisors… advisors who warned that torture not only is illegal, but produces bad, unreliable intelligence. (What with the “people will say anything to make the torture stop” thing.)

And it was revealed that the U.S. torture program was based, in large part, on the SERE program, the U.S. military program that subjected our own soldiers to torture in order to train them to resist it. Specifically, these were torture techniques used by Communists in the Korean War. More specifically, these were torture techniques used by Communists in the Korean War, not to elicit useful intelligence, but to elicit propaganda — to elicit confessions from prisoners of things that they hadn’t actually done.

Let me say that again. These were torture techniques that were known to produce bad information… and that were used, not in spite of this fact, but because of it.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Doesn’t it seem as if the interrogation and torture program of the Bush Administration was being pursued, not to gather intelligence about possible terrorist activities, but to produce propaganda?

Doesn’t it seem as if the torture program was being pursued to elicit a confession about a connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq… regardless of whether that connection actually existed?

Doesn’t it seem as if bad information — far from being a risk the Bush administration was willing to take — was actually the whole frakking point?

The revelations of frequent, repeated tortures would seem to confirm this hypothesis. When you waterboard someone 183 times in a month, you’re not going to get any more information than you got the first 182 times. You’re not doing it to gather intelligence. You’re doing it to control them. You’re doing to get them to say, and do, exactly what you want them to.

And what the torturers wanted them to do was to say that there was a connection between Al-Qaeda and Iraq.

So we could use that as propaganda.

Now. Since I do tend to be skeptical of conspiracy theories, and since I think it’s important for said theories to be falsifiable hypotheses and not simply unshakable articles of faith, I think it’s important to say upfront what evidence would convince me that I was mistaken.

So here’s what would convince me that I was mistaken: Credible internal documents showing that the Bush administration was sincerely pursuing what they thought were the best interrogation methods for getting reliable intelligence from detainees… and that they were willing to accept whatever information was gathered from those interrogations, even if it wasn’t the information they wanted or expected.

But in the absence of that evidence…

… and given how many more of these dots are being revealed every day, and how much clearer the picture they’re drawing is becoming with each new revelation…

…I am coming to the disturbing conclusion that the torture program was not simply a case of all human decency being lost in a panicked pursuit of terrorism. It was not simply a case of illegal, grotesquely immoral, blindly misguided overkill.

It was a case of all human decency being lost in an illegal, grotesquely immoral pursuit of propaganda.

And that chills me to the bone.

Connecting the Dots: Torture, Iraq, and the Creation of Propaganda

11 thoughts on “Connecting the Dots: Torture, Iraq, and the Creation of Propaganda

  1. 1

    Doesn’t it seem as if bad information — far from being a risk the Bush administration was willing to take — was actually the whole frakking point?
    No! Next thing you’ll be telling us there’s no Santey Clause.
    Most of this evidence has been known a long time and some people were connecting these dots 5 years ago.
    I should think you’d be embarrassed to admit that you were a little slow on the uptake. Instead you seem to be saying that anyone who arrived at your own conclusion earlier than you did is a little flighty.

  2. 2

    Instead you seem to be saying that anyone who arrived at your own conclusion earlier than you did is a little flighty.

    Actually, I’m not saying that, and I don’t think it.
    I am wary in general of conspiracy theories, for the reasons sketched here (and outlined in more detail here. But nowhere in this piece did I say, or imply, that anyone who came to the conclusion about this particular apparent conspiracy before I did is “flighty.” This evidence may have been known for five years, but it wasn’t known by me. If other people knew it and connected the dots before I did, then good for them.

  3. 4

    Greta, I’m even more chilled than you. I don’t think it was about propaganda. If that were all it would’ve been more than easy to simply fake some confessions.
    I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that it was torture for the sake of torture. For the knowledge that they had absolute power. That there was, at the end of the day, no point to their activities and that this was the point.
    Other motives were, I’m sure, involved. A desire for legitimate propaganda, a desire for vengeance, and fear may all have played their roles, but some things are just about power. That feeling of total and absolute domination described in Orwell’s 1984.

  4. 5

    Leum, good point, but while I think there’s an element of that, I think Greta’s theory is more plausible.
    But let me clarify a detail. The Republican party were fervent believers in dogma over inconvenient reality. From the war on drugs (seen Portugal’s progress lately?) to faith-based programs, abstinence-only education, and tax cuts (Reagaonomics without the pretext of logic, I call it), they consider reality an inconvenient obstacle.
    So when the lack of any evidence to support all of the propaganda against Iraq became irritating, word came down that “it must be there, look harder!”
    And all the messengers saying they had looked as hard as was possible and the evidence didn’t exist were ignored in favor of the Eichmann who suggested a way to look harder.
    While some sadistic people may have been involved, and there was certainly an enormous amount of willful blindness, I think most of the people giving the “look harder” orders were not directly asking for false confessions. They just demanded the impossible, so the only possible solution involved falsification somewhere. And as always happens in bureaucracies, that necessity was pushed down the chain of responsibility to the low men on the totem pole, namely the prisoners at Gitmo and elsewhere.
    If only they could be pressured into saying what the brass wanted to hear, everyone else would have his or her ass covered.
    (If I’m a bit bitter on this particular subject, it’s because I’ve been consoling a nurse friend who has been complaining to her boss that she can’t in good conscience sign a patient care log certifying that things are done which are never done, and she is not allowed to do, but she has been told that she’ll be fired if she doesn’t sign it. The hospital wants to be able to prove in court that they did it without the bother and expense of actually doing it. And guess who they want to take the fall for it?)
    The moral of the story is that, if you try to fight it, reality always wins in the end, but you can do a hell a lot of harm in the short term.

  5. 6

    From outside of the US, particularly to us in the media, it was fairly clearly propaganda that was going on.
    For example, the Nigeria documents and the Plamegate affair, both pointed to an administration seeking not so much evidence as a way of gulling the public.
    That whole affair was basically about government punishing an agent for her husband not staying on message.
    Then there was the whole thing with CIA reports being edited to say the opposite to what they actually said in the name of “confidentiality.”
    And I don’t think smoky rooms; I think stupidity had a lot more to do with this than it is credited with.
    I work as a business reporter, so what I see in general are two kinds of businessman. On the one hand, you have your nice guys, who though bloody-minded aren’t really out to harm anybody.
    Their politics tend liberal, their businesses tend successful.
    Then you have your guys who got their idea of how you run a business from soap operas. TV is NOT an accurate portrayal of successful business; it is a portrayal of businesses that are destined to fail.
    In successful business you don’t stay the course, you are honest with yourself first and foremost, you treat your workers reasonably, fire them if they are useless because useless staff bring everybody down, if they are good, treat them with respect and pay them well, the respect is more important than the pay.
    A good staff member will contradict you, and you will listen to them because you respect them.
    Second, be honest in your dealings, being dishonest will eventually come back and bite you in the backside, and a reputation for honesty is worth more than the very short-term gains of being dishonest. Integrity can be sold, but never bought.
    And third, keep an eye on the bottom line. Is your business doing what you want it to do? Are you making money or are you having fun? If neither what the heck are you doing?
    GW Bush was the second type. Rather than being honest with himself, he thought he could bull through the inconsistencies – stay the course it will come right. If the course is leading you over a cliff staying it in business means you will go broke, and government is no different.
    He fired good staff who contradicted him and kept useless cronies, he didn’t actually respect his staff, he just wanted yes-men.
    The “ruthless equals unethical” approach of his meant he wasn’t honest in his dealings. This can be seen in his blame dodging (9/11, Katrina, the economic crisis, the Iraq war etc…) and in how he handled opposition – smearing rather than showing they were wrong.
    The Niger yellow cake saga, Plamegate, etc… Bush did not deal honestly, he dealt in propaganda to try and win his case – and because of this, the rest of the world, and America’s people themselves started viewing America with distrust.
    The 9/11 truther movement to a large extent, is based upon GW Bush and his cronies being liars who lied about important shit, so why not think they lied about 9/11? A lack of integrity hurts you in areas where you might actually be telling the truth because people do not trust you.
    The third element, you never see a TV soap where anybody actually pays attention to how their business is doing. GW Bush was exactly like this. Mission accomplished, heck of a job, “fiscal conservative” and a reputation for being one of the most incurious US presidents the world has ever seen.
    GW Bush didn’t bankrupt America on purpose; he did it, for the far worse reason, that he didn’t actually pay attention to his job.
    So yes, torture was about propaganda. It has always been about propaganda. It was also about the same made-for-TV bullshit that the “macho” image of the Republican Party was about. The Republican management style was taken from watching way too much TV.
    Watching way too many movies, way too much TV, and the Republicans actually seem to think that scientists are madmen trying to take over the world – and that atheists are at best damaged goods.
    And this isn’t TV’s fault, this isn’t the fault of the major media, this is an entire political party leadership that can’t tell fantasy from reality.
    So when Bush generated his fantasy about AQ being linked to Saddam, he actually believed it, and set out to confirm it via whatever means possible.
    His dishonesty with himself and others created a feedback loop that could only fail.

  6. MPL

    The other possibility is that, due to conspiracy thinking inside the administration, they pursued a course to make propaganda without explicit intent.
    Just as some people reflexively assumed that the government was responsible for 9/11, some in the government assumed that Saddam must be involved. When evidence for that came up lacking, just like any other conspiracy theorists, they concluded not that they were wrong, but that the truth was hidden.
    Since torture was the one thing that got the answers they thought were true, they concluded that torture must be the only thing that uncovers the truth.
    Frankly, this possibility is more frightening, because although I know most of us are not malevolent people willing to torture people for propaganda value, I know that all of us are flawed thinkers, likely to be drawn astray by our fixed ideas.

  7. djd

    They just demanded the impossiblethat necessity was pushed down the chain of responsibility to the low men on the totem pole …”
    Dark comedy triumphs!
    I think the motivations for using torture would vary mostly according to distance from the – ahem – messy parts. Cf Eclectic and MPLL, the higer-ups can readily use “succeed at any cost”, albeit with only implicit cost/benefit analyses. The more visceral reasons Leum mentions mainly apply to the soldiers who were actually doing the torturing.

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