More truth about Dick Cheney and torture

In yesterday’s “Why Dick Cheney keeps torturing us,” I chose not to address the immorality of interrogation by torture because I wanted to focus on the true purpose of the former vice president’s cynical political tactics. But as commenter ‘Briar’ rightfully noted, a utilitarian argument against torture is in some sense too narrow. Even in the rare theoretical instance in which torture might produce useful results (we have yet to learn of a single one in the prolonged war on terror, as I wrote yesterday), its use would still be wrongheaded and reprehensible.

americacanttakeitThere are numerous reasons for this, of course, not least what it does to the person being tortured. Also deeply disturbing, although less often discussed, is what it does to the people who carry out the torture or who witness it being carried out. The New York Times article I cited yesterday with regard to intelligence extracted from Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah also reported that “watching his torment caused great distress to his captors.” Even for those who believed that brutal treatment could produce results, according to a former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case, “seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.”

In an in-depth article on torture I reported for Salon back in 2005 (also cited in yesterday’s post), this point was made particularly well by U.S. Army Captain Ray Kimball, who spoke with me about reports of Special Operations Forces brutalizing prisoners in Iraq:

“Torture not only degrades the victim, it also ultimately degrades the torturer,” said Kimball, who served in Iraq and now teaches history at West Point. “We already have enough soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after legitimate combat experiences. But now you’re talking about adding the burden of willfully inflicting wanton pain on another human being. You tell a soldier to go out there and ‘waterboard’ someone” — strap a prisoner to a board, bind his face in cloth, and pour water over his face until he fears death by drowning — “or mock-execute someone, but nobody is thinking about what that’s going to do to that soldier months or years later, when it comes to dealing with the rationalizations and internal consequences. We’re talking about serious psychic trauma.”

The moral imperative not to torture is manifold, powerful and obvious to most. The single greatest weapon against it is the argument that using torture saves American lives — so in that respect Cheney’s demonstrably false argument, that torture has worked, deserves to be called out for its cold political calculus.

Especially now, as the ongoing media campaign from Cheney and others who share his views appears to be working to a degree. From an analysis on the torture debate by reporter Scott Shane appearing in today’s New York Times:

Many intelligence officials, including some opposed to the brutal methods, confirm that the program produced information of great value, including tips on early-stage schemes to attack tall buildings on the West Coast and buildings in New York’s financial district and Washington. Interrogation of one Qaeda operative led to tips on finding others, until the leadership of the organization was decimated. Removing from the scene such dedicated and skilled plotters as Mr. Mohammed, or the Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali, almost certainly prevented future attacks.

It becomes more difficult to doubt the efficacy of torture after reading a paragraph like that from a respected national security reporter. (Even in an article containing a hefty dose of skepticism favoring the other side of the debate.) But if the above is accurate, why, for more than seven years, have no specific details been made public as to how and what “information of great value” was gained through brutal interrogations?

As Shane notes, “which information came from which methods, and whether the same result might have been achieved without the political, legal and moral cost of the torture controversy, is hotly disputed, even inside the intelligence agency.”

In light of all the known evidence to date, though, one thing is crystal clear: The political — and moral — onus rests squarely on the backs of the torturers.

UPDATE: Ali Soufan, an FBI agent directly involved in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, speaks out publicly today for the first time on the torture issue. His Op-Ed is well worth reading in its entirety; here’s what stands out in particular per above:

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.

It’s also worth noting that Soufan is the central figure in Lawrence Wright’s account of a pivotal interrogation prior to 9/11, which I cited here yesterday.

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2 comments so far

  1. Lora K. on

    My objection to torture in interrogation, beyond the basic reason of morality, is that it seems a jury would easily consider a confession forced and a confessor sympathetic in certain cases resulting in inappropriate sentencing or false charges. Further, don’t we have better ways to obtain information? Why must we stoop to the level of abuse — for which neocons criticized Saddam Hussein so roundly — to get this intel? What are the alternatives to torture? Why aren’t people talking about what can and should be done better in interrogations? It’s important to find those solutions for the wrongfully accused and the interrogators alike. Meanwhile, results for the criminals should be the same. I say this of course with no military experience. All points of view welcome…

  2. […] a doubt, America would benefit much from recruiting more Ali Soufans, while throwing its “Big Steves” behind […]


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