The decision by the Obama administration to release memos showing the extent of the Bush torture regime (and I won't shy away from the word "torture") has ignited a debate in the United States over whether the perpetrators should be prosecuted. To me, it seems self-evident that actions in clear violation of domestic US law, international law, and various treaties including the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture (signed by the US in 1984), should be prosecuted, and those responsible brought to justice. When someone commits crimes in a liberal democracy, they are supposed to be held accountable by the justice system. At least in theory. Currently on display in the American media and government is a bizarre aversion to any form of accountability for crimes committed by the political elites of that country. John McCain even compared prosecutions for torture to something that only happens in "banana republics", as opposed to, you know, torture only happening in banana republics. But that is a whole other post, and I'll leave it to Glenn Greenwald and other bloggers to document the shameful goings-ons. In any case, there were some positive signs from yesterday's Presidential press conference, wherein Obama used unambiguous language describing waterboarding as "torture". This may indicate a shift in his position on prosecutions, but we shall see.
Part of what makes the “debate” over torture so exasperating is the way that some very simple facts get lost or ignored by one side (the torture apologists). The facts are that the United States waterboarded various “high value” prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and Abu Zubaydah, dozens of times. Was it to stop a ticking bomb? To gain crucial intelligence on impending Al Qaeda plots?
It’s important to recognize that torture has seldom ever been used as a means of extracting usable intelligence from terrorists or prisoners of war, and the current arguments in favor of such a practice are as new as they are morally bankrupt. From the Spanish Inquisition to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, torture has been used throughout history as a means of extracting false confessions from political prisoners or as a blunt tool of repression, not for gathering usable intelligence against terrorists. For this reason alone, the argument that the apologists use (that using torture is somehow necessary for the national security of the United States) is both ignorant and unprecedented in a modern liberal democracy, none of which, until now, have had any reason to sanction such a barbaric practice.
Let us return now to the documented cases of waterboarding. Upon their capture, both suspects were claimed to be very high level members of Al Qaeda’s organization, deeply involved in both the planning and execution of terrorist attacks. Looking back, it has become clear that these claims were highly inflated.
Of the two, it is likely that Mohammed was the more important figure, implicated in a number of terrorist activities even before 9/11. When he was captured, the Bush Administration authorized the CIA to use waterboarding on Mohammed, ostensibly to gain intelligence on any terrorist plots he had knowledge of. After being waterboarded on at least five separate occasions in March 2003, Mohammed “admitted” to his involvement in literally dozens of different plots, including everything from plans to attack NATO headquarters in Europe to the assassination of Jimmy Carter. Though it is far from clear how many of these plots ever amounted to anything more than wistful daydreams of Mohammed and his fellow jihadists, the United States government nevertheless sent agents and security personnel all around the country and the world in response to these imagined threats, and the Bush administration trumpeted their role in disrupting “dozens of terrorist attacks” thanks to their interrogations of Mohammed. More importantly, Mohammed admitted to being the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, though given the obviously unreliable nature of intelligence gained through torture, even this fact is suspect.
Abu Zubaydah was captured almost a year before Mohammed, and similarly, the Bush Administration claimed that he was a high ranking member of Al Qaeda with knowledge of terrorist plots and operations. And like Mohammed, he was waterboarded multiple times. Looking back, it seems quite likely that Zubaydah was nothing like the central figure that he was purported to be. His specialty in Al Qaeda was not planning attacks, but rather logistics, such as the transportation of the wives and children of terrorist leaders. Additionally, he suffered from various psychological disorders, and wrote a diary from the viewpoints of several split personalities. But like the interrogations of Mohammed, the admissions gained from the torture of Zubaydah were taken seriously by the American intelligence community, and resulted in significant waste of resources through the investigations of and responses to these non-existent plots.
It is important to note that neither Zubaydah nor Mohammed were tortured immediately after their capture. Though the two subjects were evasive and hostile, traditional interrogation methods (which included building a rapport between subject and interrogator, and “good cop, bad cop”) were initially used, and seemed to be producing results. The decision to torture the two suspects came not from any direct knowledge of a “ticking bomb” scenario (a common excuse made by torture apologists), but rather from the suspicions of US officials that these men knew much more than they were letting on, and from the Bush administration’s desire to trumpet successes in their war on terror. This is worth restating: these men were tortured to confirm the pre-existing suspicions of their torturers, which is qualitatively no different from torturing to extract a false confession. In both scenarios, torture is used to arrive at a pre-determined outcome. It is very dangerous to confuse this scenario with valid intelligence gathering, as torture will eventually compel the subject to provide whatever answers the interrogator wants to hear, and not the truth.
Additionally, there are strong indications that the Bush administration (notably Cheney and Rumsfeld) applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use these harsher techniques as part of their larger goal of tying the government of Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda. Where no evidence of a link was being found, these officials demanded that interrogators produce it. Yet again, torture was being used to produce a pre-determined outcome, not to reveal some crucial piece of information that would stop an impending attack. And predictably, this produced faulty information that was used to help justify a war against Iraq, most notably in the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who, after being tortured and deducing what his torturers wanted to hear, made wild claims about Iraq and Al Qaeda collaborating on biological and chemical weapons training.
These cases are merely the most extreme examples of state-sanctioned torture and prisoner abuse, but a pervasive system of abuse was implemented for the rest of the captured “enemy combatants”, including those held in Guantanamo Bay, Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and numerous CIA secret prisons spread throughout Europe. Detainees in these prisons have been routinely subjected to forced nakedness, induced hypothermia, dousing with cold water, sleep deprivation (both with harsh lighting and the playing of loud music), stress positions, isolation, and complete audio-visual deprivation, all of which are taken almost directly from the Soviet playbook. There were more creative techniques used at Abu Ghraib prison, including sexual humiliation and the use of dogs in a threatening manner, and although seemingly unauthorized by the highest levels of government, it is not hard to see the logical progression from what was authorized to what was not.
Almost invariably, professional intelligence personnel and experienced interrogators have denounced the use of torture by the US government, with its defenders reduced to bloviating talk radio/Fox news hosts, and right-wing politicians with no professional expertise in the subject. Here's a description of a visit to Iraq by Stephen Kleinman, formerly part of the Air Force's SERE program, designed to train US military personnel to resist torture:
Kleinman, a senior officer at the Air Force Academy where SERE training was conducted, was part of a team invited to Iraq in 2003 to observe interrogations and offer advice. He said he witnessed several episodes in which young troops sought to overcome a lack of training in interrogations by blindly using harsh SERE tactics on Iraqi detainees. Many of the interrogations took place in a former ammunition bunker, which he described as "underground, cold and dark."
In one instance, he said, a detainee was forced to kneel under a spotlight, flanked by guards toting iron bars, while interrogators shouted questions at him. Each answer automatically elicited a hard slap across the face -- a pattern that was repeated without pause for 30 minutes.
When Kleinman intervened to stop the questioning, the interrogators appeared baffled. "They didn't seem to think it was a problem," he said.
A second detainee interrogated in Kleinman's presence was subjected to sleep deprivation and painful stress positions. A third had all his clothes physically torn from his body and was ordered to stand continuously for 12 hours, "or until he passed out," Kleinman said.
When Kleinman complained about the practices, various Defense Department officials agreed that the techniques probably violated Geneva Conventions standards but the interrogations continued unabated, he said. By then, six months into the Iraq war, White House and Defense Department lawyers had issued legal opinions that declared the Iraqi detainees to be "unlawful enemy combatants" not covered by Geneva Conventions protections for prisoners of war.
Kleinman said the Air Force's training program was distorted into an offensive program. He noted that the harsh techniques were adapted from torture methods used by Chinese communists, and were never regarded as useful in eliciting intelligence. Instead, they break a prisoner psychologically and make him eager to say anything to stop the pain.
"That model's primary objective was to compel a prisoner to generate propaganda, not intelligence," he said.
Torture is not only immoral and illegal under US and international law, but as I hope I have demonstrated, it is also near-useless as a valid counter-terrorism tool. The debate is too often framed in false terms, with television personalities gravely pontificating about the “necessity” of real-life Jack Bauers doing the dirty work to keep their country safe, or the false dilemma of torturing a terrorist to prevent a bomb from detonating in an American city.
In fact, torture is not a necessity under any realistic circumstances, and evidence to the contrary is non-existent. There are those who claim otherwise, of course, those who claim that “enhanced interrogation” was instrumental in saving American lives. But they refuse to produce any corroborating evidence, using the typical defence that any such evidence is classified, and that releasing it would be harmful to national security. Such a defence is blatantly disingenuous, being obviously vacant yet impossible to disprove.