Big Think Interview with Tom Malinowski
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and an expert in United States foreign policy, is responsible for the organization's overall advocacy efforts with the US government. He frequently appears as a radio, television, and op-ed commentator on US human rights policy. Before joining Human Rights Watch, Malinowski was special assistant to President Bill Clinton and senior director for foreign policy speechwriting at the National Security Council. Before working in the White House, he was a speechwriter for Secretaries of State Christopher and Albright and a member of the State Department's policy planning staff. Malinowski holds degrees in political science from the University of California, Berkeley and Oxford University.
Question: Why did Obama renege on his promise of transparency on torture?
Tom Malinowski: Well we had transparency on some things and none on others. I think, very importantly, on the positive side, the administration released a number of Justice Department memos that laid out in awful, vivid excruciating detail the kinds of torture techniques that the Bush justice department thought were within the law. How many times you could water board someone? How many hours and days you could keep somebody awake before it constituted in their minds, “Torture”, and I think, substantially, those were the most important things to reveal.
The pictures were a very difficult decision. You have a new President but an old national security establishment in which a lot of folks make very powerful and very scary arguments to the President of the United States about the damage that may be done by releasing something, those photos in that case. And you know the President is in charge in some ways, but he has to take into account the views of this giant ship of state that he is trying to manage and steer forward and so he made a decision in that case not to release those photo,s which I thought was not the right decision. But again, I think it’s too early to say that they are absolutely committed to transparency and it’s too early to say that they’ve broken their promise. They’ve made some interesting decisions on both sides of the line.
Question: Does classifying the photos legitimately save us from embarrassment?
Tom Malinowski: Well, I don’t think that anything should be classified solely to protect the government or even the country from embarrassment. In other words, if something was done that was wrong, that most people around the world would consider wrong, it shouldn’t be classified simply to avoid getting people angry at us. That’s under the law, it’s not just my opinion—I think under the law that’s not a sufficient reason to classify something.
Now, President Obama, if he were here, would probably argue that it’s more than just anger; what he feared was the kind of anger that leads to violence against the American troops in places that are already tremendously dangerous for them, including Iraq and Afghanistan. And I respect that judgment: it was the view of many people in the military. I don’t think that it was correct, though. I don’t think there’s anything that in those photos that people haven’t seen in the photos that were originally released after the Abu-Ghraib scandal. I think the reaction among those people in Iraq would have been, “Well we’ve seen that already and what matters is what is the United States doing about this.” And so in a way that most important question in their minds is what ought to be the most important question in our minds. What are we doing about these abuses that happened in the past? Is there going to be a sense of closure? Is there going to be any accountability? Going forward, can we be certain that these things will never happen again? Those are the right questions substantively—they’re also the main questions that need to be answered to win back the good will of people around the world.
Question: What are the chances that innocent people are in Guantanamo?
Tom Malinowski: I think that there’s a certainty that a lot of the people who were originally brought there were innocent of committing any crimes against the United States. They weren’t terrorists, they were folks who were in the wrong place [at] the wrong time—picked up by bounty hunters sold to US Forces.
Interestingly, if you go back to 2001-2002, when the Taliban and all these foreigners who had gone to Afghanistan were fleeing the country and then being picked up, some [were] sent to Guantanamo. In some ways, the more dangerous, the more awful you were, the greater your likelihood of not being captured and sent to Guantanamo. And the less important dangerous you were, the greater the likelihood of being sent to Guantanamo. The reason for that is that the really big bad guys had money to buy their way out of the bounty hunter’s grasps, and they had the connections, particularly with the Pakistani Military and Intelligence Services, to give them protection out of the country. Whereas the poor shmoes, most who have none of that, had no way to escape being caught and ultimately being sent on.
Now, that’s the original population of about 800 people. We’re now down to about 240 and one would hope that represents more of the hardcore than the farmers and the innocent bystanders who were picked up at the beginning. But I think there are still a lot of people down there who, although they may have views and opinions about us that would trouble most Americans, a lot of them are not necessarily people who have taken an action, committed a crime, a violence of terrorism. They are people who are guilty more by association. They spent a few nights at a guesthouse that was used by Al Qaeda or the Taliban. They hung out with the wrong people, and they have opinions and ideology that makes them appear dangerous to their interrogators. But they haven’t necessarily done anything yet.
Question: Are there human rights abuses today on American soil?
Tom Malinowski: Well, Human Rights Watch has, for many years, worked on issues inside the United States—we are far from perfect. Whether it’s abuses in our prison system—we did a major report a few yeas ago on rape in American prisons and the sometime indifference or even complicity of authorities in that awful problem—abuses in the immigration detention system, and this is of course not to mention the special and hopefully anomalous things that happened in the last eight years as part of the fight against terrorism—Guantanamo and torture and the like which hopefully we are putting behind us. So no country is perfect. The United States certainly has been far from perfect. And the more we’re seen as confronting those problems, acknowledging them, and correcting them, the more powerful a force the United States can be in talking to the rest of the world about human rights.
Question: Is Obama’s approach to Afghanistan a substantive change from Bush’s?
Tom Malinowski: I think that’s the big change from the Bush’s era. In the Bush’s era you have rhetoric of nation building in Afghanistan without the substance. There was not enough troops to provide basic security for the Afghan people. There was not enough money to pay for real economic development. There was not enough diplomatic attention to get Afghanistan the support it needed, but also the pressure it needed for its own government to behave better towards its own people. Now you have the substance of nation building and less of the rhetoric. You have a lot more resources appropriately being dedicated to Afghanistan with maybe slightly less ambitious rhetoric about liberty and freedom and democracy, which is fine with me because I’m more concerned about the substance than the rhetoric.
I think that the troops are important, because at the end of the day nothing is going to work in Afghanistan if regular people don’t feel secure, but the troops alone are not enough even to provide that sense of security because for most Afghans, not all but most Afghans, the main source of insecurity over the last several years has not been the Taliban. As rapacious and brutal as they are, it’s been their own governments, their own institutions, corrupt local officials, and warlords and police who either failed to protect them or actively abused them. That’s not something that American troops, through the use of military force, can stop. That is a political challenge. It’s going to require using all the levers of influence that United States has to persuade and assist the Afghan government in building institutions that serve their people. And I think the administration gets that intellectually it’s going to be a while before we know if they can pull it off practically.
Question: How do you respond to “ticking-time-bomb” scenarios that justify torture?
Tom Malinowski: I’m familiar that academics love to spin really interesting scenarios involving unsolvable moral dilemmas. That’s something that’s really fun if you’re running a seminar at Harvard University. I think that [it has] virtually no relationship to what goes on in the real world. So-called “ticking-time-bomb” scenarios in which you refer to when people say, “What if we got a terrorist, and we know that that terrorist knows where a bomb is going to go off in 48 hours. That’s going to kill a lot of innocent people, and he’s not willing to tell us where.” Wouldn’t you be willing to torture that person under that circumstance, if that’s the only way to get the information?
Lot of ifs there in that scenario. Problem is, in the real world, that doesn’t happen. First of all, you never pick up somebody and know that that person knows a bomb is going to go off. You never know that there’s a bomb about to go off in a particular time, you don’t know where it’s going to go off, and then suddenly by chance you capture someone and you know that that person knows the one thing that you don’t know. Second of all, in the real world, you pick up a terrorist who’s a member of a cell or an organization that is in fact about to do something really awful—the very fact that you have arrested that terrorist means almost certainly that his cell or organization is going to cancel their plans or alter them because they know that they’re going to be compromised. And so in the real world when we pick up people, when the CIA picks up people, or the military or the FBI, what they’re asking about is not the ticking bomb, what they’re asking about is who are the names of your co-conspirators? Where do they bank? What are their cell-phone numbers? Tell us about how you operate; the kinds of things that you are planning. Not because we know those things are going to happen, but just to get a sense of how they operate. And all of those are really vital pieces of information. And you interrogate a hundred people in Al Qaeda, you put all that stuff together, you’re going to avert attack and you’re going to save lives. But it’s not the same thing as a ticking bomb, and everybody we pick up in Afghanistan, everyone we pick up in Iraq, everyone we pick up in a safe house, in Paris, or London, or Manila may have some small piece of that larger puzzle. And so, in the real world, when you start making this ticking bomb argument and you apply it to those cases, eventually you end up torturing hundreds or thousands of people—which is what happened. So, it’s a fun academic exercise that has very dangerous consequences in the real world.
Question: Is there any evidence that torture is useful?
Tom Malinowski: Torture is incredibly useful if your goal is to extract confessions from people. If I know that I want you to tell me that you were plotting to overthrow the government of the United States or Saudi Arabia, or Russia, or China. Torture is an incredibly useful tool to get you to tell me that, even if it’s not true. And that’s what it’s used for by brutal regimes around the world. If my goal is to humiliate you, to punish you, to make you feel helpless, to make you feel like there is no hope for you, and I’m in total control over you. Torture is an incredibly effective tool, and that’s another thing that torture is used for by brutal regimes around the world. But if my goal is to get you to tell me something that is true and that I don’t already know, torture is one of the least effective methods that I can use. Because what you’re likely to do if I torture you for some information is to try to calculate in your own mind, what do I want to hear? And then you are going to tell me that thing that I want to hear so that I would stop torturing you. And what I want to hear may not be the truth; it may just be what I want to hear. So most experienced intelligence gatherers and interrogators will say it’s the worst thing you can do. And I think looking back over the last eight years we probably lost a lot more lives as result to torture than, than we saved, if we saved any.
Question: Why should we all be human rights advocates?
Tom Malinowski: We should all be human rights advocates. We don’t all have to be activists, we should all be human rights advocates because that’s the moral basis of our civilization—to have a set of rules that prevent cruelty, mistreatment, abuse of our dignity and our liberty by those who have power over us in other respects, and because it’s in our interest.
Most of the world’s most pressing problems, I’ve always thought, are fundamentally rooted in dysfunctional relationships between people and their governments. Think about all the conflicts of the 20th century. World War II was fundamentally rooted in the rise of regimes and countries like Germany that were based on the suppression of liberty, that were based on the notion that one man or one government could and should seek absolute power over everybody else, which in turn lead to conquest and war and the crisis that we have to respond to in enormous cost of lives.
The Cold War was fundamentally rooted in the suppression of liberty in Eastern Europe by the Soviet empire. Something that caused enormous tension and insecurity and led to a 50-year struggle by the United States that also cost us a great deal. Most of the conflicts that we’ve responded to as a country, whether the awful war in the Balkans, in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990’s, were rooted in human rights abuses.
The Iraq conflicts of the last ten years go back to 1988-89 when Saddam Hussein was using poison gas against his own people and the world did nothing about it. He drew the conclusion, I think, from that episode that he could get away with anything, and so he invaded Kuwait. And we had a Gulf War, and then we had sanctions, and then we had an invasion, and all of that terrible history that we suffered as result of that active indifference. So if we care about the character of the world in which we live, if we care about avoiding conflicts and crises that draw [us] in and forces [us] to expend lives and treasure to resolve, then you have to care about fixing the underlying problem of how people are treated by their governments.
Question: Can America balance human rights enforcement with economic development?
Tom Malinowski: Preserving economic interests requires trading and working with governments like, for example, China, that violate human rights. And there are some who would say, “Well, you can’t do both. You can’t go and talk to the Chinese about stabilizing the global economy and the steps that we want them to take to help us deal with obviously an existential economic crisis and at the same time lecture them about their treatment of dissidents for prisoners or the Falun Gong or Tibetans or what have you.” I don’t think that’s right, I think that the United States and countries like China work together on economic matters because it’s in their mutual interest to do so. I don’t think China or any other country works with us on those issues to do us a favor. They do it because it’s in their interest to do so as well. So I don’t think we damage ourselves diplomatically if we stand up for our principles so long as we do it in an intelligent way. And that’s the challenge of diplomacy; it’s doing more than one thing at one time. And any Secretary of State or any President who is up to the enormous challenge of those jobs should be able to do that.
I also think that it’s unrealistic to think that we can simply drop those issues. You can go in to the meeting with the Chinese and say, “You know what? We just can’t afford to raise the case of that dissident. We can’t afford to lecture them about the poor Tibetans, because we’ve got to save the global economy.” And then three months later, something awful is going to happen in Tibet. And guess what, the United States government is going to have something to say about it because it would be politically impossible not to. And then the Chinese having seen the pattern of silence, become even more upset. They’ll say, “Where does that come from? We thought you weren’t talking to us about that stuff anymore.” And then the diplomatic costs [are] even greater. So I think realistic diplomatic reasoning [is that it] is better just to be principled and consistent and send the message out to every country that we work with around the world. That’s just part doing business with the United States—we’re going to raise those issues, because it’s who we are, it’s what we believe.
Question: At what point do human rights abuses supersede a country’s right to self-determination?
Tom Malinowski: I don’t know about self-determination but sovereignty, state sovereignty, is often used as an argument against intervening to stop human rights abuses, and it’s a complicated set of arguments. But certainly, in cases where you have extreme violence against civilians, the threat or reality of mass killing, of genocide—I believe that, in fact, [the] United Nations has adopted a principle of responsibility to deal with those situations if a state is failing in its responsibility to protect its own people from those kinds of abuses, then the rest of the world has a responsibility to step in whatever way may be effective.
Now, what if we’re talking about less extreme violations of human rights? Torture, or newspapers being closed, and people being imprisoned because they’re expressing their views. I think very few people argue that those cases merit military intervention—invading a country to take down its government. But there are other tools that I think are appropriate to use to pressure countries to change their behavior. Partly because it’s the right thing to do, partly because there are legal obligations being violated when governments violate human rights in those ways, and partly because we have a self-interest as Americans in building a world in which governments treat their people better—there are a lot of reasons for that. So I don’t think that sovereignty is an absolute bar to one country or one group of people promoting human rights beyond their political borders.
Question: Can the U.S. justify defending rights while accused of violating rights itself?
Tom Malinowski: I think the United States can’t be an effective champion of human rights anywhere if it’s generally seen around the world as a violator of human rights. And so when the Bush Administration was not just engaging but justifying practices like torture, and disappearing people in secret prisons and long term detention without charge, it was very difficult, not impossible, interestingly, but difficult for the United States to effectively urge other countries not to do those things.
I do think, although I’m critical of some the things that the Obama administration has done, that he has gone a long way towards not just eliminating those practices but convincing the world that they’re being eliminated. I think this is actually a moment, perhaps a rare moment when the United States government and particularly the President has a lot of moral credibility to go to the world and champion an end to torture, fair trials for everybody, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. That moment may not last, but we do have a moment like that now, and it’s important that it will be used effectively and wisely.
Question: Can technology facilitate human rights?
Tom Malinowski: Technology can be used to suppress human rights and to facilitate human rights. That’s always been the case. There’s never been one technology that is beneficial only to one side in that struggle. So governments like China and Iran can use the Internet to monitor their people’s communication, to try to identify dissidents and go after them individually; but of course campaigners for democracy and human rights can also use this technology as we saw in Iran—to get around government restrictions on speech. It’s a tag of war between the dark side of the Internet and the good side, and there’s a lot that the United States can do to help the good side win in that fight. For example, there are really interesting technologies being developed that allow people to communicate privately to defeat surveillance and to defeat censorship, programs that can be downloaded by folks in Iran, in China, in Burma, in Vietnam, and it’s something that we’ve asked the US government to fund and support.
There’s also a very interesting and ambiguous role played by American technology companies like Google and Yahoo and Cisco. These are the companies that developed these liberating technologies that dissidents in Iran and China use. But they’ve also sometimes partnered with the governments to give them the technology that is used to suppress dissent. They’ve censored their own contents sometimes, and so helping these companies figure out what their responsibilities are when they are operating in dictatorships and backing them up when they have to stand up to those governments is a really important challenge for the 21st century.
Recorded on: July 29, 2009
A conversation with the Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch.
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