Torture doesn’t work. There has never been much reason to believe that it does. Now Reuters reports that a three-year investigation by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence committee confirms what we already knew: there's little evidence that our so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques produced any key intelligence.
The CIA appears never to have seriously studied whether torture works. But we have known for a while that the vital intelligence we obtained from prisoners—including the intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden—was primarily obtained through ordinary, non-abusive interrogations. September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, apparently talked only months after we stopped torturing him. The CIA agent who told ABC that torture got Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah to provide useful intelligence later admitted that he had no firsthand knowledge of what actually happened at the interrogation. And of course the main reason evidence is obtained under torture is not admissible in court is that it is widely considered to be unreliable.
We tortured suspected terrorists anyway. We used interrogation techniques directly and deliberately borrowed from Nazi and Soviet torture programs. We beat them, we waterboarded them, we strangled them, we threatened to kill their families, we forced them to endure freezing temperatures or excruciating positions, and we kept them from sleeping. We caused them serious lasting psychic and physical injury; in some cases we appear to have tortured them to death. We don’t seem to have accomplished anything by this, besides satisfying some misplaced urge for revenge. Not everyone we tortured was a terrorist. No legal process governed whom we tortured. Some of the people we tortured were picked up on flimsy evidence and had done nothing wrong. We even borrowed the Nazi euphemism for torture: “enhanced interrogation.”
Federal law makes it a crime to torture or to conspire to torture. The U.S.’ ratification of the U.N. Convention Against Torture likewise makes it a crime to “inflict severe pain and suffering” for the purposes of obtaining information. Waterboarding has been recognized as a form of torture under U.S. law. The International Committee of the Red Cross has found that waterboarding is torture under the Geneva Conventions and opens up U.S. officials to prosecution for war crimes. There is no statute of limitations on war crimes; the minimum penalty is life in prison.
President Obama issued an executive order forbidding the use of torture at the start of his term. But although the Attorney General is legally bound to prosecute torture, the administration has prevented attempts to hold anyone accountable for breaking the law. Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee withdrew from the investigation on the grounds that it would be impossible to get accurate information. There is little political will to hold anyone accountable for torture; so many people approved it, or at least looked the other way.
We should not continue to look the other way. We may no longer be torturing people. But now we have established a precedent that we can torture with impunity. Torture doesn’t work, but if we aren’t honest with ourselves about it, we will inevitably torture again.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed image from the U.S. government