Racially Profiling “Jihadists” Sounds Like Common Sense. Here’s Why It Doesn’t Work

Over the weekend there was a series of bombings, and attempted bombings, in New Jersey and Manhattan (where I live). Authorities have identified and arrested one Ahmed Khan in connection with the attacks, which injured dozens of people in the New York area.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was quick to seize on this incident as further proof of the need to “profile” people for terrorism. Verbatim:

“We’re allowing these people to come into our country and destroy our country, and make it unsafe for people. We don’t want to do any profiling. If somebody looks like he’s got a massive bomb on his back, we won’t go up to that person … because if he looks like he comes from that part of the world, we’re not allowed to profile. Give me a break.
Fox & Friends, 19 September 2016

Following media outcry at his remarks, Trump would (dubiously) deny that he was calling for racial profiling. However, the candidate has previously, and very explicitly, suggested the need this very tactic—for instance, in the wake of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando:

“But look, we have — whether it’s racial profiling or politically correct, we’d better get smart. We are letting tens of thousands of people into our country. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing.”
Hannity, 17 August 2016

The intuitive appeal of this strategy is obvious: it seems like a “certain kind of person” tends to commit these acts—let’s pay closer scrutiny to “those people” and we can probably nip a lot of attacks in the bud. In fact, the solution sounds so straightforward that many perhaps wonder why on Earth this practice is not already central to our law enforcement and counter-terrorism portfolio. I will briefly answer that question below:

 

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Why the SSCI Report on CIA Torture Doesn’t Matter

In 1984, the United Nations adopted the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The treaty forbade signatories from carrying out torture or related practices, or from deporting to detainees to other places where they knew these acts would be carried out. It would be ten years before the U.S. Congress ratified this agreement, which would then take on the force of law.

In light of the U.S. signing onto the convention against torture (and also, the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the activities revealed in the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program constitute clear violations of international law, perhaps even crimes against humanity. But it unlikely that anyone will face justice:

Violations would typically be investigated and prosecuted in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which the United States struggled to prevent from coming into existence. While President Clinton eventually signed onto the Rome Statute which established the court towards the end of his term, his successor would withdraw the U.S. commitment before the agreement was ratified by Congress—precisely out of concerns about American policies in the wake of 9/11. And as Undersecretary of State (and future U.S. Ambassador to the U.N) John Bolton underscored at the time, because America is not a member of the ICC, it is not accountable to the court unless referred by a resolution from the U.N. Security Council, which the U.S. would simply veto.

Because the perpetrators will not be held to account in international forums, the United Nations and human rights groups have called on the White House to prosecute those involved in American courts, compliant with U.S. treaty obligations to prevent and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. After all, in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, the United States helped condemn to death Japanese soldiers and leaders who committed or approved of these very same acts against American forces during WWII.

However, contrary to these international obligations (or even the U.S. Bill of Rights which repeatedly prohibits torture), Bush Administration officials approved the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. As a result of this clearance by White House and the Department of Justice, prosecution in U.S. courts would be difficult. Moreover, President Barack Obama has already de facto pardoned those who took part in the program, even those who stepped outside the permissive framework laid out by the Bush administration. In fact, the only agent who has been jailed with regards to the “enhanced interrogation” program to date is the CIA whistleblower who leaked these abuses to the press.

Reforms to rein in U.S. intelligence agencies seem highly unlikely as a result of the partisan way in which the report was received on Capitol Hill—with some Republican lawmakers going so far as to defend the torture program and even its continued use. And across polls, a plurality of the American public seems to agree with these torture apologists.

This leads one to question whether the SSCI report even matters. Continue reading “Why the SSCI Report on CIA Torture Doesn’t Matter”

Credibility is about Outcomes, not “Resolve”

In wake of Vladimir Putin annexing Crimea into the Russian Federation and supporting Eastern separatists against a Ukrainian government it perhaps rightly views as illegitimate, U.S. policy hawks argued the entire crisis could have been prevented: had President Obama followed through on his August 2013 commitment to bomb the Syrian government in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, Russia would have been cowed by America’s resolve and therefore responded to subsequent events in neighboring Ukraine by more-or-less capitulating to Western demands.

These counterfactuals are empty, offered without any corroborating evidence that carrying out the strikes would have actually changed Putin’s calculus. In fact, the whole notion of deterrence has been greatly undermined by contemporary research in cognitive science and psychology. Unfortunately, beltway Washington hasn’t gotten the memo.

Russia’s response to Ukraine has nothing to do with Obama’s actions in Syria (something the critics would know that if they simply listened to Putin). If anything, the Ukrainian crisis was caused, not because Washington was too soft in Syria, but because it was far too aggressive everywhere else.  Moscow was not responding to perceived American weakness, but instead attempting to defend its critical interests from what it viewed as Western expansionism.

Obama’s decision to back down from the precipice of another ill-fated direct military engagement in the Middle East was a rare and laudable moment of sanity. Following through on a threat simply because the president had previously committed to it doesn’t help U.S. credibility if the policies in question prove disastrous. Nonetheless, policy hawks insist that the Administration’s momentary pragmatism has undermined “U.S. credibility”—which, to their minds, is about the United States “standing by” its stated commitments (no matter what).

Succumbing to pressure from these critics, the White House has responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine by striking an even more confrontational posture. A year into this new dynamic, the Obama Administration’s strategy has proven totally ineffective at changing Russia’s approach to Ukraine, and have been highly counterproductive in the broader geopolitical arena.

The current rift between the U.S. and Russia threatens critical initiatives, from the impending NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, to the ongoing negotiations with Iran and resolving the crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been aligning itself more closely with other emerging powers to act as a collective counterweight to Western hegemony—even as it enacts its own effective countermeasures to punish the Europeans who joined the U.S. efforts at isolating Moscow.

But instead of acknowledging its missteps and seeking reconciliation with the Kremlin, Washington is ramping up its provocative, irresponsible, and inaccurate rhetoric with regards to Russia (because, once again, backing down would supposedly jeopardize U.S. “credibility”). The hopefuls for the next U.S. administration are also jumping on board, with Hillary “reset-button” Clinton going so far as to compare Putin to Hitler. How these actions are supposed to promote American interests is totally unclear.

In fact, the critics have it precisely inverted: it wasn’t U.S. weakness in Syria that informed Putin’s thinking on Ukraine. Instead, the same pernicious psychology that the U.S. had brought to bear throughout the Syrian crisis also poisoned America’s response to Ukraine: doubling-down on strategies which were clearly failing in a misguided attempt to “preserve U.S. credibility.”

Continue reading “Credibility is about Outcomes, not “Resolve””

Forget the Islamic State, Focus on the United States

America’s War on Sexual Violence, Mass Atrocities & Religious Persecution Should Begin at Home

Without question, the so-called “Islamic State” is an abomination that should be wiped from the face of the earth. However, it is unclear whether America is the right agent to see this through. Part of the trouble relates to the Obama Administration’s strategy, which seems likely to empower ISIS even as it undermines the security and interests of America and its allies—but there is an ethical dimension as well:

While ISIS poses a serious (although likely overstated) threat to the governments of Iraq and Syria, over the last two Administrations, the U.S. has itself forcibly overthrown the governments of Iraq and Libya—both in defiance of international law. And along with ISIS, the U.S. has spent the last three years seeking to undermine the Syrian government. Additionally, they have sheltered Israel from meaningful accountability to the international community, allowing the crisis in Palestine to fester. As a result of these policies, it would not be a stretch to say that the United States is actually a greater threat to peace and stability in the region than ISIS—not least because U.S. actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria have largely paved the way for ISIS’s emergence as a major regional actor.

But perhaps more disturbingly, many of the same behaviors condemned by the Obama Administration and used to justify its most recent campaign into Iraq and Syria are commonly perpetrated by U.S. troops and are ubiquitous in the broader American society. Until these problems are better addressed, the United States’ efforts to undermine ISIS will be akin to using a dirty rag to clean an infected wound.

Continue reading “Forget the Islamic State, Focus on the United States”

“Enhanced Interrogation,” Tortured Logic

Underlying any interrogation technique are a number of assumptions about how people think and behave. Contemporary cognitive science and psychology suggest rather robustly that the axioms which have historically lent credence to some of today’s most-popular interrogation techniques are more-or-less false.

For instance, investigators have long believed (and many continue to believe) that fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, or indirectness in speech are signs of deception. It turns out, however, these may indicate little more than that the person being interrogated relies upon a different communication style than his interrogator. Many, perhaps most, feel generally uncomfortable maintaining eye contact, there is wide cultural variance on directness of communication, and reactions like fidgeting, increased heartbeat, and sweating are natural human responses to stressful situations (such as being interrogated by the authorities, regardless of one’s guilt or innocence)—and many people have a rather low threshold before these somatic reactions are triggered.

It is a very particular sort of person who is a direct communicator, enjoys eye contact, remains calm under pressure, etc. Incidentally, these are also the type of people who often become law-enforcement officers, or better-yet, interrogators. However, because these exemplars mistakenly feel as though their reactions and communication style are “normal” (a conviction reinforced by myriad daily interactions with their similarly-constituted colleagues), when confronted by indirect communicators, or those who do not handle stress as well, these variations are frequently interpreted as evidence of deceit—when in fact, a criminal of a similar constitution to the investigators would have no problem lying straight to an officer’s face, confabulating a coherent alibi, and giving off all of the “right” physical signs.

The supposed connection between somatic reactions and honesty have proven so unreliable that lie-detector tests are generally not admissible as evidence in contemporary courts. Nonetheless, many related dogmas persist (unfortunately, police officers tend not to keep current with the latest studies in cognitive science and clinical psychology). Unsurprisingly, the net-effect of relying on these tactics is a lot of bad intelligence—to include frequent false confessions. Continue reading ““Enhanced Interrogation,” Tortured Logic”