With an unwavering conviction reverberating in his trademark Texas drawl, President George W. Bush has repeatedly told an inquiring press corps, “We do not torture.” Well, that’s a relief!
Okay, so not really.
Funny thing is, it turns out we do sometimes torture. And, yeah, maybe it’s not that funny for the folks getting tortured, but for the rest of us… well, it isn’t that funny either. In fact, the tactics used in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and dozens of CIA blacksites around the world are pretty horrific. While these are suspected terrorists being tortured, the callous, systematic cruelty of the methods utilized in interrogations is still shocking stuff.
The torture debate was reignited last week with the declassification of former White House attorney John Yoo’s infamous 2003 memo, which laid the “legal” groundwork for military interrogators to employ “enhanced interrogation techniques” on foreign captives. Yoo’s lengthy memo attempts to justify torturing, er… enhanced interrogation of suspects by purporting it’s the president’s constitutional prerogative to do whatever he deems fit in defending the country from scary, faceless threats.
Yoo gives us doozies like: “Any presidential decision to order interrogation methods that are inconsistent with [the Convention Against Torture] would amount to a suspension or termination of those treaty provisions.” Meaning – in true Nixonian fashion – when the president does it, it’s not illegal.
Except, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, what Yoo argued was, in fact, illegal. The Court, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, ruled against the Bush administration by determining the Geneva Convention was violated, with Justice Anthony Kennedy noting that such violations are considered “war crimes.” Of course, this makes Justice Kennedy look silly, since everybody knows that “enhanced war crime technique” is now the proper vernacular.
The Supreme Court ruling led the White House to push the Military Commissions Act through Congress in late 2006. The law gave cover to the administration’s collective, torturing ass by granting retroactive immunity for any illegal tactics the administration may have used. This, rather perversely, put President Bush in the position of arguing that whatever the U.S. did during interrogations was totally lawful, while also demanding that Congress give his administration protection from being tried for their totally “lawful” actions.
The Bush argument goes like this: Whatever the administration did, it was to protect the nation. But that’s probably not true. The fact is that torture just isn’t a very effective interrogation technique. The problem isn’t whether or not torture will get someone to divulge everything – rather, torture will get someone to divulge anything – true or not. This was a concern with the accuracy of the information captured al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad gave his CIA interrogators. When an individual confesses everything and yet is still tortured, he’s likely to tell his captors whatever else they want to hear until the torture stops. The tormenters in the Spanish Inquisition and the Soviet Union used torture as a means to get false confessions out of political opponents – that’s what it’s great for. It’s just not a particularly useful instrument for collecting reliable intelligence.
That’s one reason why the FBI has been a staunch opponent of the technique. While the CIA has really only played the interrogation game since 9/11, the FBI has been doing it forever. They have undeniably been more successful in getting their War on Terror targets to divulge information, and they haven’t had to waterboard anybody to do it.
Sometimes, a commander-at-war must wade through ethically ambiguous waters. The key figures in the upper echelons of the Bush administration strapped on their morally dubious snorkels and – without hesitation – dove in the water headfirst. The administration’s reliance on torture is sickening, not merely because of the onerous act itself, but because there’s little that has done more damage to America’s name and credibility in the world than the photos from Abu Ghraib or the reports from Guantanamo Bay. While we can’t torture the world to be free of terrorists, we can assure ourselves that, if we torture enough of them, the threat of terrorism will never go away. Defeating an enemy is hard, but creating a thousand more is easy. We are – and always should be – a nation of laws. This is a message Americans need to be reminded of and the rest of the world must vigorously hear.