Saturday, December 08, 2007

Immune Systems Provide a Framework for Developing Principles on the Use of Interrogation Techniques

One can't blame our nation's intelligence community for being a bit confused this week. First it releases a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) entitled Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities which concludes:
...with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program..
Trusting the intelligence community's findings, Senator Edward Kennedy, asserted:
...[I]t's time for the president to look at the cold, hard facts on Iran and walk back from the overheated rhetoric. The last thing America needs is to be misled into another war based on hype and trumped-up intelligence.
Mr. Kennedy's fickle belief in the intelligence community was in full display later in the week. The same CIA that provided information for the NIE was stating that video tapes of the interrogations of detained terrorists were destroyed because:
...[I]t was determined they were no longer of intelligence value and not relevant to any internal, legislative, or judicial inquiries...
Moreover, the CIA noted that:
As part of the rigorous review that has defined the detention program, the Office of General Counsel examined the tapes and determined that they showed lawful methods of questioning. The Office of Inspector General also examined the tapes in 2003 as part of its look at the Agency’s detention and interrogation practices. Beyond their lack of intelligence value—as the interrogation sessions had already been exhaustively detailed in written channels—and the absence of any legal or internal reason to keep them, the tapes posed a serious security risk. Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of your CIA colleagues who had served in the program, exposing them and their families to retaliation from al-Qa’ida and its sympathizers.
Senator Kennedy was quick to take to the Senate floor and accuse the same intelligence community he was putting so much of his trust in earlier in the week of deceit and cover up (video of floor speech in Congressional Record S15027 for December 07, 2007):
Mr. President, the torture debate took another deeply troubling turn yesterday. The Nation learned the CIA had destroyed videotapes of its employees in the act of using torture or other harsh interrogation techniques on detainees.

Those tapes were not shown to Congress. They were not shown to any court. They were not shown to the bipartisan 9-11 Commission. Instead, they were destroyed.

What would cause the CIA to take this action? The answer is obvious--cover up. The agency was desperate to cover up damning evidence of their practices.
For the sake of argument, let's accept Mr. Kennedy's claim that at least "harsh interrogation techniques" were used on terrorists like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM), "principal architect" of the 9/11 attacks. The science of immune systems, Immunology, and Evolution offer us billions of years of 'best practices' in dealing with deadly threats that can be translated to the moral challenges our society faces in the Global War on Terror.

In principle, an immune system's mechanism works to protect an organism by attacking pathogens that would do it harm. White blood cells or leukocytes are constantly at work defending against harmful microbes in the body. The fevers we experience when our bodies get the flu, a 'high-level attack' and a disease that takes 250,000 to 500,000 humans annually, are part of the overall defenses the immune system utilizes. Because the body doesn't operate properly in a fever's high temperatures, it maintains a normal temperature when it is simply experiencing 'low-level attacks', like the germs that infect a small wound on your hand.

Unfortunately, the immune system's protection comes at a price; it's a two-edged sword with built-in imperfections. Sometimes it attacks the very organism it's trying to defend. This condition is called Autoimmunity. Rheumatology is one branch of medicine that treats one of these imperfections.

Billions of years of Evolution have given us a mechanism that precariously balances aggressive actions with unintended consequences. We must remind ourselves that the attack-and-defend interplay between pathogens and immune systems is not a steady-state system, but is co-evolving. One of the more fascinating adaptations is the process of active immunity and its production of antibodies. With active immunity, an immune system is constantly re-programming itself in response to the diseases/attacks it has survived.

If we believe press reports, waterboarding was effective in breaking Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. This belies the claim many have made that waterboarding doesn't work.

Much like the immune system uses fever, our society should keep waterboarding as a legitimate, but rarely used, tool to protect the greater good. Particularly against individuals like KSM who are determined to destroy our society.

The argument is often made that the Geneva Conventions and policies against torture are there to protect our soldiers. But the historical evidence doesn't support this claim. The Nazis and Japanese abused POWs during WWII. POWs were tortured during the Vietnam War. And more recently, our troops have been tortured to death in Iraq.

Like a doctor treating a patient, our society should be guided by the core principles of 'first do no harm' and the Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you) as we debate and evolve our policies. Implied within the Golden Rule and the Geneva Conventions is an expectation of reciprocity; even from our enemies. It's worth remembering that al-Qaida and its operatives are not signatories to the Geneva Conventions and have no claim on its protection.

While water boarding is an extreme tactic, it is justified by the extreme measures our enemies have taken against us. Our challenge is to make sure that we judiciously use this tool and don't allow a potential abuse that would result in an attack on the very society we're trying to protect. We must be mindful of the potential hazard of declaring the operation (our anti-terrorism tactics) a success at the expense of losing the patient (our ethics and morals).

Update: Via ABC News: Coming in From the Cold: CIA Spy Calls Waterboarding Necessary But Torture:
A leader of the CIA team that captured the first major al Qaeda figure, Abu Zubaydah, says subjecting him to waterboarding was torture but necessary.

In the first public comment by any CIA officer involved in handling high-value al Qaeda targets, John Kiriakou, now retired, said the technique broke Zubaydah in less than 35 seconds.

"The next day, he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate," said Kiriakou in an interview to be broadcast tonight on ABC News' "World News With Charles Gibson" and "Nightline."

"From that day on, he answered every question," Kiriakou said. "The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."


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