Torture Doesn't Work: The CIA Torture Report's Long Shadow

Tuesday's release of the Senate study of the CIA's detention and interrogation program was clearly chilling. What sense can we make of it? 

Despite more than a decade of reports that the U.S. government had tortured high-level terrorist suspects, including a frank, if detached, admission from President Obama that the nation had "tortured some folks," Tuesday's release of the Senate study of the CIA's detention and interrogation program was chilling. We learned that some interrogation techniques were "brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others.” And we found out that the CIA willfully and routinely misled, if not outright lied to, everyone from their own inspector general to the oversight committees of Congress and even the president of the United States.

Torture Doesn't Work

Much of the first day discussion of the report centered on the finding that "enhanced interrogation techniques [were] not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees." Despite claims to the contrary from the CIA, Vice President Cheney and others, this is not new news. Decades of experience by police, military and intelligence interrogators around the world had made it clear long before the 9/11 attacks that the most effective means of extracting useful information from suspects is to win their trust. While physical and psychological torture will certainly get people to talk, the incentive created is to say whatever it takes to get relief.

The report demonstrates that this lesson was learned yet again. Almost all of the useful intelligence merely corroborated what was already known from legitimate interrogations and much of the intelligence that was gathered was simply wrong. Indeed, some of the most brutal torture led to the worst intelligence, including information that led U.S. forces to target innocents. And almost all of the touted terrorist plots that were allegedly "disrupted" on the basis of evidence obtained from torture were fantastical at best.

The Dilemma

That said, I'm troubled by the line of thinking promulgated by my fellow Wikistrat analyst, Daniel R. DePetris, at TNI:

. . . I believe we can all agree on one thing: the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency immediately after September 11 were—and remain—in an unfathomably difficult position. The officers, analysts, scientists, and managers of the agency are expected to perform their jobs with the utmost perfection in incredibly rigid time constraints, and are expected to do so without making a mistake that could potentially hurt the strategic position of the United States or result in the deaths of Americans at home or abroad. And these men and women are mandated to do this every single day they trek to agency headquarters or start their workday in the one of hundreds of CIA stations located in dangerously hostile areas.

On the one hand, I wholeheartedly concur that our intelligence professionals are in "an unfathomably difficult position" and are asked to do an essentially impossible job with potentially deadly consequences. On the other, this is the same mindset that lets police get away with killing unarmed civilians with impunity. Those performing dangerous jobs protecting the public deserve our understanding; they shouldn't be above our laws or immune from scrutiny.

Like Senator Dianne Feinstein, the outgoing chair of the committee who courageously released the report, despite bullying from the intelligence community, I "can understand the CIA's impulse to consider the use of every tool to gather intelligence and remove terrorists from the battlefield." But, as she rightly notes, "such pressure, fear, and expectation of future terrorist plots do not justify, temper, or excuse improper actions taken by individuals or organizations in the name of national security."

Oddly, that notion was simply common sense not all that long ago. As a freshman cadet thirty years ago last summer, the laws of war were drummed into me even before I studied battlefield tactics or the capabilities of weapons systems. That military professionals had a sacred duty to protect noncombatants, treat surrendering enemy soldiers humanely, and otherwise uphold our laws and our values, even at increased risk to our own lives and those of the soldiers under our command, was simply a given.

Some have argued that 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror is different, because our current enemy doesn't respect our laws and our values. But we've long fought enemies, including the Vietnamese and Japanese in living memory, who flouted the laws of war, especially against an enemy they considered racially or culturally inferior. Our standard remained unwavering. We followed our values, because they were our values, not because we expected reciprocity. But, as a bonus, we believed our enemies were much more likely to willingly surrender, rather than fight to the last man if they expected humane treatment.

What Now?

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