Ammo for the Enemy

Addressing an audience of academic and business leaders in New York City earlier this month, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff emphasized the importance of risk-management principles in designing an effective approach to minimizing the threat of terrorism. “In business,” Chertoff said, “[y]ou weigh the risks of a particular action, you conduct a cost-benefit analysis, and you factor these into your considerations.” Where the costs of any security strategy -- like investing major federal resources in disaster preparedness for the residents of Rochester, Minnesota -- outweigh its plausible benefits, we are better off without it.

If there is any lesson to be taken from the riots in Afghanistan sparked by reports of Koran desecration by U.S. soldiers (and the growing anger at America that the latest protests in the Muslim world reflect), it is the ongoing failure of U.S. security policy to incorporate this basic principle. Coercive interrogation methods based on holding our presumed enemy's religion in contempt is a model case of pursuing intelligence tactics at the expense of national-security strategy. And the strategic price the United States is now paying as a result of its global interrogation operations is profound.

Newsweek's missteps in reporting particular allegations of religious degradation initially obscured the broad truth that religious degradation was a tactic expressly approved by the Department of Defense. A memo signed by Rumsfeld in November 2002 listed “removal of clothing” as a permissible interrogation technique, along with “removal of facial hair,” also a technique designed to offend Muslims who wear beards. On December 2, 2002, Rumsfeld authorized interrogation tactics at Guantanamo Bay that included the removal of religious items, forced grooming such as shaving facial hair, and removal of clothing. Indeed, the Defense Department's own investigation of operations at Guantanamo Bay, conducted by Vice Admiral Albert T. Church, found cases in which a female interrogator “touched and spoke to detainees in a sexually suggestive manner in order to incur stress based on the detainees' religious beliefs.”

In that context, it is difficult not to take with utmost seriousness the allegations that now abound of U.S. forces denigrating Muslim religious beliefs in the course of U.S. global detention operations. As documents published last week by Human Rights First make clear, detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had repeatedly told their U.S. lawyers that U.S. interrogators used tactics of religious abuse or humiliation. One of the detainees alleges that an interrogator told him “a holy war was occurring, between the Cross and the Star of David on the one hand, and the Crescent on the other.” The detainees alleged that guards had interfered with detainees' prayers, placed shoes on a detainee's Koran, and thrown copies of the Koran on the floor. The latest documents to emerge last week from the thousands disgorged by ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation suggest that detainees had brought such allegations to the FBI's attention as early as 2002. Neither are the allegations limited to Guantanamo. Former Iraqi detainees suing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cite similar instances in which U.S. personnel threw copies of the Koran to the ground, stepped on them, and made a dog pick them up in its mouth.

Security for the moment aside, America's historical commitment to religious liberty makes our embrace of such tactics here hard to explain, much less justify. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution made the right to free exercise of religion (and the prohibition of any state-imposed religious beliefs) the first part of the Bill of Rights. A few years later, the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified by the 1797 Congress, took the rather extraordinary step of stating expressly that “the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims].” Two centuries later, the current administration likewise relied heavily on America's tradition of religious freedom and respect in reassuring Muslims after September 11 that “[o]urs is a war not against religion, not against the Muslim faith.” And the United States, in challenging religious persecution by repressive regimes abroad, has benefited enormously from pointing to our comparatively robust legal and cultural rejection of religious intolerance here at home.

But if the legal and moral consequences of what we have done are startling, the security consequences are equally so. On the security benefits side, administration statements on the efficacy of or need for such techniques are hard to come by; what, if any, useful intelligence such techniques have produced is an open question. On the cost side, however, the effects seem clear. Commenting last week, Akbar S. Babar, central information secretary of Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party, said that the Newsweek story was merely a “catalyst” that released Muslims' growing anger over U.S. practices. Indeed, the protests in Afghanistan are only the latest in a series of riots against U.S. detention practices; in April, Agence-France Presse reported a riot at the U.S.-run prison in Iraq at Camp Bucca following rumors that a detainee there had been denied medical treatment. Whether or not the particular incident that sparked that riot actually occurred (and there is reason to suspect the source of information who reported the denial of medical aid), the past year's worth of steady and unrefuted evidence from our own government of abuse, torture, and murder of detainees in U.S. custody renders the government's blame-the-messenger reaction difficult to support. And it makes the worldwide -- not just Muslim -- suspicion of post-story U.S. denials predictable at the least.

For those who rely on popular anger to drive attacks on innocent civilians, the United States has turned over a powerful weapon. And for an interrogation tactic of unexplained value, it seems hard to believe that any circumstantial benefit is worth the generational price.

Deborah Pearlstein is director of the U.S. Law & Security Program at Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights).