We Can’t Just Look Forward … We Have to Admit What Went Wrong
Yesterday, a bi-partisan panel – co-chaired by the former undersecretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush, former Republican congressman from Arkansas and NRA consultant (Asa Hutchinson) and former Democratic congressman and U.S. ambassador to Mexico (James Jones) – released a 577-page report on torture after 2 years of study.
Other luminaries on the panel include:
- Former FBI Director William Sessions
- 3-star general Claudia J. Kennedy
- Retired Brigadier General David Irvine
- Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Ambassador and Representative to the United Nations, and U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan Thomas Pickering
The panel concluded:
- “Torture occurred in many instances and across a wide range of theaters”
- There is “no firm or persuasive evidence” that the use of such techniques yielded “significant information of value”
- “The nation’s highest officials bear some responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of torture”
- “Publicly acknowledging this grave error, however belatedly, may mitigate some of those consequences and help undo some of the damage to our reputation at home and abroad”
The panel also found:
- The use of torture has “no justification” and “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive”
- “As long as the debate continues, so too does the possibility that the United States could again engage in torture”
- The Obama administration’s keeping the details of rendition and torture from the public “cannot continue to be justified on the basis of national security”, and it should stop blocking lawsuits by former detainees on the basis of claiming “state secrets”
At a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, co-chair Hutchinson said:
We found that U.S. personnel, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture. American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Both categories of actions violate U.S. laws and international treaty obligations.
This conclusion is not based upon our own personal impressions, but rather is grounded in a thorough and detailed examination of what constitutes torture from a historical and legal context. We looked at court cases and determined that the treatment of detainees, in many instances, met the standards the courts have determined as constituting torture. But in addition, you look at the United States State Department, in its annual country reports on human rights practices, has characterized many of the techniques used against detainees in U.S. custody in the post-9/11 environment—the State Department has characterized the same treatment as torture, abuse or cruel treatment when those techniques were employed by foreign governments. The CIA recognized this in an internal review and acknowledged that many of the interrogation techniques it employed were inconsistent with the public policy positions the United States has taken regarding human rights. The United States is understandably subject to criticism when it criticizes another nation for engaging in torture and then justifies the same conduct under national security arguments.
There are those that defend the techniques of—like waterboarding, stress positions and sleep deprivation, because there was the Office of Legal Counsel, which issued a decision approving of their use because they define them as not being torture. Those opinions have since been repudiated by legal experts and the OLC itself. And even in its opinion, it relied not only on a very narrow legal definition of torture, but also on factual representations about how the techniques would be implemented, that later proved inaccurate. This is important context as to how the opinion came about, but also as to how policy makers relied upon it.
Based upon a thorough review of the available public record, we determined that, in application, torture was used against detainees in many instances and across a wide range of theaters.
And while our report is critical of the approval of interrogation techniques that ultimately led to U.S. personnel engaging in torture of detainees, the investigation was not an undertaking of partisan fault finding. Our conclusions about responsibility should be taken very simply as an effort to understand what happened at many levels of the U.S. policy making. There is no way of knowing how the government would have responded if a Democrat administration were in power at the time of the attacks. Indeed, our report is equally critical of the rendition-to-torture program, which began under President Clinton. And we question several actions of the current administration, as well. It should be noted that many of the corrective actions that—were first undertaken during the Bush administration, as well.
But the task force did conclude that the nation’s highest officials, after the 9/11 attack, approved actions for CIA and Defense personnel based upon legal guidance that has since been repudiated. The most important decision may have been to declare the Geneva Convention did not apply to al-Qaeda and Taliban captives in Afghanistan or Guantánamo. The administration never specified what rules would apply instead. The task force believes that U.S. defense intelligence professionals and servicemembers in harm’s way need absolutely clear orders on the treatment of detainees, requiring at a minimum compliance with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. This was not done. Civilian leaders and military commanders have an affirmative responsibility to assure that their subordinates comply with the laws of war. President Obama has committed to observe the Geneva Conventions through an executive order, but a future president could change it by the stroke of a pen.
The task force believes it is important to recognize that—that is—that to say torture is ineffective does not require a demonstration that it never works. A person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information. Nor does the fact that it may sometimes yield legitimate information justify its use. What values do America stand for? That’s the ultimate question. But in addition to the very real legal and moral objections to its use, torture often produces false information, and it is difficult and time-consuming for interrogators and analysts to distinguish what may be true and usable from that which is false and misleading. Also, conventional, lawful interrogation methods have proven to be successful whenever the United States uses them throughout history—and I have seen this in law enforcement, as well. We’ve seen no evidence in the public record that the traditional means of interrogation would not have yielded the necessary intelligence following the attacks of 9/11.
Retired Brigadier General David Irvine, a former strategic intelligence officer and Army instructor in prisoner interrogation said:
Public record strongly suggests that there was no useful information gained from going to the dark side that saved the hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of lives that have been claimed. There are many instances in that public record to support the notion that we have been badly misled by false confessions that have been derived from brutal interrogations. And unfortunately, it is a fact that people—people will just say whatever they think needs to be said if the pain becomes more than they can bear. Other people are so immune to pain that they will die before they will reveal what an interrogator may wish to know.
I’ll just say, in conclusion, that in 2001 the United States had had a great deal of experience with tactical and strategic interrogations. We had been very successful over a long period of time in learning how to do this and do it very, very well. Unfortunately, when the policies were developed that led us to the dark side, many of those who were involved in formulating those policies had no experience with interrogation, had no experience with law enforcement, had no experience with the military, in how these matters are approached. One of the most successful FBI interrogators prior to 2001 was a guy named Joe Navarro. And Joe is noted for having said—and he was probably one of the handful of strategic interrogators qualified to interrogate and debrief a high-value al-Qaeda prisoner. But Joe said, “I only need three things. If you’ll give me three things, I will get whatever someone has to say, and I will do it without breaking the law. First of all, I need a quiet room. Second, I want to know what the rules are, because I don’t want to get in trouble. And third, I need enough time to become that person’s best and only friend. And if you give me those three conditions, I will get whatever that person has to say, and I will get it effectively and quickly and safely and within the terms of the law.” So, we can do it well when we want to. We need to do more, looking at our history, to remind us what worked and why it worked, and not resort to what may seem at the time to be expedient, clever or necessary.
Indeed, top American military and intelligence interrogation experts from both sides of the aisle have conclusively proven the following 10 facts about torture:
1. Torture is not a partisan issue
2. Waterboarding is torture
3. Torture decreases our national security
4. Torture can not break hardened terrorists
5. Torture is not necessary even in a “ticking time bomb” situation
6. The specific type of torture used by the U.S. was never aimed at producing actionable intelligence … but was instead aimed at producing false confessions
7. Torture did not help to get Bin Laden
8. Torture did not provide valuable details regarding 9/11
9. Many innocent people were tortured
10. America still allows torture