Should torture be part of the U.S.’s counterterrorism approach?

By Reuters Staff
June 24, 2009


The following piece was co-written by Matthew Alexander, Joe Navarro and Lieutenant General Robert Gard (USA-Ret.) They are pictured from left to right.

Matthew Alexander led an interrogations team assigned to a special operations task force in Iraq in 2006. He is the author of “How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq.” He is writing under a pseudonym for security reasons.

Joe Navarro, a former FBI counterintelligence and counterterrorism expert, is an adjunct faculty member at the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division.

Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard, Jr. (USA-Ret.) is president emeritus at the Monterey Institute for International Studies and a senior military fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

The views expressed are their own.

President Obama decided not to release a new group of detainee abuse photographs because he believes they would inflame our enemies and threaten American troops. Indeed, the shocking photos from Abu Ghraib have served as a powerful recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and have sparked outrage across the world.

It is not the release of the photos, however, that would elicit horror and anger. It is their brutal content and the misguided policies they reflect. The controversy surrounding the photos and the president’s release of four Department of Justice memos have brought into sharp focus a debate that has been in the shadows of public discourse for several years: Should the U.S. include torture and cruelty in its counterterrorism arsenal?

Since it has become clear that the U.S. authorized and carried out a torture program, defenders of the policy have repeated half-truths and outright deceptions about its effectiveness. In 2007, CIA officer John Kiriakou appeared on ABC News claiming waterboarding broke senior al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah in “30, 35 seconds.” Kiriakou’s statements were widely reported and used to portray waterboarding as a harmless procedure despite the fact that he had no first-hand knowledge of Zubaydah’s interrogation—he wasn’t even in the same country when it occurred.

Former FBI agent Ali Soufan contradicted these and other false claims in a Senate hearing on interrogation practices. Experienced interrogators like Soufan prefer to use a technique that relies on “outwitting the detainee by using a combination of interpersonal, cognitive, and emotional strategies to get the information needed.”

Soufan testified that by interrogating Zubaydah using this approach, he obtained valuable intelligence in less than an hour. Further, when another interrogation team introduced harsher techniques, Zubaydah “shut down and stopped talking.” Al Qaeda members, Soufan explained, are trained to withstand torture.

The reality is Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times. This puts a serious hole in the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario that advocates of torture repeatedly return to.

As the validity of such justifications is repeatedly dismissed, attempts to rationalize torture are getting increasingly desperate. At last month’s hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) claimed, “one of the reasons these techniques have survived for about 500 years is apparently they work.” To which Ali Soufan responded, “Because, sir, there’s a lot of people who don’t know how to interrogate, and it’s easier to hit somebody than outsmart them.”

Among policymakers and the public, there appears to be a fundamental, widespread misunderstanding of how effective interrogation works. Senator Graham questioned Professor David Luban about exploiting a detainee’s phobia of spiders. The experts—who have spent years interrogating the toughest, most dangerous people in the world—know that smart interrogation is not about terrorizing detainees.

We should be careful not to overlook other forceful reasons for not using torture. The public debate often disregards—to the detriment of the U.S. interests—the profound damage done by violating U.S. law and international legal obligations prohibiting not only torture but even cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Our prestige and power, our respect for the rule of law and respect for the rights of humankind are inextricably tied to preserving America’s ideals.

The most critical aspect of this scandal, especially in terms of immediate implications for our national security, has to do with the international community. Our relationships with long-standing and vital allies have been greatly strained. With the rising influence of non-state actors and an ever-increasing level of interdependence and unpredictability amongst nations, the need for trusted partners has never been greater; this is especially evident with regards to the threat of terrorism and the strength of extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Throughout our history, the values that we protected—respect for our common humanity and the rule of law—set a standard to which the rest of the world aspired. As Senator John McCain said, “[T]his isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are.”

Regaining our moral leadership in the international community is contingent on publicly—and unmistakably—casting aside a policy and strategy that flouts our laws and corrupts our values. We must continue to lead where we want others to follow by demonstrating that our principles and our practices are indistinguishable from one another.


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