The truth about torture

In 2006, the year before he died, Arthur Schlesinger Jr was asked what he thought of President Bush’s policy on torture. Schlesinger was one of America’s most distinguished historians and a specialist on presidential politics. The New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer recalls that he “chose his words slowly and carefully,” peering over his glasses in a genteel Upper East Side French restaurant. Schlesinger concluded that: “No position taken has done more damage to the American reputation in the world – ever.”

This extraordinary verdict was indicative of the horror produced by the Bush administration’s scepticism towards legal limits on its power. With highly questionable legal scholarship to support its claims, the White House’s Office of Legal Counsel procured justifications for ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques that allowed US military personnel to pursue the Global War on Terror with as few constraints as possible. The resulting memoranda convinced few within the administration, and nobody outside, that American law, traditions and military practice had not been warped in order to admit the use of torture.  “While there was nothing new about torture,” Mayer observes, “its authorization by Bush Administration lawyers represented a dramatic break with the past.” Even before reports of abuse surfaced at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, it was clear that the administration had over-reached. After the September 11 attacks, many parts of the government were willing to bend rules – Cofer Black, the melodramatic former Director of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center, famously said that “after 9/11 the gloves came off.”  By twisting its reading of the law to accommodate short-term political gains, the Bush administration clearly signalled to those lower down the chain of command that prosecutions for torture were unlikely.

The torture debate has resurfaced in America following the release of Zero Dark Thirty, a film that dramatically retells the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Critics argue that graphic scenes in the movie appear to condone the use of torture. The scenes even moved three prominent Senators to formally complain to the Chairman of Sony, which produced the film, that the film erroneously suggests that torture facilitated the killing of bin Laden.

In fact, as the Atlantic journalist Mark Bowden has pointed out, the film does no such thing. The suspected terrorist who is tortured gives his interrogators misleading information that does nothing to stop the impending attack. Nevertheless they persevere. Bowden argues that “Torture may be morally wrong, and it may not be the best way to obtain information from detainees, but it played a role in America’s messy, decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and Zero Dark Thirty is right to portray that fact.”

Other commentators are less convinced. Alex Gibney, director of the acclaimed documentary on torture Taxi to the Dark Side, writes that Zero Dark Thirty disingenuously presents itself as both movie and documentary, conveniently blurring the line between the two. A proper account of the use of torture would have indicated that it was “not only brutal and counterproductive but ridiculous.” Gibney recalls the notorious case, revealed by Wikileaks documents, of what happened when interrogators failed to extract information from Mohammed al-Qahtani, a high-value suspect. Desperate for results, they “fell victim to what is called ‘force drift’ … and resorted to increasingly bizarre techniques … such as ‘invasion of space by female’; putting panties on his head, making him wear a ‘smiley-face’ mask … and giving him dance lessons; making him watch puppet shows of him having sex with Osama bin Laden, administering forced enemas and making him crawl around like a dog.” Gibney correctly observes that this is what really happens when torture is licensed – it fails to procure the desired intelligence and degrades everyone involved in the process.

The Senators who complained about the movie – among them John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam – claimed a review of “six million” pages of intelligence records indicated that no useful intelligence had been gathered through the use of torture. The claim may understate the likely role that the threat of torture played in the interrogations process, but it definitively proves that the Bush torture policy was a failure. Tortured suspects not only failed to produce useful intelligence, they generated scores of false leads that confused and delayed the hunt for bin Laden. And while Zero Dark Thirty may take a questionable stand on the use of torture, it clearly shows that the breakthroughs in the manhunt arose from meticulous and painstaking traditional intelligence analysis.

The moral consequences of the Bush torture policy remain incalculable.

Schlesinger’s condemnation may seem over-the-top to anyone familiar with the United States’ chequered history in the Americas, to name but one Cold War theatre in which so many dubious policies were adopted; yet it is hard to quibble with his essential point. The Bush administration’s torture policy deeply compromised America’s war on terror, and this fundamental moral lapse has hardly been redeemed by subsequent strikes against al Qaeda’s senior leaders, nor by the dramatic killing of Osama bin Laden.



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