The Senate has released a massive report on the torture of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration, and it’s as bad as many of us feared. We already knew some of the terrible things done in our name as Americans, but not the full extent. In fact, we still don’t know the full extent, since what the Senate publicly released was a summary of an even longer, still-classified report.
But even the redacted version is a catalogue of horrors. The Senate’s investigation found that prisoners were waterboarded dozens or hundreds of times, forced to stand on broken legs, or kept awake or shackled in stress positions for days on end, to the point of hallucinations and psychosis. Others were forced to endure “rectal feeding“, with no medical necessity, purely to cause suffering and humiliation. One high-value prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, was so psychologically broken by repeated torture that he behaved like a “trained dog“, and due to brutal treatment and indifferent medical care, he lost an eye in captivity. At least one prisoner apparently froze to death after being shackled to a cold concrete floor overnight. Even some hardened CIA employees balked at what they were told to do. (I’m not going to lie, writing all this made me a little nauseous; but we owe it to ourselves to look clearly at what our government did.)
Possibly even more than the brutality, what stands out in the report is the malicious incompetence and deceit. The CIA tortured prisoners who were already cooperating with interrogation; they tortured innocent people and their own informants by mistake; their secret prisons were so shoddily run that they weren’t even sure how many people were being held in them. When the accounting came, they lied both to Congress and to the Justice Department. It shouldn’t need to be said that torture proved worthless as an information-gathering technique, yielding no intelligence about genuine threats – only wild fabrications about, say, recruiting jihadists in Montana.
This is as we should have expected. As I’ve written before, the classic “ticking time bomb” hypothetical – where we somehow know a great deal of specific information about an imminent mass-casualty attack, but not quite enough to foil it without torturing a suspect – is wildly implausible. Even if it happened, the interrogator could cite the necessity of his actions as a defense, without a blanket policy of legalizing torture. In the real world, the only thing torture does is get the victim to say whatever he thinks the torturer wants to hear.
You don’t have to feel any sympathy for al-Qaeda to recognize that torture is both grossly evil and self-defeating. It makes us less credible as an international arbiter of human rights (witness this ludicrously hypocritical set of tweets from Marco Rubio). It makes our enemies more, not less, hungry for revenge and eager to commit violence against any Americans they can get their hands on. And it means that we relinquish the moral high ground, which is a huge loss when the enemy isn’t a nation-state but an ideology. We can never defeat terrorism with bombs or waterboarding; that only makes terrorists into martyrs and makes their cause more popular. We can only win out by winning over those who would commit it, and this accomplishes the opposite.
More to the point, torture is and should be illegal in a civilized nation. If the Eighth Amendment doesn’t outlaw acts like these, then it means nothing. The architects and enablers of torture deserve to be prosecuted (especially the odious villain Dick Cheney), but I have few illusions as to whether that will happen. President Obama rightfully put a stop to these tactics; and the painful honesty of this report is a small step. But there are powerful institutional forces working to prevent a true reckoning (not least religious American voters who are more supportive of torture than their secular peers). Perhaps, in my lifetime, there will be justice for some of these criminals, but I wouldn’t care to place a bet on that.