Well, the CIA torture report is out. And for the record, it’s pretty depressing that I now live in the kind of country that has a torture report.
I’d heard about some of this stuff before, but some of the details are shocking. The rectal feeding, for example, is not a normal medical procedure, and using that route to get nutrition into the body is inefficient. It seems to have been done solely to humiliate and dominate the victims. So “rectal feeding” is something of a euphemism, something of an excuse. There’s a more accurate word to describe the act of penetrating a person’s anus without their consent: Rape.
It’s dismaying that one of the most hotly contested topics during he whole torture era has been, “Does torture work?” I mean, it’s torture for God’s sake! When Zero Dark Thirty came out, depicting American CIA officers using torture, our reaction should have been outrage at the CIA. Instead, critics argued that filmmakers had been swayed by the CIA into depicting the torture as having been useful in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s a bit like arguing whether American slavery contributed to GDP growth. It kind of misses the point.
But I understand. If torture works, if it really saves lives, then those of us who are morally opposed to using it are arguably saying those lives should be sacrificed to satisfy our moral intuitions. It’s a lot to ask.
Fortunately, there’s not much conflict, because torture mostly doesn’t work. I say “mostly,” because I think that torture can produce useful information when interrogators are trying to extract a specific piece of actionable information that they can check on, such as “Where is your weapons cache in this town?” or “Where are you supposed to meet with the others?”
That sort of specificity is what leads every torture proponent to confront opponents with that staple scenario from TV movie plots, the ticking time bomb: “What if a terrorist had planted a nuclear bomb in New York City? Are you saying you still wouldn’t torture him?” My response to that is that yes, I would be willing to make an exception for nuclear terrorism. In the unlikely event that anything like this ever happens, sure, go ahead and torture him to find out how to disarm it. But first, according to summaries of the report, we’ve tortured 39 people in the war on terror. Now show me 39 bombs or shut the fuck up.
The thing is, that torture scenario isn’t very common, and as soon as the prisoner’s confederates discover he’s been captured, they’ll begin changing the rally points and moving the weapons dump. So there’s only a short period of time where torturing information from someone could do any good. Even then, there’s little historical evidence that torture will produce more information or produce it faster than conventional interrogation techniques.
Historically, torture has really only proven useful for getting people to confess and to name other conspirators. And as the long history of torture demonstrates, torture victims will do both of those things without regard for the truth. Torture someone until they confess to a crime, and they will confess to any crime. Torture people until they name co-conspirators, and they will name anyone a co-conspirator.
Torture apologists say that a lot of useful intelligence has been obtained that way, but they can’t tell us about it because of the need for secrecy. Yet whenever the details come out about some situation where torture supposedly produced useful intelligence, it always seems to turn out that torture didn’t really help. I can’t see why anyone should ever take these people at their word — not without rock solid evidence. Show us the proof or shut the fuck up.
Ideally, what I’d like to see come out of the torture is indictments. Start with the people who actually did the torturing. Normally, unlike conventional thinking on the issue, I feel that “just following orders” is actually a pretty good defense. In all but the most egregious scenarios, it’s unfair to expect every low-level grunt to perform the legal analysis necessary to determine if their orders are legal. It’s their commander’s job to make that determination, and the troops have a right to expect that it will be done correctly.
However, the CIA is a civilian agency, so it’s agents don’t have orders, not the way the military does. CIA operatives just have stuff their boss told them to do. If my boss told me to torture someone, I would tell him to get stuffed, and I don’t see any reason CIA employees couldn’t do the same if they wanted to. So I say indict them, get them to flip on the people who gave the orders, and then follow up the organizational tree as far as it goes.
Given that even the Democrats — especially the Obama administration — have been unwilling to investigate and prosecute the Bush-era torturers, I don’t hold out a lot of hope that anyone will go to jail. (Except for whistle blowers, of course.) I suspect the best we can hope to get out of this is the truth: Name those responsible for torture, and tell us what they did.
We might as well start with James Elmer Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen, the pair of psychologists that somehow managed to make a fortune by running the interrogation program. We need to make an example of these guys. It’s bad enough that we have a military-industrial complex and a prison-industrial complex. If we don’t stop the torture-industrial complex, we’re probably doomed.