As I’ve mentioned, I usually don’t post on politics. I wouldn’t be very good at it. A few days ago, however, I suggested that you read Bishop Thomas Wenski’s September 19 letter on military commissions and the proposed amendments to the War Crimes Act, and then I drew your attention to a short article by Amy Uelmen in the Focolare magazine Living City that argued against the not uncommon position that a “ticking time bomb” scenario would justify the ready availability of torture. The Progressive (a magazine that, I must admit, I only glace at every now and then) has another article against the use of a hypothetical “ticking time bomb” scenario to legitimize the selective use of torture. It is written by the University of Wisconsin historian Alfred W. McCoy. (Incidentally, I must confess that I didn’t think that anyone could actually resist torture, despite his claim.)
Here are a couple excerpts; as always, please feel free to comment.
Advocates of the ticking bomb often cite the brutal torture of Abdul Hakim Murad in Manila in 1995, which they say stopped a plot to blow up a dozen trans-Pacific aircraft and kill 4,000 innocent passengers. Except, of course, for the simple fact that Murad’s torture did nothing of the sort. As The Washington Post has reported, Manila police got all their important information from Murad in the first few minutes when they seized his laptop with the entire bomb plot. All the supposed details gained from the sixty-seven days of incessant beatings, spiced by techniques like cigarettes to the genitals, were, as one Filipino officer testified in a New York court, fabrications fed to Murad by Philippine police.
Even if the terrorist begins to talk under torture, interrogators have a hard time figuring out whether he is telling the truth or not. Testing has found that professional interrogators perform within the 45 to 60 percent range in separating truth from lies—little better than flipping a coin. Thus, as intelligence data moves through three basic stages—acquisition, analysis, and action—the chances that good intelligence will be ignored are high.
After fifty years of fighting enemies, communist and terrorist, with torture, we now have sufficient evidence to conclude that torture of the few yields little useful information. As the ancient Roman jurist Ulpian noted 1,800 years ago, when tortured the strong will resist and the weak will say anything to end the pain.
History is replete with examples of the strong who resisted even the most savage tortures. After the July 20, 1944, bomb plot against Hitler, the Gestapo subjected Fabian von Schlabrendorff to four weeks of torture by metal spikes and beatings so severe he suffered a heart attack. But with a stoicism typical of these conspirators, he broke his silence only to give the Gestapo a few scraps of vague information when he feared involuntarily blurting out serious intelligence.
Then there are the weak. Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a senior Al Qaeda leader, under torture told his captors that Iraq trained Al Qaeda in chemical and biological weapons. This raises the possibility that he, like Murad, had been tortured into giving fabricated intelligence. Colin Powell relied on this false information in his now-disavowed speech to the United Nations before the Iraq War.
As Yale legal historian John Langbein puts it, “History’s most important lesson is that it has not been possible to make coercion compatible with truth.”
Proponents of torture present a false choice between tortured intelligence and no intelligence at all. There is, in fact, a well-established American alternative to torture that we might call empathetic interrogation. U.S. Marines first used this technique during World War II to extract accurate intelligence from fanatical Japanese captives on Saipan and Tinian within forty-eight hours of landing, and the FBI has practiced it with great success in the decades since. After the East Africa bombings of U.S. embassies, the bureau employed this method to gain some of our best intelligence on Al Qaeda and win U.S. court convictions of all of the accused.
One of the bureau agents who worked on that case, Dan Coleman, has since been appalled by the CIA’s coercive methods after 9/11. “Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to anyone who’s been deprived of his clothes?” Coleman asked. “He’s going to be ashamed and humiliated and cold. He’ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There’s no value in it.” By contrast, FBI reliance on due process and empathy proved effective in terror cases by building rapport with detainees.
Bush’s example of Zubaydah actually supports Coleman’s point. FBI agents say they were getting more out of him before the CIA came in with gloves off.
“Brutalization doesn’t work,” Coleman concluded from his years in FBI counterterrorism. “We know that. Besides, you lose your soul.”
Ironically, though, torture of the many can produce results, albeit at a surprisingly high political price.
The CIA tortured tens of thousands in Vietnam and the French tortured hundreds of thousands in Algeria. During the Battle of Algiers in 1957, French soldiers arrested 30 percent to 40 percent of all males in the city’s Casbah and subjected most of these to what one French officer called “beatings, electric shocks, and, in particular, water torture, which was always the most dangerous technique for the prisoner.” Though many resisted to the point of death, mass torture gained sufficient intelligence to break the rebel underground. The CIA’s Phoenix program no doubt damaged the Viet Cong’s communist infrastructure by torture-interrogation of countless South Vietnamese civilians.
So the choices are clear. Major success from limited, surgical torture is a fable, a fiction. But mass torture of thousands of suspects, some guilty, most innocent, can produce some useful intelligence.
Useful intelligence perhaps, but at what cost? The price of torture is unacceptably high because it disgraces and then undermines the country that countenances it. For the French in Algeria, for the Americans in Vietnam, and now for the Americans in Iraq, the costs have been astronomical and have outweighed any gains gathered by torture.
Official sources are nearly unanimous that the yield from the massive Phoenix program, with more than forty prisons across South Vietnam systematically torturing thousands of suspected communists, was surprisingly low. One Pentagon contract study found that, in 1970-71, only 3 percent of the Viet Cong “killed, captured, or rallied were full or probationary Party members above the district level.” Not surprisingly, such a brutal pacification effort failed either to crush the Viet Cong or win the support of Vietnamese villagers, contributing to the ultimate U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War.
Similarly, the French army won the Battle of Algiers but soon lost the war for Algeria, in part because their systematic torture delegitimated the larger war effort in the eyes of most Algerians and many French. “You might say that the Battle of Algiers was won through the use of torture,” observed British journalist Sir Alistair Horne, “but that the war, the Algerian war, was lost.”
Even the comparatively limited torture at Abu Ghraib has done incalculable damage to America’s international prestige.
In short, the intelligence gains are soon overwhelmed by political costs as friends and enemies recoil in revulsion at such calculated savagery.
Indeed, the U.S. Army’s current field manual, FM: Intelligence Interrogation 34-52, contains an implicit warning about these high political costs: “Revelation of use of torture by U.S. personnel,” it warns, “will bring discredit upon the U.S. and its armed forces while undermining domestic and international support for the war effort.”
These dismal conclusions lead to a last, uncomfortable question: If torture produces limited gains at such high political cost, why does any rational American leader condone interrogation practices “tantamount to torture”?
One answer to this question seems to lie with a prescient CIA Cold War observation about Soviet leaders in times of stress. “When feelings of insecurity develop within those holding power,” reads an agency analysis of Kremlin leadership applicable to the post-9/11 White House, “they become increasingly suspicious and put great pressures upon the secret police to obtain arrests and confessions. At such times, police officials are inclined to condone anything which produces a speedy ‘confession,’ and brutality may become widespread.” In sum, the powerful often turn to torture in times of crisis, not because it works but because it salves their fears and insecurities with the psychic balm of empowerment.
As we slide down the slippery slope to torture in general, we should also realize that there is a chasm at the bottom called extrajudicial execution. With the agency’s multinational gulag full of dozens, even hundreds, of detainees of dwindling utility, CIA agents, active and retired, have been vocal in their complaints about the costs and inconvenience of limitless, even lifetime, incarceration for these tortured terrorists. The ideal solution to this conundrum from an agency perspective is pump and dump, as in Vietnam—pump the terrorists for information, and then dump the bodies. After all, the systematic French torture of thousands from the Casbah of Algiers in 1957 also entailed more than 3,000 “summary executions” as “an inseparable part” of this campaign, largely, as one French general put it, to ensure that “the machine of justice” not be “clogged with cases.” For similar reasons, the CIA’s Phoenix program produced, by the agency’s own count, over 20,000 extrajudicial killings.
The use of torture to stop ticking bombs leads ultimately to a cruel choice—either legalize this brutality, à la [Harvard law professor Alan] Dershowitz and [President] Bush, or accept that the logical corollary to state-sanctioned torture is state-sponsored murder, à la Vietnam.