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Why Torture Doesn't Work

When the Wall Street Journal came out in favor of abusive interrogation, it turned a blind eye on reason in favor of supporting the White House line.
 
 
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Remarkably, of the nation's major newspapers, only the Wall Street Journal has editorialized in support of torture as a useful tool of American intelligence policy. Regrettably, that position does a huge disservice to the nation and its soldiers. There are really only three issues in this debate, and the Journal carefully turned a blind eye to all three: (1) is torture reliable, (2) is it consistent with America's values and Constitution, and (3) does it best serve our national interests?

No one has yet offered any validated evidence that torture produces reliable intelligence. While torture apologists frequently make the claim that torture saves lives, that assertion is directly contradicted by many Army, FBI, and CIA professionals who have actually interrogated al Qaeda captives. Exhibit A is the torture-extracted confession of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al Qaeda captive who told the CIA in 2001, having been "rendered" to the tender mercies of Egypt, that Saddam Hussein had trained al Qaeda to use WMD. It appears that this confession was the only information upon which, in late 2002, the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state repeatedly claimed that "credible evidence" supported that claim, even though a now-declassified Defense Intelligence Agency report from February 2002 questioned the reliability of the confession because it was likely obtained under torture. In January 2004, al-Libi recanted his "confession," and a month later, the CIA recalled all intelligence reports based on his statements.

Exhibit B is the case of Manadel al-Jamadi, an Iraqi deemed a "high-value" target by the CIA. After being beaten to an extent that he had several broken ribs, he was subjected to a form of crucifixion known as "Palestinian hanging." Forty-five minutes later, he was dead, never having revealed whatever vital, ticking-bomb information his American interrogator was seeking.

If there is reliable evidence that torture has, in fact, interrupted ticking time bombs and saved lives, the gravity of the crisis created by the administration's free-wheeling torture policy demands straight answers which can be weighed and evaluated by a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission whose membership might include interrogators, jurists, theologians, national security specialists, military leaders, and political leaders. The damage to our national interests and the dismal record of war candor by this administration has made "trust us" an insufficient justification for such a profound change in American law and moral values.

The Journal claims that Abu Ghraib was an anomaly -- that it has become a "torture narrative" that erroneously blames the CIA for the abuses depicted in the infamous photographs. The Schlesinger report was cited for the conclusion that the perpetrators were merely a group of sadistic, poorly trained Reservists. This argument, however begs the question; the rationale for the McCain amendment rests not upon Abu Ghraib, but upon the cascading stream of documented reports from other places in Afghanistan and Iraq in which brutal torture has been either authorized or winked at by several different military and civilian chains of command.

The Journal further distorts the facts by arguing that techniques such as waterboarding (which induces the sensation of drowning), leaving prisoners outdoors in freezing weather, and stress positions which can cause suffocation and collapse, are not really "torture," but are just "psychological techniques designed to break a detainee." There is, certainly, a psychological component to torture, but the real issue is whether what's done causes severe physical or mental pain or suffering. Of the crucifixion form of "psychological" pressure which the CIA worked upon Jamadi, one of the soldiers who cut him down said he had never seen anyone's arms positioned like that; "[I] was surprised they didn't just pop out of their sockets."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has endorsed the McCain amendments, and declared, "In the face of this perilous climate, our nation must not embrace a morality based on an attitude that 'desperate times call for desperate measures.' There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated for any reason." Our embrace of torture is completely inconsistent with our commitment to equal justice and the rule of law.

The Journal assumes that only the worst of the worst will be subjected to torture when it comes to ticking time bombs. Not only is that assumption unfounded, based upon the widespread abuses in Iraq, it was tried and abandoned by the Israelis. Because it is impossible to confirm with advance certainty what any suspect actually knows, ticking bomb torture can be justified in virtually every interrogation. When Israel experimented with "torture lite," supposedly reserved for ticking-bomb circumstances, it was not long before 85 percent of all Palestinian detainees were being given the harshest treatment allowed. The capability to finely calibrate torture has eluded every democratic government which has tried it.

The inescapable fact is that America's standing in the world, and especially in the Middle East, has never been lower. The price we have paid for our misdirected torture policies has been incalculable. The Arab street may not always grasp the finer points of separation of powers or proportional representation; but everyone, everywhere, comprehends hypocrisy, and judges us for ours. If the torture advocates truly believe that the value of violently coerced information has been worth the plummeting drop in America's world stature, or that such information is worth the clear and present endangerment of captured Americans, it's time to justify the claimed value of torture to the nation in whose name it's being done. Not assumptions, not generalizations, not, "I can't explain because it's classified."

The president and vice president wish to chart a course of heretofore unacceptable savagery toward anyone even suspected of terrorism. If we are to become a nation where a president may torture anyone he wishes, it deserves a broad, sober, fact-based national debate.

Brigadier General David R. Irvine is a retired Army Reserve strategic intelligence officer who taught prisoner interrogation and military law for 18 years with the Sixth Army Intelligence School. He currently practices law in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Learn more and help to make sure torture never again happens in America's name by visiting Human Rights First's campaign to End Torture .