Physical interrogation brutalises all involved and produces little of value.
The battle for public acceptance of “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation as part of the “new normal” for statecraft after September 11 hangs in the balance.
On the one hand a soon-to-be-released US Senate intelligence committee report on its three-year investigation into enhanced interrogation is expected to show little evidence it produced any of the much-touted counterterrorism breakthroughs.
On the other hand the former chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism centre Jose Rodriguez is releasing his conveniently timed book, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions after 9/11 Saved American Lives. Rodriguez alleges enhanced interrogation techniques not only work but were the source of many, if not most, of the signal counterterrorism successes in the ”global war on terror”.
So whom to believe? The Senate committee report or Rodriguez, whose book was ghost-written by a former speechwriter for Vice-President Dick Cheney, the neo-con architect of the enhanced interrogation measures?
Politics aside, answering certain questions can help decide the real merits of these techniques.
Firstly, is torture effective in getting valuable intelligence? And, secondly, what are its broader effects?
The answer to the first question is resolutely no. Four US officials have written about their firsthand interrogation experiences: two air force officers, Steve Kleinman and Matthew Alexander; an FBI officer, Ali Soufan; and a CIA officer and co-author of this article, Glenn Carle. None of us knew the others when writing our assessments of torture’s efficacy. But we all used almost identical words to state that torture does not produce reliable information, or greater quantities of information or “better” information than that obtained from non-coercive measures.
In fact, coercive measures make “information” obtained harder to evaluate and therefore suspect and problematic. The CIA rank and file know this, as almost all reports obtained from enhanced interrogation techniques were formally “recalled” for being obtained under duress, and therefore unreliable.
The second question – the broad effects of torture – is often overlooked while people focus on its ability to extract information. Examined closely, however, these effects are so disturbing that they undermine any supposed merit of enhanced interrogation.
Let’s start with victims of torture. From Algeria, Vietnam, Chile or the ”war on terror”, we know practices of torture are never confined to a few “high value targets” but spread through organisations. Torture becomes pervasive and routine, which means that large numbers of people will be tortured, with devastating, lifelong and often irreversible effects on their physical and psychological health.
The effects on torturers are harder to define and more ambiguous largely because, in the rare instances where they seek therapeutic help, they are unlikely to identify themselves.
Frantz Fanon, the great theorist of post-colonial liberation, reports on one torturer from the Algerian war who found himself savagely striking his baby and waking to torture his wife. In his recent book None of Us Were Like This Before, Josh Phillips documents among US veterans from Iraq the same type of atrocity-related trauma we have seen in the aftermath of other cases – toxic levels of guilt and related self-harm, including suicide.
At the very least, torture normalises violence, with deleterious consequences for the individuals involved and for society as a whole.
Much more is known about the effect of torture on organisations. Torture leads to de-skilling, narrow professionalism, fragmentation, devolution of authority to the most local level and the destruction of codes of respect and authority. The CIA’s own human resources and exploitation training manual warns “the routine use of torture lowers the moral calibre of the organisation that uses it and corrupts those that rely on it as the quick and easy way out”. It deadens or removes individual judgment, the very quality that intelligence agencies prize.
Internationally, it will be many years before the United States can convince foreign observers its acts correspond to its values when the facts are stark: the US states it opposes torture by any party, yet carries out torture itself. Empirical evidence shows the US has lost enormous support from individuals, groups and nations that now see it as perverted by the very evils it claims to oppose.
Finally, in a world where norms and practices, like finance and fashion, are transmitted across the globe, the sanctioned violation of the prohibition on torture by a state that holds itself as the ”light unto the nations” has a universally negative impact.
When the US not only tortures but announces that it in doing so it is doing right, it violates individuals and harms the fragile edifice of universal human rights that we have been building in the 64 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In the US, torture is now calmly debated and defended by leading individuals and advocated by one of the two major political parties. Significant portions of the public now consider torture acceptable under certain conditions, while for others there are even fewer moral constraints on its use.
Americans were not so confused prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks. But many now have compromised their principles, not even recognising the extent to which they have incorporated values that the United States has opposed since the time of George Washington.
It is wishful thinking to believe that we can torture judiciously without coarsening and corrupting ourselves.
Associate Professor Danielle Celermajer is director of the University of Sydney’s Torture Prevention and Human Rights programs. Glenn Carle is a former CIA interrogator and author of The Interrogator: A CIA agent’s true story. The pair will appear in conversation at the Sydney Writers’ Festival today.
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