The Truth About Torture, Revisited

[Re-posted from earlier today]

Nine years ago, Charles Krauthammer wrote an essay in The Weekly Standard defending the use of torture by the United States. I responded with the essay excerpted below in The New Republic. I went back and read that debate this morning, just to see how it holds up in the wake of the mass of evidence we now have from the CIA itself about the torture that the US actually authorized and practiced under the Bush administration.

And what strikes me is how admirably emphatic Charles was about the gravity of the issue nine years ago. Here is a sentence and a sentiment I have yet to read in the various commentaries on the right since the report was published yesterday:

Torture is a terrible and monstrous thing, as degrading and morally corrupting to those who practice it as any conceivable human activity including its moral twin, capital punishment.

It seems to me that in a civilized and decent society, this is not something open to much caviling. Even if you believe, as Charles did, that torture was defensible in some very exacting circumstances, it is still a monstrous, morally corrupting evil. And yet that sentiment is strangely nowhere to be found on the current right. Which is itself proof of the statement. What we once instinctively regarded with moral horror has, over the years, become something most Americans are comfortable with. This is what torture does. In the words of Charles Krauthammer, it degrades and morally corrupts those who practice it. And so it has:

Torture Support

Notice that Krauthammer’s maximal position in 2005 is now dead last in public opinion: his view that torture should be used extremely rarely commands less than 20 percent support and is beaten by those Americans who now believe that torture should be employed often. Yes: often. And this, of course, is not an accident. When a former president and vice-president openly back torture, and when the CIA has been engaging in a massive p.r. campaign to argue – against what we now know are incontrovertible facts from the CIA’s own records – that it saved thousands of lives, it will affect public opinion. There are always atavist and repellent sentiments in war time. The difference now is that a huge section of the elite endorses them.

Whom should we torture? Krauthammer rules torture out of bounds for prisoners of war; permits it in the case of very few high-value terrorists; and then offers up a difficult category of torture victims – those with information about a “ticking time-bomb”:

Third, there is the terrorist with information. Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don’t so easily apply. Let’s take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking … Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it? Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Now consider what we now know about whom we tortured under the torture program under Bush and Cheney. First off, we tortured 26 people who were cases of mistaken identity. We tortured 26 innocent people. This is so far outside any of the parameters that even Krauthammer allowed for that it beggars belief. Amy Davidson:

Footnote 32, the same one that outlines the motives for holding Nazar Ali, has a devastating litany, starting with “Abu Hudhaifa, who was subjected to ice water baths and 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation before being released because the CIA discovered he was likely not the person he was believed to be,” and including many others, such as,

“Gul Rahman, another case of mistaken identity.… Shaistah Habibullah Khan, who, like his brother, Sayed Habib, was the subject of fabrications.… Haji Ghalgi, who was detained as “useful leverage”…. Hayatullah Haqqani, whom the CIA determined “may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time”…. Ali Jan, who was detained for using a satellite phone, traces on which “revealed no derogatory information”.… Two individuals—Mohammad al-Shomaila and Salah Nasir Salim Ali—on whom derogatory information was “speculative”.… and Bismullah, who was mistakenly arrested … and later released with $[redacted] and told not to speak about his experience.”

It seems to me that proponents of torture should be horrified by this revelation. If torture is a monstrous thing, if it corrupts all who do it, as Krauthammer believes, what incalculable damage has been done by the US torturing innocents, in one case to death? Where was there any remorse – yes, remorse – expressed by the CIA yesterday for this compounding of a crime and a mistake?

Now consider Krauthammer’s view of who should be doing the torturing:

The exceptions to the no-torture rule would not be granted to just any nonmilitary interrogators, or anyone with CIA credentials. They would be reserved for highly specialized agents who are experts and experienced in interrogation, and who are known not to abuse it for the satisfaction of a kind of sick sadomasochism Lynndie England and her cohorts indulged in at Abu Ghraib.

We now know that the CIA contracted out the torture to two individuals without “specialized knowledge of al Qaeda, a background in counterterrorism or any relevant cultural or linguistic experience.”  They had never interrogated anyone – yet they got a $181 million contract to run the program. They were sadists:

John Rizzo, the acting CIA general counsel who met with the psychologists, wrote in his book, “Company Man,” that he found some of what Mitchell and Jessen were recommending “sadistic and terrifying.” One technique, he wrote, was “so gruesome that the Justice Department later stopped short of approving it.”

They had a pecuniary interest in the criminal enterprise. And they were making things up as they went along:

One email from a CIA staff psychologist said “no professional in the field would credit” their judgments. Another said their “arrogance and narcissism” led to unnecessary conflicts in the field. The director of interrogations for the CIA called their program a “train wreck” and complained that they were blending the roles of doctor and interrogator inappropriately.

So the architects of the torture program also violated a core part of Krauthammer’s defense of torture. And shockingly so. Why aren’t the defenders of torture horrified by this amateurism? Where are the Republican voices of outrage that a serious torture program was handed out to amateur contractors who had no idea what they were doing and no moral compass at all?

Krauthammer also described two torture techniques he would approve of. One was the injection of sodium pentathol – which, given the rank brutality of the actual torture sessions – would have been a mercy, but was not widely used (so far as we know). The second technique was waterboarding, the torture perfected by the Communist Chinese, and for which previous US servicemembers were prosecuted. But notice what Charles says waterboarding is:

Less hypothetically, there is waterboarding, a terrifying and deeply shocking torture technique in which the prisoner has his face exposed to water in a way that gives the feeling of drowning. According to CIA sources cited by ABC News, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “was able to last between two and 2 1/2 minutes before begging to confess.” Should we regret having done that? Should we abolish by law that practice, so that it could never be used on the next Khalid Sheikh Mohammed having thus gotten his confession?

We now know that those CIA sources were lying. KSM was waterboarded 183 times over a matter of weeks. And the waterboarding was not just 2 1/2 minutes of panic. It was full-fledged, endless, soul-breaking, body-destroying torture of a kind practiced in the past by totalitarian or authoritarian police states:

Within days of the Justice Department’s approval to begin waterboarding the prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, the sessions became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers were “to the point of tears and choking up,” and several said they would elect to be transferred out of the facility if the brutal interrogations continued. During one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” The interrogations lasted for weeks, and some C.I.A. officers began sending messages to the agency’s headquarters in Virginia questioning the utility — and the legality — of what they were doing. But such questions were rejected.

Krauthammer argued that the torture should “not be cinematic and ghoulish.” I wonder if he regards the following as non-ghoulish:

The interrogators didn’t know the languages that would have been useful for real intelligence, but they did come up with a lexicon of their own: “walling,” which meant slamming a person against a wall; “rough takedown,” in which a group would rush into a cell yelling, then drag a detainee down the hall while punching him, perhaps after having “cut off his clothes and secured him with Mylar tape”; “confinement box,” an instrument to make a prisoner feel he was closed in a coffin (the box came in large or small sizes); “sleep deprivation,” which might mean being kept awake for a hundred and eighty hours before succumbing to “disturbing hallucinations”; the ability to, as the report put it, “earn a bucket,” the bucket being what a prisoner might get to relieve himself in, rather than having to soil himself or being chained to a wall with a diaper (an “image” that President Bush was said to have found disturbing); “waterboarding,” which often itself seems to have been a euphemism for near, rather than simulated, drowning; “rectal rehydration as a means of behavioral control”; “lunch tray,” the assembly of foods that were puréed and used to rectally force-feed prisoners.

This is what the talk of family could look like: “CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to ‘cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.’ ” The interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri included “implying that his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused.”

What this report proves – not asserts, but proves – is that the torture the US inflicted on prisoners was of an uncontrolled, nightmarish quality whose impact was so great that even the junior grunts on the night beat at Abu Ghraib knew what they were supposed to do. Remember what so many Republicans said after Abu Ghraib? They were horrified, when they could blame it on someone at the very lowest rung of the totem pole. But when it was sanctioned by the very highest levels of the CIA – and inflicted on two dozen innocents – it was kosher.

In a civilized society, there really would be no debate over this. And before 9/11, there wasn’t. Ever since, this country has slid and then fallen out of the civilized world and out of the core American traditions of humanity and legal warfare. Krauthammer can be seen as emblematic of that slide – someone whose early abhorrence at torture and defense of it only in its mildest and rarest forms has slowly succumbed to a full-fledged defense of a program that violated every rule he said should be in place to protect us from the abyss. This is not surprising. When you start to torture, the sheer evil of what you are doing requires that you believe ever more in its value. You can never admit error, because it would mean you have committed crimes against humanity without even the defense of acquiring any useful intelligence. You are revealed as monsters – and you cannot accept that of yourself or of those you know. And so you insist – with ever-rising certainty – that the torture worked – even though that’s irrelevant as a matter of morality and of law, and even though your own internal documents prove that it didn’t.

And so you become the monster you were supposed to be fighting. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.