Interrogations, torture, and the USA

I see that the Senate Intelligence Committee has released its report into the officially-sanctioned use of torture by this country during the presidency of George W. Bush.

There’s been an awful lot of dust, fog and confusion thrown up by the usual suspects about this report.  There are fears that it may provoke retaliation against this country.

Some lawmakers said it’s important for the report to be released so the U.S. government will never again use torture as a method of interrogation. Others said it will inflame extremist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere and threaten the lives of U.S. diplomats, military members and other Americans overseas.

There’s more at the link.

The ACLU pointed out that the report concentrates on the use of torture during the Bush administration, but completely ignores the ‘rendition’ (and associated torture) of suspects that commenced during the Clinton administration.  Furthermore, several former CIA directors and senior personnel have complained that the report ignores the ‘positive results’ obtained through torture.

The program was invaluable in three critical ways:

  • It led to the capture of senior al Qaeda operatives, thereby removing them from the battlefield.
  • It led to the disruption of terrorist plots and prevented mass casualty attacks, saving American and Allied lives.
  • It added enormously to what we knew about al Qaeda as an organization and therefore informed our approaches on how best to attack, thwart and degrade it.

Again, more at the link.

I submit that all of these polemics are fundamentally misguided.  They completely miss the point at issue.  It’s simply this:  The United States claims to set a standard of freedom, justice and liberty for the world.  How in heaven’s name can the use of torture be reconciled with that claim?

When our enemies used ‘waterboarding’ against US prisoners of war, the USA (rightly) called it ‘torture’.  What makes our use of the same technique against Al Qaeda prisoners anything less than or other than torture?  If it was wrong for others to use that technique against our personnel, what makes it right for us to use it against our enemies?

I’m not a fan of Senator John McCain of Arizona, but if anyone can talk about torture from the receiving end, he can.  I think he was absolutely correct when he said:

“In my personal experience, the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence, but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear –- whether it is true or false –- if he believes it will relieve his suffering,” he said.

McCain argued the harsh interrogation techniques  more fundamentally degrade “our national character and historical reputation” and put American soldiers at greater risk of torture in the future.

“I know that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organization do not share our scruples about the treatment of enemy combatants,” he said. “But we must bear in mind the likelihood that some day we will be involved in a more conventional war against a state and not a terrorist movement or insurgency and be careful that we do not set a standard that another country could use to justify their mistreatment of our prisoners.”

“Ultimately this debate is about far more than technical or practical issues,” said McCain. “It is about far more than whether torture works or does not work. It is about far more than utilitarian matters. Ultimately, this is about morality.”

“We are America, and we hold ourselves to a higher standard,” he said.

More at the link.

Senator McCain is right.  Ultimately, this IS about morality.  If we allow ourselves to do to others what we condemn others for doing to us, we make ourselves hypocrites – as a nation and as individuals.  That torture was ever officially sanctioned is a national tragedy.  It must be abandoned as an instrument of policy, once and for all:  and those responsible for approving such policies in the past must be called to account for their immoral and profoundly wrong decisions.



  1. Peter,
    You and I differ in many areas, but not here. Simply put, we are supposed to be the good guys. When we are not, it is bad for all Americans and our allies.

    I feel the same way about the Patriot Act. The good guys wouldn't be doing those things.

    D. Scruggs

  2. Howzit, Peter

    I really enjoy your blog, and respect (and know) where you've come from, but on this point I strongly disagree.

    McCain and his comrades-in-arms were tortured in order to produce propaganda, and in some cases for little more than the guards'pleasure. There was little of military or operational value that could not be easily gleaned by reading the US press, counting take-offs at air bases or watching TV.

    It makes me shake my head that you can equate this with the limited, selective interrogation – OK, torture – of a few individuals KNOWN to have crucial information on FUTURE attacks – attacks which are almost always on civilians. By even briefly considering some grotesque moral equivalence, you do your adopted country a grave injustice.

    Oh, by the way… of the Hanoi POWs, every single one, by their own admission – and McCain's ordeal was by no means the worst – eventually gave in to their captors' demands. Unfortunately, pain does work – if you are ruthless enough to inflict enough of it.

    All the best, boet.

  3. Peter,

    In my opinion torture is wrong, but if we don't torture for information then we must be willing to accept the "penalty" that comes from that of not knowing about potential attacks. If we got/get attacked, then I can see our media screaming about how we had these people and "why didn't we do more to find out what they were planning"? I cannot see some of the people who hate us giving up any information without torture. Given our, as a people reaction, reaction to certain events, I'm not sure that we could stomach such an event.

  4. While I agree in principle, should we allow our "superior morality" become a suicide pact? When they use our own laws and preference for honesty and fair dealing to play us for suckers, are we required to die for it so they can rule? Because that *is* the endgame. Do we die with a stiff upper lip, or let those with no such qualms, and no great accomplishments to their name, inherit the earth?

    Current science is saying that we got a significant part of our math and spacial awareness genes from interbreeding with the Neanderthals ~30k-40k years ago. Did they die off because they were the smart but nice engineer types, and we were the social but savage "OK with genocide" types?

  5. Peter- I concur 100% with your opinion here, and even that senile old coot McCain.

    I'm an advocate for the idea of total war when war is to be made, but war is based in politics, and the violence of war waxes and wanes with the enthusiasm of soldiers, not politicians. If politicians want to torture people, let them do it their goddamned selves.

    Then again, though, I'm somewhat interested in the idea of a hereafter, and figure that it's a crappy bargain to lose any possibility of that through choosing to practice evil for political goals. And let's be clear: does anyone actually think that CIA-sanctioned torture is done primarily to save lives? It's just politics, a game to keep the regime stable,and that's disgusting.

    Ultimately, the muslims think that they're protecting their horrible but familiar way of life to prevent battles from taking place on their own doorstep. Why should we expect them to follow certain moral practices that affect the rules of war like not blowing up civilians, if we pick and choose the rules we follow as well?
    Stupid, really, to try this with a culture that is already comfortable with paying lip service to morality. We've just shown that they're not wrong in doing so.

  6. Being attacked / not being attacked is binary; just as there's no "slightly pregnant," there's no "slightly attacked." Or is there?

    Out of the millions of buildings in the US, only a few were completely destroyed on Sept 11, 2001, and out of 310 million Americans only a few thousand died. Are you willing to accept that as "slightly attacked" and tolerate the cost?

    It has been determined that "being attacked"at any intensity is a Bad Thing and to be avoided. To do that one may:

    1) Sufficiently reduce the capability of the entity which intends to attack you (often called "preemptive attack" and denigrated thoroughly by those in safe havens).

    2) Pursue limited but stringent measures that will provide advance warning of attack, allowing employment of lesser measures to prevent such attack

    3) Accept that attacks will happen and deal with the aftermath

    Them's the choices, pick one.

    Democrats and their accomplices in the media are completely opposed to #1 and #2, and think the United States deserves #3. If our enemies' actions could be confined to the NYT, CBS, et al I'd let the bad guys do what they want. Unfortunately, such is not the case; the NYT newsroom might be spared but 30 first graders in Des Moines may not. That's how terrorism works.

    Since we don't have the stomach for #1, and outside of the usual liberal bastions Americans think #3 constitutes failure in one of government's foremost Constitutional responsibilities, what does that leave for options?

    It's very nice to take the high road, but the rest of the world takes whatever road it can. We might be able to replace the somewhat more stringent information gathering masures we employ had our intelligence community not been thoroughly gutted, beginning with Sentaor Frank Church's actions decades ago. It's well understood that the US State Department and large segments of the CIA have become very unsupportive of non-leftist residents of the White House, to the point of sympathizing with our enemies. Were that not the case, I might be willing to listen to an argument favoring intense intelligence gathering over more direct and personal methods of gaining info on terrorist actions. Until then, however, we need to play by the rules the rest of the world employs.

    It should not be discounted that the Democrats' release of the report was timed to coincide with Gruber & Co.'s scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill; the plan was to give the liberal media something to talk about other than Gruber's "Americans are stupid" and "we had to lie to get it passed" statements.

  7. Peter,

    You have a good blog with interesting articles but you are seriously misguided as to what constitutes torture. You walked right into the trap the left sets by their disingenuous shaping of the narrative.
    Torture is what the vietnamese did to mccain and others. Torture is what the japanese did to their foes up to WWII. Torture is what the islamists do to their enemies. All we did is make the enemy uncomfortable by water-boarding, sleep deprivation, and lousy loud music. Water-boarding is NOT torture. If it were then we torture our own military in SEAR training. I don't see you or anyone else jumping up and down screaming that we torture our own military.
    By what you're saying you would rather we take some ridiculous high road so that we can be seen as above the animals we are at war with and thus risk innocent civilian lives so you and the leftists you are agreeing with can feel better about yourselves than do what is morally correct to save those innocent lives.
    I honestly expected more from you but that's OK. I don't put my trust in any man but in God alone. For He alone is perfect and worthy of our trust.

    All the best.

  8. @MarkT: I'm sorry, but you're wrong. The USA has officially called waterboarding 'torture' when it was done to our personnel by our enemies. If we call it torture when they did it, it remains torture when we do it. You can't have it both ways.

    We either adhere to the standards we proclaim so loudly, or we make ourselves hypocrites.

  9. Peter – I respectfully disagree. Again, the people who call water-boarding torture are those on the left who simply want to shape the narrative, and those on the right who fall into the lefts trap. Also, why do we water-board our own military? We certainly don't torture our own.

    Inconsiderate Bastard makes some good points also.

    I suppose we can agree to disagree. I for one am glad the 3 islamists involved were bullied about, which prevented other mass casualty attacks on innocent civilians – men, women, and children like you, me and our families.

    Enjoy your day.

  10. And, if you are stupid enough to conflate sleep deprivation and water boarding to actual torture, you run the risk of being thought of as an idiot.

  11. Ok Anonymous, explain to this idiot where the line is. What constitutes torture? do you have specific angle at which bending digits backwards quits being humane, and becomes torture?

  12. As usual, a very thoughtful article. In my opinion, we long ago lost any moral high ground, if in fact we had it to begin with. Our government doesn't flinch at treating it's own citizens like animals on a routine basis, nor depriving them of their earning, nor fomenting hatred, strife, and violence between ethnic groups. To be honest, we're so far down the wrong path, I have a hard time being either surprised or outraged that our government has tortured our enemies, and ineptly at that. I'm afraid when it gets down to it, I just don't care.

  13. I wish our political classes examined ALL of their actions with such a high moral attitude. Freedom, Justice and Liberty wouldn't be in such a tortured state as it is today.

  14. Torture works for extracting confessions, especially if the torturer doesn't much care whether or not the torturee really is guilty.

    Torture is not good for extracting information. That a tortured person will tell the torturer whatever the torturer wants to hear in order to stop the torture is a known fact that is many centuries old.

  15. There is no morality in war. There is only one reason to engage in it: to win, at any cost.
    We must be willing to sacrifice our honour, our self esteem, ourselves and even our children to win it. To do any less is to lose.
    That is why we must really look hard at these causes de jour and make sure that we really need to be in those places fighting wars. Is Iraq worth it? Afghanistan? If we have to ask the question, we probably know the answer.
    Contrary to the peaceniks and the hand wringers…torture works. If it didn't we wouldn't have used it for the last 5000 years. If it is going to save lives and end a war then yes, the ends justify the means. If you don't have the stomach to do that, then don't go to war.
    Sheesh. 'Morality'? On a battlefield? With moslem terrorists? Good grief.

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