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Torture Covers a Multitude of Sins

February 7, 2013 ·

New revelations about the U.S. torture regime require new responses.

Torture comes in many forms from excruciating pain to death -- of the soul, if not the body -- by a thousand cuts.

Recently the conservative American Enterprise Institute held a forum on the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Its panel was composed of veterans of the Bush torture years: then CIA director Michael Hayden led the panel and was joined by Jose Rodriguez, then head of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, and John Rizzo, then the CIA's chief legal officer.

I intend to read the transcript in full, but, in the interim, will respond to William Saletan provocatively titled analysis at Slate, The Case for Torture. The forum on "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs) was, he writes

… a chance to examine our own thinking. Do we really understand what the CIA did and why? Was the payoff worth the moral cost? And what can we learn from it? … The stories [Hayden, Rodriguez, and Rizzo] told, and the reasons they offered, shook up my assumptions about the interrogation program. They might shake up yours, too.

Assumptions about the validity of torture were not shaken up on this author's part. But the forum did provide information about torture to which the public might not hitherto have been privy and which might prompt us to fine-tune our arguments against "EITs." For starters, you may have heard this one.

If you refuse to exploit prisoners, you’ll end up killing your enemies instead. All three panelists trashed the Obama-era conceit that we’re a better country because we’ve scrapped the interrogation program. What we’ve really done, they argued, is replace interrogations with drone strikes. “We have made it so legally difficult and so politically dangerous to capture,” said Hayden, “that it seems, from the outside looking in, that the default option is to take the terrorists off the battlefield in another sort of way.”

"Default option?" Why, exactly, are we stuck with one or the other: torture or drone strikes? Talk about your false equivalencies. As for sidestepping the "legal difficulties and political dangers" of torture, the answer isn't drone strikes, but inundating drone strikes, too, with "legal difficulties and political dangers."

Meanwhile, even for someone who has read as much about torture as I have, what follows was news to me. Hayden said that interrogators "never asked anybody anything we didn't know the answer to, while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques. The techniques were not designed to elicit truth in the moment." (Emphasis added.)

What, you ask, was the objective then? Saletan writes that "EITs were used in a controlled setting, in which interrogators [inflicted] misery only when the prisoner said something false."

The point was to create an illusion of godlike omniscience and omnipotence so that the prisoner would infer, falsely, that his captors always knew when he was lying or withholding information. More broadly, said Hayden, the goal was “to take someone who had come into our custody absolutely defiant and move them into a state or a zone of cooperation” by convincing them that “you are no longer in control of your destiny. You are in our hands.” Thereafter, the prisoner would cooperate without need for EITs. Rodriguez explained: “Once you got through the enhanced interrogation process, then the real interrogation began. … The knowledge base was so good that these people knew that we actually were not going to be fooled. It was an essential tool to validate that the people were being truthful."

To say that torture was intended to tune up (as they say in crime dramas) the suspect for a later interrogation instead of during the "EIT" itself is to put too fine a point on it. In truth, no qualitative difference exists.

Meanwhile, I always wondered how Abu Zubaydah could withstand 83 waterboarding sessions and Khalid Seikh Mohammed (KSM) 183. (See my recent post: Who's Degraded More: the Torture Victim or the Torturer?) The disturbing symmetry in the figures aside, wouldn't a suspect subjected to such torture suffer either a psychotic break, or -- the presence of a doctor notwithstanding -- brain damage? Saletan sheds light on why this apparently didn't occur.

While citing the program’s rules as a moral defense, the panelists also groused that the rules cost them leverage. KSM, for instance, noticed a time limit on waterboarding. “Pretty quickly, he recognized that within 10 seconds we would stop pouring water,” said Rodriguez. “He started to count with his fingers, up to 10, just to let us know that the time was up.”

If Rodriguez is telling the truth, what Zubaydah and Mohammed were subjected to might strike some as less like torture and more like extreme discomfort. We've been accustomed to thinking of waterboarding as existentially frightening -- a near-death experience. Now it seems less like peeling off fingernails or chopping off digits (the film torture du jour) and more like forcing a prisoner to stand, or subjecting him to loud music, cold, or round-the-clock lighting.

In fact, waterboarding for 10 seconds, as with the other practices mentioned, still falls under the heading of torture. But rather than a dramatic act of excruciating pain, torture becomes the accumulation of lesser agonies, not the least of which is the anticipation of the frequent episodes.

Unfortunately, there are those who would react to KSM's torture thusly: "Everyone knows he was responsible for 9/11 and we're supposed to care because he has to hold his breath for 10 seconds?"

If we want to present a credible argument to rebut proponents of torture, we need to be able to differentiate the different levels of torture from a near-death experience to death (of the soul, anyway) by a thousand cuts.

It might seem that, as with the word "genocide," we need to guard against applying the term "torture" with sweeping strokes lest the impact of the concept be diluted. In fact, though, torture is a large umbrella sheltering a world of torments.