Torture and the Damage Done

Osama bin Laden’s death has laid to rest the mystery of his whereabouts. His body lies under the ocean. But now his death raises another increasingly popular question. Was he tracked down thanks to tips elicited through the torture of captured al-Qaeda operatives?

The answer should be clear: no, torture doesn’t “work.” The damage done by systematically resorting to torture far outweighs the benefits obtained from the very rare instances where reliable information is obtained from torture.

Defenders of the Bush-Cheney policies that gave us rampant human rights abuses at the Abu Ghraib and Guant?namo prisons claim, on flimsy evidence, that waterboarding and other forms of torture produced information that eventually led the Navy SEALs to bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.

Defenders of Obama’s policy of ending torture, such as White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, tell us that the trail to bin Laden’s compound was assembled over a decade, from a multitude of bits and pieces of intelligence. As New York Times reporters Scott Shane and Charlie Savage explained, “harsh techniques played a small role at most” in leading the Navy SEALs to Osama Bin Laden.

Professional interrogators, like Air Force Major Matthew Alexander, insist that torture is the wrong way to go because it tends to produce unreliable or deliberately deceptive information. In addition, torture creates more terrorists than it unmasks.

It’s also unnecessary, as I learned first-hand many years ago. I did part of my army service in World War II at an interrogation center for high-level German POWs. We got a lot of valuable intelligence without ever laying a hand on them.

But it’s not necessary to deny that torture ever works in order to come to the conclusion that it should never be used. People who believe in morality ? and not everyone does ? will oppose torture because they consider it deeply immoral. People who believe in the rule of law will refuse to employ it because it is illegal. And people who are proud to be Americans should reject it because it is profoundly un-American. The U.S. Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, a German immigrant law professor at Columbia University, Francis Lieber, drafted “Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field,” which President Abraham Lincoln subsequently promulgated. The Lieber Code, as it came to be known, is the fountainhead of all subsequent documents dealing with what is prohibited in warfare, both in this country and throughout the world.

At its core is this sentence: “The law of war does not only disclaim all cruelty and bad faith?offenses to the contrary shall be severely punished, and especially so if committed by officers.” The United States is a party to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which spell out the law of war in detail, and, as of 1994, to the Convention against Torture.

In 1980, in a case brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said, “The torturer has become like the pirate and slave trader before him hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind.”

Another reason to obey the injunction against torture, one that military officers frequently cite, is the blowback effect. If the United States tortures foreign detainees as a matter of policy, as it did during George W. Bush’s administration, what is to prevent other countries from using torture on American detainees, as the North Koreans did during the Korean War?

Finally, there’s something about a slippery slope. If the law can be broken because doing so “works,” where will that stop? How about convicting Guant?namo detainees on secret evidence? Or locking up “really bad people” ? that’s what Dick Cheney called the ones in Gitmo ? for life without trying them at all, as the government is getting ready to do? Or doing away with the presumption of innocence, as President Barack Obama did the other day when he declared that Private Bradley Manning “broke the law,” despite the fact that the alleged WikiLeaker hasn’t even been tried yet?

If the law is discarded in the fight against terror, terrorists can rack up a win.

Peter Weiss is a vice-president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a member of TransNational Institute‘s International Advisory Board.


More articles by:
March 22, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Italy, Germany and the EU’s Future
David Rosen
The Further Adventures of the President and the Porn Star
Gary Leupp
Trump, the Crown Prince and the Whole Ugly Big Picture
The Hudson Report
Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons and Debt in Antiquity
Steve Martinot
The Properties of Property
Binoy Kampmark
Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Surveillance Capitalism
Jeff Berg
Russian to Judgment
Gregory Barrett
POSSESSED! Europe’s American Demon Must Be Exorcised
Robby Sherwin
What Do We Do About Facebook?
Sam Husseini
Trump Spokesperson Commemorates Invading Iraq by Claiming U.S. Doesn’t Dictate to Other Countries; State Dept. Defends Invasion
Rob Okun
Students: Time is Ripe to Add Gender to Gun Debate
Michael Barker
Tory Profiteering in Russia and Putin’s Debt of Gratitude
March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am a Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us