Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Torture as intelligence tool


Some people justify torturing fellow humans in the name of national security with the argument that inflicting excruciating pain (whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual) produces "intelligence."

Morality, ethics, compassion, legality and common decency aside, others view that argument as not very intelligent.

There are consequences to the not-very-intelligent actions that grow out of the intelligence gained from torture as intelligence tool.

In 1980, spent a month in the Pamir Mountains of China and became friends with a man named Chu Yin-hua. We speak different languages but we communicated in sign language, charades, smiles and long conversations through our interpreter. He is missing all his toes and part of the front of each foot, but he moved around with remarkable grace and agility on stubby feet. He is also missing the first two fingers of his right hand. Chu is an icon of Chinese mountaineering because of how he lost those body parts.

In 1960, Chu and two comrades made the first Chinese ascent of Mount Everest (The ascent is disputed by many and its acceptance in the West likely has more to do with the politics of getting permits to climb in China and Tibet than with the truth of history, but that is another story). The team climbed via the North Col and Northeast Ridge, but were stopped by the technical difficulties of the Second Step at just over 28,000 feet. Among mountaineers it is well-known how Chu took off his boots and socks so his feet would fit in a crack going up the Second Step and jammed his way to the top and brought up his two mates and proceeded to the summit. So much for Chu's feet.

What is not so well known is how he lost his two fingers. On the way down from the summit Chu pulled off his mitten, pulled out a pistol and fired off a couple of shots to alert his comrades lower on the Northeast Ridge that they were alive. His hand froze to the pistol. So much for Chu's fingers.

He pulled out a pistol?

There are many threats to survival on a mountain like Everest, though none are alleviated by weapons. One could be forgiven for comparing the pistol as climbing tool to torture as intelligence tool. Ineffective, to say the least.

The only answer I could get out of Chu about why he carried a pistol up Everest was that it was "required." It never made sense to me until last year when I became aware of something that happened in 1955. The entire 1960 Chinese expedition to Everest and Chu's pistol were the result of torture used to seek intelligence.

In 1955, three British climbers were captured by Chinese forces in Tibet where the Brits (and, in my view, the Chinese) had no right to be. Convinced that the British climbers were spies (they were, but not for Britain), the Chinese tortured/interrogated them. One of them, Sydney Wignall, told the Chinese what they wanted to hear, partly to alleviate his own suffering and partly to have some sport with his captors: that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had planted a spying device on the summit of Mount Everest when they made the first ascent in 1953. The device was supposed to monitor what the Chinese were doing in Lop Nor where they were testing atomic bombs. Wignall also told them that the American CIA was planning on dropping nuclear-powered surveillance devices on top of Minya Konka in eastern Tibet and Mustagh Ata in the Pamir Mountains of western China.

This, of course, was not true.

But based on this 'intelligence,' China, which had no tradition of mountaineering, first climbed Minya Konka and Mustagh Ata for training and to search for signs of the CIA and then organized what Wignall describes in his book "Spy on the Roof of the World," which he didn't publish until 1996, as "the largest, most expensive and most incompetent attempt on Everest ever made." It was a complete military operation, commanded by a general, with more than 200 'Masters of Sport,' none of them mountaineers because there were none in China at that time, backed up with two battalions (1,500 men) of the PLA (People's Liberation Army) and 400 trucks. A special road was constructed to the Rongbuk Monastery on the north side of Everest. In mountaineering terms, that's as far from, say, Reinhold Messner's solo ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1980 as torture is from intelligence.

But it does explain why Chu carried a pistol up Everest. He was going to take out the spy device that Wignall told the Chinese Hillary and Tenzing had left on the summit. The intelligence of torture by his countrymen cost Chu most of his feet and a couple of fingers. He got off easier than some.

It would be interesting to know some of the consequences in human life to the intelligence of torture that has come out of places like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib (now called Baghdad Central Prison), Baghram Air Base and those several unnamed sites of extraordinary rendition. It would be interesting, sorrowful, shameful and not very intelligent.

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