Torture in the News

Practically buried in the news in the wake of the corruption scandal of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was the publication, on December 11, of a report by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) — the culmination of an 18-month long investigation into the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody:

A major focus of the Committee’s investigation was the influence of Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training techniques on the interrogation of detainees in U.S. custody. SERE training is designed to teach our soldiers how to resist interrogation by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions and international law. During SERE training, U.S. troops — in a controlled environment with great protections and caution — are exposed to harsh techniques such as stress positions, forced nudity, use of fear, sleep deprivation, and until recently, the waterboard. The SERE techniques were never intended to be used against detainees in U.S. custody. The Committee’s investigation found, however, that senior officials in the U.S. government decided to use some of these harsh techniques against detainees based on deeply flawed interpretations of U.S. and international law.

The Committee concluded that the authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques by senior officials was both a direct cause of detainee abuse and conveyed the message that it was okay to mistreat and degrade detainees in U.S. custody.

Chairman Levin said, “SERE training techniques were designed to give our troops a taste of what they might be subjected to if captured by a ruthless, lawless enemy so that they would be better prepared to resist. The techniques were never intended to be used against detainees in U.S. custody.”

Senator McCain said, “The Committee’s report details the inexcusable link between abusive interrogation techniques used by our enemies who ignored the Geneva Conventions and interrogation policy for detainees in U.S. custody. These policies are wrong and must never be repeated.”

Further details:

The report is not without its share of critics — On Friday, the Republican half of the allegedly “bipartisan” Senate Armed Forces Committee released a statement repudiating the McCain-Levin report and its conclusions, stating:

The latest inquiry into detainee treatment by the Senate Armed Services Committee breaks little new ground – merely reiterating the findings of at least 12 previous independent investigations, which reported that certain isolated and limited incidents of detainee abuse occurred in the handling of detainees in U.S. custody. The implication, however, that this abuse was the direct, necessary, or foreseeable result of policy decisions made by senior administration officials is false and without merit. It is counter-productive and potentially dangerous to our men and women in uniform to insinuate that illegal treatment of detainees resulted from official U.S. government policies. [Read the rest]

In Torturing the Evidence, the Editors of National Review responded to the Levin-McCain Report:

Prisoner abuse should not be taken lightly. There have been nearly two dozen detainee deaths reported, five of which are believed to have occurred during interrogations. But these episodes are endemic to warfare, not peculiar to the Bush era or a result of the president’s policies. Abuse is not to be tolerated — and it isn’t: dozens of U.S. military personnel have been disciplined and a number tried in courts-martial. There is a world of difference between relatively rare wrongdoing at the hands of a miniscule number of soldiers and a government program of torture.

The torture narrative is at odds with the facts. The U.S. does not have a policy of torturing captives, nor does it fail to abide by its obligations under the Geneva Conventions. When abuse has occurred, steps have been taken to punish the wrongdoers and rectify military practices. Those efforts will continue. A sober study would have made that clear. Congressional Democrats have instead found it expedient to smear the administration, the military, and the intelligence community for political purposes.

And as Jacob Laskin notes, [The Levin-McCain report] brings no new evidence to light, while its conclusions about the complicity in “torture” of Bush administration higher-ups have been discredited by a multitude of previous investigations:

[A] 2004 report on Abu Ghraib by Army Gen. Paul Kern found 44 incidents of abuse at the Iraqi prison, but absolved Rumsfeld and other administration officials from responsibility. An August 2004 investigation by former Secretary James Schlesinger concluded that Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials bore some indirect responsibility for the Abu Ghraib abuses, but also underscored that “there is no evidence of a policy of abuse promulgated by senior officials or military authorities.” In Guantanamo Bay, a 2005 Army Regulation report examining 24,000 interrogations conducted over a three-year period “found no evidence of torture or inhumane treatment” at Gitmo. One may reasonably take these investigations as proof that the Bush administration, whatever its mistakes, had no systematic policy to “torture” detainees.

Some quick observations:


The most controversial SERE techniques adopted for use in interrogations is waterboarding – immobilizing the subject and pouring water over the face and into the breathing passages, so as to bring on the simulation of drowning.

Waterboarding is commonly accepted to be a form of physical torture. It was used by Japanese soldiers against American POWS during World War II; by French soldiers during the Algerian war, and was designated as illegal by U.S. generals during the Vietnam war.

Guantanamo commanders requested permission to use a “wet towel and dripping water to induce the misperception of suffocation” in a memo to the Pentagon. Sec. Rumsfeld denied permission in his now (in)famous reply of Dec. 2, 2002, stating that “as a matter of policy, Category III techniques [ ] was not warranted at this time. Our Armed Forces are trained to a standard of interrogation that reflects a tradition of restraint.” However, in February 2008, CIA Director Michael Hayden testified before Congress that the CIA had used waterboarding on three high-ranking members of Al Qaeda in 2002-2003 (Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubayda and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri), following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This week, Vice President Dick Cheney reasserted his approval of waterboarding in an interview with ABC News, and later, in an interview with the Washington Times, admitted that he was privy to the discussions which authorized the procedure and “signed off on it” — prompting Senator Levin to call for an investigation.

The protest launched by some, “if that’s the case, we have tortured members of our own armed forces (during SERE training)” is rather flimsy: does training our troops to endure waterboarding (with the expectation that they would be subjected to them by an enemy, and precisely that: an enemy not subject to the Geneva conventions) therefore legitimize our right to waterboard those we capture? — I would say not.

“Aggressive Interrogation Techniques”

The predominant focus of the report, however, is not so much the rare use of waterboarding as the entire range of SERE tactics — “stress positions, removal of clothing, use of phobias (such as fear of dogs), and deprivation of light and auditory stimuli” — which were approved by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld in 2002 for use in special interrogations.

Do these “aggressive interrogation techniques” also amount to torture? — This is something that the Levin-McCain report assumes, although it is a topic of much dispute, both in the general public as well as our Catholic online community (discussed below). For an explanation of the range techniques in question, see: What is Torture? A Primer on American interrogation.

Abu Ghraib – abuse of the policy, or the policy itself?

Another assumption is that what happened at Abu Ghraib was in fact not an abuse of policy but the policy of the United States itself. Catholic apologist Mark Shea, in characteristic hyperbole, asserts that “our troops, acting on the orders of the President of the United States, did what they were ordered to do“.

However, as stated previously, numerous investigations into the abuses of Abu Ghraib have concluded otherwise. The investigation conducted by 2004 Independent Panel to Review DoD Detention Operations headed by James R. Schlesinger concurred with the findings of several previous investigations that Abu Ghraib was the consequence of “serious leadership problems”; that techniques circulating from Guantanamo and Afghanistan “effective under controlled conditions … became far more problematic when they migrated and were not properly safeguarded”; likewise “the abberant behavior of the nightshift in Cell Block 1 at Abu Ghraib would have been avoided with proper training, leadership and oversight.” Ultimately, it concluded that “No approved procedures called for or allowed the kinds of abuse that in fact occurred. There is no evidence of a policy of abuse promulgated by senior officials or military authorities.”

Consequently, one might conclude that Mark Shea is playing fast and loose with the facts when he posts a photo of a prisoner covered in excrement with the assertion that this was done “at the order of President Bush” or to characterize the legal opinions rendered by Bush’s counsel as such “that the President has legitimate authority to order a child’s testicles to be crushed if he sees fit”. Remarks of this nature do nothing to advance the discussion.

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In “Drawing a Line Against Torture” (First Things “On The Square” October 2004), Fr. Neuhaus remarked:

Torture as defined in international agreements to which the U.S. is party—outrages against human dignity, humiliation, degradation, mutilation, the threat of death—is never morally permissible. Admittedly, a measure of coercion, both physical and mental, is inevitably involved in most interrogation. The very fact of being in custody and under threat of punishment is a form of coercion. The task is to draw as bright a line as possible between such coercion and torture, and to forbid the latter absolutely. The uncompromisable principle is that it is always wrong to do evil in order that good may result. This principle is taught in numerous foundational texts of our civilization and is magisterially elaborated in the 1993 encyclical of John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor. We cannot ask God’s blessing upon a course of action that entails the deliberate doing of evil. When something like Abu Ghraib happens, the appropriate response of patriotic Americans is one of deep sorrow, clear condemnation, and a firm resolution that it not happen again.

During October 2006 various members of the Catholic online community (“St. Blog’s”) engaged in a discussion, both on the theoretical level and that of practical policy, on these questions. Mark Shea has taken John Paul II’s list of actions which were deemed “intrinsically evil” in Veritatis Splendour (“whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit”) as officially settling the matter — while other participants such as Catholic apologists Jimmy Akin, David Armstrong and Father Brian W. Harrison (in a contribution to Catholic Answers’ The Church & Torture This Rock December 2006; as well as Torture and Corporal Punishment as a Problem in Catholic Moral Theology Living Tradition Sept. 2005), are of the opinion that the passage does not suffice as an absolute condemnation, and have labored to distinguish between what coercion and torture.

It is, by all appearances, a debate that is far from over. Most recently, another Catholic writer, Ross Douthat, In Thinking About Torture (The Atlantic, Dec. 16, 2008), Ross Douthat, penned his “own inarticulate mix of anger, uncertainty and guilt about the Bush Administration’s interrogation policy” and “the sheer muddiness that surrounds my own thinking (such as it is) on the issue”:

… the waterboarding of al Qaeda’s high command, despite the controversy it’s generated, is not in fact the biggest moral problem posed by the Bush Administration’s approach to torture and interrogation. The biggest problem is the sheer scope of the physical abuse that was endorsed from on high – the way it was routinized, extended to an ever-larger pool of detainees, and delegated ever-further down the chain of command. Here I’m more comfortable saying straightforwardly that this should never have been allowed – that it should be considered impermissible as well as immoral, and that it should involve disgrace for those responsible, the Cheneys and Rumsfelds as well as the people who actually implemented the techniques that the Vice President’s office promoted and the Secretary of Defense signed off on.

As Ross observes, the case made by some that the record of human rights violations which occurred under the watch of the Bush Administration — such as the abuses of Abu Ghraib and the rendition of detainees to CIA “black sites” — is somehow altogether different from what occurred in the past, crumbles in the light of historical examination. As he puts it:

… as far as the baseline of Bush Administration wrongdoing goes – the decision to take an ends-justify-the-means approach to the interrogation of terror suspects – I do think it needs to be placed in historical context, and treated as an example of the kind of consequentialism that’s endemic to modern Presidencies (and to international affairs more generally), rather than as a distinct break with a more idealistic, human-rights-centric American past.

Douthat references New Yorker correspondent Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, “the battle within the Bush Administration over a new anti-terrorism policy of harsh interrogations, indefinite detentions without due process, extraordinary renditions, secret CIA prisons and warrantless wiretappings.” (See Benjamin Wittes’ “One Side Only” (Policy Review Oct/Nov 2008). According to Witte, Mayer’s book is strongest when it adheres to the facts of the matter:

She brings a whole lot of information to the table, whether on details of extraordinary renditions, debates within the CIA over how to handle those it snatched around the world, bureaucratic infighting throughout the administration over interrogation and detention policy, or the extreme anxiety officials felt about how best to conduct the fight against the enemy. She reports on new documents; she has clearly had significant access to key players. What’s more, the texture of her reporting gets down and dirty enough to make phrases like “coercive interrogation” all too real. No decent person can read her account of the CIA’s interrogation program without something approaching nausea.

Unfortunately, says Witte, her efforts are marred by an attempt to fit the travails of the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11 into an all-too-simplistic moral narrative:

perhaps her biggest mistake is the one that resides in that subtitle and her related Manichean sense of the Bush administration as a hard-fought internal war between good and evil, between torturers and decent conservatives, between those who believe in the rule of law and those who do not, between practitioners of the old tried and true methods of fighting terrorists and those who eagerly chose to dwell in what Mayer’s arch-villain, Vice President Dick Cheney, once called “the dark side.”

As Witte demonstrates, this leads to questions of fairness in Mayer’s casting of certain characters, and negligence to entertain evidence which would complicate her portrayal of Bush administration officials as the villains. This reminds me of DarwinCatholic’s caution in a recent post to The American Catholic:

The most rewarding approach to history is to understand as sympathetically as possible the motivations of all those on both sides of major historical conflicts. Picking a “good guy” and “bad guy” and engaging in constant denunciations of specific acts is generally not condusive to this. Certainly, that does not mean that one may not judge the morality of historical events. But it does mean taking a less judgemental approach to history as a whole.

Simplistic narratives are generally the enemy of historical understanding.

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Lastly, we should acknowledge that the use of “aggressive interrogation” techniques, even if licit, may not be necessary or warranted. Consider the recent testimony of Matthew Alexander (not his real name), a former professional interrogator who says he’s still tortured by what he saw in Iraq:

I should have felt triumphant when I returned from Iraq in August 2006. Instead, I was worried and exhausted. My team of interrogators had successfully hunted down one of the most notorious mass murderers of our generation, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the mastermind of the campaign of suicide bombings that had helped plunge Iraq into civil war. But instead of celebrating our success, my mind was consumed with the unfinished business of our mission: fixing the deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American way the U.S. military conducts interrogations in Iraq. I’m still alarmed about that today.

Dissatisfied with what he referred to as the “Guantanamo Bay Model” — “Interrogators were nominally using the methods outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual, the interrogators’ bible, but they were pushing in every way possible to bend the rules — and often break them” — the former senior interrogator at Iraq embarked on a different strategy:

I refused to participate in such practices, and a month later, I extended that prohibition to the team of interrogators I was assigned to lead. I taught the members of my unit a new methodology — one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information. I personally conducted more than 300 interrogations, and I supervised more than 1,000. The methods my team used are not classified (they’re listed in the unclassified Field Manual), but the way we used them was, I like to think, unique. We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques to our work (something that the Field Manual permits, under the concept of “ruses and trickery”). It worked. Our efforts started a chain of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi.

Over at Alternet, DemocracyNow’s Amy Goodman interviews Alexander, going into greater detail of the strategy he employed in the interrogation which culminated in the disclosure of the whereabouts of Musab al-Zarqawi:

if you look at the way we do criminal interrogations in the United States, you can certainly tell a criminal suspect what are the consequences for a crime that they’ve committed, or that you suspect they’ve committed. So that, I think, is a permissible and ethical way to conduct an interrogation. However, it’s not the most effective. The most-effective techniques are those that rely on rapport-building and relationship-building and then adapt that into the culture of the person that you’re interrogating.

Alexander has also written a book entitled, How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. .

10 Responses to Torture in the News

  1. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Christopher, there you go again, “confusing” the issue with facts and fairness. Well done!

  2. Phillip says:


    You’re in trouble now.

  3. Ryan Harkins says:

    Excellent, Christopher. I wish I had something to add. I’m not very read up on the torture debate–in fact, most of what I’ve heard has come from Mark Shea, so I’m well aware of where he stands and his arguments–and so I only have hypothetical or theoretical musings to work with.

    The reason why I think Mark makes good points about torture (whether one agrees that torture is a Bush Administration policy) is that I have a hard time justifying drawing a bright line. To me, that simply sounds like “what can I get away with”, and what we must always ask ourselves instead is “how holy can I be?” I personally have no problem (other than maybe my tax dollars at stake) at feeding Gitmo prisoners the orange-glazed chicken that so many (such as those at Sweetness and Light) have harped endlessly about. And as far as the ticking time-bomb scenarios, I feel that, while it seems hard and heartless, it is better not to even engage in the gray area of coercive tactics.

    As I said, I only really have theoretical to work with. But it seems to me that evil wins whenever it can knock us off our high horses. Evil wins if it can makes us lower our standards even just a little bit.

    Sometimes I wonder. In the aftermath of 9/11, what would have happened if we simply dusted ourselves off, went about our business, and ignored the Islamic terrorists? That’s probably just naivety speaking, but sometimes it seems that it is better not to fight evil with physical force.

  4. crankycon says:

    In the aftermath of 9/11, what would have happened if we simply dusted ourselves off, went about our business, and ignored the Islamic terrorists?

    The problem is that’s basically what we did after the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, and after the attack on the USS Cole. I don’t think that strategy was the wisest course. That’s of course not to say that everything done in the aftermath of 9/11 was the correct course of action.

    BTW, good post Christopher.

  5. “In the aftermath of 9/11, what would have happened if we simply dusted ourselves off, went about our business, and ignored the Islamic terrorists?”

    The jihadist’s would have assumed, rightly, that we were unwilling to defend ourselves even when 3,000 of our fellow citizens were murdered, and would have ramped up the attacks. Unanswered aggression leads to further aggression is a law as old as history.

  6. Eric Brown says:

    This isn’t about the topic, but I really want to bring this up…allegedly on or around 9/11, Bin Laden made a comment about financially ruining America as the best way of defeating us. I saw a whole news piece that linked the fall of Russia to the same sort of military engagement. Russia entered Afghanistan and remained in the region for roughly ten years and afterward its economy fail to pieces; their resources were wiped. We entered Afghanistan about 7 or 8 years ago, Iraq about 5 years ago…on Iraq alone, we’re borrowing roughly 10 billion dollars a month to fund this war and our economy, for other reasons as well, is in a bad place. Thoughts? I’ve never heard it framed quite like that.

  7. Total cost for Iraq and Afghanistan as of June of this year was 850 billion. The bailout a few months ago was 750 billion. Next year we will probably spend 2 trillion on various economic crisis related programs.

    I think our involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq have had almost nothing to do with our financial woes. Three factors I think are the chief culprits are: 1. The end of the longest housing bubble price increase in our history; 2. The use of packaged debt as a leveraged commodity to support very complex financial transactions between financial institutions across the globe; and 3. The oil price spike of the spring and summer that helped send the world economy into a tail spin.

  8. The jihadist’s would have assumed, rightly, that we were unwilling to defend ourselves even when 3,000 of our fellow citizens were murdered, and would have ramped up the attacks. Unanswered aggression leads to further aggression is a law as old as history.

    Donald’s right. I recommend The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Vintage) as a good history of what transpired prior to 9/11.

  9. Daddio says:

    I admit I haven’t spent much time thinking about the issue of torture and really ought to spend more time reading up on it. Much like capital punishment, I’m not going to attend any rallies in favor of it, but I also don’t lose a lot of sleep over it. If it ever comes to a vote, I’ll be a good Catholic and oppose it, if that’s what my bishop recommends. But for now, torture is on my list of evil priorities somewhere above global warming, but well below abortion and religious freedom.

  10. Ryan Harkins says:

    The problem with dealing with terrorists is always this. Whether they realize it or not, their ultimate goal (or the goal of those who ‘inspire’ the mentality of terrorists, e.g. the devil) is to knock their enemies from their high horses. Can the terrorists make their targets lower themselves to the level of the terrorists?

    To an extent I support coercive tactics in dealing with captured terrorists. I definitely support many of our intelligence gathering methods that have been excoriated on the news, such as the wire-tapping. But when it comes to physically coercive methods, I pause. I understand greatly the role of discomfort, both physical and psychological, when dealing with the punishment and correction of criminals. How does that extend to dealing with extracting information from captured enemy militants? Locking them up is no problem. Subjecting them to hours of questioning is no problem. But after that, I feel that we’re starting to test the boundaries of a realm we shouldn’t even come close enough to know it has borders.

    I’m certainly no pacifist, though at times passive aggressive will describe my mentality and behavior. When I express curiosity about what would have happened if we had ignored the terrorists, it isn’t out of any desire not to fight them, or concern about the price that has to be paid in fighting the type of war we’re currently in. Rather, it stems from a wonder if it wouldn’t have been a huge, huge, huge insult to the jihadists to treat their grandest schemes as beneath our notice. (Not possible, I know.) I imagine a world where the terrorists are so befuddled by the inability to rouse any response–military action, certainly, but more importantly the fear that the terrorists are after–that they start wondering just what that whole Christianity thing is really about. This imagination probably ignores certain traits–perhaps contempt for someone who won’t fight, and indeed the “I’ve gotten away with X, so now I’ll try Y” mentality–but I can’t help shake the desire to express the depth of contempt I feel for the terrorists, and I can’t think of any better way than to treat even destruction of the World Trade Center as nothing more than a temper-tantrum by some backwater crybabies. (But then I’m also caught in the dilemma of insulting all the victims of the 9/11 attack by being too blase, right?)

    Eric, I would say that allowing Bin Laden any more than a peripheral role in our current economic crisis is giving him too much credit. Our economy continually undergoes periods of recession due to various bubbles popping or some other factor. Right now, I could predict, Al Gore-like, that manmade efforts will decrease global warming and save the world, and then when the globe enters its natural cooling phase (which should happen in the next 10 or so years), I can take credit for bringing about the change. I might as well predict the sun will come up tomorrow because I prayed a bunch of mumbo jumbo, and then take credit when the sun indeed rises.

    Bin Laden can at best interrupt certain areas of supply and demand. He can influence how much foreign oil is available to us, for example. But he really doesn’t have the power to strike at the fundamental working of the economy. Only our government really has that power (and isn’t that frightening?).

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