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The Phony Debate About Torture

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Former Vice President Dick Cheney has triggered a roaring debate by his recent and repeated claim that torture "worked." Last week, Senator Lindsay Graham echoed the claim that torture "works" and added that is has for five hundred years (a timescale which connects us to the Spanish Inquisition).

Recent polls show a slim majority of Americans opposing any investigation or prosecution of torture under the Bush Administration, even though a majority acknowledges that torture took place. Cheney's claims may have had a major impact on public opinion.

The reliability and truthfulness of information obtained under torture is in serious doubt. But even if it weren't, the whole argument over the claim that torture works is grotesquely beside the point. The issue is not whether torture works, but whether there are other methods of obtaining equivalent or better information that don't incur the enormous moral, legal and security hazards torture entails.

Torture advocates want us to think that there is no other way to obtain this critical information in the "war on terror," but it's simply not so. Standard interrogation procedures, both in the criminal justice system and in the military, routinely produce valuable intelligence. Highly skilled and trained professional interrogators regularly get people to talk about and confess to serious crimes like murder, without using coercive techniques.

As a former Brooklyn District Attorney, I know that non-coercive interrogation works. My office was one of the nation's largest, handling prosecutions of tens of thousands of serious crimes annually, with no coercion whatsoever. Yet we videotaped thousands of voluntary confessions.

Across America, police and prosecutors handle dangerous crimes every day without resorting to waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, nudity, exposure to extremes of temperatures, slamming people into walls, or the like. Whether it involves homegrown terrorists such as the Oklahoma bombers, organized crime or "ordinary" murderers and rapists, the criminal justice system solves crimes, learns who else is involved and brings the culprits to justice -- without torturing them.

Professional interrogators might not get confessions every time they ask questions. But no one knows how often torture produces truthful confessions, if ever. What we do know is that our regular criminal justice system, with its due process and noncoercion, produces convictions where torture doesn't.

The criminal justice system identified and convicted some of those involved in the 1993 World Trade Center attacks. By contrast, not one person has been prosecuted for the 9/11 attacks, although seven and a half years have gone by. Even Khalid Sheik Mohammed, one of the masterminds of 9/11, is unlikely ever to be convicted in US courts because he was repeatedly subjected to torture. Significantly, the cruel and torturous methods used on detainees never yielded enough information to capture Osama Bin Laden or his chief deputy. So much for the claims of torture's efficacy.

But beyond that, in America, torture can never be used because our Constitution bans it. There are no exceptions -- not for heinous crimes or ticking bombs. The use of torture against a criminal defendant would only constitute another crime and immunize the defendant from conviction. Similarly, the Geneva Conventions prohibit the cruel and degrading treatment of detainees even in wartime.

Military interrogations in wartime are critically important. They might reveal, for example, where the enemy is going to strike next, and affect the lives of thousands of American troops. Yet until the Bush Administration took office, the US did not adopt torture as an official tool to extract such information. It's good to recall why.

After horrific mistreatment of detainees during World War II, including the torture of American POW's by the Japanese, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces, urged the US to ratify the Geneva Conventions. General Douglas McArthur voluntarily instituted the Conventions for American troops in the Korean War, even before they were ratified.

These commanders supported the Geneva Conventions, not because they thought it acceptable to "tie our hands" during combat and expose American troops to unnecessary risk, but because they realized the real danger to our country lay in using torture, not in abstaining from it. They saw professional interrogations produced important information without torture. They knew torture only weakens our reputation and our ability to project "soft power" -- to command respect and persuade abroad. They perceived inhumane treatment of the enemy would only further endanger the lives of American troops.

They were right. In our own time, US use of torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere has become a major recruiting tool for Al Qaeda, and led to the loss of hundreds, possibly thousands, of American lives. The FBI, no friend to terrorists, rejected the CIA's torture program because it understood the untenable consequences. The FBI began the interrogation of terrorist detainees, but once the CIA began to use torture it stopped participating and walked away. It refused to engage in what it believed were war crimes that would only undermine the effort to get the information we needed and endanger Americans. What vital intelligence have we lost because the FBI had to withdraw its expertise?

The FBI rejected torture, our Constitution bans it, and we have ratified the Geneva Conventions as the law of our land, not because we are nation of wimps or bleeding hearts. Unlike former Vice President Cheney, who ran from the Vietnam War, and former President George Bush, who never saw a day of combat in his life, those who wrote the Bill of Rights fought a bloody revolution to win their independence from Britain. They weren't afraid to fight hard to create and keep this country. They rejected torture not out of weakness, but out of strength.

They weren't interested in any specious claim of torture's efficacy; they knew that torture produced unreliable information. They also knew that forcing people to incriminate themselves was a slippery slope. Once torture was condoned in one case, it would become irresistible in other cases, particularly involving political opponents, religious dissidents and the like. Above all, they knew torture was inimical to the conception of human dignity that underlay our constitutional framework, so they adopted a granite opposition to it.

Now as then, Americans should reject specious arguments justifying torture. They should not be misled by former Vice President Cheney's unverified claims that torture worked, and recognize that even though the CIA's Inspector General long recommended a thorough, expert analysis of the question of torture's "efficacy," it was never conducted because the Bush Administration didn't want to know the truth.

Now it is important for Americans of all political persuasions to reaffirm the truth, as drafters of the Bill of Rights believed so deeply and etched so indelibly into our constitution, that torture is a moral and human atrocity that never makes us safer, and in the end only causes our nation incalculable harm.

It follows from this that we must hold government officials who ordered or engaged in torture accountable under our laws. Applicable US statutes make torture and other cruel and abusive treatment of detainees a federal crime. It's time we commenced investigations to determine if criminal charges should be brought under those laws. That's the vital question that the phony debate over torture's "efficacy" serves to obscure.