Sunday, June 18, 2006

4' x 4' x 20'' Formica

In my previous post I mentioned that there were two articles in yesterday's NY Times and then focussed on the first one. The issues raised by that first article concerned our need as a nation to articulate and work toward a clear goal in Iraq: to protect the civilian population while restoring vital services and aiding the Iraqi government in developing a self-sufficient infrastructure. This was a rather broad agenda. As I wrote at greater length yesterday, our failures to train and discipline our own troops in Haditha suggest that we are not succeeding toward this goal.

I did not include my notes on the second of the two articles in that post because they are only peripherally related. It didn't feel to me that a discussion of the two articles belonged together in a single post. The connection is through Tractate Sanhedrin, which debates conditions for incarceration as well as the relative severity of punishments and the criteria for being a judge. The second article reported on a Pentagon inquiry by Brig. Gen. Richard P. Formica into interrogation techniques employed by U.S. Special Operations troops. The report concluded that harsh interrogation techniques that had been approved for use during a four-month period in early 2004 were employed long after the approval had been rescinded.

Among the questions our rabbis might ask: Should harsh techniques have ever been authorized? And, once rescinded, what lengths should have been employed to communicate the new rules of engagement? Perhaps we should also be looking at General Formica's qualifications as a judge and measuring them against our traditional understanding of the skills a judge must possess.

General Formica's own questions focus on the most specific detail in a style strikingly reminiscent of how our rabbis dissected the laws of damages in Bava Metzia. He pronounced the 17 days of bread-and-water diet that one prisoner had to endure "too long," though he added that "it would take longer than 17 days to develop a protein or vitamin deficiency from a diet of bread and water." The two seemingly conflicting statements provide the kind of puzzle that fans of the Gemara are accustomed to pondering.

Being accustomed to Talmudic disputes about the distance that must be maintained between corpses in a cemetery, I was surprised that General Formica's report glossed over the size of the detention cells at a Special Operations outpost near Tikrit ("three detainees were held in cells four feet high, four feet long and 20 inches wide, except to use the bathroom, to be washed or to be interrogated"). I am sure that at least one Sage would have insisted that a minimum width of 30 inches was required, another would have said 40 inches, and a third would have proposed increasing the length and decreasing the height or vice versa. General Formica's rabbinic-like pronouncement ignored these considerations and focussed on the duration of confinement, concluding that "two days in such confinement would be reasonable; five to seven days would not."

What's missing here is any criteria for selecting prisoners for this extreme form of interrogation or any formula for measuring success. Is two days in a cell the size of a steamer trunk an effective interrogatory method? Do we measure the effectiveness of the technique by the intelligence we extract divided by the number of innocent Iraqis whose spirits are broken by strenuous interrogations?

General Formica, whose report was completed over a year ago but only made public on Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU, told reporters, "I didn't find cruel and malicious criminals that are out there looking for detainees to abuse." Let's remember, however, that this is the judgement of a man who believes that two days of confinement in a cell four feet high, four feet long and 20 inches wide would be "reasonable." We need to consider not only duration and intent, but responsibility and results. This moral equation needs refining.