An End to Torture: Can the United States recommit itself to legal interrogation techniques?

Sixty years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt and the U.S. government worked doggedly to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mrs. Roosevelt knew many successes in her long years of public service, yet she regarded the writing and passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as her greatest accomplishment. She envisioned it as an international Magna Carta and Bill of Rights for people everywhere. She worked so hard (and drove others hard as well) that one delegate charged that the length of the drafting committee meetings violated his own human rights.

Like all other human organizations, the United States has a less than pure record on human rights. The same U.S. founding documents that set some souls soaring with language of universal rights also enslaved other human beings and defined them as property, while also excluding the female majority of the population entirely. We the people have spent the last 232 years working to live up to the best and undo the worst of those founding documents.


Whatever one thinks of Barack Obama, Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton, the 2008 presidential election campaign was a historic move to open up our political life and leadership to all. Eleanor Roosevelt was no starry-eyed idealist. As a woman, an advocate for the poor and the wife of a man with a disability, she knew that U.S. rhetoric on human rights often did not match reality. Lest she forget it, the Soviet and other Communist delegates to the United Nations continually reminded her. As she recounted it, they would point out some failure of human rights in the United States and ask, “‘Is that what you consider democracy, Mrs. Roosevelt?’ And I am sorry to say that quite often I have to say, ‘No, that isn’t what I consider democracy. That’s a failure of democracy, but there is one thing in my country: we can know about our failures and those of us who care can work to improve our democracy!’” Mrs. Roosevelt placed her faith in the transparency of our society and in the ready supply of everyday prophets who would challenge and overcome injustices.

What Would Eleanor Do?

What would Mrs. Roosevelt make of the current U.S. debate over the use of torture in the war on terrorism? Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibits torture, unequivocally stating, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” So serious was this basic human right that the drafters placed it at the very beginning of the document, right after the articles stating that all human beings are free and equal and enjoy “the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Articles 6 to 11 guaranteed a person’s legal rights, including freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, a right to an impartial trial and a presumption of innocence; these were the “easy” articles from the U.S. perspective. The harder rights for the United States, with its laissez-faire, capitalist economic system, were the social and economic rights tucked in at the end of the document, particularly Articles 23 and 25, which guarantee the right to a job, adequate compensation and an adequate standard of living, “including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Throughout the cold war, the United States repeatedly criticized violations by Soviet and Communist countries of the legal and political rights enumerated in the declaration. These countries returned fire by noting their “iron rice bowl,” a state-supported social safety net that they charged was lacking in the United States and other capitalist states.

The current torture debate has turned this history on its head. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration retreated from the traditional U.S. stance against torture and argued instead for an American exception. Lawyers like John Yoo argued that a “new kind of war” against an enemy that has no regard for human rights excused the United States of its responsibilities as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Geneva Conventions. While never admitting to practicing torture, the Bush administration allowed and undertook what it characterized as “aggressive interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, sexual humiliation, attacks by dogs, sleep deprivation and so on. While some of the practices were later decried, particularly those atrocities captured on photos at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, many others were doggedly defended (particularly by Vice President Dick Cheney) as necessary and helpful in the war on terror.

Not all members of the government defense and security communities were so convinced. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and State Department lawyers, as well as military JAG lawyers, fought the administration’s interpretations. They believed such interrogation techniques were illegal and counterproductive, undermining military morale and discipline, exposing U.S. troops and citizens to the risk of same or similar treatment, and undermining the standing of the United States around the world. So concerned were C.I.A. employees that they purchased insurance policies and urged Congressional action to protect them from lawsuits and legal liability should the political winds change and the actions they were being ordered to undertake be declared illegal.

Congress and the public largely acquiesced. Polls showed that pluralities of Americans (and among them, Catholics) believed torture to be permissible. Congressional action to rein in the administration was tepid. In order to avoid a presidential veto, Congress watered down more vigorous anti-torture legislation, never declared waterboarding and other administration-approved methods to be torture, and granted legal protections to government agents who used these aggressive techniques.

President Obama’s administration will have to take up the torture debate. Most of the debate centered on whether particular “aggressive interrogation techniques” constituted torture, and whether particular actions taken by agents of the U.S. government (Defense Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, military interrogators and government contractors) were legal, including foreign renditions to countries suspected of torture. Religious leaders like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture addressed the morality of torture by emphasizing the fundamental dignity of all human life, as expressed in the Universal Declaration, over the utilitarian view (that the ends of protecting the United States from acts of terror justified the means of violating the rights of suspected terrorists). Torture is a particularly problematic form of violence because it is inflicted by the very state that is supposed to be the protector and guarantor of human rights.

Points Missing in the Public Debate

First, torture is ineffective. Philosophers and television shows erroneously propagate the scenario of the “bomb in a baby carriage”: government agents apprehend a terrorist who knows when and where the next attack will take place; agents must stop the imminent attack; so they use torture to extract information quickly from the attacker. This model is wrong in almost all respects. Such “exquisite” intelligence as is depicted in prime time never exists in the real world. Instead, government agents never know exactly whom they have caught and what such persons know. Torture does not work because individuals respond in different ways to pain. Aggressive interrogation techniques can yield false information made up to satisfy interrogators and stop the pain. Instead of actionable intelligence that could stop the next attack, such false information wastes scarce government resources on wild goose chases. Even when government agents catch real terrorists, the application of coercive techniques may play into their apocalyptic visions of martyrdom, rather than “loosening lips.”

Second, torture is immoral, even in a utilitarian calculus. Others besides suspected terrorists are harmed by torture. Arriving at the conclusion that “the end” of saving innocents from terrorist attack justifies the means of torture grossly underestimates the costs of torture to society, to our nation’s military and legal institutions and to our role in the world. Those we ask to do the torturing are also harmed, sometimes irreparably. Our legal and political systems are harmed, as professionalism in the military and in law enforcement suffers. For this reason, military lawyers are among the strongest critics of torture. As Shannon E. French, formerly of the U.S. Naval Academy, notes in her book The Code of the Warrior, military professionals need ethical codes to work effectively and to differentiate themselves from barbarians and murderers. The United States has the strongest military on earth, and others come from far and wide to study and emulate U.S. military professionalism and codes of conduct. The ethical frameworks of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the military code of conduct and the Geneva Conventions protect not only innocent civilians but military personnel themselves. Violating those norms puts Americans at risk for similar treatment. According to his killers, the journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded in retaliation for torture at Abu Ghraib.

Third, torture is impractical. Protecting human rights and prohibiting torture is practical and advances U.S. interests, especially U.S. security interests. By contrast, using torture undermines U.S. security. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture acknowledges this in its call for the new president to issue an executive order banning torture ( The war against terror is primarily a battle of ideas. Al Qaeda fights for the idea of the bankruptcy of modern and secular Islamic states allied with the West, while the United States fights for the idea that the tactic of terrorism, of intentionally killing civilians, is impermissible. The United States cannot effectively fight for a global norm while ignoring normative constraints. The United States cannot champion human rights abroad while ignoring them at Guantánamo. The United States certainly cannot do this with the world watching.

Military force is not the source of American power in the world today. The strength and attractiveness of U.S. ideals are at the basis of U.S. “soft power,” and torture undermines those. The debate is not between realists keen on protecting U.S. citizens and idealists who place human rights ahead of security concerns. As Eleanor Roosevelt knew 60 years ago, and a new administration must rediscover now, advancing human rights also advances U.S. interests and security.

Listen to an interview with Catholic peace activist John Dear, S.J.

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Leonard Villa
11 years 4 months ago
How can there be a debate when torture is not defined? It's not a univocal term. I imagine liberals might have one definition and conservatives another. We have not had laissez-faire capitalism in this country for quite some time. There are all kinds of government regulation of business and economics. Indeed military power is not the source of American power in this world but it is part of it otherwise we and the rest of the would be Nazis or Communists or hostages of terrorism were it not for that power. Remember the adage si vis pacem, para bellum, an imperfect peace no doubt but a lot of truth there.
11 years 4 months ago
Stupid and cowardly. March into Mosul and lecture AQI before you come here. US doesn't and HASN'T tortured anyone. Further, you have NO evidence that we have. Typical moral imperialist diatribe.
11 years 4 months ago
Ms. Cusimano, "Can the United States recommit itself to legal interrogation techniques?" I agree, completely, with the substance and particulars of your article. Of course, I hope for an affirmative answer to your question, "Can the United States recommit itself to legal interrogation techniques?". There is a better prospect for that with the next U.S. administration, but I take nothing for granted. Beyond the immediate question of denouncing the immorality and illegality of torture, there is a more fundamental question for our country, "Can the United States be an effective and sustained moral force in the world?". The necessity of being recognized as an international moral force is demonstrated in recent history. In 1956, President Eisenhower publicly denounced the illegal conspiracy among England, France, and Israel resulting in an unprovoked invasion of Egypt and subsequent military occupation. Eisenhower was explicit about the fact that this unilateral military invasion was contrary to everything the Allies fought for in World War II. France, England, and Israel withdrew. Later that year, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and destroyed any hope for a free, liberal democracy in eastern Europe for more than 30 years. Because of the earlier actions of France and England as international gangsters, to regain control of the Suez Canal, all pretenses to moral outrage against the Soviets dissipated in the blink of an eye. The aphorism about a pot, a kettle, black applies here. Lucius' call for clear understandings of what we are talking about, and the necessity for strong military defense can go hand in hand with projecting a moral force in the world. We don't have to give up one for the others. Setting a good example is not just for child rearing and behavior within our communities. It applies to nations as well.
11 years 4 months ago
Thank you for this article--and the above comment is so true... there remains much definition and work on ethical standards to be done. It will take giants of men and women to do this work--like Eleanor Roosevelt... can we come up with them? or will they "squeal" at the hours involved?
Elaine Tannesen
11 years 4 months ago
Isn’t the “debate” about how Jesus would want us to treat our brothers and sisters? If Jesus was in the interrogation room or if He was the one being interrogated, how would we treat Him? The value of each individual human being, loved by God, is the primary issue here. Torture is wrong. What a shame that our country has sunk so low that we defend torture or quibble about its definition. As Father John Dear reminds us in his remarkable interview, Jesus said, “Love your enemies”. We are, first, followers of Christ… or are we?
Norman Costa
11 years 4 months ago
Ms. Tannesen, My answer to your rhetorical question is, No. The debate is not about how Jesus would want us to treat our bothers and sisters. Nor is the debate about how we would treat Jesus as the subject of interrogation. Lucius' point is that the meaning of the word 'torture' is fundamental, and to understand what we are talking about is not quibbling. Statements with which we cannot argue will do little to guide the conduct of our societies and governments. Do good and avoid evil; Do what Jesus would do; Love your enemies. Who can argue against these principles that should inform our personal values, our personal behavior, and relationships with others? Translating the faith that informs personal conscience into international treaties, the laws of secular nations, or a military field manual for interrogation of prisoners is never easy or direct. My personal view is that relationships among peoples of the world, even among communities within a nation, are better based upon justice, compassion for those who suffer, and the right to defend life, property, and freedoms. If your understanding of the words of Father John Dear is that a personal faith, rooted in love as taught by Jesus, can motivate working toward peace, then I would agree with you. Then, you ask whether or not we are, first, followers of Christ. The answer is as unarguable and obvious as it is failing to inform, clearly, our next action, let alone the content of our laws and the process for enactment, enforcement, and adjudication. Still, I believe we can and must project a moral force in the world, and set an example in doing it.
11 years 4 months ago
As a person who was intimately involved in detainee issues and counterterrorism I can unequivocally state that I agree with the idea of the US committing to legal interrogation means. I have personally gone on record stating that coercive interrogation is both ineffective and wrong, and that it has many negative consequences, to include endangering legal process to convict terrorists. However, the label of "torture" is neither clearly defined nor universally accepted, and it would be better to refer to many of the issues as "degrading treatment" rather than simply calling everything torture. Furthermore, incorrect facts hurt the argument... Daniel Pearl was killed in 2002, long before the invasion of Iraq, and the incidents at Abu Gharaib.
10 years 11 months ago
If you search a little deeper than the average high school history class you wil find that FDR had torture centers during World War 2 for use against the Germans and the Japanese.


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