Torture’s Fallacies — and Criminality

In America’s fascination with fictional entertainment, torture has been a popular plot device as some tough-guy “hero” extracts a clue from a hardened “bad guy,” most famously with Jack Bauer in “24.” But real-world torture elicits false information and is a grave crime of state, as Lawrence Davidson explains.

By Lawrence Davidson

It has long been known that torture does not work. One can go back to the Age of Enlightenment. In 1764, Cesare Beccaria published his groundbreaking work, On Crimes and Punishments, in which he examined all the evidence available at that time and concluded that individuals under torture will tell their interrogators anything they want to hear, true or not, just to get the pain to stop. Beccaria’s book led to a temporary waning of the state-ordered torture.

Nonetheless, the United States has used torture repeatedly. Indeed, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release of its report (five years in the making) on the George W. Bush administration’s use of torture testifies to only the most recent in a long line of such incidents.

Actor Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in the Fox TV show "24" using torture to extract information.

Actor Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in the Fox TV show “24” using torture to extract information.

For instance, torture was used against prisoners during and immediately following the Spanish-American War, particularly in the Philippines. More recently, the U.S. (and its adversary) used torture during the Vietnam War. Confirming Beccaria’s judgment, the consensus among U.S. military personnel, who examined the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the latest euphemism for torture) against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese prisoners, was that it did not work.

This conclusion has been supported by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for over five years. He has repeatedly said that he knows, from personal experience, that “victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it.”

Who in the Executive Branch of the U.S. government remembers, or even cares, about this history? President Barack Obama gave his blessings to the Dec. 11 television appearance of CIA Director John O. Brennan so that Brennan could tell the nation that, following the 9/11 tragedy, tortured prisoners provided “useful and valuable” information. The Senate Intelligence Committee report calls such claims “exaggerated if not utterly false.” Based on the evidence from Beccaria’s time to the present, the committee report’s position in this regard is the one to go with.

Illegality of Torture

Torture was made illegal in 1950 under the Third Geneva Convention, and this was reaffirmed in 1985 by the United Nations Convention against Torture. Both of these conventions were signed and ratified by the United States, making them the law of the land. Torture is also illegal under U.S. domestic laws such as the War Crimes Act of 1996.

Unfortunately, these laws and treaty obligations were called into question in 2002 by the Bush administration. To create a counter-position to them, the Bush’s Justice Department produced what are now known as the “torture memos.” These postulated that the war against terrorism that followed 9/11 was a unique situation that nullified all the standing laws preventing torture.

These memos were self-serving interpretations of the president’s powers during war and time of emergency. Contrived as they were, they served as Bush’s legal justification for his administration’s policy of waterboarding, “rectal rehydration,” sleep deprivation, and other forms of physical abuse. As Dick Cheney, Bush’s pugnacious vice president, recently said, this was no rogue operation. “This program was authorized” by the memos, Cheney said.

The question of how one legitimately “authorizes” what has already been determined to be illegal, immoral and degrading seems never to have occurred to Cheney.

When we weigh the authority of the “torture memos” against international law, treaty obligations, and indeed U.S. domestic law, we must conclude that Bush’s policy of torture was illegal. Let me put the consequences of that reasonable conclusion in plain English: President George W. Bush and everyone else in his administration involved in formulating, justifying and carrying out the policy of torture are criminals. So why hasn’t Mr. Bush (to say nothing of the rest of this gang) been brought to trial for his crimes?

One possible reason harkens back to 1972-73, when the infamous Watergate scandal was revealing President Richard Nixon’s criminality. At that time the main line of argument was that you don’t want an American president going to jail. This would constitute just too much of a national embarrassment. Therefore, the pardon that Nixon received was the best solution to a messy problem. Being of a contrary nature even back then, this writer went about saying that it was precisely because Nixon was the president that you wanted him on trial and, when convicted, put in jail. You wanted that precedent set because it would shape, for the better, the behavior of future presidents.

Of course, this course of action was never followed, and so when it came to George W. Bush, there was no such precedent to provoke any second thoughts. Perhaps he would not have hesitated in any case. We will never know.

The Present Debate

At present, the debate within the Beltway is not over the Bush administration’s culpability for illegal acts, but rather over the wisdom of releasing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report detailing the CIA use of torture on the president’s orders. In other words, the wisdom of making public the evidence of Bush’s criminality. Many feel that the report will make some foreigners so angry that they will attack Americans abroad. But then those folks already knew about U.S. torture and don’t need the details to make them angry.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, the present chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is the one who decided to release the report on torture. She did so because she is determined to “foreclose any prospect that the United States might contemplate such tactics again.” She did not believe arguing about the morality of torture would achieve that goal and so she “set out to prove [through the released report] that they [techniques of torture] did not work.” There are two things wrong with Feinstein’s reasoning in this regard:

First, Feinstein, too, appears ignorant of the fact that the futility of torture has been established for hundreds of years. And, just because torture has long been demonstrated not to work, what is the probability that a restatement of this fact will prevent the U.S. from using it again in the future?

As was the case in the Philippines, Vietnam, and in the war on terror, future American leaders will remain ignorant of or just forget about torture’s futility. The groundwork for this is already being laid. The incoming Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, says he will not hold hearings on what the report reveals or follow up on it in any way.

“Put this report down to a footnote in history,” he said. Burr also dismisses the torture revelations as an attempt to “smear the Bush administration” – as if the facts of the matter were just contrived by political enemies to provoke a scandal.

Second, as former CIA analyst Ray McGovern suggests, it is quite possible that most in the Bush administration did not care whether torture really worked or not. McGovern tells us that what the White House wanted was a justification for an invasion of Iraq. [See’s “What’s the Next Step to Stop Torture.”]

“Evidence” suggesting a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda would do just fine here. The pressure was on the CIA to produce that link and so they tortured al-Qaeda prisoners until they told them what President Bush wanted to hear. This seems a tempting gambit for use by future presidents who might share George W. Bush’s character.

Thus, if Dianne Feinstein wants to make sure that the U.S. government will not use torture in the future, just demonstrating (once more) that it does not work won’t do. The only thing that has a chance of achieving her goal is the strict enforcement the law against torture – take Bush and his accomplices and put them on trial for the crimes we all know they committed. Then, put the whole gang in jail for long enough to make a deep impression. With that precedent set, you have a shot at preventing U.S.-sanctioned torture in the future.

President Obama actually had an opportunity to set this precedent but, as we all know, he has declined to do so. One can imagine his advisers telling him that all presidents break the law in one way or another and to charge Bush with a crime would open Pandora’s Box – from that point on it would be open season on every future president. Yet, is it necessarily true that all presidents must go around breaking the law? And, if so, why should any of us find this acceptable?

Despite the revelations of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, the chances are pretty good that Bush and his operatives will get away with their crimes. And that means that chances are just as good that it will all happen again. The public’s awareness of the facts is at best unreliable.

According to a Pew poll reported on Dec. 15, half of the American public even now believes that the use of torture was both justified and provided worthwhile intelligence. It is probable that the opinion of most elected officials is no different.

No one has yet been able to secure a meaningful place for relevant and accurate historical knowledge either in the mind of the general public or in the deliberations of policy makers. However, in both cases, ignorance and false assumptions seem secure in their positions of influence.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

6 comments for “Torture’s Fallacies — and Criminality

  1. JWalters
    December 19, 2014 at 21:50

    I wonder if movies like Jack Bauer’s are intended as advertising to degrade the public mind, and make atrocities more acceptable.

    • Bill Jones
      December 27, 2014 at 19:38

      Nah, it was entirely coincidental that a barking mad Neo-con piece of Zionist filth
      Just happened to slap together a show glorifying torture just as another barking mad Neo-con piece of Zionist filth was making it US policy.

  2. Piotr Berman
    December 19, 2014 at 21:31

    Some points are often ignored.

    One is that the brutality of the interrogation always exceeds the official guidelines. Police may beat up or pressure suspects in illegal ways, and go around formalistic Miranda rules (Supreme Court is not enthusiastic about making those rule less formalistic). In the context of military and “general” intelligence, some brutality always ensues. When there is a blessing from the above to apply “mild torture” then the cases of horrific beating to death crop up regularly.

    When the “ticking bomb” scenarios are officially approved, people are tortured and mistreated for months and sometimes years.

    The second aspect is that torture does not produce useful information because it induces insanity among the torturers. Intelligent people with some moral conscience will do everything not to participate, so the people actually doing it are not-so-smart sociopaths, very smart but barely sane sadists and so on.

    The third, related aspect is that on the level of policy making, the eagerness to use torture is played as a “patriotic wedge issue”: are you ready to do EVERYTHING for the sake of national security? Because “liberals” were rather oblivious to reports of sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation and so on but balked at water boarding, the readiness to approve the water boarding became the wedge issue (the actual brutality was much more severe). As it is usual with wedge issues, actual efficacy does not matter at all: their role is to play with emotions. Would mandatory school prayer decrease juvenile delinquency? Would display of 10 commandments in courts increase the regard for the law among the citizenry? Would the freedom of carrying concealed automatic weapon increase personal security?

    Right now, right wing commentators crow that the torture issue is successfully resurrected and works in their favor: liberals want to do less for the national security! Run for the hills and vote for GOP!

  3. Ivan G. Vafkosky
    December 19, 2014 at 20:25

    The Allies fought together to stop the mad Nazi’s in World War II; now it is the U.S. that has gone mad, and its corporate fascist purveyors of mayhem and misery for profit that the rest of the world must stop. The mad muslims are worse, but so far they do not affect, influence, and control as much. Much of what the mad muslims do is the fault of the U.S. I think all of those in power do what they do simply to keep in business, no matter how amoral, immoral, illegal, despicable and devastating it all is. Think of how all the oligarchs and plutocrats live, how they affect all of these things; but none of what they do ever effects them. Dick Cheney, (and all the other plutocrats) when he thinks of us at all, laughs and laughs.

  4. December 19, 2014 at 16:07

    In the spy thriller “Brand on the Rocks” the former British master spy Major James Brand waterboards a Russian physicist while on a mission for a privatized espionage firm to Baghdad in the ’90s to find the data for an advanced missile defense system. He only succeeds in killing the guy. Not your typical, formulaic, torture-justifying thriller. Highly recommended.

  5. Zachary Smith
    December 19, 2014 at 12:52

    According to a Pew poll reported on Dec. 15, half of the American public even now believes that the use of torture was both justified and provided worthwhile intelligence. It is probable that the opinion of most elected officials is no different.

    I’ve had no reason to doubt the 51% figure waved around everywhere, but am beginning to question it now.

    By a 51- 29 margin, Americans say that the CIA’s interrogation methods are justified, according to Pew Research Center. The poll has come under criticism for not defining what those methods were, failing to mention that they violate the law and avoiding the word “torture.”

    Is this an accurate statement? Here are the Pew questions I’ve located. If they were the ones asked, then the statement is a true one.

    ASK ALL:
    As I read a list of some stories covered by news organizations this past week, please tell me if you
    happened to follow each news story very closely, fairly closely, not too closely, or not at all closely.
    “Did you follow [ITEM] very closely, fairly closely, not too closely or not at all closely?


    ASK ALL:
    On a different subject …
    Overall, do you think the CIA’s interrogation methods in the period following the September 11th terrorist attacks were justified or do you think they were not justified?
    Dec 11-14 2014
    51 Justified
    29 Not justified
    20 Don’t know/Refused

    ASK ALL:
    Regardless of whether or not you think the CIA’s interrogation methods were justified, do you think they provided intelligence that helped prevent terrorist attacks, or don’t you think so?
    Dec 11-14 2014
    56 Yes
    28 No
    16 Don’t know/Refused

    ASK ALL:
    Thinking about the Senate committee’s report about the CIA’s interrogation program, do you think it
    was the right decision or the wrong decision to publicly release this report?
    Dec 11-14 2014
    42 Right decision
    43 Wrong decision
    15 Don’t know/Refused

    The blogger’s statement seems to be an accurate one. No mention at all of the serious criminality, and not even the word “torture” was used.

    IMO we’re being led around by the nose by the “Mainstream Media”, and this is just another example.

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