David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

A recurring theme to the emails I have been receiving in response to today's posts on torture is that Americans, myself included, are naive to think that the U.S. has not engaged in torture, directly and indirectly, for decades prior to the Bush Administration.

This email from TPM Reader CH, a former interrogator himself, probably best captures that point of view:

We can talk all day about what training the military receives on Geneva Conventions, but at the heart of the matter is how people get around them. That is, in my experience, any set of rules that are established have loopholes and it ends up being the job of some to find those loopholes so that we can exploit them and still retain a level of plausible deniability as to whether or not certain actions are illegal. . . .

It's not as if the US has never had a major role in the darkest circles of military actions knowing full well that these violations would be viewed as a violation of something idealists hold up as an example of 'human dignity', like the Geneva Conventions. In fact, I would argue that we've played in these circles all along and anyone thinking otherwise is only fooling themselves. Abu Ghraib and other events were not anomalies as much as they were unintended glimpses (due to private contractor mistakes) into these darker circles that were then broadcast to the world giving Americans and others a look at what 'we' do.

Essentially, this is a microcosm for what has arguably been going on for decades and for what the Bush Administration has used more 'openly' than their predecessors...but only 'openly' because people are finally coming around to the realism that often governs our geopolitical actions and are being exposed one way or another to certain dark truths. We may not like these truths, and we can act to change them if we want. However, so long as people continue to cite things like the Geneva Conventions and argue in ways that pretend as if we live in an ideal world and that 'we' are virtuous actors in said world, well, we are only going to help in perpetuating the bubble that so many of 'us' have been living in for so long. . . .

Americans are not trained to operate within that world and while naive idealists who want to hold Geneva up as something that is not ambiguous or even out-dated are trying to do good by holding people accountable for their morally ambiguous and/or illegal actions...they are only reinforcing the bubble as we know it. The bubble, with Bush's Administration, has been burst. Why do we want to crawl back inside?

Yesterday I asked for suggestions from readers for which historical figure Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), global warming denier and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, most closely resembles.

I was looking for comparable historical figures who were not just oblivious in the face of facts but vigorously fought the facts and those who discovered the facts. But the way I phrased the question left some readers thinking I meant who does Inhofe most look like physically. I'll just say that those emails were especially unflattering to the Senator, and leave it at that.

Receiving the most nominations were those associated with the persecution of Galileo, in particular Pope Urban VIII and Caccini.

Tied for second were the Soviet genetics-rejectionist Trofim Lysenko and, my personal favorite, Baghdad Bob.

As your prize for playing, not only is Inhofe out as chairman come January, but word came today that he may not even survive as ranking member of the committee. Thank you for playing.

I've heard back from several readers intimately familiar with U.S. military protocols for training service members to survive capture by the enemy and who, therefore, are familiar with the techniques, like waterboarding, being used now by the U.S. on detainees in its custody. Their accounts and what the experience taught them is compelling.

TPM Reader MN was a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape instructor:

Since a “voluntary” confession is the standard of the totalitarian regime for conviction and nullification of Geneva Convention rights, we wanted our people inoculated from this danger … hence SERE was created. Survivors like John McCain, Nick Roe and Admiral John Stockdale created and refined the material through their debriefs and visits. Our schools were designed to show how a totalitarian enemy, with a complete disregard for human rights runs a death/prison camp. Your job was to survive and Return with Honor. Torture, we revealed, was a useless and single pointed device which was wholly unreliable – torture was for sadism and the pleasure of the torturer. It had no intelligence value and the information would always be suspect.

The horror of the recent revelations of the use of our school’s techniques in Iraq and Gitmo is disgusting. We are all horrified that we have destroyed the only tool we have to keep our soldiers safe … the disgust of world opinion. Waterboarding is a torture. Period. It is not a simulation, when applied you are, in fact, drowning at a controlled rate … we just determine how much and how long – you’ll break. Everyone breaks. I ran a waterboard team at SERE and administered dozens of students through the process as a tool to show what the worst looks like, short of death. This is why there is a doctor and a psychologist standing right next to the student … to do it safe and to help the student recover. Does it suck? Yes? Would I like to go through it again … never.

That America has gone to the depths of torture hurts my very soul. I know we have damaged our warrior spirit and placed a dark stain on the honor of our military. Not since Mai Lai have we been so dishonored as we have with Abu Ghraib. We have found, though September 11th, the blackest part of our American soul and have embraced in in a fit of false macho. John McCain should be ashamed of himself …

TPM Reader GS is a graduate of survival school:

I, like many of my fellow aviators, am a graduate of survival school, which is a mock-pow camp where we were subject to food, water and sleep deprivation, as well as mild beatings and waterboarding. Surprisingly, this was a very beneficial course, in that it taught us how to parse out information to minimize its relevancy, and recognize our own limitations and breaking points.

Waterboarding is just as your reader described; you are strapped to a board, a washcloth or other article covers your face, and water is continuously poured, depriving you of air, and suffocating you until it is removed, and/or inducing you to ingest water. We were carefully monitored (although how they determined these limits is beyond me), but it was a most unpleasant experience, and its threat alone was sufficient to induce compliance, unless one was so deprived of water that it would be an unintentional means to nourishment.

The problem for us as citizens is we don't know to what limit or frequency the administration's agents are using this technique. In my view, what we experienced as service personnel was an introduction to what interrogators could do to us, in order to at least prepare us for the initial shock of captivity. What is done by professional interrogators whose mission it is to extract information is undoubtedly more unrelenting and severe, and most likely exacerbated by any act of resistance.

Since we consider it immoral when captured US personnel are treated in any manner not humane, there is no moral ground for making waterboarding an instrument of our policy against others. Admittedly this is a tough position for some, but I believe how we live and how we fight shapes the perception of us as a nation, and while we may not discourage actual terrorists, we can influence those whose understanding and support are necessary in this struggle.

As long as we're talking about torture . . .

Incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has asked the Justice Department to release two documents setting forth U.S. policy on how terrorism suspects are detained and interrogated. (h/t Laura Rozen)

I'm not inclined to give a whole lot of credence to the rumors that Karl Rove will leave the White House soon. Does it make sense on some levels? Sure. But part of the rumor involves Harriet Miers plunging a shiv into Rove's back, and I find that so hard to believe, it makes me skeptical that any of the rumor is true.

I want to post the lengthy reader email below because I think lost in the debate on torture is how much torture runs counter to decades of U.S. military training.

After Korea and especially Vietnam, and the torture endured by American servicemen in those conflicts, considerable time and effort went into training our troops in how to survive torture, both physically and, perhaps more importantly, psychologically.

Back in the 1980s, I heard navy officers, for example, talk about how soldiers and airmen captured in Vietnam carried psychological scars from having divulged more than simply their "name, rank, and serial number" and how training changed as a result so that our servicemen understood what was acceptable to divulge and what was not (operational details).

Imbued within this training during the Cold War was the sense that part of what set us apart from our communist adversaries was our adherence to the Geneva Conventions, and that the inhumane tactics used by those adversaries was part and parcel of the totalitarianism that we were combating. There was also the sense--a point of pride really--that we could and would prevail despite holding ourselves to a higher standard. It was, in fact, the higher standard that we were fighting for.

Now I don't mean to sugarcoat things. One name stands out as an example of our own terrible flaws: My Lai. And our involvement in Vietnam remains a sobering testament to the misguided conflating of nationalism and communism. But for millions of U.S. veterans, the debate on torture stands in stark contrast to the training they received and our shared understanding of what we were fighting for and against during the Cold War.

With that long-winded introduction, here is TPM Reader BL, responding to Ed Meese's comments in GQ:

I served in the Air Force from 1982 to 1988. I was an airborne linguist and, as such, was required to go through survival school at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane. This was a school that officers and enlisted men alike were required to attend...anyone who might end up in a hostile situation or behind enemy lines--or a POW. That was in January of 1984. Part of survival school was training in interrogation resistance and how to handle oneself in the event of capture by enemy forces.

What does that have to do with Meese's remarks, you might ask? Simply this: Our trainers were careful to instruct us on the Geneva Conventions and which interrogation techniques were covered and which were illegal. I have a very clear memory of what they said about waterboarding. As I recall, water boarding was classified as torture and was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. They told us about the technique for the simple reason that the North Vietnamese used it on American Forces. They wanted us to know about that technique in case we were ever captured by "scumbags who didn't respect the Geneva Conventions." There were no demonstrations; it was considered too traumatic.

I'm not making this up. The military trainers at our Survival School had nothing but contempt for techniques like this, and we were taught that they were international criminal offenses. We were also warned that there were groups out there who did not respect international law and wouldn't hesitate to use techniques like these to get the information they wanted. (It also makes me wonder if some of the other torture techniques they told us about are being practiced by our oh-so-enlightened military today.)

My cousin, who was a diver for the Navy, also went through similar training at the same time I did, but in a difference school. We both wen't through survival training at the same time, and we met up on leave in Montana in February of 84 before I went off to my permanent duty station in Greece and he went to Hawaii. He told me they actually put them through the experience for a very short period of time (less than a minute each) so they could see how psychologically disturbing it was.

The procedure as he described it was as follows: You are strapped to a board or plank that is set at an incline angle so that your head is approximately a foot below the level of your feet. A wet cloth is placed over your face so that it covers your eyes, nose and mouth. Then water is dripped steadily onto the cloth over your nose and mouth.

It doesn't sound that bad in the abstract, does it? According to my cousin, it was a terrifying experience. And like me, he was taught that this practice was clearly torture and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Anyone who went through Survival School at the same time I did, in the mid-80's, would have been taught about water boarding and would also have been taught that it was a form of Torture. For the mouthpieces of the current administration to now pretend that waterboarding is somehow acceptable--or even somehow borderline--is a deliberate and methodical deception. I can't speak knowledgably about the interrogation resistance training of the US Military for the last 15 years, but if you were in the service in the 80's and you had any chance of being in a combat risk situation, you went through this training. And every last one of us who has completed this training knows that waterboarding is torture, pure and simple.

I'm a little baffled that I haven't seen any other ex-service people speaking up about it.

I would like to hear from more ex-service people about this. Shoot us an email.

In New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, Republican incumbent Heather Wilson eked out a victory over Democrat Patricia Madrid by a scant 879 votes, according to last night's final unofficial tally. Madrid has not conceded and is considering a recount.

NYT: James Baker has met several times with Syrian officials to discuss cooperation with the U.S.

I haven't had much to add to the mind-numbing story about the UCLA student who was tasered by university police while studying in the library Tuesday night. Frankly, until this morning I hadn't been able to force myself to watch past the first blood-curdling screams on the video.

Reading the LA Times today I see that the officers involved have not even been put on administrative leave pending completion of the internal and external reviews of the incident. Why not? It's not clear from the article.

But to hear UCLA's acting chancellor talk, it looks like the university is managing the perception of a problem rather than the problem itself: "Norman Abrams said he ordered the probe after the university received numerous calls and e-mails from parents and alumni raising concerns about the officers' actions during the videotaped Tuesday night arrest, which has been widely seen on TV news and the YouTube website."

The video itself apparently didn't prompt an outside review, but concerns from alum (i.e., donors) and parents did. Nice.