Of Course It Was Torture

April 20, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the DC Examiner on April 20, 2009.

On Thursday, the Obama administration released previously classified memos detailing interrogation techniques used against enemy prisoners. In the memos, Bush administration lawyers assured the CIA that waterboarding detainees and keeping them awake for a week or more was perfectly legal. Bush partisans insist that such methods aren’t torture, and that Obama has done grave harm to national security by revealing them. They’re wrong on both counts.

Conservative legal analyst David Rivkin, one of Bush’s most reliable defenders, insists that “any fair‐​minded observer” would conclude that the documents prove that “the Bush administration did not torture.” But it’s hard to understand how anyone could call what the administration did by any other name. Rivkin’s assertion is on a par with left‐​wing diehards’ claim that President Clinton didn’t commit perjury.

Let’s start with waterboarding. If it’s not torture, then maybe we owe an apology to the Japanese soldiers we prosecuted for it after WWII. It felt “like I was drowning,” Lieutenant Chase Nielsen testified in a 1946 war crimes trial, “just gasping between life and death.”

True, the CIA administered the “water cure” only to three prisoners (183 times in a month to one of them). And none of the other techniques—“stress positions,” “sleep deprivation,” “cramped confinement,” etc.—repulse us like the rack and the thumbscrew do.

That’s why Bush administration defenders prefer to describe each technique in isolation, glossing over the fact that it was the relentless combination of such tactics for extended periods that made them rise to the level of torture.

US law defines torture as the infliction of “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” Susan Crawford, the lawyer appointed by President Bush to oversee Guantanamo Bay trials, refused to refer one detainee’s case for prosecution, because the combination of these techniques “met the legal definition of torture.”

But don’t take her word for it. Read the descriptions military personnel provided of prisoners’ reactions to “enhanced interrogation”: “Detainee began to cry. Detainee bit the IV tube completely in two. Started moaning.… Yelled for Allah. Urinated on himself.… Trembled uncontrollably.” Does that meet the statutory definition? Gosh yes, that’s a tough legal question.

The point here isn’t to make you shed a tear for Al Qaeda prisoners; mass murderers (actual or aspiring) are pretty hard to feel sorry for. But anyone who understands the issue ought to feel some remorse over the damage our policy did to the rule of law and American interests abroad.

Obama has announced that he won’t prosecute CIA line officers, and it’s unlikely that anyone else will face criminal sanctions for their role in the program. Even so, it’s clear that the policy was, at the very least, criminally stupid.

Imagine if, shortly after 9/11, someone had told you that the US government would adopt an interrogation policy based on Chinese Communist techniques designed to elicit false confessions. You’d have thought that person was pretty cynical. But he’d turn out to be exactly right.

To craft its torture program, the Bush team consulted experts from the military’s SERE program (for “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape”). SERE was adopted in the wake of the Korean War to train American soldiers to resist abuse by rogue regimes. After 9/11, we put those techniques to work to interrogate terrorist suspects.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that, as one former high‐​ranking intelligence official told the Washington Post: “We spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms.” Beaten savagely by Egyptian torturers, one victim of our “extraordinary rendition” program concocted a story about Saddam Hussein giving Al Qaeda WMD training. That story made it into Colin Powell’s UN Security Council speech selling the Iraq War.

In his ill‐​fated presidential campaign, Republican congressman Tom Tancredo got his biggest applause line when he cheered for torture in a May 2007 debate: “I’m lookin’ for Jack Bauer!” The real thing is a lot less glamorous—and a lot less effective—than what you see on TV. Around the same time Tancredo was mugging for the cameras, General David Petraeus issued an open letter to his troops warning against the use of torture: “Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy.” That’s a principle we should keep in mind going forward.

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