Torturing America: Securing the American Interest

By Zain Pasha
Cornell International Affairs Review
2010, Vol. 3 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |

Additionally, the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi concretely demonstrate the ineffectiveness of torture in garnering actionable intelligence for the War on Terror. First, the CIA interrogated Abu Zubaydah over a hundred times during his first year of incarceration and used the "intelligence" he provided to make worldwide arrests. Unfortunately for the CIA, Zubaydah was mentally handicapped (diagnosed with split personality disorder) and as a minor member of al-Qaeda had minimal knowledge about the organization's plots.

Although the Bush administration claimed that Zubaydah provided intelligence that lead to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in reality the CIA already knew the information Zubaydah provided a few years earlier. In fact, the intelligence that actually lead to Mohammed's capture came from a tipster to whom the CIA paid $25 million (and did not torture).54

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has been adamant in his defense of American torture practices.

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has been adamant in his defense of American torture practices.

Second, the torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda paramilitary trainer, is perhaps the most important example of the ineffectiveness of torture and of the misinformation that torture oftentimes yields.

Based on al-Libi's reports that Iraq provided alQaeda with chemical and biological weapons, Bush made a public case for invading Iraq in his October 7th, 2002 Cincinnati speech. Moreover, Bush was so certain about alLibi's statements that he even ignored the National Intelligence Estimate's conclusion that Saddam Hussein was not likely to provide chemical and biological support to terrorist groups; even Colin Powell trusted alLibi's information enough to use it in his UN presentation on Iraq's weaponry.55

As the U.S. now knows, al-Libi's information was false, and the reason al-Libi provided false information was because he sought to pacify those who "were killing" him.56 Al-Libi's case is indicative of a larger problem with counterterrorism interrogation: interrogators can never be sure of what a detainee knows or who he is, and thus can never be certain of the integrity of the information they received.57

Finally, when assessing the necessity of torture for the U.S national security, it is important to consider possible alternatives that are perhaps more effective at gathering counterintelligence. Even Dershowitz recognizes in his "ticking time bomb" argument that torture should only be used when all other options have been exhausted, which implies that if there are empirically proven alternatives—which there are—torture should never be used.58 Perhaps the most effective alternative to torture is not using it. More specifically, intentionally avoiding the use of torture and instead building a relationship of trust with detainees has in practice yielded more and better intelligence that torture.

To be sure, when Abu Zubaydah was questioned with the FBI's "rapport-building" techniques, he revealed logistical details of the 9/11 attacks, identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by his alias and even accidentally identified Jose Padilla during small talk.59 Moreover, Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and a deputy director of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism notes, "it is better to build a relationship of trust…than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by Nazis and the Soviets."60 All of this is to say that focusing on trust building in lieu of using torture is an empirically proven better way of securing the U.S. national interest.

Torture clearly provides very little utility for preserving U.S. national security, even in instances of a "ticking bomb" because interrogators can never be certain of the integrity of the intelligence they receive. Moreover, as the cases of Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi demonstrate, torture has provided at best redundant information and at worst false intelligence that caused the U.S. to invade Iraq. Finally, even if torture has some utility "rapport-building" is more effective at garnering counterintelligence than torture. Based on this qualitative assessment, I conclude that torture has very little actual utility for preserving U.S. national security.

Is Torture in the U.S. National Interest?

U.S. use of torture under the Bush administration has had several negative consequences. First, U.S. torture has undermined international U.S. credibility as nations like Russia and China label the U.S. as hypocritical for advocating human rights and simultaneously using torture. Second, U.S. torture has undermined international human rights norms, which prevents the U.S. from condemning human rights violations and allows other nations to justify their torture policies (e.g., Sri Lanka).

This harms the U.S. national interest when those norms become important for protecting the lives of captured American soldiers. Third, use of torture has undermined U.S. soft power leadership around the world, which impedes global cooperation on the War on Terror and harms the ability of moderates to gain power in the Islamic world. Fourth, torture increases global terrorism by radicalizing previously moderate segments of the international population, increasing sympathy for terrorist causes, and consequently bolstering the recruitment efforts of organizations like al-Qaeda. Fifth, use of torture decreases presidential approval ratings and thus reduces public support for U.S. national security policies.

Moreover, torture offers little actual utility for preserving U.S. national security even in the case of a "ticking time bomb." Indeed, the premises upon which the "ticking time bomb" justification is situated make the scenario very unlikely to occur in reality, which effectively makes it an argument for why torture should never be used. Furthermore, the vague time-horizon implied by the term "imminent" in the case of the "ticking time bomb" makes it a slippery slope that results in the use of torture against virtually anyone. Additionally, interrogators can never know with certainty that a detainee will provide Cornell International Affairs Review 32 actionable or accurate intelligence. To be sure, the cases of Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi demonstrate that torture oftentimes yields redundant and even false information, which makes it useless as a counterintelligence tool even in "ticking time bomb" scenarios.

Finally, even if there are some benefits to using torture (e.g. if a cooperative terrorist with exact details of how to disarm a "ticking time bomb" were apprehended), alternative methods like the FBI's "rapport-building" have been empirically proven to be more effective at garnering intelligence. All of this is to say that torture is not in the U.S. national interest, as not only has torture been counterproductive for the U.S. in the War on Terrorism and not provided any mitigating benefits, there are alternatives that have been empirically proven to be more effective than torture at preserving U.S. national security.

Conclusion

In this paper I answered the question of whether the use of torture is in the U.S. national interest. I did this by first chronicling U.S. torture practices since the Cold War, second enumerating the negative consequences of torture for international U.S. credibility and the War on Terrorism, third making a qualitative assessment of torture's actual utility for preserving U.S. national security, and finally comparing the ramifications of torture to its actual utility to ultimately conclude that the use of torture is not in the U.S. national interest.

Indeed, despite arguments to the contrary, U.S. torture has not provided any unique benefits for the War on Terrorism but has had several persistent negative consequences for U.S. national security. Thus, by outlawing U.S. torture, pledging to shut down Guantanamo Bay and releasing information about torture under the Bush administration, President Obama has demonstrated that he is capable of moving in the right direction for securing the U.S. national interest.


Endnotes

  1. “Obama names intel picks, vows no torture,” Associated Press, January, 9, 2009, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28574408/.
  2. Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Interrogation Memos Detail Harsh Tactics by the C.I.A.,” The New York Times, April 16, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/us/politics/17detain.html.
  3. Jenny Booth, “Dick Cheney demands Barack Obama reveals torture ‘success’ memos,” The Times Online, April 21, 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article6138465.ece.
  4. Alfred W. McCoy, “The U.S. Has a History of Using Torture,” History News Network, December 4, 2006, http://www.hnn.us/articles/32497.html; Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 7, 28-29.
  5. McCoy, A Question of Torture, 13; Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 160; Central Intelligence Agency, Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation (Washington, DC, 1963), 1.
  6. McCoy, “The U.S. Has a History of Using Torture,” http://www.hnn.us/articles/32497.html.
  7. Alfred W. McCoy, “The CIA’s secret history of psychological torture,” Salon, June 11, 2009, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/feature/2009/06/11/mccoy/print.html; McCoy, A Question of Torture, 109-110.
  8. McCoy, “The CIA’s secret history of psychological torture,” http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/feature/2009/06/11/mccoy/print.html.
  9. U.S. Department of Justice, Background Paper on CIA’s Combined Use of Interrogation Techniques (Washington, DC, 2004) as cited in Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Interrogation Memos Detail Harsh Tactics by the C.I.A.,” The New York Times, April 16, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/us/politics/17detain.html.
  10. McCoy, A Question of Torture, 113.
  11. Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, 146, 148.
  12. Ibid, 165 -166.
  13. Ibid, 166-170; Brian Ross and Richard Esposito, “CIA’s Harsh Interrogation Techniques Described,” November 18, 2005, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/Investigation/story?id=1322866.
  14. U.S. Department of Justice, Memorandum for John Rizzo: Senior Deputy General Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency (Washington, DC, 2005).
  15. McCoy, A Question of Torture, 125-126.
  16. Alissa J. Rubin, “Afghans Detail Detention in ‘Black Jail’ at U.S. Base,” The New York Times, November 29th, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/29/world/asia/29bagram.html.
  17. McCoy, “The US Has a History of Using Torture,” http://www.hnn.us/articles/32497.html.
  18. Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, 241-242.
  19. McCoy, A Question of Torture, 132.
  20. Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, 247, 255; McCoy, “the US Has a History of Using Torture,” http://www.hnn.us/articles/32497.html.
  21. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, A Statement by Richard L. Armitage and Dr. Joseph S. Nye, Jr.: “Implementing Smart Power: Setting an Agenda for National Security Reform,” April 24, 2008.
  22. “China hits back at US on rights, says Iraq war a disaster,” AFP, March 12, 2008, http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5hZVaNj95dwVAqXz6ciwqiIaVtYDQ.
  23. Nick Paton Walsh and Ewen MacAskill, “Putin lashes out at ‘wolf-like’ America,” May 11, 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/may/11/russia.usa.
  24. Harold Hongju Koh, “On American Exceptionalism,” Stanford Law Review 55 (2009): 1487; Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, 320; Kenneth Roth, “Justifying Torture,” in Torture, ed. Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden (New York: The New Press, 2005), 186.
  25. Ian Munro, “US a ‘negative role model’ for global torture,” The Age, October 31, 2007, http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/us-a-negative-rolemodel-for-global-torture/2007/10/30/1193618884836.html.
  26. Hosni Mubarak as cited in “Mubarak says Egypt’s military courts vindicated by US, Britain,” Agence France Presse—English, December 15, 2001, http://www.lexisnexis.com/.
  27. Manfred Nowak as cited in Ian Munro, “US a ‘negative role model’ for global torture,” The Age, October 31, 2007, http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/us-a-negative-role-model-for-global-torture/2007/10/30/1193618884836.html.
  28. Henry Shue and Richard H. Weisberg, “Responses to The Debate on Torture,” Dissent (2003), http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=491.
  29. Joseph S. Nye, Jr, “The Decline of American Soft Power,” Foreign Affairs 83 (2004): 16.
  30. “World View of US Role Goes From Bad to Worse,” World Public Opinion, January 22, 2007, http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/international_security_bt/306.php?lb=btis&pnt=306&nid=&id= (accessed November 27, 2009).
  31. Joseph S. Nye, Jr, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (Cambridge, MA: PublicAffairs, 2004), 130-131; Nye, “The Decline of American Soft Power,” 18.
  32. Peter G. Peterson, “Public Diplomacy and the War on Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs 81 (2002): 77.
  33. James I. Walsh and James A. Piazza, “Why Respecting Physical Integrity Rights Reduces Terrorism,” forthcoming in Comparative Political Studies (n.d.), 2, 26.
  34. James A. Piazza and James Igoe Walsh, “Transnational Terror and Human Rights,” International Studies Quarterly 53 (2009): 144.
  35. Martin A. Lee, “The CIA and The Muslim Brotherhood: How the CIA set the stage for September 11th,” RAZOR Magazine, September 2004, http://ce399.typepad.com/weblog/2006/04/the_cia_and_the.html.
  36. Piazza and Walsh, “Transnational Terror and Human Rights,” International Studies Quarterly, 130.
  37. Senate Committee on Armed Services, Statement of Alberto J. Mora: Hearing on the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody, June 17th, 2008.
  38. Matthew Alexander, “I’m Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq,” The Washington Post, November 30, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/28/AR2008112802242.html.
  39. Piazza and Walsh, “Transnational Terror and Human Rights,” 130.
  40. “Poll: The Presidency of George W. Bush,” CBS News/New York Times, January 16, 2009.
  41. John Esterbrook, “Poll: Iraq Taking Toll on Bush,” CBS News, May 24, 2004, Opinion Section.
  42. “Bush Approval hits new lows in poll,” CNN, May 11, 2004, http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/05/10/war.bush.kerry/index.html.
  43. Alexander M. Dershowitz, “Tortured Reasoning,” in Torture: A Collection ed. Sanford Levinson (London: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  44. Eitan Felner, “Torture and Terrorism,” in Torture, ed. Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden (New York: The New Press, 2005), 32.
  45. Ibid; Kenneth Roth, “Justifying Torture,” in Torture, ed. Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden, 197.
  46. Michael Gross, “Just and Jewish Warfare—Israeli Soldiers Seem to Disregard Rules of War,” Tikkum, September 2001, http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1548/is_5_16/ai_78237512.
  47. Richard Matthews, The Absolute Violation: Why Torture Must Be Prohibited (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), 79, 85; McCoy, A Question of Torture, 195.
  48. Henry Shue, “Torture in Dreamland: Disposing of the Ticking Bomb,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 37 (2006): 234.
  49. Felner, “Torture and Terrorism,” in Torture, 38.
  50. Ibid, 34; McCoy, A Question of Torture, 195.
  51. David Rose, “Tortured Reasoning,” Vanity Fair, December 16, 2008, http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2008/12/torture200812?printable=true.
  52. Bob Baer as quoted in Brian Ross and Richard Esposito, “CIA’s Harsh Interrogation Techniques Described,” ABC News, November 18, 2005, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/Investigation/story?id=1322866.
  53. McCoy, A Question of Torture, 197.
  54. Darius Rejali, Torture and Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 504 – 506.
  55. Frank Rich, “The Real-Life ‘24’ of Summer 2008,” The New York Times, July 13, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/13/opinion/13rich.html?_r=2&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&pagewanted=all.
  56. Ibid
  57. Rejali, Torture and Democracy, 504-505.
  58. Dershowitz, “Tortured Reasoning,” in Torture: A Collection.
  59. Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, 155.
  60. Larry Johnson as cited in Ross and Esposito, “CIA’s Harsh Interrogation Techniques Described,” http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/Investigation/

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