About a week ago, the Obama administration decided to obey the rule of law and release some previously classified memos regarding the “enhanced interrogation,” or torture, of prisoners detained under the Bush government. The memos, written by now Federal Judge (then Assistant AG) Jay Bybee and former Assistant AG Stephen Bradbury, provided legal cover to begin torturing suspected terrorists in US captivity using a wide variety of physically violent and shameful practices, including waterboarding, slamming the prisoner against the wall, sleep deprivation, shackling in stress positions, and placing an insect into a locked box with a suspect, among others. One of the main justifications provided by the memos was that these techniques did not, in fact, produce “pain and suffering” (intentionally taken as one, singular clause, as opposed to pain and suffering as unique, separate things), so they were actually not illegal under US statute and international treaty at all! Whew. An example: waterboarding is only simulated suffocation, which doesn’t hurt, per se, and because it only lasts for a few minutes, it does not constitute suffering, which implies a much longer duration of acute distress. Or, set to music:

The memos are infuriating to read. The methods of torture described by these memos (and others, such as the John Yoo memos that have been circulating for a while) is evil. I’ve always felt proud to be living in the most successful, free, and reason-based nation that has ever been conceived upon this earth; even as a young person I remember learning about what torture was, and being so impressed and proud that we, the United States, did not partake in such depraved activities. And it breaks my heart to find out that under our last President the United States did begin to torture suspects who have been detained and are helpless. 

If you look around the progressive blogosphere (and even some on the right), it’s easy to find people like me, who are disgusted by torture, and who, like Shepherd Smith of Fox News, feel that as Americans, “we don’t fucking torture.” But in my personal conversations, even with close friends and family, I’ve found a lot of resistance. The ridiculous, ticking time-bomb scenario comes up over and over, as does the claim that torture is more effective than traditional, non-barbaric (and well studied and practiced) methods of interrogation. There is nothing to suggest that this is true, and plenty to suggest that it is false, including this testimony in an op-ed in today’s NYT by a former FBI interrogator who interrogated terrorist suspects:

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.

The author of that op-ed, Ali Soufan, does not take the time to shoot down another important claim that torture worked. President Bush claimed in 2008 (and other times, I can’t find them right now though) that “enhanced interrogation” of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had lead to disruption of the “Library Tower” plot to blow up that building in Los Angeles. However, that plot was actually “discovered” in 2002 (having been all but abandoned after Sept 11, 2001, when using airplanes as missiles ceased to become a viable terrorist tool), well before torture was illegally “legalized” and KSM was captured. 

Torture is not a useful tool. If you are being tortured, you’ll say anything to make the pain and suffering stop: that’s why it is so useful for extracting false confessions (the military’s SERE program, on which the Bush admin modeled their torture program, was created to expose US soldiers to some of the techniques that may be used against them to illicit false confessions if they were captured by brutal dictatorships). Because false information so frequently pours out during torture sessions, any real intelligence that also comes out is obscured and possibly lost, especially when it is later confirmed that much of what the suspect was saying was false. Yglesias expounds:

Suppose a Fox News producer was holding me hostage and torturing me to get me to reveal the links between George Soros, Think Progress, and NBC News in a vast conspiracy to subvert Bill O’Reilly. I would, I think, quickly “break” and tell him everything I know. But what I know isn’t what he wants to hear. After all, he already “knows” all kinds of stuff there’s a “well coordinated, well financed cabal” that we’re involved with. He doesn’t want to know what I know, he wants confirmation of what he already thinks he knows plus some additional juicy details.

So I’ll tell him the truth and he’ll conclude that I’m lying or holding out on him. Then I’ll start lying and trying to tell him what I think he wants to hear. Some of what I say will be what he already “knows” and he’ll be happy. But then he’ll check out some of the other stuff I told him, and it won’t check out because I was just making it up to get him to stop torturing me. Then he figures out that I’ve been lying to him, so he tortured me some more. Then I try to explain that, yes, yes, I was lying but only to get him to stop torturing me! Really, I was telling the truth the first time! But of course nobody’s going to believe that. I’m just doing more holding out. So he needs to devise some additional “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
And he’ll make me talk allright! I’ll say tons of stuff. And he’ll waste time trying to verify baseless leads. And any inaccurate suppositions he already has will be confirmed. Sometimes he may wind up making a mistake, and “confirming” made up stuff I tell him. And he’ll get true stuff out of me, too. Some of it he won’t believe and some of it he will.

On the other hand, there is a long history (by good guys and bad) of effective intelligence gathering from captives using psychological pressure, trickery, and trust-building. The London Times’ Ben Macintyre, via Sullivan:

Colonel Robin “Tin Eye”Stephens was the commander of the wartime spy prison and interrogation centre codenamed Camp 020, an ugly Victorian mansion surrounded by barbed wire on the edge of Ham Common. In the course of the war, some 500 enemy spies from 44 countries passed through Camp 020; most were interrogated, at some point, by Stephens; all but a tiny handful crumbled.

he terrifying commandant of Camp 020 refined psychological intimidation to an art form. Suspects often left the interrogation cells legless with fear after an all-night grilling. An inspired amateur psychologist, Stephens used every trick, lie and bullying tactic to get what he needed; he deployed threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he never once resorted to violence. “Figuratively,” he said, “a spy in war should be at the point of a bayonet.” But only ever figuratively. As one colleague wrote: “The Commandant obtained results without recourse to assault and battery. It was the very basis of Camp 020 procedure that nobody raised a hand against a prisoner.”…. His motives were strictly practical. “Never strike a man. It is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment. And having given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise.”

Sullivan goes on to quote the wiki profile of Hans-Joachim Gottlob Scharff, the chief interrogator for the Germans during WWII:

He is highly praised for the success of his techniques, especially considering he never used physical means to obtain the required information. No evidence exists he even raised his voice in the presence of a prisoner of war (POW)….

Scharff was opposed to physically abusing prisoners with the intent to obtain information. Taught on the job, Scharff instead relied upon the Luftwaffe’s approved list of techniques which mostly involved making the interrogator seem as if he is his prisoner’s greatest advocate while in captivity.

After the end of WWII, Scharff was invited by the United States Air Force to give lectures on his interrogation techniques and first-hand experiences. The U.S. military later incorporated Scharff’s methods into its curriculum at its interrogation schools. Scharff’s methods are still taught in US Army interrogation schools…

It’s clear that many actual intelligence-gathering professionals (including Souref, “Tin Eye,” and Sharff, but excluding Cheney, Jay Bybee, John Yoo, et al.) feel that torture is ineffective, and will not produce intelligence to better protect us. I honestly have not seen any testimony of agents/intelligence professionals who claim that torture was effective – point them out if you do. So there you go. That’s great fodder for me to present when I’m arguing next time.

But what really gets me is the lack of consensus that morality is a essential and worthy good. Due process, criminal justice, lawful search and seizure, and our prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment are things that directly benefit every American, every day. We live with great freedom to do what we want, we do not live in fear of our government, we know that there must be good evidence against us to put us in captivity, and we know that if there is some mistake, we have redress, and we won’t get beaten up by the state in the meantime. Additionally, our moral high ground and civil processes inspire people in other nations all around the world, and it is invaluable for our national security. What’s more, it’s something that we can take pride in. It is a great and valuable thing to say that we do not torture, that we do not stoop to the barbaric and cruel level of our enemies. Even putting all of the gross illegality of the torture aside, I believe that the immorality of these torture memos do more to degrade the indomitable American spirit than any terrorist attack ever could. 

There is a lot of good, important stuff to read about the ramifications of the release of these torture memos; Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald‘s blogs are good places to start.


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