Put Torture on Trial

President Barack Obama is to be commended for his planned closure of Guantanamo and covert CIA prisons as well as his instructions that no United States agency will exceed the U.S. military’s guidelines on interrogation, but he does not go far enough. Transparency and accountability are necessary to clear the air over the issue of torture and the egregious human rights violations committed by the Bush administration, if only to ensure that nothing similar will ever happen again.

The issue of torture itself has become an ideological abstraction, with the neoconservatives and their claque reflexively supporting it. It is also often discussed in the intelligence community, particularly when CIA case officers who served in the pre-torture 1980s and 1990s gather. There are undeniably some who believe that all terrorist suspects should be tortured even unto death to tell what they know, but most former officers wonder at the cultural metamorphosis that has turned the CIA into some kind of global police force that is bound neither by ethics nor by conventions. "Where did these people come from?" is frequently heard, referring to that intrepid band that is willing and able to waterboard a helpless suspect. But even if the rank and file are not convinced by arguments in favor of torture, prominent figures in the intelligence business are sending out a different message. Soon-to-be-replaced CIA Director Michael Hayden and departing Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell both support "enhanced interrogation methods," including waterboarding, giving the impression that intelligence experts who truly know the facts believe that torture somehow serves the national interest.

The media has its own agendas, of course, such as supporting and justifying the idiotic and ineffective war on terror. A prime example of the agitprop that continues to appear supporting torture is a contrived front-page article in the Jan. 10 Washington Post titled "Obama Under Pressure on Interrogation Policy," which claimed that many in the government support the CIA’s continuing to do whatever it takes to get information out of terrorist suspects.  It cited the single case of Abu Zubaydah, where it has been alleged that important intelligence was obtained after waterboarding, an account that has been questioned by Ron Suskind, among others, because Zubaydah was apparently mentally retarded and provided no information of any value.  One should also note that in spite of the headline suggesting widespread support, only a single individual was cited by name in the article as advocating the Bush interrogation policy:  Vice President Dick Cheney.

Even the Post‘s particularly obtuse editors should have realized that if one case is all that can be cited after seven years of thuggishness, the practice of torture should be ended because of the damage it has done to America’s civil liberties and reputation. There are also other good reasons to oppose torture and torture by proxy through CIA rendition. Torture is immoral and is a war crime, a view that is generally accepted around the world and which is shared by most Americans. In practical terms, torture also opens up a door that should never be opened by anyone who genuinely cares about U.S. soldiers, diplomats, and intelligence officers stationed at their peril around the world. To put it succinctly, if we do it to them, they will do it to us.

It has also been frequently noted that torture does not always work, that some will be able to resist it and, more frequently, the victim will say what he thinks his tormentors want to hear. Professional interrogators largely agree that much more good information is obtained by treating detainees humanely than by subjecting them to torture. Israeli officers working for the internal security service Shin Bet discovered, to their surprise, that they were able to get better and more reliable information by treating their Arab prisoners decently after that country’s Supreme Court banned all forms of physical coercion.

Given the shift in policy by Obama, why then do torture advocates continue to be featured prominently in the media? Torture proponents have assiduously cultivated a number of myths, most prominent of which is the "ticking time bomb." This is a particular favorite of the redoubtable Alan Dershowitz and a number of leading neocons. It goes like this: a captured terrorist has knowledge of an impending attack on a major civilian target, but he won’t cooperate. How to get the information? Simple. Set up a legal procedure that enables you to torture him until he talks, thereby saving the lives of innocent civilians. The only problem with the Dershowitz narrative is that there has never been such a scenario. No terrorist has ever been captured, subjected to torture, and provided information that foiled an attack, not even in Israel where routine torture of suspected terrorists captured in flagrante used to be the case. Advocating a policy of torture, with all that entails, based on a "what if" is fighting evil with more evil, not a solution.

A second myth propagated by torture advocates like McConnell and Hayden is that judicious use of "enhanced interrogation methods" has, in the past, provided information that has led to the capture of militants and the disruption of terrorist plots. They maintain that the CIA should be free to torture in situations where the circumstances appear to warrant such an approach. One problem with that line of reasoning is that using physical abuse is a slippery slope, always leading to more abuse, not less. Abu Ghraib was not an isolated instance of gratuitous behavior. It was part of a system where abuse became the norm and was accepted as such. Recent revelations that torture has been widespread at Guantanamo prison should be seen in the same light.

Hayden and McConnell’s assertion that torture produces valuable information generally fails to pass the smell test based on evidence of enhanced interrogations that have wound up in the media. The frequently cited example of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded, provides little actual evidence that the torture produced information that might not have been obtained more conventionally. Indeed, under torture Mohammed confessed to crimes that he could not possibly have committed. If the heads of America’s intelligence services cannot provide convincing details of just how torture produced otherwise unobtainable benefits they should cease and desist in their promotion of the practice. They will undoubtedly claim that the information supporting their advocacy is classified, but every intelligence officer knows how to edit and sanitize information to make it comprehensible to the public without revealing any secrets. That they have not done so indicates that their argument is 90 percent hokum, intended to deceive rather than convince.

To be sure, the principal objective of the McConnells and Haydens of this world might be to legally protect themselves and their associates who have been engaged in war crimes, as President Obama is surely aware. They would like to see the incoming administration accept the principle that enhanced interrogation is an acceptable "intelligence" technique so that there will be no show trials or other punishment of officers who have engaged in the practice. One commiserates with the mid-level officer eager for promotion who, when ordered to torture, did so. Or the Office of Medical Services CIA doctor who violated his Hippocratic Oath while standing by to monitor the pouring of water up a suspect’s nose. Nevertheless, even CIA interrogators and doctors have free will. If they were bothered by what they did, they should have refused or resigned. If they tortured willingly, they should face the consequences and stand trial, together with whoever issued the orders, just as Hitler’s minions did at Nuremberg. That they have tortured and now intend to write their books and collect their pensions is an abomination. Once Obama’s administration has settled in, there should be some kind of accountability, whether it be in the form of actual prosecutions or a commission of inquiry, and it should not shrink at indicting officials at the most senior levels. George Tenet, are you listening? No one should be allowed to carry out or order torture of another human being and walk away from it.

Inhabiting an odd halfway house are the supporters of torture-lite by proxy who wish to have physical abuse without legal consequences, through rendition. Neocon Reuel Marc Gerecht recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times suggesting that President Obama will likely see the light and eventually support continued rendition. Rendition is letting someone else do the torturing in order to avoid any unpleasant legal consequences, but like torture carried out by Americans, its track record is largely anecdotal. Some self-described intelligence experts have claimed it has produced critical information that has saved lives and thwarted terrorist attacks, but they hide behind a secrecy barrier to avoid having to tell the public who, what, when, and where. Lacking that and given the track record of the Bush administration, only a fool would believe that rendition is anything more than another bestiality that has entered the lexicon in the post 9/11 years. One well-documented rendition case, of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, consigned an innocent man to torture in Syria. Another rendition, of Milan-based Muslim cleric Abu Omar, appears to have been designed by Monty Python, employing a cast of hundreds at a cost of many millions of dollars. It is still playing out in the Italian courts. Omar was tortured in Egypt and eventually released when it turned out that he had no information of value.

So what does it all mean? President Obama has said no to torture, but the beat goes on. It appears that some in the media and the government want to preserve the option of being able to physically harm a helpless prisoner to obtain intelligence. If they truly believe that torture is an essential tool to defeat terrorists, they should make their case honestly and openly citing irrefutable evidence, something that they have failed to do. Not surprisingly, most torture advocates are neocons, the same names that have brought us the bizarre "global war on terror," war in Iraq, and an impending war with Iran. Their passion on the subject suggests that the issue is basically ideological, a willingness to go all the way to defeat the dreaded Islamofascists. For most neocons the "us" and "them" struggle is to the death, with the collateral damage to a few tortured and maimed Muslims along the way a small price to pay to remake the Middle East.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.