Why Torture Does Not Work

October 7, 2008 |  Tagged | Comments Off on Why Torture Does Not Work

On Monday evening, the Human Rights and National Security Law program, in conjunction with Human Rights First, sponsored a roundtable discussion of why torture does not work, and why the next administration should work to end the ambiguity regarding its use by Americans.  Speaking at the discussion were Major General Paul Eaton, USA (Ret.), Major General Fred Hayes, USMC (Ret.), and Brigadier General James Cullen, USA (Ret.).  Over an hour of question and answer, the three revealed several key pillars to their belief that torture does not work and should not be practiced by Americans.

They began with emphatic statements that torture does not work.  Maj. Gen. Hayes told a story about his time on Iwo Jima during World War II.  A Lieutenant Johnson took a Japanese prisoner.  While they stood looking at each other a bullet struck Lt. Johnson’s helmet and brushed the top of his head as it went through the helmet.  Maj. Gen. Hayes told us that Lt. Johson could easily have shot the prisoner in the assumption that it had been a set up.  Instead, Lt. Johnson brought over another Marine.  After a few more silent moments the prisoner asked if either of the Americans spoke French.  The young Marine did, and the Japanese soldier began giving him information.  It turned out that prisoner was the chief code clerk for the commanding general at Iwo Jima and was one of the most valuable prisoners the Americans took on the island.  Maj. Gen. Hayes told us that the prisoner was very cooperative with the Americans because he knew he would be treated well.  The prisoner offered up information that helped them fend off immediate attacks and was later sent to Washington for further interrogation.  Maj. Gen. Hayes offered this as a prime example of how good treatment of prisoners can and does result in actionable intelligence.

Brig. Gen. Cullen reminded us that the goal of any interrogation is actionable intelligence.  When we engage in torture, he said, the population from which we draw that intelligence is no longer willing to give it.  Often the population is made up not necessarily of combatants, but mothers, sisters, grocers, and every day citizens who find themselves fed up with the brutality of their situation.  If they know American soldiers to be perpetrating that same brutality and denigration in their own actions, then we “become a recruiting office for the enemy,” said Brig. Gen. Cullen.  Humane practices not only lend us the moral high ground, but also draw informants who may be tired of violence and willing to help end it.

All three had another strong point to make regarding the need for a strong statement condemning the use of torture.  The armed forces use a chain of command, a “hierarchy of individuals to instruct” action, according to Brig. Gen. Cullen.  When, in 2001, Vice President Cheney used ambiguous language regarding torture he opened up room for interpretation.  Major General Eaton spoke at length about the chain of command representing moral leadership for the armed forces.  Cheney’s willingness to challenge the historical stand American military and political leaders have taken against torture since the revolution created some confusion.  General Petraeus felt the need to clearly reassert a general condemnation of torture and other illegal activities (PDF).  Maj. Gen. Hayes stated on no uncertain terms that tolerating ambiguity regarding torture has only one result: somewhere down the line someone will cross the line.  All three speakers insisted that American policy on torture return to its historical absolute of never torturing under any circumstances.

The three men have spoken to both presidential candidates and hope that the next administration will take a strong stand against torture.  They suggest three steps to restore American policy:

  1. Close Guantanamo and bring all prisoners on to American soil.
  2. Stop extraordinary rendition, where prisoners are taken to countries where torture is permitted.
  3. Stop secret prisons and prisoners and lend transparency to the system.

For those interested in learning more about the subject, Maj. Gen. Hayes suggested reading The Dark Side by Jane Mayer.  Brig. Gen. Cullen offered Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner as an interesting read regarding the CIA and torture practices.  Of course, anyone interested should also check out the Torture Memo by Jay Bybee.  This 2002 memo outlined possible defenses for those charged with torture.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user burge5000.

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