After much anticipation, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a long-awaited report on the CIA's torture program following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Now we know unambiguously that by our own definitions and historic actions, George Bush and Dick Cheney should be tried as war criminals. There is not much subtlety here: The report summary states that the Bush administration initiated a torture program that was "in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations and our values."
Criminals of World War II and the War on Terror
Compare the Senate's report and what happened after we defeated Japan and Germany is clear. At the end of World War II, the Allies convened the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), better known as the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. From those trials we have victim testimony the torture; he is one example:
A towel was fixed under the chin and down over the face. Then many buckets of water were poured into the towel so that the water gradually reached the mouth and rising further eventually also the nostrils, which resulted in his becoming unconscious and collapsing like a person drowned. This procedure was sometimes repeated 5-6 times in succession.
In modern vernacular, this is called waterboarding (referenced as "water treatment" by the tribunal). Whatever its designation, between 1946-1948, the IMTFE convicted 25 Japanese leaders for crimes against humanity, specifically including torture by waterboarding.
The Senate report documents numerous examples of waterboarding under the Bush administration. In one case, a detainee was waterboarded 83 times. Nobody denies that such waterboarding took place or that this form of torture was known to and condoned by Bush and Cheney. Bush openly admitted he authorized torture. Bush and Cheney remain unapologetic for the alleged (but openly acknowledged) crimes for which we have convicted and put to death our enemies following the end of the Second World War. So here we must ask a simple, straightforward question: By what rationale would we not try Bush and Cheney for the same crimes we convicted the Japanese? I challenge anybody to answer that question other than with the inevitable conclusion that we should indeed try Bush administration officials for war crimes. No, really, go ahead and explain why we should not try Bush and Cheney as war criminals.
But let's take a step back from the alleged criminality of the Bush administration. Let's ask why. Why did we conduct these horrible operations? Why did we violate our most basic values? The rationale was always that torture was essential to prevent another terrorist attack; that torture saved lives. This rationale has become a mantra from those involved: CIA Director John Brennan, who was a senior CIA officer during a time secrete prisons were being established, still claims that "The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qaeda and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day." Brennan goes on to claim that torture "did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives." Dick Cheney insists today that the torture program was "absolutely, totally justified." Cheney insists that "torture works."
The Senate report lays waste to those claims. The very first conclusion from the report: "The CIA's use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees."
In addition, the Senate study finds that the information acquired proved irrelevant to stopping terror threats. In others, the use of the techniques resulted in detainees providing fabricated or inaccurate information, and in still other cases, the information obtained through interrogating the detainees had already been acquired through other techniques. Bush and Cheney condoned torture for nothing. Their arguments for torture are bogus, unsupported by history, negate our core values, and have the perverse effects of undermining our security. We have known this long before the Senate report was published.
Three Critical Flaws
The Bush administration's line of reasoning was then and is now deeply flawed for three critical reasons: 1) abundant evidence, supported by the Senate report, and which we will examine in detail, demonstrates that torture is an ineffective means of gathering actionable intelligence, 2) defining if some action "works" is arbitrary and therefore subject to abuse and manipulation as a metric to measure viability, and 3) torture is immoral, even if the technique were proven to be effective (and they are not).
Any one of the three points would undermine the argument supporting torture, but all three are true and, combined, provide overwhelming support for those opposed to the practice.
After the Obama administration killed Bin Laden, Cheney and gang claimed that torture led to information that eventually led to Bin Laden. Such a claim is nothing but an absurd and desperate attempt to cover up past criminality and incompetence. The primary source from which we learned the name of Bin Laden's most important courier (eventually leading to Bin Laden himself) came from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But not when he was waterboarded repeatedly in 2003, during which he claimed consistently he did not know the name of the courier. No, Khalid gave up the name sometime between 2004-2005 long after his enhanced interrogation sessions ended. Jose Rodriguez, who was in charge of the Counterterrorism Center, makes a contorted effort to claim torture led to useful information from Khalid. But listening to his tortured justification is itself torture, a cringe-worthy explanation that reeks of desperation.
Torture is ineffective
Cheney never served his country in the military, and he has no experience in the world of intelligence. Yet he claims he knows more about interrogation than those in the field directly involved.
Experts close to the issue largely agree, as does the Senate Report, that Cheney is simply wrong, that torture is ineffective. The experience with Khalid supports this conclusion. Opponents of torture cannot be painted as liberal sympathizers; indeed they are mainly conservative stalwarts.
• Former FBI Director Robert Meuller said in a December 2008 Vanity Fair interview that he knew of not one single planned attack that was prevented by information obtained through torture.
• FBI Agent Ali Soufan has written that:
"There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah [the first al-Qaeda suspect subjected to waterboarding and other harsh tactics] that wasn't, or couldn't have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions -- all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process."
• FBI Agent Jack Cloonan says,
"I think that any agent who walked into a room and saw a subject as has been described -- crawled up in the fetal position, either deprived of water or subjected to unusually warm temperatures, pulling his hair out, people on hunger strikes, and so on -- understand that that person is no good to you from an intelligence perspective."
• Major Matthew Alexander, who personally conducted 300 interrogations of prisoners in Iraq, has concluded that torture does not work, particularly in the "ticking time bomb" scenario so often quoted by those who support torture.
• Brigadier General David R. Irvine as written a series of articles and given multiple presentations providing a list of reasons "why torture doesn't work." What are his qualifications to draw that conclusion? He is a retired strategic intelligence officer who taught prisoner interrogation techniques and military law for 18 years with the Sixth Army Intelligence School. He and a group of three dozen highly decorated generals, not exactly a cabal of liberals, wrote a letter to Senator McCain in 2005 urging that the United States heed the warning in the Army Field manual that torture is ineffective.
• Former CIA Operative Robert Baer has said, in support of Obama's release of memos that detail the agency's interrogation techniques, that "nobody...has presented evidence that torture works and I just don't see it." He later went on to say that information from torture is "useless."
Or rather than taking the word of these people directly involved, you can believe Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who with no operational experience claims with zero supporting evidence that waterboarding caused Khalid to cough up the information. You choose who has the greater credibility on this issue.
Efficacy is no argument for legitimacy
The Bush administration's logic used to support torture means by extension that any illegal or immoral action, no matter how heinous, can be justified if such actions "work." Even ignoring the obvious ethical dilemma inherent to such views, consider how internally inconsistent his argument is at the most basic level. If torture can be justified on the basis of national security, and is a necessity to prevent an imminent attack, why stop at waterboarding? Why not apply electrodes to testicles, cut off fingers and ears, burn skin, poke out eyes, pull out fingernails, or do anything that must be done to prevent harm to the country? If Bush and his cohorts believe that enhanced interrogation is justified to protect the United States, then why stop at techniques that do not leave permanent scars? That arbitrary limit makes no sense if the goal is to protect America at any cost. Stopping just before the point of permanent harm undermines their primary argument that they condoned waterboarding as a necessary means of gathering critical intelligence that would save us from another attack. If that was the goal, and enhanced interrogation works, then he would have to support chopping off fingers or hands if that would yield the intelligence necessary to prevent an attack.
The only refuge from this inconsistency is to claim that waterboarding is in fact not torture. If simulated drowning is not torture, then proponents avoid stepping on the slippery slope to fingernail pulling and eye gouging. But waterboarding is torture, which is made abundantly clear in the Senate report. The technique dates back to the Spanish Inquisition, and is universally recognized to be torture. And of course Japanese were tried as war criminals for waterboarding American and British POWs.
So where does that leave those who support torture? Quivering on a bed of moral quicksand and a pile of inconsistencies. If waterboarding works, and if that effectiveness is sufficient justification for its use, then surely the threat of permanent physical harm or death would be even more effective, and even more justified. The only honest position those who support torture can take is that they would support those more aggressive forms of torture if such actions protected the United States. If they claim otherwise, they would have to admit that there are limits to how far they would go to protect the country from attack. But if they have no limits to how far they are willing to go, they would agree in principle with those who oppose torture. The only remaining argument is whether waterboarding is torture, and we answered that when we executed the Japanese for the practice. The pro-torture position is untenable.
Torture undermines our national security
With torture we get the worst of both worlds: We gather no useful intelligence and we undermine our reputation as a democratic government of principles. Our claim to world leadership, and the export of democracy, rests solely on the idea that the United States is inarguably qualified to champion universal ideas of freedom. That claim becomes hollow if we sanction torture. We lead most effectively by example, but our ability to do so becomes limited if we abandon our most cherished values. Our policies and practices become the most effective recruiting tool our enemies could ever hope for, and we do not gain a commensurate advantage to offset that advance on the other side.
Torture is immoral
Newt Gingrich condemned torture in 1997 when he said, "...there is no place for abuse in what must be considered the family of man. There is no place for torture or arbitrary detention."
Assume for the moment that torture is effective. Assume that torture has saved American lives. Even taking those falsehoods for truth for the sake of argument, we are still left with the inevitable conclusion that torture is inherently immoral, and therefore unacceptable. By sanctioning torture, we adopt the moral code of the very enemies we seek to destroy. We become them. That we are even discussing torture as U.S. policy is proof that we lost our way. Our only salvation is to openly confess to the criminal acts of the preceding Administration, condemn them, and vow never again. The Senate report is a start, but only that. There exists no ethics of torture; certain acts are wrong with no further explanation needed, just as certain rights are inalienable. Our founders did not feel obligated to define those rights other than in the broadest of terms because they are self-evident. So is the immorality of torture.
Only appeal to moral relativism can be used to justify waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques. Torture is said to be acceptable as the lesser of two evils -- making morality a relative measure. But moral relativism fails completely in every significant way. To a relativist, no moral code can be criticized because whatever a society deems morally right is so by definition, and cannot be condemned by another society. But that raises some questions that, when answered, prove the fallacy of relativism. Does morality within a society get determined by majority rule? What if torture is approved by 51 percent of the population one year, and 49 percent the next? That would mean torture is moral one year and immoral the next, clearly an untenable position. And what constitutes the unit called "society" that approves of a given moral code? Is a society defined by nationality or ethnicity? Is the United States one society, or is it made up of multiple societies of Hispanics, gays, Wall Street bankers and bikers? If so, does each of those societies have a unique moral code? Could each independently determine if torture was moral? How would conflict between them be resolved? Any reasonable answer to any of these questions dictates that ethical relativism must be false as a theory. Torturing children for fun would be universally condemned, regardless of how right a particular society found that practice. Relativism fails completely, which means that some elements of morality must be basic to humanity across time and across cultures. Torture can never be explained away in any culture, or any reason.
Bush and Cheney are blights on our history; they failed us when we needed leadership. They appealed to our worst instincts. They undermined our most cherished values. They justified heinous actions as necessary to protect us when in fact such actions undermine our security. The Senate report brings to light the dark ages of the Bush administration. Good riddance, and may we never repeat the horror from that time of demagoguery and brutality.