Torturing America: Securing the American Interest

Originally Published in The Cornell International Affairs Review, vol. III, no. 2, Spring 2010

Guantanamo Bay

Even before his inauguration, President Barack Obama made it clear that he believed torture was morally reprehensible and promised that under his administration the U.S. would no longer practice torture.1 Accordingly, on April 16th, 2009 Mr. Obama and the U.S. Department of Justice authorized the release of C.I.A memos detailing the methods of torture that were authorized under the George W. Bush administration.2 The release of the C.I.A. memos elicited an almost immediate reaction from former Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney, who in an interview with Fox News on April 21st, 2009 criticized Mr. Obama for failing to disclose documents detailing the “success” of torture in garnering intelligence that was vital to the U.S. War on Terrorism.3 Mr. Obama’s efforts to discredit torture as a justifiable tool for preserving U.S. national security and Mr. Cheney’s rebuke of those efforts attest to the importance and contentious nature of the debate about whether torture is in the U.S national interest.

Using this debate as motivation, I answer the question of whether or not the use of torture is in the U.S. national interest. To do this, I first chronicle the history of U.S. torture practices since the Cold War to provide a reference point for the rest of the paper. Second, I empirically demonstrate the negative impact of these practices on international U.S. credibility, the War on Terrorism and U.S. presidential approval ratings. Third, I consider the theoretical value of torture in context to its empirical utility as an intelligence-gathering tool, and vis-à-vis possible alternatives, to ultimately make a qualitative assessment of torture’s actual utility for preserving U.S. national security. Finally, I compare the international and domestic consequences of U.S. torture (section 2) to its actual utility (section 3) to ultimately conclude that torture is not in the U.S. national interest.

U.S. Torture: Establishing a Reference Point

Today’s brand of U.S. torture originated from a twelve-year CIA research effort initiated in 1950 whose primary goal was to “crack the code of human consciousness.” As part of this effort, called MKUltra, the CIA conducted chemical experiments with drugs like LSD and behavioral studies on the psychosis inducing potential of sensory restriction and physical constraint.4 The results of these efforts were codified in the CIA’s 1963 Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook, which claims to teach a CIA officer “what he must learn in order to become a good interrogator” and asserts that “sound interrogation…rests upon knowledge of the subject matter and on certain broad principles, chiefly psychological.”5 Over the next thirty years the C.I.A. promulgated the Kubark methods of torture and those of the 1983 Human Resources Exploitation Manual within the U.S. intelligence community and among anti-communist allies in Asia and Latin America.6 Even after the end of the Cold War and U.S. ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture, the U.S. continued to torture under the 1996 War Crimes Act and through programs like “extraordinary rendition.”7

After the September 11, 2001 President George W. Bush swiftly expanded the CIA’s torture authority beyond even Cold War and Vietnam War levels.8 As part of this expansion Bush “suspended” the Geneva Conventions as they applied to the War on Terror and authorized the indiscriminate rendition of High-Value Detainees (HVD)9 to at least 8 nations in Northern Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia that were notorious for torture.10 The impetus for expanding the rendition program and creating a network of secret prisons or “black sites” came in the wake of fear that followed the 9/11 attacks and from the CIA’s desperation to detain HVDs without legal constraints.11 As the 2004 Background Paper on CIA’s Combined Use of Interrogation Techniques describes in general, HVDs were subjected to nudity, sleep deprivation, psychological and physical duress through insult slaps to the face and abdomen, slamming of the face against walls, and other actions reminiscent of the Kubark methods of torture.

The experiences of Abu Zubayada and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, some of the CIA’s highest-value detainees, provide a more detailed exposition of torture under the Bush administration. Zubayada was electrically shocked and locked in a small coffin that was “too small…to stand or stretch out” and required him to “double up his limbs in a fetal position.”12 Zubayada, along with Mohammed and other HVDs, was also water-boarded, forced to stand naked in frigid temperatures for extended periods of time, deprived of sleep, and forced to listen to panic-inducing American music from artists like Eminem.13 Additionally, according to a U.S. Justice Department memo released in 2005, Mohammed was water boarded 183 times, while Zubayada was water boarded 83 times.14 Other atrocities resulting from U.S. torture include the deaths of two Afghan prisoners at Bagram Air Base in December 2002 who were “short-shackled. . . for days on end” and officially died, according to a military report, of “blunt force injuries to the lower extremities.”15 Unfortunately, despite this episode the Afghan “black site” at Bagram remains open today with no prospects of being shut down.16

Additionally, the brutal interrogation methods that were initially used only against HVDs at CIA “black sites” made their way into detention centers like Abu Ghraib.17 Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, impressed by the results of the extreme interrogation rules used at Guantanamo Bay, ordered the “Gitmoiz[ation]” of Iraq. Additionally, despite being required to abide by the Geneva Conventions, Major General Geoffrey Miller was committed to applying his Guantanamo Bay experience at Abu Ghraib. Even Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the senior commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, willingly authorized harsh interrogation methods such as sleep deprivation, military dog attacks, and uncomfortable temperature exposure.18 Finally, mysterious CIA operatives, to whom U.S. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski referred to as “disappearing ghosts,” introduced psychological torture, as well as forced nudity and explicit photography to Abu Ghraib.19 U.S. adoption of Cold War style interrogation practices akin to torture in Iraq ultimately resulted in significant human rights violations and even unintended death.20

Torturing America: The Consequences of Using Torture

In order to determine if the use of torture is in the U.S. national interest, it is important to assess its costs. The 9/11 terrorist attacks lead the Bush Administration to revitalize Cold War U.S. torture policies, which has had several negative international and domestic consequences for the U.S. Specifically, U.S. torture since the 9/11 attacks has decreased international U.S. credibility, increased global terrorism and harmed U.S. presidential approval ratings.

International Credibility

First, using torture undermines international U.S. credibility because U.S. insistence on international adherence to human rights norms and simultaneous use of illegal torture practices casts the U.S. as a hypocrite in the eyes of the international community. Dr. Joseph S. Nye, Jr. and Richard L. Armitage agree when they argue “[America] cannot denounce torture and waterboarding in other countries and condone it home.”21 To be sure, a report released by China in 2008 used U.S. secret prisons and illegal U.S. torture practices to accuse the U.S. of hypocrisy in condemning China’s human rights record.22 Moreover, in 2006 Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of hypocrisy in criticizing Russia’s human rights record with veiled references to illegal U.S. interrogation methods and use of force.23 Indeed, in maintaining a hypocritical policy of torture the U.S. not only undermines international human rights norms, but also subsequently harms its national interest when those norms become necessary for preserving U.S. national interests (e.g. when American soldiers are captured by other nations).24

Moreover, many nations use U.S. use of torture to justify their own policies. For example, when questioned by the UN in 2007 about its widespread and illegal torture practices, Sri Lanka defended itself by citing U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and CIA “black sites.”25 Additionally, President Hosni Mubarak defended Egypt’s use of military tribunals for trying suspected terrorists by claiming that U.S. suspension of international human rights laws and use of military tribunals in cases of suspected terrorism vindicated Egypt of all criticism by international human rights groups.26 Indeed, then UN special rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak agrees that U.S. use of torture has increased the global prominence of torture, as many nations view the U.S. as a model, or at the very least a justification, for their own policies.27 Similarly, Oxford University’s Henry Shue argues that use of torture by a superpower like the U.S. in particular sets an irresistible precedent for weaker nations who may not have alternative counterintelligence resources (i.e. if torture is universally outlawed weaker nations are forced not to use it, but if world leaders break torture laws weaker nations find it irresistible not to follow suit).28

Finally, U.S. use of torture undermines U.S. soft power leadership because it diminishes international opinion about the U.S.29 To be sure, a January 2007 World Public Opinion Poll of 26,000 people across 25 countries revealed that 67% of respondents disapproved of the way in which the U.S. treated Guantanamo Bay detainees and 49% of respondents (the largest plurality) felt the U.S. had an overall negative impact on the world.30 The implications of this are significant. For one thing, the U.S. relies on its soft power to gain the support of nations like Germany and Malaysia in the fight against terrorism. If public sentiment about the U.S. among the citizens of key U.S. allies is sufficiently negative, the U.S. may not be able to cooperate with those allies to confront a national security threat. For example, the U.S. may not be able to get permission to bomb an al-Qaeda terrorist cell in Malaysia, or it may not receive German political and military support in starting a campaign against terrorist groups. Moreover, soft power losses become self-perpetuating, as negative international opinion of the U.S. elicits isolationist responses from U.S. citizens that subsequently embolden U.S. enemies like al-Qaeda. Finally, winning the War on Terror necessitates moderate Muslim leadership in the Islamic world. For this, U.S. soft power diplomacy is crucial as it creates linkages between the U.S. and moderate Muslims that can subvert the influence of Muslim extremists.31 Indeed, without the support of our allies and those living in the Middle East, the U.S. will have a hard time winning the War on Terrorism.32

Read the rest of the article at The Cornell International Affairs Review