(There are times I feel like a broken record on torture and human rights abuses. This is something of a recap post borrowing somewhat from earlier pieces.)
Defending torture insistently means one's moral compass is pointing straight down to hell. I continue to believe it's essential to confront the dangerous and evil lie that torture "works" and that we're all going to die if we respect human rights, follow the law, or dare to investigate - let alone prosecute - the people responsible for these horribly shameful and criminal policies. However, as many have noted, that we are "debating" torture's usefulness at all means we've failed somehow as a society. As Scott Horton quipped in December 2008, "Perhaps for Christmas proper we’ll be treated to arguments for and against genocide, and on the fourth day of Christmas we’ll read the arguments for and against the practice of infanticide."
While specific false claims about torture and the Bush administration's conduct should be challenged, it's especially important to emphasize torture's immorality and its clear illegality. Torture is the very antithesis of freedom. The key dynamics are not truth, security or patriotism. They are power, dehumanization and sadism. As Rear Admiral John Hutson observed, "torture is the method of choice of the lazy, the stupid and the pseudo-tough." When someone is tortured, it means that someone else in a position of power over the victim has deliberately chosen to inflict significant pain and suffering on a fellow human being. Torture spreads and corrupts in a democracy. Not only do torturers often not recognize the truth even when it's told to them, sometimes the torturers get so carried away they don't "even bother to ask questions" and "torture becomes an end unto itself." As Soviet-era torture victim Vladimir Bukovsky put it, "Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling?" He also explains how, after several days of torture, "neither the doctor nor those guards could ever look me in the eye again." (See also The Lucifer Effect.)
These abuses have often resulted in permanent or serious physical and psychological damage (although torturers often prefer methods that hide the abuse they've inflicted). Torture is assault of the most cruel variety, robbing the victim of the sanctity of his or her own body, but also his or her very mind and soul. These are not actions to weigh lightly, tactics to endorse or excuse cavalierly, nor damages to forgive quickly before we even know precisely what was done. It's hard to imagine a more clear moral line.
Torture is (1) immoral, (2) illegal, (3) endangers us (especially American troops in the Middle East), and (4) doesn't "work" – unless one wants to inflict pain, terrorize the populace, produce bogus intelligence or elicit false confessions. It's not that torture never produces a true statement, but at best, torture "works" much the same way amputation "cures" all hand ailments. (That's still probably far too generous.) Experienced interrogators know that torture is unreliable and counterproductive in addition to being cruel and illegal. For obtaining reliable information, more humane, rapport-building techniques are far more effective. Furthermore, as John Sifton has pointed out, intel from prisoners typically grows "stale" quickly, and "if you’re relying on interrogations for intelligence, you’re already on the back foot. You’ve already lost the war, so to speak." Regardless, a skilled, experienced interrogator pursuing accurate information would not be approaching a prisoner asking, "How much pain can I legally inflict?" That is a self-defeating, dangerous path that leads all too easily to becoming "the enemies of all humankind."
Almost every excuse from Bush officials and their allies fits somewhere in the following pattern of descending denials: We did not torture; waterboarding is not torture; even if it is torture, it was legal; even if it was illegal, it was necessary; even if it was unnecessary, it was not our fault. Almost every new document and piece of information has exposed lies, deception and crippling inconsistencies in their self-ennobling but accountability-denying tale. The existing evidence does not support a "good faith" defense, but even if it did, an investigation would still be required by law. Anti-torture laws exist in large part to protect all of us from men and women so certain of their own righteousness or need that they torture others (normally until the tortured person says exactly what they want to hear - apparently, precisely what happened here). The "debate" on torture and specific abusive techniques are stalling tactics by torture proponents and apologists, who consistently favor fantasy over reality in their arguments, and want to prevent a full investigation or trial. They will discuss Jack Bauer and hypothetical ticking time bombs endlessly, but not Maher Arar or Binyam Mohamed (among many others). They typically ignore altogether such damning, central evidence as the Red Cross report, which stated authoritatively and unequivocally that prisoners in U.S. custody were tortured. Their specific denials shift depending on their audience, but they almost always ignore that for years we have tortured, abused and imprisoned innocent people. It's much easier to abuse people or justify their abuse, of course, if they're all viewed as guilty, dangerous, alien or subhuman. These practices have often resulted in significant, lasting physical and psychological damage - and even death. (That's not to mention their central role in selling the war in Iraq and the consequences of that.) Ignoring or outright lying about this level of cruelty and abuse embodies the banality and audacity of evil.
The general public has been horribly served by the press on these matters. Some reporters, organizations and blogs have covered these issues superbly. But major outlets such as The New York Times have chosen to use euphemisms for torture and have played the gutless and dishonest false equivalency game of he said-she said. They've routinely withheld the crucial context that America has prosecuted the same abuses in the past. (Meanwhile, America's covert operations have committed and taught similar abuses in the past as well, hardly in line with our best moments or stated ideals.)
Opposition to torture should not be a partisan issue, and it isn't. Liberals, moderates and rule-of-law conservatives, including many military lawyers, have spoken out against torture, abuse and the stripping away of legal rights. (Some more partisan conservatives opposed prisoner abuses until they realized how far up the authorization went.) Yet as Glenn Greenwald has shown, most Beltway pundits (and sometimes all pundits on a given show) oppose prosecutions and often even a full investigation.
It's maddening, as is too much of the mainstream torture "debate," because as Will Bunch asserts, "Torture is not about "winning the afternoon"" – we are discussing clearly illegal war crimes with serious consequences. Yet torture apologists are routinely granted respectability and their false and misleading claims often go unchallenged. Somehow, on the Beltway circuit, it would be rude – and perhaps too much work - to fact-check and refute them. Somehow, it's a radical notion to point out that torture is illegal and that legal statutes require that credible allegations of torture be investigated. Somehow, revealing the truth, or – heaven forbid – prosecuting a member of their Beltway class would be horribly "divisive," yet refusing to do so and asserting that the law doesn't apply to some people somehow isn't divisive. Torture apologists typically avoid any mention of the key legal statutes and major reports and articles on torture, and far too many pundits feel similarly entitled to ignore key evidence in the public record (and sometimes ignore their own op-eds). Instead, we get the characteristic and grandiloquent ravings of Peggy Noonan, claiming that "Some things in life need to be mysterious… Sometimes you need to just keep walking." In Beltway morality, torturing someone is fine - or at least debatable among civilized folk - but it's terribly, horribly rude and offensive to call someone a torturer, or to accurately describe what was done as torture, or even to acknowledge that anything at all took place. War crimes are just too contentious, an understandable indiscretion by gentlemen, or a mystery that passeth all understanding.
Most prominent torture apologists are not arguing in good faith, and virtually every pro-torture argument has been debunked countless times, including the infamous ticking time bomb scenario. Specific pro-torture arguments come in and out of fashion, but the most popular two currently are the counterfactual claims that we didn't torture anyone (David Rivkin, Liz Cheney) and that torture (or "enhanced interrogation techniques") saved lives (Dick Cheney, John Boehner, many talk show hosts). A few, such as Lindsay Graham, are "trying to find a narrow ground from which [to] condemn torture, yet prevent anyone from being held accountable for torture." (Trying to spread partisan blame is also popular, although it may eventually backfire.) Liz Cheney has attempted a particularly brazen tact favored by some torture apologists (including her mother) - denying that torture is torture while waving the flag and trying to shame her challengers. Liz Cheney told Norah O'Donnell that it "does a fundamental disservice to those professionals who are conducting this very effective program and to those people who approved the program in order to keep this nation safe and prevent attacks through the program to call it torture."
This would surely come as news to the many professionals, past and present, who have spoken out against these abuses. It'd be an astounding revelation to those who suffered the consequences of those policies, from those prisoners who were tortured and killed, to the American troops attacked, injured and killed, to the families and friends of both groups. As decorated military interrogator Matthew Alexander puts it:
There are valid reasons why we haven’t had enough with “torture sanctimony,” as Christopher Buckley puts it in an article in The Daily Beast, and let me start with the most important—it’s going to cost us future American lives in addition to the ones we’ve already lost.
Our policy of torture and abuse of prisoners has been Al Qaida’s number one recruiting tool, a point that Buckley does not mention and is also conspicuously absent from former CIA Director General Michael Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s argument in the Wall Street Journal. As the senior interrogator in Iraq for a task force charged with hunting down Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the former Al Qaida leader and mass murderer, I listened time and time again to captured foreign fighters cite the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as their main reason for coming to Iraq to fight. Consider that 90 percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq are these foreign fighters and you can easily conclude that we have lost hundreds, if not thousands, of American lives because of our policy of torture and abuse. But that’s only the past...
Former officials who say that we prevented terrorist attacks by waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah are possibly intentionally ignorant of the fact that their actions cost us American lives. And let’s not forget the glaring failure in these cases. Torture never convinced either of these men to sell out Osama Bin Laden.
These policies have been extremely harmful, and additionally, the various defenses for these abuses just don't hold up to scrutiny. As DDay noted on sleep deprivation, "a technique that takes 11 days to break a prisoner is most definitely NOT a technique used in reaction to an imminent plot, particularly not a ticking time bomb scenario." ("Break" in this context would almost certainly amount to the prisoner submitting to his captors' power, not necessarily providing accurate intel, even though the pro-torture crowd often mistakenly or intentionally conflates the two.) Emptywheel was the first to observe, "according to the May 30, 2005 Bradbury memo, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003 and Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002." As John Cole commented, "There better be a pretty damned long fuse on that ticking time bomb. And yes, this is nothing but pure sadism."
The more pieces we add to the torture narrative, the worse it looks. Each report, each new contradiction to the standard Bush administration version of events, further exposes the dishonesty of the torture apologists and the indefensibility of the actual perpetrators' actions. That trend looks to continue. Torture apologists want to muddy the waters to confuse the public, and frame the "debate" to prevent the most glaring questions from being asked: "What exactly was done, and who authorized it? What is the timeline? How can we best uncover the truth? Are members of the Bush administration guilty of war crimes? If so, how can they be brought to justice, and what should their punishment be?" More than anything, they want to avoid any questions about the role selling the Iraq War played in pushing torture. It's understandable why Liz Cheney would try to gloss over the starring part her father played in that diabolical plot, but it's hard not to share Dan Froomkin's amazement - why has the press been so silent on such explosive revelations?
Arguments that we shouldn't prosecute because of the public's own complicity are silly, misleading and self-serving, especially given the quality of the coverage, but even more importantly because of the law. Roughly half of the public supports investigations, although the numbers fluctuate, especially when polls use poor and misleading questions. As Dan Froomkin observes:
To me, these poll results demonstrate the genius of the Cheney strategy, which is to keep the argument limited to what happened at the black sites, which have an aura of "24" to them. The torture there was still inexcusable, but I guess forgiveable to many.
I doubt they would feel the same way if they were shown proof of a direct relationship between Bush policy and not just the torture of "high value" detainees, but also the vile abuse of garden-variety suspects at Guantanamo and Bagram, and of mostly innocent Iraqis at Abu Ghraib.
Has Dick Cheney told the truth or been accurate about anything of consequence at this point? Is there some reason to let him dictate the "debate" or take anything he says at face value, unverified, even when a mountain of evidence calls him out as delusional or a self-serving liar? (Or is basic journalism just too "impolite"?) These abuses were not isolated incidents, nor the result of a few bad apples. People were tortured and sometimes killed as a direct result of widespread, deliberate policies of abuse dictated from the very top. There is no serious dispute on this. The media haven't done a good job of making all this clear and pushing back against the liars who claim otherwise. And as Matthew Alexander puts it, "The American public has a right to know that they do not have to choose between torture and terror." The media as a whole have not helped spread the word about that, either.
We need a full investigation – and one without immunity handed out beforehand. We need as much disclosure as possible. For all the recent bluster from torture apologists urging the release of documents, the smarter among them only want cherry-picked releases and not the full picture. They want to prevent a trial at all costs. That's why it's essential to call Cheney's bluff on the document and investigation front. Surely, if these people are right, a full investigation and disclosure will exonerate them. Surely it's the only way they will be vindicated. That's the political gamesmanship, but the law itself is quite clear. The proper place for Bush officials to be offering their defenses is under oath, as part of a full and thorough investigation and/or on trial. An investigation is what's required by law given the clearly credible allegations of torture, and Bush officials could offer all their shifting defenses and "evidence" there. There is absolutely no good reason to believe the same or similar abuses won't happen again if we don't look at what happened. As retired Major General Antonio Taguba states, "There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."
This is not a game. These torture "debates" should not be thought experiments divorced from objective reality, history, the known timeline and the very real and deadly consequences of these policies. It's one thing for members of the general public to be confused or not be up to date on the general timeline and key details, or be swayed by fantastical ticking time bomb scenarios. It's one thing for the bloodthirsty chickenhawks who assume every Muslim or Arab prisoner is a guilty terrorist to indulge in their ignorant, self-flattering Jack Bauer fantasies of living in the "real world" of tough decisions. It's inexcusable that so many members of the media still - still - know and/or report these matters so poorly. We deserve and need better. It's not hyperbole to say that people are dead because of these policies. Given what we already know, how can we turn away? This is not a game to those who were tortured, nor to the families and friends of those tortured, abused, maimed and killed. It is not a game to human rights activists trying to end abuses around the world. It's not a game to the JAGs and other lawyers trying to ensure fair trials and treatment for their clients, guilty and innocent alike. Contrary to the grotesque bullying tactics, shameless lies or colossal self-deception of the Cheney family and their kind, it's not a game to the American and coalition troops attacked, injured, maimed or killed as a result of arrogant, feckless leadership and reckless, unconscionable and evil policies.
We have failed as a nation in allowing torture. We will fail again if we don't learn the full story and prosecute where appropriate as many of the guilty as possible. The perpetrators and their allies say they've done nothing wrong, so why would they stop should they re-gain (or maintain) power? The specific abuses of power may change, but the pattern of abuse will not. There's a direct line from Watergate through Iran-Contra to the Bush administration's abuses. As the recently-released Senate report shows, there's also a direct connection from trying to sell an unnecessary war with Iraq to torturing prisoners to make them "confess" to a non-existent Iraq-al Qaeda/9-11 link. And it's not as if no one ever warned the Bush administration that they shouldn't be doing this. As Cheney aide David Addington said (in the context of warrantless wiretapping and executive power), "We're going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop." That larger force clearly will not be conscience. And David Broder and his lazy, gutless, dishonest and addled ilk will not speak out for human rights or democracy any more than they opposed a war of choice or admitted their own culpability in that. It's up to the citizenry. We need to push for a full investigation, as much disclosure as possible, and prosecutions where appropriate. Torture is immoral and illegal. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but there's more than one road, and the price of doing nothing is just too damn high. It's a radical stance to be sure, but: Let the truth come out, and justice be done.
Many other sites have produced superb pieces on these issues. I've tried to link a number of them above, and in previous posts. However, Emptywheel has a superb torture timeline with links, and a shorter piece rounding up the most recently-released documents, including the Red Cross and Senate reports on the torture and abuse of prisoners, and the Bush administration torture memos.
My most extensive posts to date on the subject are (the very lengthy) "Torture Watch 2/19/08" and "Rivkin's Protean Logic on Torture."
I would recommend (although I've linked some of these above):
The Dark Side (July 2008) by Jane Mayer. Dan Froomkin provides a good overview of it, and some of Mayer's related pieces can be read online: "The Memo," "The Hidden Power," "Whatever It Takes" and "The Black Sites."
Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values (May 2008) by Philippe Sands. "The Green Light" by Sands covers many of the highlights.
Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (September 2008) by Barton Gellman gives one of the best overall accounts of how the Bush administration worked. Excerpts are here and here.
The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (June 2006) by Ron Suskind. (I have an older post covering the Abu Zubaydah material here.)
Torturing Democracy - the full documentary can be viewed online. (PBS chose not to air it before the end of the Bush administration, probably due to external pressure.)
Frontline - many good episodes relate to the Bush administration, but "The Dark Side," "Cheney's Law" and "Bush's War" are the most relevant, and can all be viewed online.
Taxi to the Dark Side is an Oscar-winning documentary about a Afghan cabdriver arrested, tortured and killed by American troops.
Mark Danner wrote two key pieces in the New York Review of Books in April 2009, "US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites" and "The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means." The first piece lead to the release of the Red Cross report.
"Torture's Long Shadow" (12/18/05) by Vladimir Bukovsky, a victim of torture during the Soviet era.
"It's Our Cage, Too" (5/17/07) by Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar, who write that "torture betrays us and breeds new enemies." ("Charles C. Krulak was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999. Joseph P. Hoar was commander in chief of U.S. Central Command from 1991 to 1994.")
"The General's Report" (June 2007) by Seymour Hersh on Army Major General Antonio Taguba and his attempts to report on the abuses at Abu Ghraib. (The sidebar links several other related Hersh stories.)
"Rorschach and Awe" (June 2007) by Katherine Eban, on torture psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. This April 2009 Democracy Now episode features Eban, and is a good overview of the subject.
"Waterboarding is Torture... Period" (10/31/07) by Malcolm Nance, a former SERE instructor.
"Why It Was Called 'Water Torture'" (2/10/08) by Richard E. Mezo.
"Tortured Reasoning" (December 2008) by David Rose for Vanity Fair, focusing on false claims of torture "working" on specific prisoners.
"I'm Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq" (11/30/08) by Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym), an American interrogator. He is also the author of How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. (I've linked several of his appearances above and in previous posts.)
"My Tortured Decision" (4/22/09) by Ali Soufan, an FBI interrogator who questioned Abu Zubaydah, and confirmed and fleshed out earlier accounts. Crucially, any actionable intelligence was obtained before Abu Zubaydah was tortured.
"Drop By Drop: Forgetting the History of Water Torture in U.S. Courts" (PDF, 2006) by Evan Wallach, a "federal judge and former judge advocate general" for The Columbia Journal of Transnational Law.
"Waterboarding is Illegal" (5/10/08) by Wilson R. Huhn, Washington University Law Review.
The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo, on the Stanford prison experiment and related issues of power and abuse. Zimbardo's site links a number of his appearances, including this Fresh Air interview.
Torture and Democracy (November 2007) by Darius Rejali. One of the most comprehensive books on the subject. Here's Rejali with Scott Horton.
I could easily keep going, and feel free to pass on any recommendations in the comments. Other posts have and will continue to take on specific torture apologist arguments. In the future, I may try to put together a torture primer of some sort, covering most of the arguments we've seen. But the most important task now is to push for a full investigation.
(Edited for clarity, and a few sentences and links added to paragraph 5 of the piece proper. It was a late night.)
Update 5/16/09: In comments, johnsturgeon and Nell of A Lovely Promise have recommended and linked the work of Alfred McCoy, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
His key book is A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (December 2006). As Nell notes, a limited preview is available through Google Books. She adds that "McCoy's book is an essential part of any torture 'syllabus'. He brings out the multi-decade, systematic research by the CIA into psychological torture, the torture paradigm that resulted, and the lasting damage that it produces on those subjected to it."
Here's some other McCoy links:
"Cruel Science: The Long Shadow of CIA Torture Research" (5/29/04).
"The Hidden History of CIA Torture: America's Road to Abu Ghraib" (9/9/04).
"Why the McCain Torture Ban Won't Work: The Bush Legacy of Legalized Torture" (2/8/06).
Democracy Now: "Professor McCoy Exposes the History of CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror" (2/17/06).
Democracy Now: "Historian Alfred McCoy: Obama Reluctance on Bush Prosecutions Affirms Culture of Impunity" (5/1/09).
"A Short History of Psychological Terror" (February 2008) is an hour-long lecture by McCoy on YouTube.
Thanks again for the recommendations. At least a half-dozen sites cover the latest factual revelations and political gambits on torture diligently (VS is not a breaking news site), and it seems most readers have at least one good source. I don't know about anybody else, but I read "we fight to build a free world" as both a rebuke and an inspiration. Thanks to everyone who's keeping the pressure up on these issues.
Update 5/19/09: Marcy Wheeler (Emptywheel) has a great article for Salon, "The 13 people who made torture possible," which serves as a good introduction or refresher on the key players and the basic timeline.
(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)