Four reasons why the CIA torture program should never have happened

By Marius Smith

When the US Senate Intelligence Committee released its report into the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program this week, the response was appropriate. People called it “shocking”, “harrowing” and “deeply disturbing”. But most of all, the Committee’s report into the horrendous affair reveals that the whole thing was normal. Normal, that is, for state-sanctioned torture. There are many reasons why this program, like all other torture regimes that preceded it, should never have happened. Here are four.

First, like any other torture program, it didn’t stop terrorist attacks. It had been justified from the beginning on the basis that that it would save lives, but that’s not what the Committee’s report found.

For decades, scholars, torturers and officials alike have acknowledged that torture does not yield useful information. Victims lie, dissemble and shut down. Sometimes they just don’t know the answer to the questions. Torture is a shortcut and no match for professional, ethical interrogation and investigation.

Of course, that’s not what the torturers say. In the mid-90s, Israel told the UN Committee Against Torture that its program of “moderate physical pressure” stopped 90 bus bombings but gave no evidence to corroborate the claim.

Similarly in this case, the CIA has claimed that terrorist plots were stopped. They’ve even set up a website to prove their point. However, the committee investigated 20 of the most commonly made CIA claims, reviewing over six million documents in the process, and found that in some cases the claims were wrong. In each of the others,

‘the CIA inaccurately claimed that specific, otherwise unavailable information was acquired from a CIA detainee: “as a result” of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques when in fact the information was either” (1) corroborative or information already available to the CIA… or (2) acquired from a CIA detainee prior to the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques’.

 In other words, torture doesn’t work. We knew it already, but it seems we are doomed to repeat our mistakes, and then re-learn the lessons.

Second, once you green light torture to stop catastrophic terrorist attacks, every threat begins to look like a potentially catastrophic terrorist attack. It almost inevitably happens in state-sanctioned torture programs. From ancient Rome to Northern Ireland to Israel, the initial limited use of torture inevitably became regular.

The committee’s report makes it clear that torture became routine and was used far more often than previously disclosed. It was a standard, uncontroversial part of the CIA’s interrogation arsenal and it was nasty. It included unauthorised techniques by CIA personnel who were not permitted to use it and, of course, it spread well beyond the CIA to places such as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Baghram air base. Seymour Hersh’s landmark 2002 New Yorker article tracks the irresistible spread of torture techniques far beyond what was originally intended.

Third, once torture is an official apparatus of government, it inevitably corrupts the state, and the people involved. The bureaucrats who approve the torture, the medical personnel who oversee the interrogations, the myriad others who find themselves pulled into the process (think, for example, of the cleaner who removes the blood from the walls) and – of course – the torturers themselves.

Every torture program has this corrosive effect which spreads through the bureaucracy and then out into society itself. The loved ones of those involved in the program will be early victims, and then eventually we will all see photographs of hooded and terrified men and wonder where it all went wrong.  If history is any guide, CIA personnel will eventually speak out about the trauma they suffered because of their involvement.

Finally, international law completely bans torture for a reason: it is an unspeakable crime against the person. Survivors of torture often suffer life-long physical and psychological damage, and this inevitably takes a severe toll on their family and friends as well. And then there are those who don’t survive at all.

No good was ever going to come from the CIA’s torture program, but that didn’t stop them.  As the florid fear of further attack spread through the United States after 9/11 and settled like a thick blanket over the populace, the politicians, the military leaders and the spies all came together to use the blunt, insidious and utterly ineffective instrument of torture.

That’s not the way they saw it. This torture program was going to be different from the others. But, of course, it was just the same.

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