Repeat After Me — Torture Doesn’t Work
It’s the favored tool of tyrants, fascists and sadists
by MATTHEW GAULT
A draft for a new executive order about torture and black site prisons is floating around the Internet. A White House staffer leaked it and news outlets such as The New York Times and the Washington Post rushed to publish it.
The order appears to be an edited version of a sample executive order from Mitt Romney’s campaign back in 2012. The changes are mostly semantic, and the new order crosses out the term “jihadist” and replaces it with “Islamist” in several places.
To be clear, the executive order as written wouldn’t bring back torture all at once, it simply opens the door by asking the CIA to consider its past interrogation techniques and the use of black site prisons.
Word games aside, that Pres. Donald Trump is even considering bringing back torture is both morally and strategically reprehensible. Informed military leaders from Napoleon to Secretary of Defense James Mattis know that torture doesn’t work.
It’s a terrible method of interrogation, lowers the moral standing of the perpetrators of torture in the eyes of the world and creates more enemies than it eliminates.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte was busy conquering Egypt. He was a brilliant strategist who knew the value of gathering intelligence prior to a ground invasion — and he knew that the best way to get it was observation and polite conversation.
“The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished,” Napoleon wrote in a letter to his chief of staff on Nov. 11, 1798.
“It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know.”
Both Mattis and CIA director Mike Pompeo agree with Napoleon. During the dark days of the Bush administration’s torture program, CIA officers would inject hydrated food into prisoners’ rectums. They called it rectal feeding.
“Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better,” Trump said Mattis told him. He’s right. The simple fact is that, when it comes to actionable intelligence, the carrot often works far better than the stick.
The CIA knew this back when it was torturing people too. The Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture revealed that the spies ran several studies to figure out the effectiveness of forced feeding, sleep deprivation and waterboarding.
When the agents ran the studies themselves, they got positive results. Outside observers, however, turned in much different results. The CIA’s Office of Medical Services said “there was no evidence that the waterboard produced time-perishable information which otherwise would have been unobtainable.”
Trump, during his recent interview with ABC, told David Muir he felt that waterboarding probably worked, but he’d defer to Mattis and Pompeo. That’s great, if it’s true. But Trump isn’t exactly known for his adherence to the truth.
It’s not just that torture doesn’t work — it also deteriorates the moral foundation of the country in a kind of feedback loop. If the society endorses torture as justifiable, then the military is more likely to do so. This may not concern Trump, but it does concern the military.
Take for example, a lesson from the Bush years. Kiefer Sutherland tortured dozens of suspects on the hit TV show 24. The art we enjoy matters and Bauer’s adventures in “enhanced interrogation” trickled down into the culture in surprising ways.
When the show was at the height of its popularity, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, then the dean at West Point, flew to Hollywood to give the show’s producers a piece of his mind.
“Finnegan … had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise — that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security — was having a toxic effect.” The New Yorker explained at the time.
“In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. ‘I’d like them to stop,’ Finnegan said of the show’s producers. ‘They should do a show where torture backfires.’”
Finnegan and his associates were having problems at West Point. During their classes on ethics and the Geneva Conventions, students were pushing back and citing 24. They had a “whatever it takes” attitude toward torture and, because of the show, felt it was an appropriate battlefield tactic.
“The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?” Finnegan told The New Yorker. “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do,” in the context of the T.V. show.
It’s not the patriotic thing to do. Finnegan knows that and so does America’s secretary of defense, the CIA chief and other moral stalwarts such as Republican Sen. John McCain, who experienced it personally.
Torture is the tool and tactic of an evil empire, not a shining city on a hill. What’s more, those evil empires knew that torture wasn’t useful for gathering information. It was all about breaking wills and setting examples. It’s a terrorist act.
“Our task is not only to destroy you physically, but also to smash you morally before the eyes of the society,” a Soviet interrogator in occupied Poland told a prisoner in 1948.
The Nazis tortured people too and, just like some Americans, lied to themselves about its purpose. They told themselves “sharpened interrogation” was great for gathering intel. It wasn’t and it never has been.
Tyrants, dictatorial regimes and abusers use torture to break down their enemies physically and mentally. Others do it because they enjoy it and it’s an effective means of control. A regime that waterboards, breaks bones and destroys minds does so to render its victims less than human. For some, there’s a perverse thrill in that.
“I would bring back waterboarding,” Trump said on the campaign trail. “And I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”