Tortured Justifications

So it’s out in the open now. Central Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Michael Hayden admitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that the CIA used the coercive interrogation technique known as waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, on three al-Qaeda operatives in 2002 and 2003. The technique is widely viewed as torture, which is prohibited by U.S. law and international treaties. Gen. Hayden said it has not been used since 2003 but that the CIA could use it again if approved by both the attorney general and the president.

The Justice Department is currently investigating the destruction of videotapes of the interrogations of two detainees held in Thailand who were reportedly subjected to waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques to determine whether destroying the tapes amounted to obstruction of justice. However, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said Thursday that the Justice Department cannot probe the legality of the interrogations themselves because the department said they were legal in 2002 and 2003, but new laws passed since then make it “not certain that that technique would be considered lawful under the current statute.” CIA director Hayden says he prohibited his agency from using waterboarding in 2006.

Well, now. Do you suppose that public disclosure of these incidents will lead to a firm U.S. policy preventing government operatives from using torture in the future? Given the almost incoherent murmurings from the administration, that may be too much to hope for as long as this administration is in power. Press spokesman Tony Fratto intimated that it might be used in the future (though the CIA and FBI seem convinced it is illegal) and Darth Cheney (of course!) said he was glad and proud that the U.S. had done it.

Will that attitude last forever? Perhaps the best thing about the emergence of Sen. John McCain as the Republican presidential front-runner is that Sen. McCain, who was tortured by the North Vietnamese while a POW during the Vietnam War, has expressed his firm opposition to the use of torture by the U.S. He has said that one thing that helped him endure torture and imprisonment was the knowledge that our side doesn’t engage in such barbarity – although Philippine guerrillas could testify that it was not always so.

Torture is sometimes justified as the only way to extract information from detainees when an attack is deemed imminent, and Gen. Hayden said in 2002 and 2003 that everybody expected more attacks after 9/11. But most experienced interrogators say that torture seldom if ever produces reliable intelligence and that while other techniques may take longer, they generally produce better information. Recent Army War College research reinforces the perception that although there may be occasional instances when a detainee blurts out the truth under torture, in the vast majority of instances people being tortured say what they think the torturer wants to hear or might believe – anything to get the pain to stop. If the person being tortured has any training or dedication to cause at all, torture is much more likely to produce lies than the truth.

Sometimes torture that elicits lies can lead to much larger tragedies. As I wrote a couple of years ago:

“For example, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was subjected both to the cold cell and waterboarding. Eventually he told interrogators that Saddam Hussein’s regime had trained al-Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons. This ‘confession’ became a key part of the administration's case for invading Iraq. But it was pure invention. And relying on it led to a huge disconnect between justification and the realities that emerged after the invasion of Iraq that would have been hugely embarrassing to the administration, if this administration were in fact capable of embarrassment.

“Not that the president or anybody in the administration has even acknowledged, let alone apologized for, the mistakes and lies that led many Americans to support the invasion initially.”

At a more fundamental level, the use of torture blurs the line between civilized societies and ruthless barbarians. Permitting torture by the government of a society that likes to think of itself as civilized can lead to tragic and bizarre results. Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern noticed, for instance, that on Thursday President Bush attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast and intoned: “When we lift out hearts to God, we’re all equal in his sight. We’re all equally precious …In prayer we grow in mercy and compassion.” That same day Darth Cheney told the Conservative Political Action Conference he was glad the U.S. had detained and harshly interrogated those al-Qaeda prisoners, whom he apparently didn’t consider quite equal and deserving of mercy and compassion.

In the larger struggle with jihadist terrorists and their supporters and those tempted to harbor them, the perception that the United States has a certain moral authority is invaluable. Moral authority (sometimes deserved, sometimes not) was a key factor in the long, twilight struggle we call the Cold War. Using torture undermines that moral authority.

It is beyond dismaying, therefore, that White House spokesman Tony Fratto on Wednesday was still saying that waterboarding might be used justifiably in the future. It would have been better to acknowledge that in the wake of 9/11 the U.S. used coercive techniques, that one could understand the temptation considering the circumstances and the lack of knowledge about al-Qaeda, but that we had renounced them.

It is telling that the firmest opponents of the use of torture tend to be military and former military people, who understand the dangers to captured military personnel if it is widely believed that the U.S. still engages in torture. During previous debates on torture not only Sen. McCain but Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a former military lawyer, as well as dozens of retired top-level officers, weighed in against even a hint of the authorized use of torture.

The most prominent defenders of torture are sofa samurai and deskbound intellectuals and lawyers whose experience consists of watching “24” and dreaming up convoluted justifications. These mock-macho war weenies deserve to – no, I guess it would be inconsistent to waterboard them, but if they ever came to my house I would throw them in the pool.

Perhaps there’s a bright side to the fact that modern “conservatives” (unlike the hardy breed that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s) tend to be worshippers of authority figures. At the CPAC convention they went beyond being polite to John McCain, whom most of them couldn’t stand a few days ago and started applauding him enthusiastically. (Some of them did stay and applaud Ron Paul, who was especially tough on the war and directly critical of McCain on a range of issues.) He was, after all, the designated leader now, and conservatives and Republicans love to “touch the purple” as a former colleague used to put it.

Now that the wearer of the purple is an opponent of the use of torture by the United States, will the newly enlightened followers of the newly anointed Great Man stop justifying and demanding torture? Probably not entirely, but they might not make it so central to their public talking points.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).