December 11, 2014

Good Cop / Bad Cop as an organizing principle

Interview with man who designed CIA torture approach explains how he made torture work.
Mitchell is largely responsive to Larsen's questions, and perhaps the most striking moment is when he reacts to the intelligence committee's findings that torture had not yielded actionable intelligence. It wasn't supposed to, he says. It was supposed to make detainees more responsive to other questioning. 
"It's almost like a good cop, bad cop kind of set-up," he says, "with a really bad cop." 
The point, he says, "was to facilitate getting actionable intelligence by making a bad cop that was bad enough that the person would engage with the good cop," Mitchell continues. "I would be stunned if they found any kind of evidence that EITs, as they were being applied, yielded actionable intelligence."

This makes a ton of sense.  It is possible to resist even severe torture - e.g., this guy is a hero in Singapore for holding out against the Japanese, who of course had great institutional cruelty skills.  But they also had trouble convincing anyone that they had good cops.

What I find most interesting about the good cop / bad cop thing is that the underlying principle has become pervasive in American society.

We're very free, as long as we don't cross certain lines.  But if those lines are crossed, you are in a world of hurt.  American prisons are terrifying.  No person with free will in the matter would risk being incarcerated if they had reasonable alternatives.  You could easily run a society with fewer incarcerations, less prison rape, less prison violence overall - every country in Europe does.

But that's not a priority.  The current approach must be working really well for someone.  Law enforcement and the prisons have become the "the really bad cop" in an America that guarantees your rights, but also conspicuously and violently redacts them for those who get too uppity.  Police confiscation of property, extralegal and judicial murder and torture by intelligence agencies are now common.

Kudos to the President for saying "enhanced interrogation" was torture, and that it was wrong.  But, sadly, this is who we are.  We made our choices.  I wish they could be undone easily, but in my lifetime we have voluntarily given up one of the keystones of American exceptionalism, and the hour is very late.  Once you get into this deep, dark forest, it's not easy to get out.  We've been in it for a long time.


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