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In America, Cheney and Levin Clash on the Usefulness of Torture

June 5, 2009

Dick Cheney, vice-president of the United States for eight long years, has recently re-surfaced to mount a vigorous defense of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques”. In a speech he gave in late May, he insisted that classified documents show the techniques elicited information that disrupted terrorist plots. However, Cheney’s assertions drew a swift rebuttal from a US senator called Carl Levin, who said that he had seen the same documents and that they did not “connect acquisition of valuable intelligence to the use of abusive techniques”. So whom do we believe?

The disagreement is part of a broader debate about the effectiveness of what could reasonably be called torture. One side asserts that torture is simply not a useful interrogation tool, usually arguing that the subject is likely to end up spouting incoherent lies in order to make the pain stop. Counterarguments exist: sifting truth from lies is part of an interrogator’s job, and some prisoners might conclude that the best way to make the pain stop is to steer clear of the latter.

The classified memos Cheney and Levin are talking about probably constitute some of the firmest evidence with a bearing on this question. Torture tends to be rather poorly documented, for obvious reasons. A notorious case is that of Paul Aussaresses, a retired French general who makes Cheney look positively bleeding-hearted. Aussaresses cheerfully claimed in his memoirs that he obtained all manner of useful information by torturing Algerian insurgents during the 1950s, but tangible confirmation is lacking.

This matters to Canadians because of the insurgency in Afghanistan and the remote but ever-present possibility of serious terrorist activity on Canadian soil. Sooner or later, if it hasn’t happened already, our forces will capture someone who is determined to withhold information that could save Canadian lives. Hypothetical discussion of this scenario tends to revolve around whether torture can ever be ethical, but surely it’s equally important to know whether it will actually work.

Whether or not the secret American memos are declassified any time soon, it would be well worth applying our Canadian ingenuity to the problem. We could have skilled interrogators torture volunteers, who would be provided beforehand with specific information and given financial incentives to divulge as little as possible. The results might finally inject some firm empirical evidence into a long-standing discussion characterised by too many moralistic assertions and unsubstantiated anecdotes.

Corwin

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. nmboudin permalink*
    June 29, 2009 9:33 pm

    Hi Cor,

    Great thought provoking article. The murkiness of the practical side plus the questionable nature of the ethical side leads me to be reticent about the use of these techniques as an intelligence gathering tool effective enough to justify the actions.

    I do not see how it can be argued that someone under duress will prevaricate to the truth. Some will and some will not. I can tell you where Jimmy Hoffa is if you lean hard enough on me.

    To complicate the conversation further, what about so called truth drugs? Some have been more considered more reliable than others, but they all are considered to fall under that category of torture under international law.

    I honestly don’t know if they should all fit this description, One drug I have heard of, SP-17 is purported to leave no memory of interrogation. The prisoner feels as if they had just drifted off to sleep. I don’t know if this is verifiable, but if such a thing did exist, and it is indeed reliable, than surely it is a preferable option to waterboarding.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      June 30, 2009 11:23 am

      Okay, wise guy… where’s Jimmy? Just spill the beans, and there won’t be any trouble…

      Last year I happened to read a book, “Brainwash” by Dominic Streatfield, that had a lot to say about “truth drugs” as well as other ways of bending the human mind. I can highly recommend the book if you’re interested in that sort of thing. Streatfield’s conclusion, after describing some (often hilarious) truth drug experiments from the mid-20th century by the CIA and others, was that the drugs have unreliable effects and are as likely to elicit lies and fantasies as factual information.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    June 6, 2009 11:39 pm

    C, good to get your further comments and your open/ness in explaining appreciated. I like the way the original post and your pov challenges me to think through my own objections to torture. So, still thinking…also, still overwhelmed by how much is “out there” both in The Academy, in policy journals and ‘grey literature’ on the subject of torture and the Bush regime.

    Perhaps you will write a follow up piece as the question of “privacy/secrecy/sealing documents” and the Obama Administration continues to unfold?

  3. reneethewriter permalink
    June 5, 2009 8:08 pm

    Hi Cor, a thought-provoking – thank you – post and somehow, also, a bit queasy making. I sense that there might be something specious about the following but can’t quite put my finger on it? A hobson’s choice? A syllogism?

    “Hypothetical discussion of this scenario tends to revolve around whether torture can ever be ethical, but surely it’s equally important to know whether it will actually work.”

    Cor, i’ve read and reread this statement several times. It troubles me…

    Here’s Andrew Sullivan/Atlantic on the subject and there’s also the American constitutional lawyers & political commentator, Glenn Greenwald.

    From Andrew Sullivan’s the Daily Dish

    29 May 2009 02:50 pm
    Torture And “Specific Intent”

    I’m not a lawyer so I will leave the legal parsings to others. But I do want to note something quite odd in Andy McCarthy’s latest defense of torture as national policy for the US. He wants to argue that those who waterboarded terror suspects were not torturing per se because they were intending to procure intelligence, and not torturing purely for the hell of it.

    I don’t believe there’s much evidence that the intent of the torture program was sadism, although obviously once you condone torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners in any war, the sadism will emerge. And I see no evidence that those who waterboarded Zubaydah were doing it for the evil joy of it (although we don’t know who the torturers were exactly in that case, or most others). But this is all irrelevant. The crime of torture is not about sadism. It is specifically about getting intelligence. The UN Convention’s definition couldn’t be clearer on this:
    [A]ny act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions.

    Torture is not sadism; it can be done from misguided but not sadistic motives, i.e. the false belief that it’s necessary to procure intelligence. No SERE training does this. No SERE-trained soldier is genuinely being coerced to give up information; they have the ability to end the session at any time; and the point is to help them resist such torture techniques. Those administering it are thereby not torturers – legally or morally. They are not trying to obliterate a human being’s agency by subjecting him to this terrifying ordeal for 183 times; they are trying to train someone to retain their psychic integrity under this kind of pressure. (And you’ll notice that waterboarding can be used this way on trainee soldiers in a way that, say, stress positions, or cold cells, can’t. That’s because stress positions and cold cells are, in most cases, worse than waterboarding.)

    What the far right wants is to turn this into a question of graphic sadism or to present those of us who support Obama’s return to the rule of law and human decency as seeking to prove the equivalence of George Bush and Pol Pot. We’re not. We’re saying that torture is torture; that the intent to procure intelligence from it in no way mitigates it (indeed more precisely fits the UN definition); that America did it; and that those responsible need to be held accountable.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      June 6, 2009 12:36 pm

      Sorry about making you queasy. If it helps, I agree with Andrew Sullivan’s main point that it makes no sense to restrict the word “torture” to actions that are undertaken sadistically.

      Regarding the sentence that you quoted, I don’t think it’s specious, although I may have expressed it badly. All I’m saying is that, if you’re an interrogator deciding whether or not to resort to torture in a particular case, you need to consider whether it’s likely to work (i.e. to make the subject divulge useful information). If there’s no reason to think torture will work, then you can go on to reject torture before even considering the important but different question of whether you could deliberately inflict suffering on a helpless prisoner and still live with yourself afterwards. There are practical and ethical dimensions that both need to be taken into account.

      I’m sorry if I sounded dismissive of the ethical side of things – I just happened to be writing about the practical side, and there’s only so much that can be squeezed into one blog post. By way of pre-empting a possible objection, however, I should also say that I don’t think the ethical arguments against torture are so overwhelming that its effectiveness (or lack thereof) is simply a moot point.

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