Is Torture a ‘Conservative’ Value?

Conservatives who usually hail individual liberties are leading the televised defense of the U.S. government’s torture of terror suspects, including many who were completely innocent. But some conservatives are troubled by this knee-jerk defense of the Bush administration, as Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland explains.

By Ivan Eland

On the news talk shows, everyone is talking about torture — mostly defending the Bush administration’s hysterical actions after the 9/11 attacks. Granted, 9/11 was a searing experience for the general public, which wanted action in retaliation. However, it is the duty of wise political leaders to reason with the public to dampen the desire for any rash, counterproductive actions.

Instead, Bush administration officials used such public fear and anger from 9/11 to fuel public support for their own unrelated policy agenda that made the Islamist terrorism problem worse. Torture was one aspect of that policy agenda.

President George W. Bush receiving applause during his 2003 State of the Union Address in which he laid out a fraudulent case for invading Iraq.

President George W. Bush receiving applause during his 2003 State of the Union Address in which he laid out a fraudulent case for invading Iraq.

Even after 9/11, terrorism was a rare event, as it was before, and government terrorism experts should have known that the resources of a small group, such as al Qaeda, were not great enough to necessitate excesses in response, such as torture and other government usurpation of American constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties.

When prisoner abuse and torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were exposed, guerrilla violence following in the wake of Bush’s trumped-up post-9/11 invasion and occupation of Iraq worsened. Now torture at CIA secret prisons around the world after 9/11, already well-known but highlighted and detailed by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, could similarly fan the flames of anti-American Islamism.

Yet news programs gave more air time to the defenders of Bush’s clearly illegal and counterproductive policy than they did to opponents of torture — such as committee members and human rights organizations. The reason is that the media is in the habit of focusing in on Executive Branch officials as authoritative sources on policy (because the Executive Branch, contrary to the country’s Founders’ vision, now is by far the most powerful arm of government).

Also, the media likes to fan controversy and ex-officials defending lurid, outrageous, and frankly “un-American” policy is well … great television. I say un-American because secret imprisonment and torture clearly violate U.S. law, official U.S. policy prior to the Bush administration, the international convention on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment signed by Ronald Reagan and ratified by Congress, and long-standing international standards of human rights.

Finally, Obama administration officials, who discontinued torture when Barack Obama came into office, have been ducking the issue, because they don’t want to adversely affect the morale of the CIA bureaucracy.

However, maybe if some CIA personnel who tortured people or destroyed videos of it were prosecuted, the agency would learn to avoid such illegalities in the future. People going to jail would have a more searing effect than apparently the Church Committee hearings in the mid-1970s had on illegal and unconstitutional practices by intelligence agencies.

In fact, perhaps Congress should pass a law that prohibits the CIA (and the NSA) from doing any activities other than lawful intelligence collecting on foreigners. Both agencies would be much better off and have better morale in the long-term if they stuck to this vital mission.

Yet, since its inception, the CIA has been distracted by more glamorous missions than the drudgery of painstaking intelligence collection — first covert action against unfriendly countries and more recently the management of the secret prisons where the torture occurred.

As well as being un-American — we should be better than our adversaries, such as ISIS or al Qaeda, who kidnap people and mistreat and gruesomely kill prisoners, but were not — torture theretofore had been clearly regarded as counterproductive, even by the U.S. government itself. The FBI and U.S. military initially blanched at the idea of U.S. personnel torturing people, because bad information is usually produced by the victim just to get the pain to stop.

The CIA during the Bush administration forgot its own report concluding the same in 1989. Moreover, the U.S. military — especially its lawyers — has never been keen on the practice because it gives future enemies an excuse to torture American service personnel in retaliation and makes it more likely that any enemy will fight to the death rather than be taken prisoner by the Americans. Both effects can result in more deaths to U.S. military personnel in any war.

But in the wake of 9/11, did Bush and Cheney listen to the experts in the military and the FBI on the counterproductivity of torture? No, instead these avoiders of combat during the Vietnam era had to pose as macho and pretend to do something to vanquish evil everywhere in lieu of focusing on capturing al Qaeda members that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks (not on overthrowing and capturing Saddam Hussein), interrogating them with FBI and military interrogators using legal tried-and-true methods, and trying them as criminals in perfectly capable civilian courts.

Instead, Bush and Cheney thought it would be really cool to let the CIA hire bozo contractors, who had no interrogation experience, to run a keystone cops program to kidnap and manhandle captives in CIA secret prisons. According to CIA admission, either implicitly or explicitly in CIA documents, this policy led to a shocking outcome: Almost a quarter (at least) of detainees in CIA prisons weren’t guilty of anything at all, were held for years in dungeon-style prisons, and some were tortured.

It is amazing that in an America that is becoming politically correct on everything else, so many defenders of a heinous and clearly illegal practice can be found. They are mostly Republicans defending what was an outlaw Bush administration — the exception being John McCain, who represents the military’s view on the subject.

Since Dick Cheney, the most dangerous American politician in recent times, has publicly declared that he would support torture if he had it to do over again, maybe this blatant in-your-face attitude will cause some country overseas that has signed the torture convention, or has had American torture done on its territory, will prosecute him; certainly the Obama administration, which overall has not been that much better than the Bush administration in safeguarding American civil liberties, will not.

At minimum, maybe former Bush administration officials will fear to travel overseas for fear of being shanghaied for prosecution and jailing. Alberto Gonzalez, Bush’s Attorney General, recently expressed some personal fear of this outcome on a news program.

Since Bush started all of the U.S. government torture rolling by his “wink and nudge” declaration in February 2002 that al Qaeda fighters would not be held under the safeguards of the Geneva Conventions and has crowed about the necessity of using torture during his tenure, maybe he should just stay at home on the Texas ranch too.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy. [This story originally was published as a blog post at HuffingtonPost.]

8 comments for “Is Torture a ‘Conservative’ Value?

  1. MrPeabody
    December 23, 2014 at 13:59

    Torture is the central conservative value because their single solution to social and economic problems is to scourge the public. This is because Christianism is the underlying value of the West although it is in fact the Nazi Party of the Roman Empire: the template for all totalitarianism that has been instituted since Constantine.

  2. December 22, 2014 at 04:21

    Trying to find a ‘clean’ site carrying information about Ivan Eland’s book is proving difficult, as more and more simple Google’s do these days. We’re losing our internet folks.

    • December 22, 2014 at 04:23

      I meant “Googles.” Sorry. And I really wish I could just edit my posts here. What the hell?!

  3. December 22, 2014 at 04:14

    “Both agencies would be much better off and have better morale in the long-term if they stuck to this vital mission.” Better morale or better pr? Because you can’t change this tiger’s stripes. It’s not reformable and neither is the wider system which it a part of. And the cogs within the machinery will turn until they are red hot and chewed up, which many of them will deserve and some of them won’t deserve. The 1% is only the 1%, although it manages to force so many, decent and unwise, to work for it. That isn’t a straightforward business deal where the tools sell their labor and acquire the means to survive. For example, Insider Threats means that, while the cogs who were the target of that expression of gratitude for their service to the 1% might go home with nice paycheques, That isn’t all they take home? Is it? They take home stress and resentment. If they haven’t also sold their souls, they may take home enough resentment to help them blow a whistle or plot bureaucratic sabotage. Or something useful – to the 99% and the planet that their bosses are blowing up and poisoning.

  4. Wow
    December 21, 2014 at 20:14

    Ivan Eland: “Finally, Obama administration officials, who discontinued torture when Barack Obama came into office”

    I didn’t know Obama discontinued torture? Pleas see William Blum:
    ( ) “Moreover, the key Executive Order referred to, number 13491, issued January 22, 2009, “Ensuring Lawful Interrogations”, leaves a major loophole. It states repeatedly that humane treatment, including the absence of torture, is applicable only to prisoners detained in an “armed conflict”. Thus, torture by Americans outside an environment of “armed conflict” is not explicitly prohibited. But what about torture within an environment of “counter-terrorism”?

    Ivan Eland: “when Barack Obama came into office, have been ducking the issue, because they don’t want to adversely affect the morale of the CIA bureaucracy.”

    Obama and the CIA used Zero Dark Thirty to promote torture and allow the CIA bureaucracy to feal better about themselves:
    Today’s William Blum’s Exceptionalism of US Torture:
    “Under executive orders issued by Obama recently, the CIA still has authority to carry out what are known as renditions, secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States.” The English translation of “cooperate” is “torture.” …Rendition is simply outsourcing torture. “

  5. Abe
    December 21, 2014 at 13:57

    False Assumption: Torture ended when George W. Bush left office.

    In his statement on the day the report was released, President Obama tried once again to shove US torture into a box labeled Bad Things We Used to Do. “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments,” he said, “I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong: in the past.”

    In fact, institutionalized state torture is not a thing of the past. It has continued under President Obama. Here are some examples:

    *Twice a day in the US prison at Guantánamo, guards forcibly remove hunger strikers from their cells, strap them to a chair, and “feed” them through a tube jammed up the nose and down into the stomach. Here’s how one victim remembered that experience:

    “I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat, and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.”

    Force-feeding is no humanitarian act; it is a punishment for nonviolent resistance. It often begins with what officials call “cell extraction”—as if prisoners were teeth to be pulled out of a jaw. Here’s what happens, according to Yemini prisoner Moath al-Alwi, who has been at Guantánamo since 2002:

    “When I choose to remain in my cell in an act of peaceful protest against the force-feeding, the prison authorities send in a Forced Cell Extraction team: six guards in full riot gear. Those guards are deliberately brutal to punish me for my protest. They pile up on top of me to the point that I feel like my back is about to break. They then carry me out and strap me into the restraint chair, which we hunger strikers call the torture chair.”

    Guards use the “torture chair” to restrain the prisoner, says al-Alwi, but also to make the procedure even more painful:

    “A new twist to this routine involves the guards restraining me to the chair with my arms cuffed behind my back. The chest strap is then tightened, trapping my arms between my torso and the chair’s backrest. This is done despite the fact that the torture chair features built-in arm restraints. It is extremely painful to remain in this position.”

    At present, a Navy nurse faces possible dishonorable discharge for refusing to participate in these force feedings, because he believes they are a form of torture.

    Why are detainees on hunger strike in the first place? They are using the only nonviolent means available to them to protest their indefinite and illegal detention, which the U.N. Committee Against Torture says is in itself a violation of US duties under the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment.

    * It wasn’t until this December 10th that the US military finally released its last detainees from the notorious Detention Facility in Parwan on Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. In September 2014, the United States “quietly released” 14 Pakistanis it had held there for some years—none of whom was ever accused of any crime. We know nothing about the treatment of those who remained at Bagram, but we do know that, like the detainees at Guantánamo, the men being held there used hunger strikes as their only nonviolent means of resisting their indefinite detention and solitary confinement.

    * In what appears to be a direct contravention of a 2009 presidential executive order to the CIA to shut down all its “black sites,” or secret interrogation centers around the world, the Agency seems still to be operating at least one of them. Or at least it was two years later when journalist Jeremy Scahill reported on a secret underground prison in Mogadishu, Somalia, run by the CIA, ostensibly in cooperation with the Somali government’s National Security Agency. There, according to Scahill, “US intelligence personnel pay the salaries of intelligence agents and also directly interrogate prisoners.”

    Have these intelligence agents used “enhanced interrogation techniques”? We don’t know. What we do know, however, was that the place was dark, filthy, and infested with bedbugs and mosquitoes. We know that prisoners held there had been kidnapped, hooded, and transported by plane in a style familiar to anyone who has followed the CIA’s methods over the last dozen years.

    If that site is still open, either the CIA is operating it with the Obama administration’s knowledge and consent or it is defying the president of the United States. In either case, there was and possibly still is a serious breach of executive power going on.

    * During his confirmation hearings, Obama’s first CIA director, Leon Panetta, told members of Congress that “if the approved techniques were ‘not sufficient’ to get a detainee to divulge details he was suspected of knowing about an imminent attack, he would ask for ‘additional authority’ to use other methods.”

    * President Obama’s 2009 executive order ending CIA torture still left open a little-discussed torture window. It continued to allow for “extraordinary rendition,” the capture of terror suspects abroad and their shipping to other countries for detention and interrogation. The US record on this practice since 9/11 has been a grim history of torture at one remove. True, the order says that no one should be sent to a country in which he or she is likely to be tortured, but the US definition of “likely” differs significantly from that of the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Article 3 of the Convention says no one may be sent to another country if there are “substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” The United States insists on a more lenient standard: prohibiting rendition if it is “more likely than not” that torture will take place. In practice, this means relying on the word of the receiving country that no harm will be done (wink, wink).

    * The US Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations prohibits many forms of torture. However, a classified “annex” still permits sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation. The U.N. Committee Against Torture flagged this—among many other concerns—in its recent report on US compliance with the Convention Against Torture.

    * No high civilian officials or military commanders and other personnel were ever prosecuted for the torture they ordered or oversaw, nor of course were the actual CIA torturers. Instead they’re writing their memoirs and painting pictures of themselves bathing. If their political power makes it impossible to try them here, perhaps the outrage of the international community can at least make Dick Cheney and George W. Bush outcasts like other discredited former rulers along the lines of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosovic or Tunisia’s Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali.

    Or maybe the United States could actually follow the U.N. Committee Against Torture’s recommendation and finally sign up for the International Criminal Court.

  6. Zachary Smith
    December 21, 2014 at 13:32

    Finally, Obama administration officials, who discontinued torture when Barack Obama came into office …

    If Dr. Eland had done his homework, he’d know this wasn’t an accurate statement. I’d recommend he start with The ‘Exceptionalism’ of US Torture on this very site.

    In fact, perhaps Congress should pass a law that prohibits the CIA (and the NSA) from doing any activities other than lawful intelligence collecting on foreigners.

    Passing laws can be great fun, but if they’re not enforced they merely widen the general lawlessness.

  7. KTalbot
    December 21, 2014 at 12:38

    Could someone please explain to the CIA that the majic AlWAYS turns on the magician. Every kid who has watched the movie Fantasia knows this. Sometimes, one wonders if the Central Intelligence Agency has any intelligent people at all or just demonic ones. They implanted a highly sophisticated virus in the Iranian Centerfuge controllers and damaged them. Teaching evey hacker terrorist group out there a new clever way to hack utilities. Now South Korea is a candidate for cyber terrorism through hacking.
    The CIA tortured in Abu Ghraib and Guantanomo and ISIS cuts the time schedule for depravity and just beheads Americans. The CIA attacked Russia economically and put in power a Nazi regime at the gates of Russia. Don’t they realize that if Russia decides to simply implement capital controls and decides to default on its payments for just one year to the Western Banking Cabal it could bring down the 700 trillion derivatives market in contrast to a 90 trillion world economic GDP hinged to the US.

    Furthermore the CIA has caused more mayhem and human misery in the world in the name of Democracy. It is truly worrisome to contemplate when karma will strike us and we end up finding ourselves in the throws of a regime change started with a colored revolution in red, brown and black, formented here at home in the US, among disfranchised minorities fighting against the undemocratic militarization of the police state.

    Who knows maybe that would not be so bad, after all, and according to the Central Intelligence Agency, we would gain true democracy at the end.

    May God help us all from these Mickey Mouses in Merlin clothes.

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