CIA given license to torture


in Bombs and rockets, Law, Politics, Rants, Security

President Bush vetoed legislation that would have forbidden the CIA from using certain torture techniques, such as simulated drowning. It seems a clear sign of what we have lost due to excessive concern about terrorism – the understanding that governments are the most dangerous entities in the world. While they generally lack the desire to cause mayhem that defines terrorist groups, the powers governments have are so vast that they can do great harm through simple ineptitude, or a failure to police the actions of their agents. Facilitating torture is an international crime, and for good reason. It is a shame that geopolitics ensures that none of America’s new generation of torturers will even find themselves on trial in The Hague.

Stopping this legislation ensures that a few more people will be tortured needlessly, in violation of international law and the kind of ethics that we are supposedly trying to defend from terrorism. Furthermore, I think it’s likely that decisions like this will be looked back on in thirty years time much as we now look back on using the CIA to arm Osama bin Laden and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, or help keep Pinochet in power. In the long term and in purely geopolitical terms, it will prove to be an own-goal for the United States – further tarnishing its increasingly shaky reputation on human rights and emboldening governments like China and Sudan to treat the idea even more disdainfully.

This Michael Ignatieff article, which I have doubtless linked previously, does a very good job of treating the subject of torture ethics intelligently. Henry Shue has a less convincing argument.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Vlad the Impala March 8, 2008 at 11:38 pm

Why do you call it “simulated drowning”? It *is* drowning, full stop. The lungs fill with water. American service men who have experienced the same thing, either because they were tortured when they were POWs or in training exercises, have no doubt that it is actual drowning. Here’s what the former chief instructor at the Navy’s Survival and Escape school has to say:

In the media, waterboarding is called “simulated drowning,” but that’s a misnomer. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning.
[end quote]

Unlike those denying it is torture, he knows what he is talking about, because he’s had it done to him and has experienced it first hand.

It was torture when the Spanish Inquisition did it, it was torture when the Nazis did, it was torture in 1983 when an American sheriff and three deputies were jailed for doing it, and it is torture today. Waterboarding

Tristan March 9, 2008 at 2:33 pm

If you are having a debate about whether torture is permissible or not, you have already lost all moral credibility. Both these writers utterly fail to see this larger meaning their discourse has. The only moral position on torture is to be repulsed when someone asks you what your position on torture is, as if its the kind of thing up for question about which we must take positions. It is morally sensible only to take a position on the torture debate, not on torture itself.

Compare the torture debate to the Canadian abortion debate. Abortion in Canada is not a moral question but a custom which is attacked by the right. The law was struck down in the 80s, but there is no debate because doctors don’t even know the law about the last day on which one can have an abortion was struck down – it still determines when you can actually get an abortion. You can see this when you look at the right challenging the existing custom of abortion – they piss, squeal and chant, but do not engage in rational debate. The pro choice side does not engage them in debate, and nor should they if they wish the conversation to remain a non-issue. Thus the abortion debate isn’t something to have a “position”, which requires one to admit the possibility of being wrong, but one either acquiesces to the existing custom or rebels against it.

Milan March 9, 2008 at 8:13 pm

Whether the position is obvious or not, there are important reasons to speak out publicly. Not least, it will make other people consider the issue.

Tristan March 10, 2008 at 2:23 am

I agree this is an important issue to speak out publically on. However, in my reasoning, the mode of speaking is not to engage in the debate but to condemn the debate itself as monstrous. This is still a public position.

Anon March 10, 2008 at 7:42 am

What CAN the authorities do when interrogating a suspected terrorist?

Can they lie to them? Put them in an uncomfortable room?

If you are going to reject torture absolutely and unconditionally, you need a robust definition of what it is.

. March 10, 2008 at 9:03 am

Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War

Article 1

The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances.

Article 17

No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.

Article 129

The High Contracting Parties undertake to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed, any of the grave breaches of the present Convention defined in the following Article.

Each High Contracting Party shall be under the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches, and shall bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts. It may also, if it prefers, and in accordance with the provisions of its own legislation, hand such persons over for trial to another High Contracting Party concerned, provided such High Contracting Party has made out a prima facie case.

Each High Contracting Party shall take measures necessary for the suppression of all acts contrary to the provisions of the present Convention other than the grave breaches defined in the following Article.

In all circumstances, the accused persons shall benefit by safeguards of proper trial and defence, which shall not be less favourable than those provided by Article 105 and those following of the present Convention.

Article 130

Grave breaches to which the preceding Article relates shall be those involving any of the following acts, if committed against persons or property protected by the Convention: wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, compelling a prisoner of war to serve in the forces of the hostile Power, or wilfully depriving a prisoner of war of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in this Convention.

. March 10, 2008 at 11:41 am

FBI interrogator: Torture doesn’t work, breeds jihad

By Cory Doctorow on Video

Here’s a former FBI interrogator — who interrogated Al Quaeda suspects — saying categorically that torture does not help collect intelligence, but that it does sell impressionable people on the legitimacy of jihad, on the grounds that a regime that tortures deserves to be attacked.

Former FBI Interrogator Jack Cloonan explains that regular interrogation tactics work well on even the worst terrorists, that there’s no such thing as a “ticking timebomb” scenario, and that waterboarding has done much more harm than good. You can also see interviews with Jack Cloonan in the Oscar award-winning documentary, “Taxi to the Darkside.”

. September 1, 2008 at 3:17 am

Cheney’s Law

For three decades Vice President Dick Cheney conducted a secretive, behind-closed-doors campaign to give the president virtually unlimited wartime power. Finally, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Justice Department and the White House made a number of controversial legal decisions. Orchestrated by Cheney and his lawyer David Addington, the department interpreted executive power in an expansive and extraordinary way, granting President George W. Bush the power to detain, interrogate, torture, wiretap and spy — without congressional approval or judicial review.

. September 29, 2008 at 10:55 am

Still. Big props to McCain for stating that we “must never torture a prisoner ever again.” It shows that McCain—unlike Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Mukasey, Feith. et al—is sufficiently honest to admit that yes we have been torturing prisoners and yes it’s shocking. McCain has said this before although he also disappointed a lot of us when he declined to vote last winter to force the CIA to conform their interrogation techniques to the Army Field Manual (enabling the United States to officially ban torture while still retaining the ability to say, “I know a guy”). If both candidates for president can say aloud that the United States has permitted torture, and understand the significance of that for the rest of the world, it gives me some cause for hope. Not for war crimes prosecutions. I didn’t say I’m drunk here. But at least for some kind of moral reckoning when all this insanity comes to an end.

. March 10, 2011 at 12:28 am

One of the funny things about the New York Times’ avoidance of the word “torture” is that everyone knew it eventually slip up or give up. It finally did so in a discussion of waterboarding. Glenn Greenwald:

So according to The New York Times, it’s journalistically improper to call waterboarding “torture” — when done by the United States, but when Nazi Germany (or China) does exactly the same thing, then it may be called “torture” repeatedly and without qualification. An organization which behaves this way may be called many things; “journalist” isn’t one of them.

Presumably the NYT prefers to give up on the logic behind its euphemisms rather than follow it to places like Nazi Germany, where phrases like “enhanced interrogation techniques” would stop being a joke and become offensively stupid.

. August 5, 2011 at 3:35 pm

The Interrogator: An Education. By Glenn Carle. Nation; 321 pages; $26.99 and £17.99. Buy from,

AN OFFICIAL in the CIA is sent abroad to interrogate a man he is told is a senior al-Qaeda terrorist. He begins to doubt this description, but his bosses are convinced that the detainee is withholding vital information. The two men are sent to a second country where the prisoner is subjected to more coercive treatment. The official opposes this and argues that the man should be released. His superiors disagree. He returns to Washington, DC, and eventually retires from the agency. The prisoner is subsequently freed.

If the bare bones of Glenn Carle’s story are less than satisfactory, this is scarcely his fault. The CIA would not allow him to name the detainee or the two countries where the interrogations took place, let alone specify the coercive measures used. The agency initially blacked out 100 of his original 250-or-so pages. It took a two-year fight with his former employers for Mr Carle to get the book published in its present form. Even so, page after page is scarred with redactions. Some pages are more black than white. (Occasionally the author adds a terse footnote to a redaction he feels especially sore about.) To an unusual degree, the reader is left to make sense of a disjointed plot in which key bits of information are either missing or vague.

. February 4, 2020 at 12:27 pm

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