April 24, 2009

Why Torture Is Not a "Policy Difference"

Much is being said and written about the contents of four newly released Bush White House torture policy memos, as well as President Obama's decision to make them public. President Bush's CIA Director and Attorney General, for instance, have taken the position that this action reveals the limits of American interrogation techniques, and will allow captured terrorists to better prepare themselves to withstand questioning while eliminating what they believe is a crucial tool for gathering intelligence. Others have attempted to diminish the severity of the "harsh methods" used against foreign prisoners, with performance artist Sean Hannity even volunteering to be waterboarded for charity.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Dick Cheney has claimed that information uncovered through torture was invaluable in keeping the United States safe from another attack like 9/11. It was even revealed in a leaked internal staff memorandum - which right wing outlets like Fox News appeared to regard as validation - that President Obama's Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, believes precious data was collected through torture:
High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country...
The conclusion that one seems forced to draw from these inputs is that, however morally repugnant American torture policy might be, on balance, it is an effective tool that has been applied judiciously and successfully by people whose only goal was to protect American citizens from foreign threats.

Unfortunately for America's torture boosters, this argument is an utter sham.

First and foremost, President Ronald Reagan signed the United Nations Convention on Torture. Since the Senate ratified that treaty, the U.S. is not only subject to its strictures in international matters, but on home soil as well. In other words, it is against international law to torture, and it is against domestic, American law as well.

Second, it turns out that, according to an internal CIA report, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah - the right wing's poster children for successful interrogation through torture - were waterboarded 183 and 82 times, respectively, in a one-month period. Better than any other, this single fact demonstrates that the idea that imminent peril - the so-called ticking time bomb scenario - justifies the use of extreme measures is completely untenable. As the excellent Marcy Wheeler wrote in the post that first broke this story:
The CIA wants you to believe waterboarding is effective. Yet somehow, it took them 183 applications of the waterboard in a one month period to get what they claimed was cooperation out of KSM [Khalid Sheik Mohammed].
Further, experienced and successful investigators like Matthew Shephard, the man who led the team that found Abu Musab al-Zarqawi without resorting to torture, and veteran interrogators who pried intelligence from captured Nazis during World War II, have come out firmly and unequivocally against torture as both immoral and ineffective. Ali Soufan, the FBI field agent who headed the successful non-coercive questioning of Abu Zubaydah - before the CIA decided he should be waterboarded 82 times - concurs:
There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mr. Padilla. This is false. The information that led to Mr. Shibh’s capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods. As for Mr. Padilla, the dates just don’t add up: the harsh techniques were approved in the memo of August 2002, Mr. Padilla had been arrested that May.


It was the right decision to release these memos, as we need the truth to come out. This should not be a partisan matter, because it is in our national security interest to regain our position as the world’s foremost defenders of human rights. Just as important, releasing these memos enables us to begin the tricky process of finally bringing these terrorists to justice.
But is the value of information extracted through torture even relevant? Setting aside the informed opinions of men like Mr. Shephard and Mr. Soufani, - as well as the blatant illegality of torture under U.S. law - there is a universe of coercive measures that can be applied that will yield results in any number of situations. As Admiral Blair states, some valuable intelligence was gathered through torture. Why, then, stop with suspected terrorists?

Couldn't we better recover, say, a stolen bicycle by torturing the thief, or even an uncooperative witnesses? That's not justified? What if that bicycle belongs to a courier without health insurance who is the sole means of support for a sick relative? Without that bike, he can't earn money, and without money, someone will die. Surely in a life and death situation like this, a little "harsh interrogation" would produce crucial intelligence, right?

There is a reason that the example above is outside the consideration set of just about anyone with whom you would care to associate. Plainly speaking, there are lines we, as a society, through law and through moral code, have agreed not to cross. The torture of captives, no matter what their suspected crime, falls outside the bounds of legal activity. Until the presidency of George W. Bush, it also used to fall outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. As I wrote in Coordinated Subversion:
All of the methods listed in the ... report are widely considered cruel and inhumane, and the United States has, in fact, both court martialed American personnel who have engaged in waterboarding and prosecuted foreign perpetrators of the technique as war criminals. The only thing with which these techniques are "enhanced" is - at a minimum - criminal behavior, and at worst, outright torture.
As their position has become increasingly indefensible, torture apologists have turned their attention to the fact that some members of Congress - both Democrat and Republican - were briefed on the methods used for coercive interrogation, and approved them. There is legitimate debate about just how much these legislators knew or understood - they weren't allowed to keep printed material or take notes in these briefings, for instance - but the insinuation by those trumpeting this fact is that the release of the memos is some sort of political stunt by President Obama, and that if members of his own party are implicated, he will quash any inquiry driven by the "hard left wing."

Unfortunately for the GOP, this simply isn't so, and is a brilliant example of just how out of touch the contemporary Republican Party is with the public. A new Gallup Poll reveals that 62% of Americans want either a criminal or independent investigation into U.S. torture policies. The people want to know what was done in their name, they have a right to know, and if Democrats who allowed our former president to torture go down, too, then so be it.

The idea that bringing torturers to justice is some sort of fringe cause simply doesn't hold water. Torture strikes at the very heart of what it's supposed to mean to be an American, as wonderfully illustrated by an angry and empassioned Shepard Smith - the rare Fox News talking head with a conscience - in the video below. [Note: contains profanity.]

And that memo from Admiral Blair? It includes another passage; one that should be well-remembered:
The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means. The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.
That is exactly right.


Oatbag said...

Great stuff as always SNS. Its absolutely heart breaking that torture is being talked about the way it is. What about all that bDo Unto Others and Turn the Other Cheek shit? It is illegal. Regardless of morals, it is illegal. Unless this dirty laundry is washed and aired the American Experiement will collapse under its own hubris.

PBI said...

Hi Oatbag,

Thanks for visiting and for the kind words. I agree whole-heartedly with your comments; thankfully some of the president's press conference statements seem to indicate he might be starting to lean toward investigations and prosecution.