How Torture Puts Americans at Risk

Exclusive: Polls show that most Americans and an overwhelming majority of “conservatives” view post-9/11 torture as justified, presumably because it made them feel safer. But torture may actually have made them less safe, as retired JAG Major Todd E. Pierce explains.

By Todd E. Pierce

Torture, what is it good for? Apparently, as the words to the old anti-war song say, “absolutely nothing.” Behind all the obfuscation (lying) by the defenders of torture is the claim that it “works.” In fact, it doesn’t work if by “work” you mean providing for the overall safety of Americans.

The sad truth is that adoption of torture by the United States actually increased the danger to the American people, as we will realize as time goes by and we look back. Here’s why. A key point that the counter-insurgency (COIN) theorists make (but clearly don’t understand) is that a government requires “legitimacy” in the eyes of the population, both internally and externally. Legitimacy is what ultimately provides safety to a nation’s people as seen from the highest level of strategic thinking.

Some of the original detainees jailed at the Guantanamo Bay prison, as put on display by the U.S. military.

Some of the original detainees jailed at the Guantanamo Bay prison, as put on display by the U.S. military.

Unfortunately, the CIA and most military generals, as well as militaristic-minded civilians like Dick Cheney, can never get above the lower-level thinking of short-term expediency (although even there torture has been shown not to work).

Legitimacy only comes when people accept that a government is acting morally, fairly and within the “rule of law” in its true meaning. The United States, as what American politicians and pundits like to call “the world’s superpower,” is not only dependent on being seen as legitimate by its own people, whose eyes often have the wool pulled over, but also must be seen as legitimate globally.

Legitimacy is what the United States has been losing since its misguided response to 9/11 with a series of unending wars. While the last two presidents have used these wars as a pretext for exercising extra-constitutional powers, one of the most disturbing of those powers has been the asserted right to torture if they so choose, maintaining that no law can stop them or hold them accountable.

Advertising Torture

Torture became the worst kept secret that the government had, probably because while some officials, especially in the FBI, were opposed to the practice, others in the CIA and the military may have wanted the world to know. After all, what good is a tool meant to intimidate if no one knows about it? There was also the swagger of being the tough guys, the worst of the worst at least among so-called democratic regimes.

With their various semantic and legalistic defenses, George W. Bush and Barack Obama taunted the world even when everyone knew the truth and losing credibility can be a crucial factor in losing legitimacy.

And, losing legitimacy can mean creating more enemies and spinning downward in a dangerous cycle where each hostile act prompts a greater reliance on repression of “offending” or “offended” populations. Suffice it to say that a series of wars (what could be called the highest level of torture on a people) resulting in millions of Moslems killed and persistent drone attacks on civilians and surveillance over foreign populations, along with prisons constituting torture in themselves with their indefinite detentions, have cost the United States legitimacy which will never be restored in our lifetimes, if ever.

In addition to the mass killings that we’re responsible for is the enormous economic costs that we’ve inflicted on ourselves the price of maintaining and operating this global apparatus of repression to the detriment of the long-term interests of the United States, i.e., the need to invest in domestic infrastructure, education, health care, etc..

All of this has made us one of the most hated countries in the world and some Americans still have the effrontery to say: “they hate us for our freedoms.” Has there ever been a more benighted people than what currently populates the United States?

After all, these tough-guy “tactics” have been sold to us as keeping us safe as they chipped away at our legitimacy and made us less safe, while generating sympathy for some of America’s most brutal enemies. The consequence is that we now even have some U.S. citizens emotionally bonding with some level of empathy for extremist groups like ISIS because the U.S. government tactics against radical Moslems, including torture, have been so offensive.

And, using these “interrogation” tactics solely on Moslems can logically be seen as the West waging a war on Islam, exactly the image that fuels more violence against Americans. That’s what our repression through war and torture has brought us, a dangerous consequence that militaristic policy minds don’t understand. They just urge greater repression.

A Sensible Step

Contrary to claims by CIA Director John Brennan and many Republicans in Congress, coming clean with the Senate’s torture report actually may enhance “safety” in the long term by being a small step toward returning us to a “rule of law” state which could bolster our legitimacy.

Unfortunately with the last election’s results strengthening the hand of conservative Republicans we no doubt will have a doubling down with evermore repressive policies. A recent poll showed that 82 percent of conservative Republicans considered the CIA’s interrogation tactics justified (compared to 38 percent of liberal Democrats).

So, on whether torture works (i.e., saves lives), the foregoing would seem to be an answer in the negative. But the CIA as well as the Israelis, the Egyptian military and others who practice torture at home and/or in militarily occupied territory will point to someone they’ve tortured who “might” have given some information up as “proof” that these tactics “work.”

Setting aside the lying that typically surrounds illegal acts, this point could actually be true in a sense, but only because there are so many variables in the victim’s decision: their will to resist, the value (or lack of value) in the information they decide to give up to stop the pain, their skill in detecting what an interrogator wants to hear and confirming it, etc. So it may seem that is an unwinnable argument; you’ll always get the Nicolle Wallace types, devoid of any genuine morality, who will be satisfied that it “might” keep us safe so let’s do it just to be sure.

But torture is supposed to be practiced only by states which rule by terror and repression. For such states, the primary purpose is not to gather information; it is to intimidate others and/or get false confessions to be used in a war effort or other political purposes.

To practice torture is to self-identify as a repressive police state, even if the practice is reserved only for conduct outside one’s own borders. But it’s just a matter of time before it spills back into domestic territory. Historically, it always has.

A former Guantanamo detainee who hadn’t been “tortured” in the severest sense pointed out to me that all Guantanamo detainees did not got treated with the same degree of severity because torturing some was sufficient to intimidate the rest. The practice wasn’t about gathering information. That was only a pretext to use torture for instilling fear.

The bottom line is that the torturers along with the Justice Department lawyers who wrote the enabling opinions and the military and intelligence infrastructure which supported it all (including the media) all gave legitimacy to the torturers and took it away from the United States.

In doing so, the torturers and their accomplices became the greatest “combat multipliers” that al-Qaeda and now ISIS could have ever wished for. If al-Qaeda has a pantheon of heroes those who have done the most for the cause I have no doubt that Dick Cheney would have a place near that of Osama bin Laden, if not above him.

Todd E. Pierce retired as a Major in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps in November 2012. His most recent assignment was defense counsel in the Office of Chief Defense Counsel, Office of Military Commissions. 

8 comments for “How Torture Puts Americans at Risk

  1. Don
    December 20, 2014 at 13:52

    Rest assured, they have more reasons than just the torture that is causing them to seek revenge against the US. But hey, that’s not playing fair war games is it!

  2. F. G. Sanford
    December 18, 2014 at 14:22

    There is a well documented and historically valid approach that provides integrity to the study of war. It is called, “just war theory”. It imposes the rule of law on what might otherwise constitute murder, massacre, or slaughter. It recognizes the need to hold violators and transgressors responsible for their actions in war, and therefore after the battle. The three moral concepts that define the parameters of “just war” are ‘jus ad bellum’, ‘jus In bello’ and ‘jus post bellum’. American conduct of the campaigns we have waged since 2001 violate all three principles. While overwhelming force is justified and even laudable in its potential to achieve a rapid termination of hostilities, it must comply with the moral constraints imposed by ‘jus in bello’: necessity, distinction and proportionality. The wantonness of warfare conducted under the doctrine of “Shock and Awe” violates all three, yet we brag about it. The architects of our torture program brag…shamelessly.
    Dwelling on the particulars is pointless. Either one recognizes the inherent moral repugnance of reprehensible characters like as Dick Cheney, or they don’t. But our leadership should know better. We have places with names like, “The Armed Forces Staff College” and “The War College”, where they presumably study these concepts. Instead, we defer to moral imbeciles like the Kagans, who operate the oxymoronically troubling “Institute for the Study of War”. Whether you consult Sun Tzu or Carl von Clausewitz, it is a well documented reality that legitimacy is intrinsic to the defensive leadership. War of aggression automatically confers moral authority on the nation under attack, and creates an element of doubt among the populace of the hostile nation. Domestic repression automatically proceeds from the need to achieve a homogeneous consensus. These are facts, even in the rare instances when aggressive war can be rationalized based on real grievances.
    Hostile nations must seek victory and retain hegemony, as retribution always follows defeat. The price, as always, of the reparations are borne by the civilian population. American citizens must decide how much they are willing to pay. In the event of future defeats, they will pay the price for our indefensible conduct. I’m too old to worry. But people with children should be very afraid.

  3. December 18, 2014 at 13:26

    Not only has the US tried to legitimize 17th century torture techniques in this “age of technology” for information gathering, but it has foisted it’s bag of dirty tricks abroad and to it’s vassal states.

    • Zachary Smith
      December 18, 2014 at 15:28

      Good catch with the RT link – I read the site but missed it.

      That the US is supporting such monsters is an indication how the attitude fostered by torture can spread to many other areas. It’s the moral equivalent of the metastasis of cancer.

      Still on the subject of the Ukraine, my link also mentions the torture there, but the emphasis is on other matters.

      The author says that the central government (which means the US and NATO) is coordinating a third genocide there. Six months ago the cash machines stopped operating; banks stopped allowing withdrawals, and that the people are beginning to die from starvation and exposure.

      In Pervomaisk today conditions are so bad that people are given ¼ of a loaf of bread per day to live on. Many areas are not even getting this. Starvation deaths in different cities now number 20 or 30 weekly. Within 20 days deaths from starvation and exposure/ freezing in Donbass is going to jump exponentially. The most vulnerable which includes the children and chronically ill will be hit the hardest.

      Within 40 days without decisive humanitarian action the winter weather will take its toll on people in the hardest hit areas by ultra-nationalist shelling and rockets. Many live in the ruins or root cellars at what used to be their homes. Disease will follow. The nationalists are counting on them dying or relocating.

      There was a method to the previous madness of the shelling of civilian areas. Now there is no food, no electricity, and too often no shelter at all.

      Before the coordinated destruction of the Russian oil revenues, they could have picked up some of the slack. Now, they’ll be in such a bind that sending aid is impossible.

      Thank you, Barack Hussein Obama. You’ve once again demonstrated how much your Nobel Peace Prize is worth.

  4. GNo
    December 18, 2014 at 12:55

    The logical conclusion is that on some level torture was used as a tool to create new enemies to justify continued military and intelligence spending after the Soviet Union fell away. Like demented firemen secretly lighting fires to fight.
    Plus torture divides people which is just the ticket for lawless behavior and unregulated business conditions. Ripe conditions for crooks and knaves.

  5. Zachary Smith
    December 18, 2014 at 12:48

    But torture is supposed to be practiced only by states which rule by terror and repression. For such states, the primary purpose is not to gather information; it is to intimidate others and/or get false confessions to be used in a war effort or other political purposes.

    For the purposes of the American Empire, torture is a spiffy tool. So are the rest of the new introductions. “Learned Helplessness” is one of them.


    That’s why we’re subjected to a barrage of bullying these days. “Security” at airports and about everywhere else. These guys are always carrying a big gun, and most of the time they are genuine goons. I haven’t been in my local library for over a year because the right-wing head librarian has hired armed guards – ones with an “I’m the boss here” attitude. Call me a coward if you want, but getting shot in a library is not my idea of a good way to die. It’s not only those guards of course – like many other states Indiana has an “open carry” law. So getting shot by another patron isn’t unthinkable. These days there is often an armed policeman stalking the aisles at the nearest grocery store!

    This is a long post at an economics site! An especially good part was the section titled Tick, Tick, Bull, Shit

    The “ticking clock” scenario is nothing but a fantasy to justify the torture to Americans who watch too much TV and do too little thinking.

    • Eileen K.
      December 20, 2014 at 16:44

      Security at US airports used to be a deterrent against terrorist and other criminal acts, simply because it was conducted by private professional agencies who hired only people who have been properly vetted as to their background. These agents had impeccable character and were well qualified for the job.
      Enter the TSA, the subsidiary agency of the Dept of “Homeland Security” post-9/11. This subsidiary agency never properly vetted candidates for security jobs at the airports to ensure nobody has a criminal background/record and all agents are sufficiently qualified for their positions. The result is a bunch of bad apples who steal valuables from airline passengers’ luggage; and, even worse, sexually molest passengers refusing the porno-scanners. These are serious crimes that must be properly handled, and the offenders immediately fired and arrested.

      • Jay Reardon
        December 27, 2014 at 02:56

        Bullshit on the entire piece of propaganda that “private airport security” is better. It was left largely to the airlines and it was considered a detractor from the bottom line: profits. That’s why you had keystone rent-a-cops at airports on 9/11 — and that did not turn out well.

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