America’s real torture problem persists

By Jaclyn Archer, Eagle Life Editor

It’s an intimidating read, even as it promises to be riveting, perhaps even horrifying. Its 500 plus pages were downloaded hundreds, if not thousands of times from various sites during the Christmas season.

You might have heard about it on Facebook, or maybe you saw bits and pieces on Twitter or Tumblr, but if you haven’t heard, let me bring you up to date: on December 9 the Senate Select Intelligence Committee released a report on the C.I.A.’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” since 9/11, lambasting them as “improper,” “brutal” and “in violation of U.S. laws, treaty obligations, and our values.” #TortureReport

It’s no shock that the United States engages in torture, as do 141 other countries, according to Amnesty International’s annual report on torture. According to Amnesty we aren’t talking about war torn Middle Eastern theocracies or sub-Saharan failed states, we’re talking about known signatories of the UN Convention Against Torture. In other words, many industrialized, stable and “developed” countries that promised not to torture, still do.

So put your comparative outrage away, we are not alone.

Still, the infamous report revived many of the ethical arguments surrounding torture. On one hand we decry the use of torture on our own soldiers abroad. On the other hand, Americans are a patriotic bunch, and willing to stomach nearly any practice if it leads to the preservation of our citizens and way of life.

It turns out that 58% of Americans believe torture can be justified “often” or at least “sometimes,” according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll from last December. This isn’t surprising, as most people believe violence against a few for the sake of many is morally justifiable. It’s why we throw around hypotheticals about beating a man who knows the location of a ticking time-bomb, throwing a switch on a train track so that it hits a lone person instead of a bus full of children, or using a time machine to kill Hitler. Why respect the life of a Nazi when he plans to murder millions of innocents?

I suspect, as Americans, it’s easy to view the unsavory detainees in Guantanamo or C.I.A. black sites as Nazis. After all, they were picked up because they were only a few degrees of separation from terrorists like Osama bin Ladin, Saddam Hussein, and the hijackers who murdered thousands on 9/11.

Many argue that if we have a person in custody who knows a terrorist, if this person is aware the terrorist plans on taking American lives, if this person is familiar with the terrorist’s plans to do so, and if this person will only talk if we subject them to intense pain, then by all means, make the pig squeal. Bring on the waterboarding, the rectal rehydration, the electrocution and beatings. Hang them by their wrists till their shoulders are permanently damaged and like John McCain they can’t lift their hands above heads.

But that’s a lot of ‘ifs,’ and six degrees works just as well for Kevin Bacon as Osama bin Ladin. Much of the time the C.I.A. can’t be sure they’re torturing the right person, with the right information, in the right way. And they know this.

Senator John McCain has repeatedly spoken out against torture, most recently in defense of the Senate report last December, based on his experiences as a POW in North Vietnam where he was held captive for five and a half years.

McCain is quoted in a December 9, 2014 Atlantic article saying, “[The report] is a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose—to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies—but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.”

McCain also noted that a person being tortured will often say whatever they believe will appease their torturers and end their suffering.

This first hand opinion of an American veteran and statesman is not only the conclusion of the Senate report, but echoes the findings of internal studies conducted by the C.I.A. itself, which concluded that coercive interrogations “do not produce intelligence” and “will probably result in false answers.”

Furthermore, the Senate’s review of internal C.I.A. documents found that many cases upheld by the Agency as examples of torture leading to actionable intelligence were misrepresented to the government and the public.

For example, a man named Abu Zubaydah was submitted to “enhanced interrogation” during the Bush administration. He eventually gave up information regarding dirty bomb plans by a man named José Pedilla as part of terror plan known as the “Tall Buildings Plot.”

The C.I.A. upheld the discovery of Padilla’s plans as proof of the efficacy of torture. Unfortunately—or fortunately, as the case may be—the dirty bomb threat posed by Pedilla was no more than “lore” extrapolated from a satirical online article titled “How to Make an H-Bomb.” According to the New York Times, which provided a links to the Senate report, “The plot involved swinging a bucket full of uranium over one’s head for 45 minutes. One internal C.I.A. email declared that such a plot would most likely kill Mr. Padilla but ‘would definitely not result in a nuclear explosive device.’”

Karachi Plots which were supposedly brought to C.I.A. attention through torture turned out to be old news—intelligence the Agency already had. The same is true of the “Second Wave,” a sister plot to the 9/11 attacks intending to blow up buildings on the west coast: no new information was gained through torture. Other informants the Agency claimed were instrumental in securing America gave up valuable intel before they were tortured, but not after.

It’s not as though the C.I.A doesn’t have any alternatives. A study published last year by Professor Jane Goodman-Delahunty researched the efficacy of interrogation methods used on suspected members of the Tamil Tigers and the Islamist group Ansar al Ismal.

According to the BPS Research Digest, Delahunty found that, “Disclosure was 14 times more likely to occur early in an interrogation when a rapport-building approach was used. Confessions were four times more likely when interrogators struck a neutral and respectful stance. Rates of detainee disclosure were also higher when they were interrogated in comfortable physical settings.”

Torture is effective if you want to punish your enemies, but not if you want to use them.

Testimonies from U.S. Army personnel back up these findings. But like an action movie junkie the C.I.A. appears more interested in living out tired scenes of righteous violence to focusing on the more subtle methods that could actually save lives.