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