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The Corrupting Notion
That 'Torture Works'

Terrell E. Arnold
Over the past several weeks we have watched a fundamental moral, legal and constitutional question about torture descend into a rude argument over whether it works. In short, a critical question of how America deals with its malefactors has morphed into a debate about whether the ends justify the means. The resolution of this debate, it seems, would be if it works, it is OK. That resolution, of course, takes us back to the Middle Ages, and justifies taking the rack out of mothballs, to say nothing of stripping away the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. It is time we seriously asked: Where are we headed, and will we be legally, morally, and spiritually pleased with our destination?
Do we take our cue from national leadership? The Bush administration introduced us to the current version of the issue by a process that included anonymous confinement of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Diego Garcia- an island system in the Indian Ocean, and other cooperative prison systems in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere. Those were all places where torture (no debate about the meaning of the word) was commonplace. And out of six or seven hundred recipients (maybe thousands we don't know about) of this gross mix of interrogation techniques, it seems that less than a dozen plausible stories emerged.
Three cases were thought solid enough by the Bush team to present to the American public, but the exempla were not allowed to confront their accusers or defend themselves by presenting evidence, or even to read the documentary materials alleged to describe the body of their crimes. American justice it seemed had stepped outside itself, and it was not considered necessary that the processes or the evidence be considered credible. In short, these were not actually trials; they were public events in which the findings, allegedly uncovered by "special" interrogation techniques, supported the official story of the destruction carried out by the perpetrators of 9/11. The findings were simply presented, not legally proven.
But as former FBI Agent Ali Soufan told the New York Times and other media in early May 2009, all the information about the involvement of the two lead planners of the 9/11 attacks was obtained by "traditional interrogation methods". Before Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the reported 9/11 mastermind, and his cohort Abu Zubaydah were submitted to torture, they had already revealed the main story to FBI and CIA questioners. In short, the Bush administration assertion that the valuable information the two provided was made possible by harsh interrogation techniques is a fraud.
We have a special problem with the alleged evidence that torture works to yield critically useful information. Our highest profile sources for the assertion that torture works-the Bush team and its neoconservative insiders-are the same ones who insisted on a connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The 9/11 Commission found that there was no proof of any connection between the two. Rather, it was fairly widely known that the two were avowed enemies. Nonetheless, long after leaving office Dick Cheney has continued to tout the story of a connection. With that order of disregard for facts, should we credit anything he or former President George W. Bush says about the efficacy of torture? The assertion of either one that torture works is at minimum a self-serving declaration meant to obfuscate or dismiss the truth of prisoner abuse at US holding facilities and those of friendly governments.
All of that is by way of showing that we actually have no reliable evidence that torture works. What we actually have is that alleged high value prisoners said thing their torturers wanted to hear after they had been waterboarded countless times, hanged on tiptoes for hours at a time, slammed repeatedly against a plywood wall, confined in boxes too small for them to sit up, publicly embarrassed by being stripped naked, and confined in near freezing conditions. What these processes gave the interrogators was a situation in which they would not be able to distinguish fact from fiction in the spoken efforts of prisoners to make it all stop.
In the end, in interrogation there is a fundamental difference between hearing what you want to hear and knowing that what you hear is true. But every bit of the debate about whether torture works is beside the point. Murder works to rid one of an enemy, but we consider that a crime. Physical abuse works to get one's way, for example in rape cases, but we consider that a crime. Physical assault is one way to settle an argument, but we consider that a crime. However, what the advocates of torture are saying is that the systematic abuse and mutilation of an individual up to some point just short of system failure and death is OK so long as this is done to gather "national security" information. By this stretch of our moral fiber we simply set aside the rules of humanity that were built into our Constitution. The implicit assertion is that it is OK to risk and maybe even take a life in this manner to save some other life.
But there is a deeper set of offenses here. The basic US strategy invented by the Bush team was to avoid situations in which the so-called "enemy combatants" could be treated as equals under US law. The "rag heads" or "hajjis" or "dirt bags", all common terms for the enemy combatants, were considered below second-class citizen status; they were treated as members of a subhuman category.
Presidential Candidate Obama promised to clean up this mess. His basic promise was to close Guantanamo, shut down the black sites, stop use of friendly government sites where prisoners were held when not at Guantanamo, and bring the enemy combatants into the American legal system. While he started off in this direction, he now seems to be changing course toward perhaps remodeling the Military Tribunal system and keeping it for trying the people scooped up in the past War on Terrorism or in future engagements.
Where the enemy combatants will be stored re-emerges as an issue. The dominant reasons for keeping the Military Tribunals are to maintain a secure forum for hearing sensitive cases bearing on national security. That would mean the American tradition of a public trial is out. But it also means that these prisoners cannot be kept in the company of ordinary criminals. To do so could result in leakage of sensitive information through criminal contacts.
So we are drifting back toward a system in which the enemy combatants will continue to be held anonymously and, needless to say, in circumstances (outside of public view) where (with or without White House knowledge) they could be subjected to harsh interrogation techniques that will not see the light of day.
The remaining quandary is what to do with the people we have held for years without bringing any charges against them, and their keepers have admitted there is insufficient evidence to convict if they were tried. In an ordinary criminal case, unless the court could prove insanity or incompetence, the individuals would be free to go. However, the fear is that such people, given their freedom, might retaliate for unjust confinement. The Bush decision, therefore, was to keep these people confined, and the Obama decision seems to be trending in that same direction.
Of course, the longer these people are unjustly held, the higher the probability that, if released, they and/or their friends would be angry enough to do harm. It is an awkward case of injustice breeding anger, and the jailer's growing fear of retaliation generating a continuing unjust confinement. This appears to be a special brand of torture from which there is no escape for either party.
The irony of the situation is that since it seems to have great national security and military significance it is deemed capable of a military solution. In reality, the only workable solutions to the problems are legal and humanitarian. By failing to apply either, we buy our own enduring confinement, trapped in a continuing ignorance and distrust of the American Constitution.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at

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