500 Days

Kurt Eichenwald’s 500 Days, Secrets and Lies of the Terror Wars, is a deeply researched account of the basic legal and policy decisions of the Bush regime in relation to the events subsequent to the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the twin towers in Manhattan. For a hardened anti-Islamist such as myself, it was a necessary enlightenment, and I commend it to your attention, regardless of your position on George W. Bush and his regime.

Eichenwald has composed a highly readable account of several sets of decisions that were  made in the wake of 9/11. They were three trains of decisions:

  1. the lead-up to the invasion of Afghanistan
  2. the treatment of captives from Afghanistan and other terrorist roundups following 9/11
  3.  the weapons of mass destruction issue and the consequent invasion of Iraq.

Eichenwald’s research is so intensive that he can relate the various legal and bureaucratic confrontations as if he had been there. These are my take-aways from the book.

  • Tony Blair was much more effective than might have been supposed in moderating several US positions, though ultimately Vice-President Cheney and President Bush determined that there would be war with Iraq, whether or not WMD’s were found.
  • Hans Blix and Mohammed El-Baradei (President of the UN’s Atomic Energy Authority)  were given impossible conditions by the US government in relation to Iraq: find WMDs and there would be war, or fail to find WMDs and there would be war.
  • The treatment of prisoners by the US administration elicited profound debates about the limits of executive authority inside and outside the US administration.
  • Essentially, the crime fighters, the FBI, fought extensive battles with the Armed Forces and the CIA about the appropriate degree of duress to which captives should be subjected.
  • Canada’s Maher Arar was taken by the US on false evidence procured by the torture of another two Canadian Arabs, Abdullah Almalki and Ahmed El-Maati, who had been rendered to Syria on the flimsiest of coincidental evidence and bad intelligence work. Each was tortured relentlessly for months by Syrian secret police in order to produce a script that would assist Syria to claim political credits with the United States in the wake of 9/11, for Syria’s strategic gains.
  • The debate about the treatment of prisoners rested on the notion that harsh treatment would elicit confessions; the truth was that the effectiveness of  interrogation is much more akin to a patient visiting a psychiatrist than to a heretic in the hands of the Inquisition.The patient must want to overcome the shameful condition (of being a terrorist), and only sympathy, trust and patience will cause him to confess (his shameful condition).
  • Torture will make anyone confess to anything, but usually after weeks and months of it. The FBI had much greater and quicker success in eliciting information by the ordinary process of making the encounters with the cops the most interesting part of the prisoner’s day, and by the ordinary business of developing human relationships.That more flies are caught by honey than by vinegar, is not just an expression, but a truth of the human condition.
  • The rules of interrogation may be fabricated by learned professors of law, but by the time they reach the torture chamber they are being interpreted by sergeants and young ignorant dolts, who fail to respond to the recondite distinctions of the professors.
  • Every failure of torture only summons further demands that more harsh techniques will elicit the required answers from the prisoners.

The question of harsh treatment, which often went over the line into pure torture, is the interesting core of the book.

Eichenwald’s research is so thorough that I, ever ready to nuke Mecca if called upon to do so, must confess that I have been forced by evidence to change my mind about the effectiveness of harsh interrogation techniques in the treatment of Islamic terrorists. Many will have thought me to have gone soft on the issue. I can only say in my defence that torture is ineffective, and that the  psychological processes normally employed in police interrogations work better.

Further, I will confess that my lingering suspicions about Maher Arar’s guilt have been proven baseless, and I apologize to you, Mr. Arar, for my evil thoughts and my ignorance of how badly Canadian intelligence services, and the US administration, failed in the basic business of ferreting out the guilty and distinguishing them from the innocent, and, moreover,  whether guilty or innocent, of sending anyone to torture in an Arab country. The same goes with almost more force to Abdullah Almalki and Ahmed El-Maati, hapless victims both. It is salutary to be proven wrong occasionally. Sorry it came for you three at such a terrible price.

Any book that can change one’s fixed ideas on the basis of evidence is to be treasured. Fellow counter-jihadists, read this book. It will not change your ideas about Islam. It will change your ideas, perhaps, about how to gather evidence and intelligence from captives.