The Politics of Torture

May 12th, 2009

This issue of “torture” has become so political that it’s virtually impossible to have a rational discussion.  As with so many other issues in today’s highly-charged partisan environment, most of those on the left are against it, and most of those on the right are for it.  What utter nonsense.

Despite the glib, throw-away pronouncements of those who don’t know any better, aggressive interrogation does sometimes yield highly valuable information.  If an average person snatches someone off the street and starts pulling out his fingernails, of course the victim will say anything his tormentor wants to hear.  

However, a prisoner in the charge of a trained interrogator is another matter entirely.  The interrogator already knows that the prisoner has certain information, and he knows enough to be able to judge when the prisoner is lying.  He then increases the pressure and stress the prisoner is enduring until the prisoner understands what his best interests are and reveals the information required.

Not understanding the difference between those two scenarios is about the same as equating a serial killer’s dismemberment of a victim with a surgeon’s life-saving surgery.

Another article of faith among those who don’t know any better is that if we do it to our prisoners, then our enemies will do it to American soldiers when they are captured.  More nonsense.  Historically, American soldiers have suffered terribly in captivity, typically facing gratuitous violence, enslavement, neglect, and execution.  The fact the we didn’t treat prisoners the same way didn’t make any difference, and neither did treaties and international conventions. 

The Obama Administration has not acted wisely in selectively releasing some information, while holding back other information that might run counter to their policy preferences. Democrats in Congress have acted very irresponsibly, first supporting or at least acquiescing, then denying any knowledge and clamoring to criminalize their opponents. In the process of these political machinations, our national security has been damaged, the world has been turned further against us, and our enemies have benefited.

Should the United States engage in aggressive interrogations, using techniques that some consider “torture?”  No decent person, including me, wants that to happen.  John McCain, an honorable man for whom I have tremendous respect, is against it.  However, it should be pointed out that McCain suffered extreme treatment that was gratuitous or used as punishment.  His captors were not trying to extract critical, time-sensitive information essential to their national defense.

Here’s what is going to happen:  President Obama will someday authorize enhanced interrogation techniques to be used against a specific person or group.  McCain, had he become president, would have done the same thing.  In the continuing struggle against terrorism, even if the President isn’t ideologically inclined to call it a war, this is going to be necessary.  And we should never know about it. 

In the final analysis, if President Obama doesn’t do everything possible to prevent the deaths of large numbers of American citizens, then he will be the one who deserves to be impeached and removed from office.

*  *  *

There’s a very good, reasonably balanced discussion of these issues in Did Torture Save Lives? by Stuart Taylor Jr. in National Journal Magazine.  Here’s part of it:

The fashionable assumption that coercive interrogation (up to and including torture) never saved a single life makes it easy to resolve what otherwise would be an agonizing moral quandary.

The same assumption makes it even easier for congressional Democrats, human-rights activists, and George W. Bush-hating avengers to call for prosecuting and imprisoning the former president and his entire national security team, including their lawyers. The charge: approving brutal methods—seen by many as illegal torture—that were also blessed, at least implicitly, by Nancy Pelosi, now the House speaker, and other Intelligence Committee members in and after 2002.

But there is a body of evidence suggesting that brutal interrogation methods may indeed have saved lives, perhaps a great many lives—and that renouncing those methods may someday end up costing many, many more.

To be sure, the evidence in the public record is not conclusive. It comes mainly from Bush appointees and Central Intelligence Agency officials with records to defend and axes to grind. There is plenty of countervailing evidence coming from critics who have less access to the classified information that tells much of the story and have their own axes to grind. There are also plausible arguments for renouncing coercive interrogation even if it does save some lives.

But it would be an abdication for the president to proceed on the facile assumption that his no-coercion executive order is cost-free. Instead, he should commission an expert review of what interrogators learned from the high-value detainees both before and after using brutal methods and whether those methods appear to have saved lives. He should also foster a better-informed public debate by declassifying as much of the relevant evidence as possible, as former Vice President Cheney and other Republicans have urged. …

Should people suspected of plotting mass death really be treated more punctiliously than people suspected of burglary?

Not in the view of a veteran prosecutor who suggested somewhat ambiguously in 2002 that terrorists are not “entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention” and that we need to “find out what their future plans might be, where other cells are located.”

That was Eric Holder, whose policy now, as Obama’s attorney general, is to give full Geneva Convention protection to terrorists who may be plotting mass murders while considering whether to prosecute Bush appointees for going too far in their desperate zeal to save lives.

For additional information:

The CIA’s Questioning Worked by Marc A. Thiessen, The Washington Post
Geneva Convention Common Article 3, Center for Defense Information


Articles written by
Tags: , , ,
Categories: Military, Politics | Comments (14) | Home

Bookmark and Share

14 Responses to “The Politics of Torture”



  1. doris |

    The way I see it, we give far too many rights to all criminals–are child killers and pure evil torturers worthy of protection by law? Apparently so, but not with my blessing. I really think the idea is, if we believe in a cause, our war, should we allow torture to be used with our blessing? They believe in their cause, as well. They will die to protect their countries, too. Terrorists need to talk, but at the expense of our conscience? We still don’t have the information we need, and a lot of torture has been used and abused. I certainly don’t know what’s right, but torture of our fellow human beings seems harsh. Of course, if it were my family, I’d probably be all for it. A dilemma, for sure. As much as I dislike Bush, he does not deserve to be prosecuted because it is war and bad decisions need not be prosecuted. Maybe our policies on this need to be re-thought.


  2. Kevin |

    Our nation was founded on the audacious notion that there are certain rights that are inherent and can’t be conferred (or denied) by mere humans – thus the whole “inalienable” thing in the Declaration of Independence.

    To the exact same degree that we are willing to compromise our founding principles do we prove ourselves to be liars when we claim to be fighting to protect and preserve them.

    In my view torture is inherently un-American. It will never have my sanction as long as I remain supportive of the principles upon which this nation was founded.


  3. Tom |

    Kevin, I agree with you wholeheartedly. The thing is, if I were president (or you, presumably) and faced the necessity of getting my hands dirty in order to save American lives, I would do it. I wouldn’t like it, and it would keep me awake at night. But I would do it.

    As I said, President Obama, like any president, will do what is necessary to protect the U.S. I would hope that it doesn’t get bandied about and turned into a political football. Do you really think these kinds of hard choices were made only during the past eight years?

    What we’re really dealing with here is the vast gulf between the moral philosopher sitting comfortably before the fire and scratching Ol’ Blue between the ears and hard men struggling in the darkness doing what they have to. The former has no clue about the realities faced by the latter, and the latter can’t afford to get entangled in the philosophizing of the former.


  4. Kevin |

    Tom, it is my personal opinion that the Founders didn’t create a philosopher’s seat nor did they intend to.

    Any philosophy which can’t meet real-life conditions isn’t worth spit, IMHO.


  5. Tom |

    Kevin, you just consigned the vast majority of philosophers to the spittoon!

    Undoubtedly the Founders didn’t intend to create a philosopher’s seat for the presidency, and they didn’t in fact. President Obama’s most fundamental responsibility is to defend the country, and like every other president he’ll do what he must. I, for one, don’t envy him that awesome responsibility.


  6. Brian |

    Someone will certainly correct me if I am wrong, but to my knowledge, nobody at Abu Graib or Gitmo had their fingernails lifted off, or were beaten, raped, or anything else we know of as torture.

    Scaring the bejezus out of someone may be stressful to the recipient, but it doesn’t rise to the level of torture. I never water boarded anyone when I was a cop, but I used every mental tool at my disposal to get the information I needed for my investigations. Sometimes, especially for those that had never been through the system, it was graphic stories of life inside the penitentiary. At other times, it had to do with protection that we could provide for cooperation that would otherwise be unavailable. It ran the gambit. The mental stress on these people was palpable.

    As I understand it, the “torture” methods we’ve used with these folks is simply an upgrade from what I’ve done. To my knowledge, at no time was the life or physical safety of these people in jeopardy. It was not torture.


  7. Carla Axtman |

    The torture of detainees, whether they be Americans or not, cannot be justified. Period. Whether the “life or physical safety” of detainees was in jeopardy isn’t the question and frankly has no real bearing on the discussion.

    Harsh treatment or torture is ineffective in terms of providing useable, actionable intelligence. This has been roundly stated by experts on this matter over and over again. Torture and harsh treatment also have the very negative side effect of creating more enemies for the U.S.

    An Army National Guard Lieutenant recently responded to columnist Charles Krauthammer beautifully on this matter:

    Mr. Krauthammer,

    I don’t usually make a point of responding to the talking-head proselytizers in my Sunday paper but your column prompted me to do so.

    I’ll make this simple. There are NO circumstances under which torture is acceptable. Jack Bauer’s “24” makes for great TV but even in a ticking timebomb situation such behavior is inappropriate and illegal. Torture is counter to our moral code, a violation of the Geneva and Hague conventions to which we subscribe and perhaps least understood, but most significantly, counterproductive and ineffective. Nothing else really needs to be said, but if you want more details read on.

    I have friends who have been to SERE and instructed SERE students and acted as interrogators. All agree that waterboarding and other such ‘enhanced’ techniques are good for training (in a strictly controlled environment) our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on what to expect in captivity. They also agree that it is torture to anyone outside that training environment. Finally, they all agree that torture rarely results in actionable intelligence, as the victim is willing to say most anything to end the torture.

    So you must wonder, by what authority is this letter writer speaking? Well, as a Lieutenant Colonel and Combat Arms Battalion Commander in the Army I am responsible for the welfare, training, good order, and discipline of my soldiers. I am responsible for everything they do or fail to do. I am also responsible to follow and issue only those orders that are legal, ethical and moral. Torture of another human being is illegal, unethical and immoral, and I would be duty bound to disobey any such order…just as PFC Lynndie England and SPC Charles Graner (and their many counterparts, senior officers and NCOs at Abu Ghraib) should have done…just as any of my soldiers should disobey should I give such an order. We all have the lessons of Nuremburg to rely upon anytime such questions come to mind; “I was just following orders” is never justification for committing crimes against other human beings.

    Before deploying to Iraq last year, I explained these things to my troopers. It is difficult to explain to young (practically) kids, with little experience, and poor knowledge of the world…but if you are caring and committed, and repeat yourself often enough they learn and understand. I told them the most important thing they needed to take away from all their preparations was that while it would be terrible to lose one of them or have one of them seriously physically injured, it would be worse to have them come home physically well and mentally broken because they had somehow lost their humanity. Torture destroys our humanity, and any equivocation (feel free to exercise the Kantian absolutist vs utilitarian argument to your heart’s content) on the matter is just bullshit.

    . . . If captured I would honor our Armed Forces Code of Conduct to the best of my ability and go to whatever my fate, resolute in the knowledge that our nation remains a last bastion of what is right (or ought to be right) in the world. Torture has no place in America, and Americans have no reason to employ it. War ain’t fair, but we have to fight it while maintaining a level of dignity and humanity, jus in bello. This is rough work for people bound to a code of Duty, Honor, Country. Proselytizers, who say but do not act, need not apply.

    We are Americans. We don’t torture. It is beneath us morally and ethically. Always.


  8. Tom |

    Carla, I know that you’re a decent and moral person and that you believe what you say. However, when you say that aggressive or enhanced interrogation “is ineffective in terms of providing useable, actionable intelligence,” you’re simply wrong.

    For the most part, real experts, including intelligence professionals and skilled interrogators, don’t agree with that statement. I know that blogs, pundits, journalists, and politicians of a certain point of view make that claim, but few of them are in a position to know the facts. There are many who do know who are trying to state the facts, but their voices are muted by security restrictions and lack of media attention.

    Vice President Cheney, however viscerally you may hate him, has made a simple claim. He says that there are documents that establish the effectiveness of this kind of interrogation, and he has asked the Obama Administration to release them. So far they’ve refused, releasing only redacted documents that support their politicized point of view. Why not just add the documents Cheney discusses to the list of documents already released? We’ve already irresponsibly aired so much sensitive information that a bit more won’t do that much more damage, and perhaps we’ll learn something.

    With all due respect to the National Guard Lieutenant Colonel, he’s wrong on that point, too. Everything he says is what a field commander at his level should say, and the way he instructs his troops is absolutely correct. But in his position, at his level, and with his training, he’s just in no postion to make that broader claim.


  9. Carla Axtman |

    Tom:

    WADR, you’re absolutely and fundamentally wrong on this.

    Defense and intelligence experts have, at length, said that torture doesn’t work:

    Here is the info provided to the Pentagon’s Chief lawyer from the DOD’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/24/AR2009042403171_pf.html

    Multiple intelligence experts say it doesn’t work:

    http://www.newsweek.com/id/45788

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/mcclatchy/20090513/wl_mcclatchy/3232742

    http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2008/12/torture200812?currentPage=1

    http://www.northjersey.com/news/nation/44973427.html

    http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5gu_bjpCES63yPs8Lhqo0tvmLYwhA

    These aren’t just laypersons. These are FBI, CIA and U.S. military experts saying that these techniques do not work and that they are harmful to the U.S.

    No, I don’t like Cheney. But that isn’t the point. Either he’s lying or dozens and dozens of intelligence experts are lying. It’s not that tough of a call, Tom.

    The documents that Cheney wants which you refer to are part of an ongoing litigation, and can’t be released. Russ Feingold says he has seen those documents and has released a statement: “Nothing I have seen — including the two documents to which former Vice President Cheney has repeatedly referred — indicates that the torture techniques…were necessary.” Given the mounds of evidence against Cheney’s position, it’s tough not to, at least at first blush, agree with Feingold.

    The National Guard Lt. Col. is saying exactly what intelligence experts have been saying for months and months: torture doesn’t work..and is inherently harmful to the U.S.

    We are Americans. It is immoral and unethical for us to engage in such activities. Even if torture did yield actionable intelligence, it’s against everything we’re supposed to be about.


  10. Carla Axtman |

    More from intelligence experts, torture doesn’t work:

    The Army Field Manual (ch 34-52):

    “Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”

    A declassified FBI e-mail dated May 10, 2004, regarding interrogation at Guantanamo states: “[we] explained to [the Department of Defense], FBI has been successful for many years obtaining confessions via non-confrontational interviewing techniques.”


  11. Carla Axtman |

    A bit more…sorry for the multiple comments..had trouble with the links:

    http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=9876 (FBI Interrogator Jack Cloonan)

    More Cloonan with video: http://www.boingboing.net/2008/03/10/fbi-interrogator-tor.html

    http://www.alternet.org/rights/28585/ (Brigadier General David R. Irvine)

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/11/ig-report-waterboarding-w_n_201733.html (CIA inspector general’s report from May 2004)

    http://www.truthout.org/article/the-truth-is-out-cia-and-torture (Milt Bearden, a 30-year veteran in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations)

    http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/004931.php (The FBI interrogators who actually interviewed 9/11 suspects

    And then these guys: http://www.amnestyusa.org/war-on-terror/reports-statements-and-issue-briefs/military-intelligence-and-law-enforcement-officers-opposing-torture/page.do?id=1031036

    Rear Admiral (ret.) John Hutson, former Judge Advocate General for the Navy

    Bob Baer, former CIA official

    Lawrence Korb, former Naval Intelligence officer and Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration

    Dan Coleman, retired FBI agent


  12. Tom |

    Carla, I don’t want to get into a link war over this. We can all find as many links as we want to “prove” any side of any issue, including whether the world is flat or round.

    Part of the problem is apples and oranges are being mixed together. What the Army Field Manual says is fine. It’s written for soldiers, and how they should deal with prisoners, especially those covered by the Geneva Conventions, is clear. But that’s not what this discussion is about.

    As I tried to make clear in the post, there are circumstances in which a prisoner is known to a certainty to possess critical and potentially time-sensitive information. Under the control of a skilled, professional interrogator, that information can usually be gained through progressively aggressive interrogation. There is simply no question about that. That’s precisely what worked in the cases of the three Al Qaeda higher-level detainees who were “waterboarded.” President Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence made that clear in a secret memo, although he quickly began to tread water once the memo was known.

    The real travesty is that we’re talking publicly about this. The Obama Administration has done serious damage by selectively releasing redacted memos, which resulted in more information becoming known, which is generating requests for even more information in order for the whole picture to be available. All of this is incredibly valuable to current and potential enemies.

    Now the Speaker of the House is squirming like a bug pinned to a board, maintaining in her fifth or sixth version of her story that the CIA routinely lies to Congress. That simply is not true and is highly damaging to the CIA and the entire intelligence community.

    And while the government is all tied up in this theater of the absurd, highly important things aren’t being dealt with.

    We’d better hope that in the mad obsession of some to “get” Bush and anyone who ever broke bread with him that the President and his agents don’t get so hogtied with restrictions that they would permit a major terrorist attack to happen before they would harshly treat a terrorist who has information that would allow us to prevent it. Anyone who believes that is preferable to inflicting discomfort, however extreme, on a murderous terrorist is seriously misguided.


  13. Carla Axtman |

    Carla, I don’t want to get into a link war over this. We can all find as many links as we want to “prove” any side of any issue, including whether the world is flat or round.

    Perhaps. But what matters is the quality and content of the information, Tom. These people coming out against torture are those that know most about it: CIA, FBI and DOD interrogators.

    As I tried to make clear in the post, there are circumstances in which a prisoner is known to a certainty to possess critical and potentially time-sensitive information. Under the control of a skilled, professional interrogator, that information can usually be gained through progressively aggressive interrogation. There is simply no question about that. That’s precisely what worked in the cases of the three Al Qaeda higher-level detainees who were “waterboarded.” President Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence made that clear in a secret memo, although he quickly began to tread water once the memo was known.

    Your assessment contrasts starkly from interrogation professionals. Information gleaned from those techniques is often unreliable..and there is no question about that. One of the three of those detainees, Abu Zubaydah, was indeed tortured. The best information gleaned from Zubaydah happened before any harsh interrogation techniques were used on him.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/23/opinion/23soufan.html

    The real travesty is that we’re talking publicly about this. The Obama Administration has done serious damage by selectively releasing redacted memos, which resulted in more information becoming known, which is generating requests for even more information in order for the whole picture to be available. All of this is incredibly valuable to current and potential enemies.

    Frankly, the whole picture should be available. If we did stuff that’s so bad that we’re scared to have the rest of the world see it..then it needs to be understood and dealt with so that it never, ever happens again.

    Now the Speaker of the House is squirming like a bug pinned to a board, maintaining in her fifth or sixth version of her story that the CIA routinely lies to Congress. That simply is not true and is highly damaging to the CIA and the entire intelligence community.

    The community was damaged before Pelosi said a word, Tom. Pelosi doesn’t appear to have been briefed more than once, according to CIA documents. If she’s lying, then investigate her. Gingrich’s call for an investigation is rich..given how he’s said that investigations of the Bush Admin on these issues is tantamount to McCarthyism. But if you’re going to go after her–then let’s open up the whole thing: Bush, Cheney, DOD, CIA, all of it. It’s all fair game.

    We’d better hope that in the mad obsession of some to “get” Bush and anyone who ever broke bread with him that the President and his agents don’t get so hogtied with restrictions that they would permit a major terrorist attack to happen before they would harshly treat a terrorist who has information that would allow us to prevent it. Anyone who believes that is preferable to inflicting discomfort, however extreme, on a murderous terrorist is seriously misguided.

    These “restrictions” that weren’t in place before 9/11 wouldn’t have stopped an attack on the U.S. We had the needed procedures in place. There were over 50 serious warnings to the Bush Administration about a potential attack, and Bush ignored them.


  14. Pdon |

    Some people make morality easier by drawing strict lines such as:

    Not killing
    Not harming others
    Not torturing

    Regardless of weather it is in self defence or in the defence of others.

    However, in favor of it is the idea that the needs of the many come before the needs of the few, and that if it is prudent torture can be used if people are suspect, in order to save more lives / prevent more suffering.

    I would tow the line for not harming people at all, if people want to take a world by force, then let them have the pit they inherit.

    In a similar light, there is a “no negotiating with terrorists” line that has actually proved useful in reducing the potential number of “hostage” style situations.


Leave a Comment


(To avoid spam, comments with three or more links will be held for moderation and approval.)












Authors

Recent Posts

Categories


Archives


Meta

Blogroll



Creative Commons License;   

The work on Opinion Forum   
is licensed under a   
Creative Commons Attribution   
3.0 Unported License
.    






Support Military Families 
















   Political Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory

Listed in LS Blogs the Blog Directory and Blog Search Engine  

Demand Media

Copyright 2017 Opinion Forum