To Be Safe or Not Be Safe? Tortured by the Question

I hate to say “I told you so” (actually it’s never bothered me to say that), but it appears that my comments in last week’s column regarding Burma (Myanmar for those of you sympathetic to the ruling junta of despotic morons) have proven correct.

Lookee there Hoss… the protesters have disappeared, long live the junta and nobody gives a rat’s backside.

Given that the only hope for meaningful change depended on the Chinese government’s willingness to act in the interests of human rights, democracy and anything other than Chinese self interest, it was a safe bet to place your entire life savings on the green felt square labeled “Nothing Changes.”

I dare you to find any stories about Burma at this point… only a week or two after media in the West appeared fascinated with the story and repeatedly declared events there to be an outrage.

Okay, maybe you’ll find a couple of paragraphs, but it’ll be somewhere back in section C between the horoscopes and reruns of Funky Winkerbean.

The earnest and somewhat underpaid staff of the Peoples Weekly Brief spent their evenings this past week reviewing email, letters and the occasional video sent to the PWB mail facility. It’s important to note that they will not be receiving overtime pay for their efforts, but the efforts are appreciated nonetheless.

Anway, we received a number of very interesting notes from folks who are residing in the region, primarily in Thailand, have lived or traveled in Burma or who have family there. Unfortunately, the general consensus appears to be that this latest round of protests will also be consigned to the bin marked “Stuff that doesn’t make any difference”.

That’s a pessimistic position to be sure, but realistic. I imagine it’s the same with any long term crappy situation. Eventually, you get beat down with the cycles of outrage, condemnation, bursts of optimism that something might be done followed by silence then more outrage. Eventually you assume the position.

By the way, did you see how quick the Burmese government was able to shut down internal internet access? Now that’s some kind of IT staff. It takes several days and 14 pages of forms to get a slacker intern from the PWB IT Department to give me a call. When you’re a crazed, monk-beating junta, you can definitely get things done.

They clearly weren’t pleased that photos of the protests went on line. We all stood around amazed at the power of the internet and how Al Gore’s invention was gonna’ push this Burmese revolution forward. Too bad it only took them a minute or two to pull the plug.

And so, we march on.

Torture. Are you for it or agin’ it? Well, let me rephrase that. The topic of torture is back in the headlines because, um, it’s more interesting than Burma. Actually, it’s in the headlines because the other day the New York Times reported that the Justice Department, back in 2005, had issued a secret opinion that condoned certain interrogation techniques that some folks, particularly the terrorists being interrogated, consider tougher than other techniques.

Now when I say the Justice Department issued a secret legal opinion, what I mean is that they stamped Secret on the document (maybe even Extra Tippy-Top Secret) and issued it to a select, cleared few who had the appropriate clearances and secret decoder rings.

However, anyone who follows the activities and behavior of Washington knows that we no longer live in an age where the words "Secret," "Classified" or even "Keep Your Piehole Shut" stands for anything.

As anyone at the CIA or DNI will tell you, if you want to keep something secret, don’t tell anyone. Unfortunately, that would hamper the entire counterterrorism effort. So you release information on a Need to Know basis, knowing that nowadays there’s plenty of people with a powerful need to be known as knowing.

Many leaks of course come from people who disagree with the policies of whatever administration happens to be in office. I believe there was a time, back when men were men and smoking outdoors wasn’t prohibited, when if you had a sensitive job that required clearances and you were privy to matters of National Security, you shut your gob regardless of whether you agreed with the policies or not.

It was called, lemme’ think, I believe it was called something like "I promised when I took this job to always protect classified information that I become privy to and that’s why I’m signing these papers saying that I solemnly swear to not disclose secrets."

I believe that was the title at the top of the form.

Now, it seems that people don’t give a crap. They disagree with something and their conscience cries out "… leak a secret document… it’ll make you feel better and you can live with yourself."

Just once, I’d like their conscience to yell out "… hey moron, remember that document you signed saying you wouldn’t disclose classified information? Remember that? Huh? This is your conscience talking… quit your whinging and get back to work."

Other folks leak because they can’t help themselves… they are desperate to show they have information that others don’t. For them, there’s an orgasmic rush when they see their information in the press, even if it does identify the source as "anonymous." Who are these people and would it be wrong to hunt them down and beat them with large files full of classified information?

But, as usual, I digress. The NY Times reported on the Justice Department’s secret legal opinion, resulting in much wailing and gnashing of teeth from Congress, Human Rights organizations and others. Torture they cried… some of the more pompous might have even pointed a finger and muttered “J’accuse”, but I’m not certain of that.

The administration came out strongly as they always do in the face of accusations of torture and declared, yet again, that we do not use torture. I believe the exact statement from the White House spokesperson Dana Perino was "The bottom line is that we do not use torture." The trouble, unfortunately, is in the details. The age old question is; What constitutes torture? How do you define it?

Frankly, it’s a bit like defining pornography. You know it when you see it, particularly if you’re on the receiving end.

Using the parameters as established by the administration for the military and the CIA, it is true that we do not engage in nor condone torture. There is no doubt that torture is a) ethically wrong and b) an operationally questionable means of obtaining information. Both those statements are true. It is also true that we face a ruthless, determined and deadly enemy at this current time.

Obviously, certain tactics are available within the established parameters for specific scenarios that others outside the administration would argue come close to or fall under the category of torture. The use of harsher techniques which, according to the administration, do not constitute torture, are in some part labeled torture by organizations whose principal purpose is not the collection of information from a terrorist in order to stop a potential future attack.

The current administration, and I guarantee any future administration as long as we are facing a significant terror threat, will always define what is and isn’t torture from a proactive, counterterrorism mindset. And this will always be at odds with the international organizations that define torture from the more black and white mindset of what is ethical and what isn’t. What a lovely world that must be to live in… you get to condemn behavior based on your perception of right and wrong without worrying about the consequences of failing to obtain information that could prevent the loss of life.

Unfortunately, we live in the real world where we and our allies face a significant threat from individuals who do not value life and see nothing wrong with the killing of innocent men, women and children, regardless of whether they’re Muslim, Christian or Jew. As a result, we need to be involved in a nonstop effort to identify and prevent attacks.

Occasionally, the best way to do that is through the interrogation of terrorists who may possess operationally valuable intelligence. It would be most excellent if we could simply coax the information out of them through some witty banter and the occasional thrust and parry of clever conversation. But sometimes, you come across the terrorist who isn’t chatty. And sometimes, every now and then for operational reasons, perhaps time is of the essence.

The administration has identified internally what the parameters are for the interrogation of high value targets. Anything outside these parameters is considered torture and not permitted. We will never have agreement across the board on what constitutes acceptable interrogation techniques. So be it. And there will always be those in the U.S. and outside our country who will assume the worst of this administration and the agencies assigned to protect our country from the terrorist threat.

Frankly, these same folks will think the worst of the next administration as well.

Here’s a question for you… would you prefer to adopt the International Red Cross standards of what constitutes torture and live, or not, with the results… or do you believe that it is appropriate for us to establish our own parameters for what is considered acceptable interrogation techniques and reside within those parameters?

Let me know your thoughts. Send your comments to

Till next week, stay safe.

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Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.