The moral stain of torture: Some things to keep in mind while we await the Senate report on CIA interrogation

December 4, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 4, 2014

In March 2009, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.), respectively the chairwoman and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that their group had agreed on a bipartisan basis to review

• How the [Central Intelligence Agency] created, operated, and maintained its detention and interrogation program;

• How CIA’s assessments that detainees possessed relevant information were made;

• Whether the CIA accurately described the detention and interrogation program to other parts of the U.S. government, including the Office of Legal Counsel and the Senate Intelligence Committee;

• Whether the CIA implemented the program in compliance with official guidance, including covert action findings, Office of Legal Counsel opinions, and CIA policy;

The 2009 announcement also said that the committee would evaluate intelligence “gained through the use of enhanced and standard interrogation techniques.”

“Enhanced interrogation” is, of course, a euphemism for actions that most people would call “torture.”

Work on this Senate investigation spanned about five years, culminating in a report of about 6,000 pages. In early 2014, the committee submitted a 480-page executive summary to the White House. The Obama administration, including CIA officials, redacted the summary in ways that rendered it unintelligible and unsupported, according to complaints from Senate committee members.

The administration redactions came to light in August. The executive summary has remained in limbo since then.

In late October, The Intercept’s Dan Froomkin speculated that the White House was trying to stall agreement on revisions to the document until January. Many Republicans have been disinclined to air allegations of torture or other potentially improper conduct by President George W. Bush and members of his administration. At the time — and as came to pass — Republicans were expected to win control of the Senate in November’s elections. The 114th Congress will be sworn in next month, and once that happens, Feinstein and other Democrats will lose most of their ability to enter the summary into the public record.

(Note: I borrowed the phrase “unintelligible and unsupported” from Froomkin’s Oct. 23 article.)

Froomkin published another article Tuesday afternoon about the Senate’s torture investigation. It’s still unclear when, or whether, a version of the executive summary will be published, but the former Washington Post columnist wanted to provide some context about the both document and the topic it was meant to illuminate.

Although there was nothing really new in Froomkin’s latest story, it made my blood boil. Of all the missteps, foreseeable or otherwise, made by the Bush administration, the acceptance — if not outright embrace — of torture was almost certainly the most grievous.

There are numerous reasons for this. Torture is inhumane and degrading — both to the victims and also, in many cases, to the perpetrators. It represents a betrayal of many of the ideals that Americans claim to hold dearest — in particular, that all people are subject to the rule of law and that all are protected from cruel and unusual treatment.

Even worse, this betrayal evidently yields no benefit at all.

Froomkin wrote a powerful article about this subject in 2010, shortly after former President George W. Bush glibly told a Michigan audience, “Yeah, we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I’d do it again to save lives.”

Bush was referring there to one of the planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. But his response begs one very important question: What lives were spared by information that was elicited in the waterboarding of Mohammed and other captives?

The answer, in estimation of most experts, is none. Consider this paragraph from a 2009 feature story by Washington Post reporters Peter Finn and Joby Warrick:

In the end … not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Or take these cautiously worded bullet points from Educing Information, a report on interrogation published in 2006 by the National Defense Intelligence College:

• The accuracy of educed information can be compromised by the manner in which it is obtained. The effects of many common stress and duress techniques are known to impair various aspects of a person’s cognitive functioning, including those functions necessary to retrieve and produce accurate, useful information.

• Psychological theory and some (indirectly) related research suggest that coercion or pressure can actually increase a source’s resistance and determination not to comply. Although pain is commonly assumed to facilitate compliance, there is no available scientific or systematic research to suggest that coercion can, will, or has provided accurate useful information from otherwise uncooperative sources.

(Emphasis in the original.)

Or consider this assessment from Steven Kleinman, a longtime military intelligence officer who participated in a 2008 conclave of experienced interrogators from varying backgrounds that concluded that relationship-building is the most effective approach to eliciting crucial information, even from resistant sources:

Had we gathered the expertise and extensive operational experience presented by the panel of experts in June 2002 rather than June 2008, and done so under the auspices of the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and/or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the legal contortions that led to justifying — and even protecting — the type of harsh interrogation methods that unfolded at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere would have been particularly difficult to defend or implement.

(Emphasis in the original.)

In fact, the situation is worse than I’ve made it out to be. Not only did the United States betray its own values and undermine its global stature and moral leadership by engaging in torture — not only did the nation do so in order to engage in a tactic that most experts deem to be ineffective, if not counterproductive — not only did the nation engage in these reckless actions while glibly shrugging off objections — our nation undertook actions that could endanger our own troops.

Froomkin aptly conveyed the appalled reaction of some American ex-military types in this excellent 2010 article. It’s worth reading in full, but I’ll share two brief excerpts from it.

One is this remark from James P. Cullen, a retired brigadier general with experience in the Army Reserve’s legal branch:

“This is not the last war we’re going to fight,” Cullen said. “Americans not yet born are going to be prisoners of war in those conflicts. And our enemies are going to be able to point back to President Bush and Vice President Cheney saying that waterboarding is OK.

“It’s just shocking to me how he can be so flip about something that is so serious,” Cullen said.

A former Air Force interrogator, whom Froomkin identified using a pseudonym, told the reporter that Bush’s statement in Grand Rapids

“is de facto approval of the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers in Iraq who were killed by foreign fighters that Al Qaida recruited based on the President’s policy of torture and abuse of detainees.

“At least now we know where the blame for those soldiers’ deaths squarely belongs. President Bush’s decision broke with a military tradition dating back to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War and the consequences are clear: Al Qaida is stronger and our country is less safe.”

So keep these things in mind if — or when — the Senate’s report on “enhanced interrogation” is released. Ask yourself why so many Republicans show so little interest in holding the Bush administration to account for its missteps.

And ask yourself why so many Democrats, Obama chief among them, seem to be so willing to enable this lack of accountability.

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