Torture and the C.I.A.

This government does not torture people. So said President George W. Bush on Oct. 5. Many, both in the United States and abroad, do not believe this and remain convinced that the C.I.A. has engaged in interrogation techniques that do indeed amount to torture. The most notorious and highly publicized of these is waterboarding. A detainee suspected of terrorist involvement is placed head tilted on an inclined board with a cloth covering his face. Water is then poured over the fabric, which causes the suspect to feel he is drowning. While this and other methodslike keeping prisoners in stress positions, exposure to extreme temperatures and sleep deprivationdo not leave physical scars, they can result in long-term psychological damage. Moreover, in his Sept. 27 testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Allen Keller, a physician who has treated torture survivors (see Am. 10/22, Current Comment), noted that such techniques rarely occur in isolation, but are more commonly used in combination with other abusive interrogation methods.

As psychologists point out, information obtained under such conditions is often useless, wrenched as it is from a victim desperate to stop the pain. Nevertheless, they have been among the C.I.A.s so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. According to two 2005 classified memos whose existence was reported on Oct. 4, the Justice Departments Office of Legal Counsel gave a green light to the use of many of these abusive techniques. Congress, with good reason, is now demanding to see the memos. The issue of torture emerged at the confirmation hearings of Michael B. Mukasey, the administrations nominee for the position of attorney general. Asked whether waterboarding was torture, Judge Mukasey gave a disappointingly evasive answer.


International law has long prohibited the use of any form of torture. Even in times of war, treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights have banned all forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Geneva Conventions prohibitions against degrading treatment cover prisoners of the United States. The U.S. Armys own interrogation manual, moreover, bans practices like waterboarding. That the C.I.A. has apparently used them places the United States in close company with known human rights abusers like China, Egypt and Myanmar.

Jennifer Daskal, senior terrorism counsel at Human Rights Watchs U.S. program, told America the Bush administrations claim that the C.I.A.s use of enhanced techniques does not deserve the name of torture is based on an absurdly narrow definition of torture. Although it is unknown to what extent these techniques are still in use, she emphasized that they have undermined our credibility as a standard-bearer for human rights and made it very difficult for U.S. diplomats to effectively criticize human rights abuses elsewhere. The situation is all the more ironic when one recalls that after World War II, U.S. military commissions prosecuted captured Japanese personnel for using waterboarding and other techniques that the C.I.A. has evidently used in recent years.

Of special concern is the use of what is known as extraordinary rendition, the C.I.A.s practice of shipping terror suspects to secret prisons abroad, where suspects could be subjected by local agents or its own personnel to the harshest of interrogation techniques. One recent case concerned a German of Lebanese descent, Khaled el-Masri, who was seized in 2003 as he was entering Macedonia for a vacation. Drugged and transported to a secret location in Afghanistan, he claims that he was tortured over a five-month period and then taken to Albania, where he was released. The U.S. government admitted to Germany that it had mistakenly identified him as a terrorist suspect. After his release, he filed a federal lawsuit against the then-director of the C.I.A. Refusing to hear his case, the Supreme Court ruled that to do so might compromise national security.

This past June 26 was designated United Nations Day Against Torture, to commemorate both the day the Convention Against Torture came into being and the day the U.N. charter was signed in 1945. So far, though, the Bush administration is not even paying those landmark achievements anything more than lip service. A congressional inquiry into the Justice Departments 2005 classified memos and their contents cannot come soon enough. The administrations denial of engaging in torture must be exposed and be replaced by a level of transparency long overdue when it concerns a nation claiming to be a standard-bearer for human rights.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
muhammad ajaz
10 years 8 months ago
Where's the concern for torture when we indiscriminately bomb Greek Orthodox Christian Serbians for years so the Moslems can steal their homeland with the aid of the UN?
10 years 8 months ago
Harvard Law Professor, Charles Fried, President Reagan’s Solicitor General spoke about the damage done to the torturer. “Torture is when I look you into in the eye, …, and I cause you great pain. That destroys ... my humanity. I'm not talking about law. This is a law professor who's not talking about law. It destroys my humanity and it destroys the humanity of the people I'm working for. And at that point it doesn't matter what our cause is. We've lost. “ I could not say it better.
James Myre
10 years 8 months ago
In addition to the moral component of torture, do we really want our own prisoners of war exposed to inhuman treatment because of what we do ourselves? How can we complain if others do it to our fellow citizens if we are guilty of using cruel techniques on those prisoners we capture?
William Donnelly
10 years 1 month ago
I believe that torture of another human being is so reprehensible that if I had been in a position to commit torture (during my time of service) either by direct order or by tacit approval of those over me, I would have refused. I was a good Marine, but I would (I believe) have risked court martial or other consequences in this situation.


The latest from america

In “Sorry to Bother You,” the system’s greatest threat—literal ownership of your time and person—is also its promise of relief.
Eve TushnetJuly 17, 2018
St. Michael Cathedral in Tha Rae, Thailand (iStock photo)
During the cave crisis, at the Cathedral of Saint Michael in Thare, a small village located along Nonghan Lake in northeastern Thailand’s Isaan region, Catholics offered Mass and asked for the intervention of St. Michael the Archangel to protect the young men.
The Catholic Church has renewed efforts to fight racism in the U.S., but Black Lives Matter deserves credit for keeping our attention on racial justice.
Olga SeguraJuly 17, 2018
What can the church do to help repent for the sins of leaders like Cardinal McCarrick and all those who turned a blind eye to his wrongdoing?
The EditorsJuly 17, 2018