Torture and Silence

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture: Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program BY Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. edited by Diane Feinstein. Melville House. Paperback, 576 pages. $16.

The cover of The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture: Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program

1. What we don’t talk about when we talk about torture

Last December, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) released its long-delayed report on CIA torture, to much media attention; that coverage segued back into long-running debates on torture’s utilitarian justification. Still, many heavy silences from all sides weigh on The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. The Senate panel only examined the CIA’s program; it did not cover the US military’s orders-of-magnitude-larger program of questionable interrogation techniques. Nor does the report cover the widespread torture carried out by Iraqi authorities with the full knowledge of the occupying American forces—even as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace pledged to reporters in 2005 that it was the duty of American soldiers to stop torture wherever they saw it. The Senate committee likewise ignored the program of “extraordinary rendition,” by which a minimum of 238 people were arrested or simply kidnapped around the world, then sent by the CIA to other countries, notably Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, to be interrogated and tortured.

The report does not look above the CIA, up the civilian chain of command, to the White House.

And, of course, the Obama administration’s drone-strike program, which has killed more than three thousand people around the world, only a small fraction of whom were Al Qaeda leaders, is outside the scope of the report, and no Washington official has called for any investigative report into drone strikes. (Indeed, the Obama White House and its allies have lately been touting their virtuous drone strikes with smug comparisons to Bush-Cheney’s illicit torture program, while Republicans have compared CIA torture interrogations favorably to drone assassinations.)

The SSCI torture report, or rather its executive summary, which is all that has been approved for release and represents just one-tenth of the whole, narrows in on the torture of 119 prisoners. Twenty-six of the program’s detainees were completely innocent, and one was tortured to death. Not surprisingly, the descriptions of the program’s activities are heavily redacted—even in their already condensed, summary form. All these findings are important, and we are much better off as citizens for knowing about them. But as a load-bearing synecdoche for Washington’s secret violence abroad, the report is structurally unsound.

2. Evidence is not effective

The report argues that the CIA’s torture program was not effective. It found that CIA interrogators uncovered no intelligence that enhanced national security; it noted, further, that the practice of torture generated many false leads (a long-known consequence of torture), and that the CIA misrepresented its effectiveness.

This is, more or less, also the conclusion of an investigative report by the thoroughly bipartisan nongovernmental group the Constitution Project; and it is, according to Colorado Democratic senator Mark Udall, who sits on the SSCI, the finding of a CIA internal study into the torture program. (That study remains classified.)

According to the SSCI report, the CIA torture program was not only ineffective but a shambolic mess. The agency kidnapped and tortured at least one man on the basis of mistaken identity, destroying the life of an innocent (he has since gone mad) who had the misfortune of sharing a name with the intended target. It paid out $81 million to a pair of psychologists who had never conducted an interrogation. And CIA investigators, following up a false lead from a torture victim, mounted a ludicrous hunt for a nonexistent Black Muslim sleeper cell in Montana. The SSCI report is a bureaucratic script for violent, Gogolian farce, not a blueprint of diabolical efficiency.

But the ineffectiveness of torture, however obvious, has its liabilities as an argument: Reliance on amoral utilitarianism still leaves the door open to more effective torture techniques not yet developed. We are nothing if not a nation of optimists.

On the other hand, categorical moral prohibitions against torture are likely to take deeper root if they are in harmony with good results and self-interest. Opponents of the overdeveloped national-security apparatus have often tacitly surrendered on the issue of effective security by casting opposition to measures from drone strikes to NSA dragnet surveillance in terms of moral and legal principle. They then wind up in a rhetorical battle between real security and abstract principle. Guess which trump card wins that hand, again and again?

As important as the metadebate about torture’s effectiveness may be, it is for now politically moot. Even after the report’s release, a majority of the US public continues to believe that torture was effective (53 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll), indeed justified (59 percent).

Many Americans are eager for torture to be vindicated. The appeal of this story line became clear after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, an event that many pols and pundits embraced as a redemption of torture. They erected a narrative of stoic torturers justified by victory, which was promptly reinforced throughout the culture, from lowbrow television to the middlebrow prestige film Zero Dark Thirty (directed by a former collaborator with Richard Serra and Vito Acconci) and beyond. The effectiveness of torture remains a sturdy article of faith and psychodrama, resistant, if not impervious, to evidence.

3. Argument by fantasy

The most common justification for the use of torture in the past dozen years has been the “ticking time bomb” hypothetical. How does a diligent interrogator know that the imaginary terrorist has a ticking time bomb somewhere? Well, he or she simply does; it’s a given. The reasoning here is insular and circular, as is its inevitable outcome.

Like most national-security hypotheticals, the ticking time bomb is a game played with loaded dice. Its roots can be traced through Israel to the Argentinian “Dirty War” to French Algeria and surely elsewhere. Not content with a mere time bomb, many distinguished ethicists and law professors conjure scenarios of nuclear armaments and suitcases full of aerosolized smallpox in order to illustrate the moral duty to torture.

Vivid imaginings pervade the report. The torture of José Padilla, an American citizen apprehended after he visited Al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan, was justified because he was allegedly on the verge of executing an Al Qaeda plan to detonate a dirty bomb. However, the SSCI report suggests that this plot was Padilla’s desperate invention, based on a satirical article on the Internet and formulated to persuade Al Qaeda leaders to let him return to the US. Blogger Andrew Sullivan has pointed out the baroquely fanciful nature of many other of the foiled plots advertised as CIA successes.

In fact, a strong current of unreality runs throughout the CIA torture program. Some interpreters of the SSCI report argue that one of the program’s primary goals, directed from the White House, was to further fabricate the fictitious links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that served as an after-the-fact rationale for the Iraq invasion once the initial casus belli—Hussein’s alleged arsenal of WMDs—had been thoroughly discredited.

But the empirical and historical study of torture programs yields very different conclusions about what happens when they are made legal. As Israeli jurists Itamar Mann and Omer Shatz note in a study of their own nation’s experience with torture, “empirical evidence suggests that movement towards legitimizing torture perpetuates a growing zone of independence and impunity in security services, above and beyond what is allowed by law. Harsh torture techniques that have been recognized but limited in various ways have tended to ‘migrate’ across theatres of war and spread virally.”

Still, what righteous American would choose such dreary realism over fantasy thrills?

4. The imperial boomerang

Is there a risk of torture normalizing, then seeping into American domestic territory? Chelsea Manning’s father said that his child was being treated as if she were a detainee at Guantánamo. Jon Burge, the Chicago police captain who tortured confessions out of some one hundred suspects, had previously worked as a military policeman in South Vietnam, where such methods were common enough. It’s terrifyingly easy to document this circuit of nasty techniques of domination tried out abroad and then adapted for home use—the imperial “boomerang effect,” Hannah Arendt called it.

But which way does the current of violence flow? To a large degree, argued jurist James Forman Jr. in a disturbing 2010 law-review article, we are only exporting the everyday, “normal” brutality of our criminal-justice system to more exotic venues. Within our own borders, we keep roughly eighty thousand prisoners in solitary confinement (twenty-five thousand of those long-term), a form of no-touch psychological torture that the Supreme Court came within a whisker of banning in 1890 as cruel and unusual. Charles Graner, the ringleading jailer at Abu Ghraib, had worked as a corrections officer at State Correctional Institute–Greene in southwestern Pennsylvania, which weathered its own torture scandal during his tenure there (though we prefer to call it abuse when it happens at home).

It would be pleasant to say that torture is not “who we are,” but the United States has a long domestic history of torturing slaves, prisoners, American Indians, and other out groups. In part, torture does represent American values; indeed, it is an American value.

5. The great reappearing blowback

The release of the report (five years in the making and already ritually denounced by Republicans long before its release) inspired predictions of terror attacks on American targets from Rep. Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, joined, naturally, by former CIA director Michael V. Hayden. Within the Obama administration, John Kerry urged Sen. Dianne Feinstein not to release the report for fear of blowback. Each time another one of these lurid exercises in scare-mongering surfaced, it was duly sent caroming through the news cycle, a surefire way to create a ratings spike.

These blowback alarms were high-proof nonsense; the depth and frequency of American military intervention throughout the Muslim world is not a secret anywhere, except perhaps the United States. Even so, this instance of blowback hype is an instructive case study in the selective inflation of purported threats to advance a wholly unrelated policy agenda.

In most respectable policy circles, discussion of blowback from American interventionism has long been a taboo subject. We generally refrain, for instance, in raising the specter in connection with the administration’s drone program, even though the authors of two of the most serious recent terror attempts within the United States told their respective trial courtrooms that they were motivated by drone attacks on their native countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan. A purportedly bold report from the Stimson Center, a Beltway foreign affairs think tank, released last spring made some noise about reassessing the program’s strategic costs but steered clear of noting the plainly stated motives of the two near-miss terrorists. The silence is bizarre, given that the purpose of US military policy was supposed to be national defense.

6. Knowledge is powerlessness

The release of the SSCI report has not much altered American support for torture. For most politically minded intellectuals, this is an unwelcome crash course in the impotence of knowledge. Experts disagree over why an enduring majority of Americans condone the use of torture: Though slim majorities continue to back it in at least some cases, Darius Rejali, a leading academic theorist of torture, observes that majorities oppose the use of waterboarding and sexual torture, if not stress positions and sleep deprivation. But then torture is like the death penalty: To be against it—while also taking care to spin out hypothetical justifications for its use in exceptional cases—is still to be for it. History shows that those rare cases have a way of multiplying within any reasonably enterprising security apparatus.

There are precedents for this—the SSCI report is hardly the first chronicle of torture to make media noise without shifting public opinion. Chelsea Manning’s leaked military field reports about widespread torture conducted by Iraqi authorities under the noses of occupying American troops made nary a ripple in the United States. Henri Alleg’s 1958 exposé of his torture by colonial authorities in French Algeria sold sixty thousand copies in two weeks but did nothing to keep torture from metastasizing throughout the colonial war machine. Likewise, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century polemics against the torture-trials of witches by Johann Weyer and Friedrich Spee had little influence in their time, though they remain testaments of humane and enlightened courage.

Knowledge is not power, especially knowledge of the evil committed by one’s own tribe. Such knowledge is a contaminant.

7. Impunity will out

The head of Human Rights Watch has recommended that the torturers be criminally prosecuted; so has the New York Times editorial board. The head of the ACLU recommended that the torturers be pardoned, which is supposed to be a clever way of implying their guilt. None of this will ever happen.

In the United States, torturers within and outside of the CIA have flourished. The two Bush White House legal advisers who produced our best-known rationales for state torture have not been disbarred—they have, indeed, been rewarded. John Yoo teaches at Berkeley Law, while the former head of the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, Jay Bybee, sits on the Ninth Circuit as a federal appellate judge, one layer below the Supreme Court. The mass media treat Dick Cheney as a wise elder, while Cheney’s own former in-house torture enthusiast, erstwhile vice-presidential chief of staff David Addington, is now sinecured at the Heritage Foundation. Jason Orlich, who developed and supervised the sleep-deprivation program at Guantánamo, is now chief of intelligence operations at the US Navy’s Special Operations Command Pacific. (Orlich has also peddled an anti-Islam PowerPoint presentation at the Pentagon.)

Though the report has blacked out the names of the torturers, refusing even to use pseudonyms, torture watchers have been able to identify one of the agents, a model for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. Her record of malfeasance, misrepresentation, incompetence, and gratuitous participation in waterboarding was blisteringly detailed by NBC News and the New Yorker, though neither outlet would name her. But far from being sanctioned or even demoted, she has risen to the civilian-rank equivalent of general inside the CIA. She has, unbelievably, served as the recent head of the agency’s “global jihad unit.”

It’s tempting to compare this to Latin American–style police impunity, but that would be unfair to the societies that have punished at least some of the abuses of their past dictatorships. In the same week that the SSCI released its report, Brazil published its own investigation into state torture of political dissidents under its long dictatorship. Indeed, one of that torture regime’s victims, Dilma Rousseff, is now the head of state. Latin American nations have been chipping away at, or simply ignoring, the amnesty deals made with the authoritarian rulers of the ’70s and ’80s and have brought many of their torturers to justice.

The United States would face a very different reckoning with its record of torture, should it elect to take a genuine, closer look at it. In our case, the impact of torture has largely been muffled by the military adventurism that has underwritten it: Most of our recent torture victims have not been native citizens, and harm to foreign lives is only erratically mourned by great and powerful nations. (Forty-odd years ago, for instance, Lieutenant William Calley was a much more popular figure than Daniel Ellsberg and received not just a pardon from Richard Nixon but the support of the up-and-coming governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter.)

The torture that this report chronicles—and, most especially, that which it leaves unchronicled—can only end in impunity. In the course of this document’s long making, five CIA officials were caught infiltrating and searching through its authors’ closed computer network. Not content with reading the e-mails of their civilian supervisors, the CIA officials harassed them by filing a criminal referral. CIA head John Brennan denied this intrusion until he could no longer. And even then, impunity won out: In late December, a panel convened by Brennan announced it will recommend against disciplining any of the CIA officials involved.

An abridged version of this essay appears in the Feb/Mar issue of Bookforum.

Chase Madar is an attorney in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower (Verso, 2013).