The Balboa Park museum presents “Taking a Stand Against Torture,” a discussion of America’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques deployed in the aftermath of 9/11.
By Andy Cohen
Torture has been a part of human behavior since the beginning of time. It is a tool to exert control, dominance over another human being. In the modern era its primary use has been as an interrogation technique—extracting information from enemies.
It is almost universally recognized that torture is a savage practice, the results of which are questionable at best. Psychological experts have determined that there comes a point in a person’s suffering that they will say anything; admit to anything to make the infliction of pain stop. Information extracted under these circumstances, therefore, becomes useless. But that hasn’t stopped the practice.
In 1949 the United States was a chief signatory to the Geneva Conventions, the fourth of which specifically banned the use of torture for any reason. In the civilized Western World, torture is considered taboo…..at least so we thought. It is well known by now that the United States government in the post 9/11 era has engaged in interrogation techniques that, at the very least, are questionable in nature.
Specifically, though, the question is did the United States engage in torture post 9/11? This is a query explored by the San Diego Museum of Man as a part of its “Instruments of Torture” display. Last Saturday, the museum hosted a discussion “Taking a Stand Against Torture,” featuring Larry Siems, the Freedom to Write Director at the PEN American Center, and author of “The Torture Report,” and Julie Kuck, a psychologist who works with Survivors of Torture International, a San Diego based non-profit dedicated to treating “survivors of politically motivated torture and their families who live in San Diego County.”
The answer to the above question, says Siems, is ‘yes.’ Without question, after examining thousands of declassified documents detailing the activities of the agencies working on the American public’s behalf, ostensibly to protect Americans from terrorist attacks, the United States government did engage in torture.
“There are 500 cables between (U.S. authorities in) Thailand (where terror suspect Abu Zubaydah was taken shortly after his capture in Pakistan in 2002) and D.C. asking permission to torture,” said Siems.
Interestingly, according to Siems, the trove of documents he read through in researching his book contains ample evidence of dissent among the ranks. The CIA does not normally conduct interrogations, he said. That task is typically left to the FBI and the Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF). However, the CITF and the FBI refused to take part in the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program, leaving the CIA to conduct the investigations on their own. “There are 140,000 pages of documents with Americans complaining about what was happening,” said Siems.
Throughout the years the CIA and its affiliates have touted the success of the enhanced interrogation program, insisting that valuable information has been gleaned that has assisted in the ongoing dismantling of the al Qaeda terrorist network, including claims that waterboarding brought key pieces of information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Regardless, said Siems, “the efficacy of torture doesn’t matter.” According to the Geneva Conventions, “no exceptional circumstances may be involved,” he said. “From a legal perspective, whether torture worked or not is absolutely irrelevant” regardless of whatever “ticking time bomb” may exist, he said.
“Torture was banned with the possibility that it works.” In the developed world, the U.S. stands alone in its willingness to skirt around internationally accepted norms in regard to torture, said Siems. “The only way to circumvent international conventions against torture is to do it in secret,” he said, which is precisely what the U.S. did in sending detainees to secret sites around the world in order to avoid scrutiny.
In order to end the practice of torture, said Kuck, the psychologist, “the message must get out that torture doesn’t work.” It’s a message that “countermands the efficacy argument,” she said. In other words, the efficacy argument—whether torture techniques are effective or not—is entirely moot because they do not work.
Even more damning for proponents of enhanced interrogation, noted Kuck and Siems, is the fact that America’s actions during the war on terror, chiefly the activities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the terrorist detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has led to a “recruiting bonanza” for al Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist organizations worldwide. Instead of deterring terrorism, the use of torture techniques has created a surplus of individuals looking to strike back at “The Great Satan.”
“There was a national consensus before September 11 that cruelty would never be applied against American detainees, whether they be military or civilian,” said former General Counsel to the U.S. Navy Alberto Mora, whose objections to the program led to then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld curtailing “enhanced interrogation” practices at Guantanamo, in a 2007 interview. “And yet several years later that consensus has been shattered.”
The use of torture techniques, Mora said, “shatters the very foundation of our Constitution and the values upon which our Constitution were based.”
As to the question of whether the techniques applied by CIA interrogators worked or not, there is a 6,000 page report commissioned by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, chaired by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, which was recently adopted by the committee on the use of torture and abuse during the war on terror. The report itself remains classified, but, says Siems, it’s not difficult to discern the conclusions of the report judging by statements made by Feinstein, Senator Carl Levin, and others: “Enhanced interrogation did not produce results,” said Siems.
“There is a universal tool that can destroy torture,” said Kuck. “Torture ends with compassion.”
The character of a nation is best defined by its actions during the most trying of times. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, America’s values seemed to change. Anger and racism fueled the abuses that took place in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, said Siems, quoting Mora. It fed the bloodlust of the American populace in the wake of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil in the country’s history. The illusion of torture’s effectiveness and the emotional satisfaction of the pain inflicted on those who on the surface committed the attacks made the tactics seem acceptable, at least initially.
The damage to America’s reputation and standing in the world has been done. What Americans must ask now is whether that change is to be allowed to become a permanent part of who we are as a nation. Over a decade later, despite the massive outcry against the enhanced interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration, the answer to that question remains unclear.