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Revenge: the CIA's new doctrine of torture


Waleed Aly

Brutal methods of interrogation by the US were not instrumental in the capture of Osama bin Laden.

Why do we torture? Ever since the CIA embarked upon its program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” we’ve had to reckon with that question. That means we’ve had to reckon with the assertion that it is, at least occasionally, justified. And in that connection, perhaps the high watermark was the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, which the CIA has always insisted was made possible only through its torture-by-another-name.

That claim took something of a whack this week, when it emerged that a US Senate report has found torture delivered no key evidence that led ultimately to bin Laden’s death – and that the torture was worse than the public was ever allowed to know. Apparently whatever information turned out to be critical was extracted from standard interrogations, and whatever information came especially via torture wasn’t terribly important.

At least until very recently, even the most brazen, hawkish justifications of torture have presented it as an emergency measure of last resort. 

In the American context, it’s a significant finding; one that goes to the heart of the Bush administration’s legacy rehabilitation project. Presently, Bush’s resort to torture stands as a kind of moral and political scar. If it can instead be presented as the key to killing bin Laden, then presumably all is not merely forgiven, but admired.

So I understand the fight. And I understand the determination of (mainly Democrat, but also some Republican) senators to set the record straight. At stake is the legitimacy of torture, which would undermine the most foundational philosophical assumptions of open, liberal democratic government. But I can’t escape the feeling that some steps have been missed here; that the mere fact we’re even witnessing this argument reveals a remarkable, alarming shift in the public discussion of torture.

At least until very recently, even the most brazen, hawkish justifications of torture have presented it as an emergency measure of last resort. The classic scenario is that of a ticking time bomb: you know a bomb is about to detonate at any moment; you know the person you’ve captured has information that will help you locate and defuse it; you know that the only way to get it out of them in time is to bring out the thumbscrews or attach electrodes to your detainee’s genitals. It’s a very carefully constructed setting that proceeds on the understanding that if there’s no life-threatening emergency there’s simply no justification because, with time up your sleeve, conventional interrogation techniques should yield all the information torture will, and probably more reliably.

But even this highly concocted set-up has its problems. If the emergency is so pressing, and your detainee is so committed to his terrorism, he need only hold out for a short period of time. Or he need only give you enough incorrect information to stop the torture and send you chasing false leads until it’s too late. Then there’s the fact that in the real world, you don’t really have any way of knowing for sure that your detainee has the specific information you need to stop the explosion. Even if you knew for certain the detainee’s involved, once captured, you cannot be sure his information is up to date; that the plans haven’t been changed. It’s for these sorts of reasons (among others) that international law has long held that torture is never justified, even during national security emergencies.

But it’s one thing to argue about ticking bombs. It’s something else altogether to argue the case for torture in the total absence of any specific emergency. And yet, that is what the bin Laden case ultimately boils down to. Sure, bin Laden was a dangerous man. But no one can be, or even is arguing that his killing prevented an imminent attack. Indeed it’s far from clear that his killing has reduced the terrorist threat at all. One of the great ironies of the American political debate is that the same politicians spruiking the benefits of torture seem to be the same ones warning us that – even in this post-bin Laden era – al-Qaeda is as dangerous as ever. “Al-Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11” declared New York Republican Peter King last year. It “poses a bigger threat to attack inside the US right now than it did before 9/11” added retiring Michigan Republican (and aspiring talk-radio host) Mike Rogers.

The sheer lack of emergency here is evident even from the information said to have been unearthed. The most infamous concerns intelligence provided by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. This is a megalomaniacal character who confessed ridiculously to more than 30 terrorist plots including attacks on targets that didn’t exist at the time he was taken to Guantanamo Bay. This is also a man who was waterboarded a whopping 183 times – which is not something you can do in an emergency, and which is curious for the fact that his torturers clearly thought there was something to be gained on the 183rd occasion that couldn’t be on the 182nd. If torture is so good for extracting crucial information fast, why didn’t they get what they needed, say, by waterboarding 150?

Certainly, it’s useful to know that torture didn’t propel the successful hunt for bin Laden. But the implicit question this raises is an important one: what if it did? Would that make torture a legitimate counter-terrorism norm, not in the case of emergency, but just as a matter of routine intelligence gathering? Do we not even need to ask any longer whether or not the same information – or even better information – might have been gathered through traditional methods? This, after all, is what the FBI has been insisting emphatically all along, much to the CIA’s annoyance.

Or is it simply enough for us to say that because these are evil people they somehow deserve to be tortured? If so, then let’s at least let’s say so explicitly. And let’s acknowledge that we’re articulating a new doctrine of torture far more suited to the world’s most brutal autocrats: that we’ll torture for revenge.

Waleed Aly is an Age columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.

58 comments so far

  • There's something unnerving about America doing this kind of thing. Not because it is some benevolent bastion of virtue – it's history is incompatible with such notions. It is unnerving as it does these things from a position of absolute security and absolute power.

    If a nation facing an existentialist threat engaged in an abomination like torture, one could view it as an evil perpetrated out of fear and desperation. But the United States faces no such existentialist threat at all. It is entirely secure in its dominant position.

    Likewise its use of nuclear weapons against an utterly defeated and defenceless enemy that posed absolutely no credible threat to its security. It went ahead and incinerated hundreds of thousands of civilians anyway. Not out of fear, not out of desperation. They just did it.

    So if these secure and powerful people are going to do this stuff, what can we honestly expect from the fearful?

    Date and time
    April 04, 2014, 12:45AM
    • Yes, this is the nation which, with apparently not a single moment's pause for thought, applied the nuclear science term "Ground Zero" to the site where the number of casualties, while tragic, was a tiny, tiny fraction of those occurring in a genuine nuclear attack like, gee, I dunno, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki.

      Gobby Dirndl
      Date and time
      April 04, 2014, 6:40AM
    • Moishe, I take issue with your apparent referral to the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, for two reasons; one, this has nothing to do with this article by Waleed Aly. Two, I disagree that Japan was utterly defeated and defenceless. While it is true that they had suffered numerous defeats in the Pacific campaign, there was a strong feeling in Japan itself, especially from the military, that the war must be continued, and there were moves in Japan to establish a strong defence of the homeland. To completely remove the threat of Japan as a military power, the country had to be invaded, which would have led to catastrophic casualties. While the use of atomic weapons was abhorrent, it might well have shortened the war, and reduced casualties on both sides. Btw, I am not an apologist for America, but I like to look at things from a balanced perspective.

      Wild West
      Date and time
      April 04, 2014, 7:08AM
    • What about a scenario where your own child is abducted, the abductor has been captured but despite ongoing questioning, the person will not reveal the location of your child. Does it reduce you as a person if you believe more harsh methods should be employed, and is such action unquestionably wrong? If the answer to those two questions is not an overwhelming 'yes, torture is never justified' then an some level we believe given the right circumstances that torture is a justifiable technique. If so, then it becomes a matter of degree, when is it justified, how is that decision made, and by who? Surely that is the discussion taking place in the USA at the moment. It is too easy to simply say it should never occur, but I don't pretend to know where the line should be drawn.

      Date and time
      April 04, 2014, 7:21AM
    • @Moishe: "So if these secure and powerful people are going to do this stuff, what can we honestly expect from the fearful?"

      The US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki "pour encourager les autres". In this case, "les autres" was the USSR. The atomic bombing of Japan was the first blow of the Cold War. Great powers commit their crimes because they can do so with impunity, though it is true that desparation can be a motive for others.

      Waleed Aly's analysis is (with one exception) spot on. The "ticking bomb" excuse has always been a pretext, a ruse in an attempt to find the weak spot in the public's moral armour. In reality, it is about exerting revenge on subjects who have been rendered less than human in the public eye. The US didn't do it during the Cold War because it was worried about the other side doing it to US troops. Now, however, with that concern a thing of the past, it can afford to exact revenge upon its enemies.

      The one exception I would make to my endorsement of Waleed Aly's analysis is his use of the first person plural. "We" are not torturing anyone. The US Goverment and its allied States are doing the torture. And, in the last analysis, the torture is aimed at intimidating us, as capitalist democracy becomes progressively more emptied of substantive content and the interests of the global corporations which these States pursue come ever more into conflict with the interests of the mass of the population.

      Greg Platt
      Date and time
      April 04, 2014, 9:53AM
    • Moishe, at the risk of going off topic, I think you're a little off base there. The Japanese would never have surrendered unless it was made clear that their cities were at risk of complete annihilation. The stories you here of platoons of Japanese soldiers being discovered 20 years later on remote Pacific islands at their posts are testament to this. Rather outlandish of you (and very revealing of your true colours) to suggest they dropped the bomb on a whim.

      Date and time
      April 04, 2014, 10:17AM
    • Parto and Tony2119, your points are valid, but just one further element to consider - Russia's turning on Japan and invading Manchuria had every bit as much to do with ending the war as the atom bombs did.

      We in the West tend to overlook that crucial event.

      Gerald Lee
      Date and time
      April 04, 2014, 2:20PM
    • Moishe, I too take issue with your reference to the Second World War.
      The fact that Australia was 100% supportive of the decision to drop the atomic bombs and had helped the United States battle Imperial Japan for several years is apparently completely irrelevant to you.
      The idea that Imperial Japan was a helpless innocent party is absurd and a gross insult to the millions of people who were killed in the war of aggression launched by Japan starting in the 1930s and through the 1940s.

      Date and time
      April 04, 2014, 4:01PM
    • Parto, you're off mark. You claim there was a need to "remove the threat of Japan as a military power", but the fact is that had already been achieved. Japan's ability to defend itself – let alone project military force – had long since been removed by conventional means. To suggest the use of nuclear weapons upon civilian metropolitan centres as a means of convenience (in shortening the war as you suggest) is obscene. I cannot imagine you would support such logic being used by an enemy upon any city you live in.

      Tony, you claim that "Japan would never have surrendered unless it was made clear that their cities were at risk of complete annihilation" doesn't stand up. Firstly, the Japanese had attempted to negotiate peace through the Soviet Union, which was a fact known to the United States. Secondly, the United States opted against a mere demonstration to the Japanese of the mass annihilation of which they were capable to the Japanese authorities, choosing instead to simply annihilate not one, but two, civilian cities.

      It is worrying indeed that the wholesale destruction of entire cities of a militarily defeated nation would still retain such acceptance in Australia in this day and age. Would this still be the case if the people underneath those nuclear bombs had been white?

      Date and time
      April 04, 2014, 4:08PM
  • There seems little doubt that the entire "War on Terrorism" was an act of revenge. It has not reduced the risk of terrorism with most experts in the field advising that it has in fact increased the risk. (This could of course be simply to maintain the "industry" that is counter terrorism) The "enhanced interrogation techniques" were simply an extension of the main game enacted due to the frustration of the Bush administrations failure to obtain revenge on their main target, Bin Laden. What should be of grave concern to all is that the line has been crossed and it would appear those responsible will not only avoid accountability but will remain in a position to do it again. The Snowden leaks have shown the lengths to which the secret "intelligence" agencies of the US will go in obtaining information under the guise of Counter Terrorism. Does that still include waterboaring? And will we have to wait for another Snowden to find out?

    Date and time
    April 04, 2014, 1:02AM

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