International Policy Digest

Robert D. Ward
U.S. News /11 Nov 2017

America’s Use of Torture: The Need to find Justice

After the tragic terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the CIA, with the approval of the Bush administration, began detaining and interrogating suspects in secret “Black sites” using highly controversial “enhanced interrogation” methods that have been reviewed in an extensive three year investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee and ultimately documented in 2014 in a 6,700 page report. However, this past June, President Trump, who has publicly announced his approval for the use of torture, has ordered the return of all copies of the report to the Senate vaults, decreasing chances of public release.

To call the use of enhanced interrogation tactics on detainees during this period a “mistake” would be a mistake in and of itself. The word “mistake” implies that there was partial confusion or misinformation that led to unintentional results — synonyms for mistake include misunderstanding, slip, and blunder. The approval of torture on detainees must be labeled an intentional, calculated decision that resulted from post-9/11 hyper-patriotism justifying the unethical treatment and dehumanization of detainees, who at times held no relevant knowledge regarding terrorism or were completely innocent. The use of enhanced interrogation was not only morally unjustifiable, but unfruitful as well, with many studies assessing that torture was ineffective in gaining accurate information that served the United States’ national security efforts.

But where do we go from here? How does the United States go about finding justice after a barbarous breach in the values of our nation, committed by policy makers and agents that were burdened with the high-pressure task of battling terrorism at an unprecedented scale?

The first step towards finding justice in this situation is to evaluate what is at stake. On a fundamental level, torture violates American values. As stated by President Obama in response to the report: “…the United States of America…stand[s] up for freedom, democracy, and the inherent dignity and human rights of people around the world.” Historically, the United States has been an outspoken assailant on the use of torture, as a party of the Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibiting the use of torture, and a signatory of the UN Convention against Torture in 1984. By disregarding these commitments and attempting to sweep the violations into a vault, we leave ourselves vulnerable to criticism and accusations of hypocrisy from other nations.

Critics of the report’s public release may fear other nations waving it in our face, pointing out the stain on our moral record and accusing us of preaching human rights and liberty while acting unaccordingly – a weakness in future foreign diplomacy efforts. But the true weakness would be the current effort by President Trump to erase this stain. The use of torture as a result of irrationality is one misstep. But to progress into further wrongdoing by attempting to bury our past and refuse to hold ourselves accountable would truly undermine what our democracy stands for.

Additionally, the report must be released for the sake of the integrity of the United States’ government. The hiding of the report sends the message that it is possible for an agency, such as the CIA, to present lies and misconstrued facts to the government and citizens and not be punished or even held accountable. Leniency on such political misconduct to the point of cooperating in its concealment would set a dangerous precedent. Justice in this context would involve releasing the details of the CIA’s actions. It is undeniable that reading about waterboarding, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, forced rectal feedings, prolonged stress positions and isolation, performed by our own government is uncomfortable.

These are actions that are considered torture by the rest of the civilized world. And beyond the immorality, enhanced interrogation largely failed at uncovering useful information during our war against terror. The summary of the Senate report strongly asserted that the CIA officers repeatedly expressed doubts regarding the effectiveness of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, judging that the use of torture was unsuccessful in extracting accurate intelligence and counterproductive towards obtaining detainee cooperation. The condemnation of the individuals explicitly involved, the higher-ups who approved the continued use of the brutal methods despite their ineffectiveness, as well as those who lied to Congress, the White House, and the press about their success is necessary via the public release of the report. We attempted to tell ourselves that “the means justify the ends” but the desired end was missed completely.

It is also critical to bring the idea of torture from the abstract to the concrete in the minds of Americans, preventing ourselves from falling prey to historical amnesia. The future of America’s use of torture is unknown, especially considering that a 2017 Pew Research national survey found that roughly 48% of Americans say there are some circumstances under which the use of torture is acceptable in U.S. anti-terrorist efforts. Although debating the use of torture has unfortunately become a norm, it is because of society’s current attitude on enhanced interrogation techniques that make the information within the report imperative.

If the use of torture is to be debated, then it is the responsibility of the American government to make sure that the debate is well-informed on both sides. For instance, the nuclear bombing of Japan at the end of World War II is another point in American history where our commitment to our values and ethical reasoning were questioned. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were killed with long-term harm plaguing Japanese citizens for generations afterwards due to radiation. It was the public knowledge of the consequences of the nuclear bombs and the subsequent political, academic, scientific and civilian debate and moral reflection that have prevented the use of nuclear weapons for nearly three quarters of a century afterwards – despite the fifty year arms race that constituted the Cold War and unprecedented global possession of nuclear knowledge and capabilities. Putting the torture report in the Senate vaults is the equivalent to the Truman administration attempting to censor the damage inflicted on the Japanese people by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is only through the release of the Senate report that we may attempt to make informed decisions regarding torture in the future.

Critics of the report, including the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, have characterized it as a “footnote in history,” deeming the report “shoddy and excessively critical of the CIA and the administration of President George W. Bush.” However, the task of uncovering the truth is almost always an impossible goal. But never an unworthy one. The irresponsible documentation and misreporting on the CIA’s actions at the time do not aid the effort, and to dismiss the Senate’s endeavor as an impossible task on the grounds that it inevitably fell short would be a disservice. An unbiased, bipartisan attempt at unearthing and evaluating the truth, even if imperfect according to some, is still valuable for America’s future discussion regarding torture. If we refuse to hold up a mirror to ourselves and take accountability for our actions, how can the United States proclaim to be the leader of the free world? That is the question we are faced with today.