In the heat of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made a speech in which
he referred sympathetically to the Southern rebels. A member of the
audience lambasted him for wanting to treat his enemies kindly when he
ought to be thinking of destroying them. Lincoln's answer:
"Why, madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"
Harshness and cruelty were to be banished from the moral imagination
of the nation he was trying to save.
The late Jack Maple, a famously flamboyant but phenomenally effective
former deputy commissioner of the NYPD, wrote that "the more
information a detective has, the more creative, authoritative and
effective he or she can be." Under attack in 2001, and then at war in
Iraq in 2003, American law enforcement, intelligence and military
really didn't have much information at first. They rounded up the
usual suspects, but didn't know what usual meant. So they smacked
people around, and that was always a bad idea, as Maple said:
"Forget that smacking somebody around is illegal and just plain wrong,
it's also the quickest way to ruin the chances of getting a statement
of any kind."
Professional interrogators talk about building empathy and dependence.
Maple would get down on his knees and pray with a suspect if he
thought that would work. But the best technique? "If you can get them
to laugh, you'll get a statement. That's always true." Internal CIA
documents reveal that empathy is also likely what got Abu Zubaydah to
reveal how Al Qaeda planned 9/11 and its other operations. His torture
brought nothing of real value, only the moral demeaning of him and his
The Bush administration had long maintained that the overtly cruel and
abusive detainees of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were, as
former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it, "a few bad apples."
But the recent release of CIA documents now shows plainly that the
Bush administration's approach to prisoner abuse was rotten to the
core. The Obama administration, to its eternal credit, has resolved to
expose this moral canker to the light (although 4 former CIA directors
would prefer to let it fester in the fog of secrecy). But refusal to
allow justice to hold anyone accountable, and excise the abuse from
our body politic, makes its return more likely.
When military officers at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, struggled in the fall
of 2002 to find ways to get terrorism suspects to talk, they turned to
the CIA, which had had spent several months experimenting with the
limits of physical and psychological pressure. They took the top
lawyer for the CIA's Counterterrorist Center to Guantánamo, where he
explained that the definition of illegal torture was "written vaguely":
"It [torture] is basically subject to perception," said the CIA
lawyer, Jonathan Friedman, according to meeting minutes released at a
Senate hearing in June 2008: "If the detainee dies, you're doing it
The CIA used waterboarding on prisoners with the approval of the
Justice Department. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice later confirmed
in a statement to congressional investigators in September 2008 that
the Bush administration had issued a pair of secret memos that
explicitly endorsed the CIA's use of waterboarding and other extreme
interrogation techniques against terrorist suspects.
The 2002 meeting at Guantánamo showed how CIA lawyers believed they
had found a legal loophole permitting the agency to use "cruel,
inhuman or degrading" methods overseas as long as they didn't lead to
the detainee's death. Some military personnel objected, to their
credit. Others, like military lawyer Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, did not:
COL Cummings: We can't do sleep deprivation.
LTC Beaver: Yes, we can - with approval.
Dave Becker: We have had many reports from Bagram [military prison in
Afghanistan] about sleep deprivation being used.
LTC Beaver: True, but officially it's not happening.... The ICRC
[International Committee of the Red Cross] is a serious concern. They
will be in and out, scrutinizing our operations.... This would draw a
lot of negative attention.
Friedman: The CIA is not held to the same rules as the military. In
the past when the ICRC had made a big deal about detainees, the DOD
(Department of Defense) has "moved" them away from the attention of
the ICRC. Upon questioning from the ICRC about their whereabouts, the
DOD's response has repeatedly been that the detainee merited no status
under the Geneva Convention.
LTC Beaver: We will need documentation to protect us.
Friedman: Yes, if someone dies while aggressive techniques are being
used, regardless of the cause of dath, the backlash of attention would
be severely detrimental. Everything must be approved and documented.
Lt. Beaver wrote a now-infamous Oct. 11, 2002, memo that determined
abusive methods could be used against detainees at Guantánamo Bay
prison because they were not considered prisoners of war. Her proposed
methods included extended isolation, 20-hour interrogations, death
threats and waterboarding. She later told the Senate Armed Services
Committee that "it was simply not foreseeable" that her memo became
the primary justification for then-Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld's approval to use harsher methods, which Vice-President Dick
Cheney later admitted (or rather vaunted) personally signing off on:
"I cannot, however, accept responsibility for what happened to my
legal opinion after I properly submitted it to my chain of command.... I
did not expect that my opinion, as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Amy
Judge Advocate General's Corps, would become the final word on
interrogation policies and practices within the Department of Defense."
Although then U.S Attorney General John Aschcroft also approved
waterboarding and other cruel techniques, complaints by FBI agents
about abusive interrogation tactics at Guantanamo and other U.S.
military sites reached the White House and National Security Council
but prompted no effort to curb practices that the agents considered
ineffective and illegal.
The most generous interpretation of the decisions of our political
leadership to torture in this way, and of the craven acquiescence to
it by elements in our intelligence community and military leadership,
was that the U.S government was in a panic after 9/11: desperate for
information that would save American lives from further surprise
attack, and also eager for some kind of proof that the administration
had been right about justify the "liberation" of Iraq because of the
threat from its association with Al-Qaeda or because of its Weapons of
Mass Destruction, or whatever. The discussions are chilling, and
reminiscent of those revealed at the Nuremberg trials and elsewhere
between the German SS and army officials of the Wehrmacht and prison
authorities, who were also divided over how to treat detainees and
avoid the "negative attention" of the Red Cross at Theresienstadt and
other concentration camps.
There is always a concerted effort of those involved in cruelty, and
their apologists, to bury ethical concerns underneath legalistic mumbo
jumbo and to ignore the overriding question for any civilization: Is
this moral? It is moral progress, I believe, that there more people
than not who find Abu Ghraib and waterboarding disgusting.
Unfortunately, a number of members of the U.S. government have not
been loathe to exploit the depths of human misery and degradation.
Reputation, like life itself, is a complex affair that is difficult to
sustain but simple to destroy. As General Douglas Stone, who took over
charge of detainees for the Multi National Force in Iraq after the Abu
Ghraib scandal, told me last year before he retired from his command:
"We have turned around 180 degrees to show respect for any of the
detainees in our care: respect for the culture, for the religion and
for the history of the place where our compounds are. But what those
few did [at Abu Ghraib] will probably be the images best remembered of
this war for a hundred years from now."
President Obama, like General Stone, clearly recognizes that cruel and
abusive punishment - whether called "harsh interrogation" or "torture"
- violate the basic principles upon which the American Republic was
founded regarding the physical sanctity of the individual, principles
that have served as the template for all subsequent elaborations of
human rights around the globe. But the restoration of our reputation
and standing in the world requires more than just a restatement of
principles. It requires that those who violate those principles be
brought to justice.
Scott Atran is research director in anthropology at the National Center
for Scientific Research in Paris; presidential scholar in sociology at
the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City; and visiting
professor of psychology and public policy at the University of
Michigan at Ann Arbor. He is the author of the forthcoming "Talking to
the Enemy; The Dreams, Delusions and Science of Sacred Conflicts "