Rationalizing TortureAuthor: David R. Irvine
Source: Washington Post - November 2, 2005 p. 17
Since the photographs of U.S. soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib became public more than a year ago, the world has been left wondering what U.S. policy is on the matter.
Last month, the Senate finally gave a clear answer. Defying a White House veto threat, 46 Republicans and 43 Democrats voted to reject the use of abusive interrogation methods that have increased the danger to our troops and undermined America's moral authority in the war on terror. The vote came on an amendment offered by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and several other senior Republicans to a massive defense spending bill.
The McCain amendment would reinstate the Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogations as the binding rules for interrogation of anyone in military custody and would make clear that all U.S. personnel are bound by law to refrain from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees. President Bush has repeatedly said that all detainees in U.S. custody will be treated humanely. So how did nine senators justify voting against a measure that operationalizes a direct order from the commander in chief? This is an important question, because three of these senators are on the House-Senate conference committee that soon will meet to decide whether the amendment survives intact in the final bill, is stripped out or is so weakened that it becomes meaningless.
One of those three, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, recently explained why he voted against the McCain amendment. "The information we get from interrogating these terrorists is the most valuable information we get. It saves lives -- period," Mr. Roberts said.
One key to getting such information, he said, is terrorists' fear of the unknown lengths to which we might be willing to go to get it. If you pass a law that telegraphs to terrorists what they can expect if they are caught, it "will be the first chapter in the al Qaeda terrorist manual," Mr. Roberts said. Or, as one Pentagon spokesperson was quoted as saying, "We don't want to beat Iraqis; we just don't want to pass a law saying beating Iraqis is bad."
This attitude will be appealing to some. Intelligence is crucial to defeating al Qaeda, and our enemy is certain to train to resist our interrogations. No one disputes that.
But these arguments beg the most important question: Do we sanction torture and abuse of prisoners or not?
Mr. Roberts has said, "Of course I'm against torture, and of course I'm against abuse, and of course we should not degrade people. But I think the benefit of the doubt should go to our troops, because they have earned it." I would respectfully suggest that what our troops have earned, by their willingness to put their lives in harm's way for our national security, is not doubt, but clarity. As 27 retired admirals and generals who joined me in a letter to Mr. McCain in support of his amendment said, "Our service members were denied clear guidance, and left to take the blame when things went wrong. They deserve better than that."
Perhaps the real reason behind Mr. Roberts' vote is a reluctance to rule out abusive treatment because of a belief that it gets us information. This conclusion about the value of torture differs starkly from the opinions of many with first-hand experience in prisoner interrogation. Mr. Roberts implies that his position on the Intelligence Committee affords him secret information that leads to this certainty. If any argument demands empirical proof, however, this dubious premise is it.
The senator's assumption seems to be that jihadists are some kind of supermen who are immune to the psychological dynamics that are a common product of our humanity and form the bulk of any professional interrogator's toolkit. Where is there evidence of that? Reports from the field and from the FBI confirm that conventional interrogation methods are highly productive, even against al Qaeda, if skillfully used.
Respectfully, the nine "no" votes were, despite all the parsing of reasons, votes to endanger our troops and our countrymen. They were votes to officially sanction barbaric practices inflicted upon unarmed, bound, defenseless prisoners. Our misguided torture policy has now given license to anyone who takes Americans captive to inflict the same kinds of brutality. Think about it. Those "no" votes essentially absolved the North Vietnamese of all the brutality that was inflicted upon American POWs like John McCain and James Stockdale.
Mr. Roberts assumes that we are only abusing captives who have vital, life saving information to impart. But what we've learned since Abu Ghraib suggests something more ominous: that torture is used indiscriminately, and that we are beating the daylights out of many people who are guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or being unable to communicate in English. The Army inspector general has estimated that as many as 80 percent of those arrested in our sweeps and held for intelligence or security reasons were potentially eligible for release upon proper review of their cases.
It is undeniable that Arab regard for our moral leadership in the Middle East has never been lower. It is undeniable that our government is more reviled throughout the world than ever before. We are not winning hearts and minds by degrading and torturing. If anyone believes that the information gained through torture has been worth the price to our national honor and capacity to persuade other nations to follow our lead, it's time for them to produce hard evidence of torture's superior worth. Our torture policy has been disastrously counterproductive, and the votes against the McCain amendments fly in the face of our nation's core Judeo/Christian and -- yes -- Muslim values.
David R. Irvine is a retired Army brigadier general and Army Reserve strategic intelligence officer who taught prisoner interrogation and military law for 18 years with the Sixth Army Intelligence School. Helast served as deputy commander for the 96th Regional Readiness Command, and currently practices law in Salt Lake City, Utah.