We have been told, repeatedly, by our President and his administration, that the United States does not torture: “This country does not torture. We’re not going to torture. We will interrogate people we pick up off the battlefield to determine whether or not they’ve got information that will be helpful to protect the country,” said President Bush on October 27. That is the official line.
Yet, I have trouble believing this. As reported by the Washington Post: “Numerous sources have confirmed that the CIA used waterboarding in its interrogation of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other ‘high-value’ prisoners.” Waterboarding is an “interrogation technique” in which the detainee is secured with his feet above his head and has water poured over a cloth on his face, simulating drowning. It is a technique that has dated to the Spanish Inquisition, and it is specifically prohibited by the US Army and widely condemned as torture by both human rights groups and international courts.
In fact, in 1947, this country prosecuted a Japanese soldier and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor for using waterboarding on a US prisoner. Yet, if we are not to believe the “numerous sources” cited by the Washington Post article, then Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent remarks further heighten my suspicion that Americans are using such a technique against detainees. In an interview with Fargo, North Dakota radio host Scott Hennen on October 24, Hennen asked the Vice President: “Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?” Mr. Cheney responded: “Well, it’s a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in.”
This has raised the spectre that the United States does, in fact, use waterboarding during interrogations. Yet, the Vice President denies that he said any such thing: “I didn’t say anything about waterboarding… [radio host Scott Hennen] didn’t even use that phrase.” White House press secretary Tony Snow said that the VP was literally talking about a “dunk in the water”: “A dunk in the water is a dunk in the water.” When asked by a reporter, “So the detainees go swimming?” Mr. Snow replied: “I don’t know. We’ll have to find out.”
Even if, let’s say, detainees are not waterboarded but are literally “dunked in water,” that technique – according to human rights and legal experts – is even more physically dangerous than waterboarding. It would also be illegal under US and international law.
“So what,” I am sure many of you are thinking right now. “If dunking a terrorism suspect – someone who is bent upon killing us at all costs – in water helps save lives, then what’s the big deal? Why are you all bent out of shape about it?” In fact, according to ABCNEWS investigative reporter Brian Ross, this technique has been used on terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and it has helped thwart a plot to attack a building in Los Angeles. Yet, Mr. Ross also said – because I watched the interview – that on other occasions, the information gathered by torture did not yield useful information – it was just to stop the torture.
This, however, is factually incorrect. According to President Bush himself, the plot was thwarted in early 2002 “when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key al Qaeda operative. Subsequent debriefings and other intelligence operations made clear the intended target, and how al Qaeda hoped to execute it. This critical intelligence helped other allies capture the ringleaders and other known operatives who had been recruited for this plot.” Yet, KSM was captured in Pakistan after the plot had been thwarted in March 2003. So, if the Library Tower plot was revealed by waterboarding KSM, it was not new information. So, is torturing detainees really that valuable?
Having said that, it is indeed a very compelling argument to say that, if it can save the lives of thousands of innocent people, who cares if someone like Khalid Sheikh Mohamed – who, according to Mr. Ross, didn’ t care that his children were threatened with harm because “they will meet Allah sooner” – suffers lasting mental anguish because of being tortured? It is hard to have compassion for someone like KSM or Usama bin Laden, if he were ever to be captured.
Yet, we must be rational in this entire debate. It is possible that useful information may be gleaned by using torture. Yet, much more often, the information gathered through torture is not useful at all. In fact, according to a report by Agence France Presse, an Al-Qaeda terror suspect captured by the United States gave evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda after being tortured.
According to Steven Grey – author of a newly-released book, Ghost Plane, which discusses the secret CIA prisons – former FBI agent Jack Clonan told him that the suspect, Ibn al Shaikh al Libby, who was captured in Afghanistan and sent to Egypt, was tortured in jail there. The “intelligence” of that alleged link was used as justification for the war in Iraq. So, again, I must ask: is torturing detainees really all that valuable?
In addition, what if the terror suspect that is captured – like many of those currently imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay – is totally innocent? If we torture that suspect for information – after he correctly asserts that he has none – and he is later released with lasting mental scars from his experience of torture, is it not likely that we may have created a new terrorist bent upon revenge against America? Wouldn’t torturing detainees in US custody then be counterproductive in the “war on terror”?
And all of this is leaving aside the moral argument against torturing detainees: that it is immoral to torture another human being, no matter how depraved and criminal; that we are America, and we truly do not torture those in our custody, rather than change the definition of torture so that we can say publicly “we do not torture” and technically not be lying; that no matter how brutal and inhuman our enemy is, we do not betray our principles as a nation and torture those in our custody; that saying “we do not torture” does not mean that we send detainees to other countries so they could be tortured there.
I never thought I would see the day when the words “America” and “torture of detainees” would even be in the very same sentence. It is a very sad say, indeed. Torture is not who we are. Until recently, I thought it never was. I only hope and pray that, in the future, it never will be again.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.