As a CIA officer in Turkey in the 1980s, I once had the misfortune of witnessing a man being tortured by the police. In those days, Istanbul was home to a foreigners’ prison, which has now been converted into a luxury hotel. In the foreigners’ prison anyone who was not a Turkish citizen was automatically dumped for processing and eventual imprisonment or deportation. The processing could take months, conditions were appalling, and the prisoners were frequently beaten by guards to extort confessions or just to pass the time. I was in the prison looking for an American citizen who had reportedly been arrested in Istanbul while on a business trip. It was my job as an officer in the U.S. embassy to try to get him properly charged with a crime or released.
I was inside the prison when a man was dragged in by two policemen. He had been picked up on the streets and was believed to be a dealer in soft drugs including marijuana and hashish. As anyone who has seen the movie Midnight Express will recall, Turkey is brutally tough on drug offenders. I stood and watched, unable to intervene in any way as the beating began, something that the prison warden assured me was routine in drug cases. The man, identified by the warden as an Iranian, was chained to a wall. The chains were pulled up tight so that he could not quite touch the floor with his feet. Two guards went at the suspended man with rubber truncheons, first beating his feet and then working their way up his body, ending up by crushing his fingers and smashing one of his collar bones. The man screamed the whole time and begged for mercy, apparently agreeing in his own language to confess to whatever his tormentors wanted, but the guards took no notice. After what seemed an interminable time but was probably not more than 20 minutes, the man, who was semiconscious and sobbing uncontrollably, was doused with a bucket of water, released from his shackles, and hauled away to sign his confession. I later learned that the American citizen I had been seeking had been arrested at the airport for having in his possession counterfeit travelers’ checks. He had also been beaten up by his jailers, though out of deference to his nationality he had not been subjected to the same level of abuse as the Iranian man I had seen tortured.
The Iranian prisoner was probably a genuine drug dealer, and one might argue that the torture was a useful tool that made him confess to something that he had actually done. Torture does sometimes produce a desired result, which is why it has been used extensively for thousands of years. But when beating a suspect to extract information, one cannot discriminate between truth and lies. One cannot determine whether the man was actually innocent and had only made up a plausible story to stop the pain. Many intelligence and security services around the world still use torture to obtain information and confessions. As every intelligence officer who has had access to information believed to be produced in that fashion knows, torture impels the victim of the punishment to confess to anything and everything in an attempt to make the pain stop. The information that comes from physical abuse is unreliable and frequently false.
In the latest controversy over the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the United States, President George W. Bush has rejected claims his administration uses torture and has defended the methods allegedly being used by the CIA. Bush was responding to the Oct. 3 New York Times report that the U.S. Justice Department secretly authorized harsh interrogation techniques for terror suspects in 2005 only months after a 2004 public statement in which the selfsame Justice Department declared that torture would not be acceptable in interrogations of terrorist suspects. On Oct. 5 Bush said, “This government does not torture people. We stick to U.S. law and our international obligations.” Bush’s comments are contradicted by the New York Times report, which states that the interrogation techniques approved in the 2005 Justice Department memo were some of the most brutal ever used by the CIA. They included head-slapping, exposure to freezing temperatures, and simulated drowning, which has been referred to as water-boarding. The 2005 legal opinion came shortly after Alberto Gonzales took over the Justice Department, and it was followed up by a second memo issued later that year that advised that none of the techniques employed by the CIA would breach anti-torture legislation before Congress that barred “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” treatment of prisoners.
Bush’s defense of his administration’s interrogation methods included the explanation that the questioning is carried out by “highly-trained professionals." He elaborated, “When we find somebody who may have information regarding an attack on America, and you bet we’re going to detain them, you bet we’re going to question them. The American people expect us to find out information, this actionable intelligence, so we can help protect them. That’s our job.” The president added that the techniques used had been “fully disclosed to appropriate members of the United States Congress,” but Democrats in both the Senate and House of Representatives denied that they had been briefed and demanded to see the two reported secret memos from 2005.
The Bush administration frequently points to the success of its employment of extreme interrogation techniques. The White House claims that it has saved lives and thwarted terrorist plots, though the assertions are never supported by any compelling evidence. Some other sources in the government suggest the opposite, that torture of terrorist suspects in U.S. custody has never produced any significant information, much less intelligence that has saved American lives.
In the one reported instance in which government sources concede that extreme interrogation tactics were used, that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, it is illuminating to examine what exactly was obtained. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, commonly referred to as KSM, was arrested in 2003 in Pakistan. He was reportedly water-boarded and “broken” by his CIA interrogators. He subsequently confessed to being involved in virtually every terrorist act carried out in the past 20 years, including 9/11, the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl, and the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole. He clearly was not actually involved in many of the incidents, but he was willing to admit to anything.
The issue of torture as a reliable interrogation tool aside, torture brutalizes and degrades the individual carrying it out, the organization he or she represents, and the government that approves of the practice. Even people who support many of the excesses resulting from the so-called War on Terror frequently understand that there are lines that should not be crossed, and torture is one of them. There have been reports that the CIA has had difficulty in recruiting people willing to carry out “extreme interrogation.” That attorney general-designate Michael Mukasey, who is almost certain to be confirmed by Congress, claims not to know whether water-boarding amounts to torture or not is outrageous. That the president of the United States has not been challenged by the public and press when he explains that “we do not torture” while he refuses to make public secret memos contradicting his words marks a sad day for those who revere our liberties. Mukasey and Bush’s evasions are symptomatic of the loss of any moral compass in post-9/11 American politics.