Torture Is Still With Us
When America published “Facing Up to Torture,” by Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., just over a year ago (11/11/13), enough was known about the shameful history of torture in the United States to shock the conscience. That report, however, pointed to unfinished business: the declassification of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s definitive report on the Central Intelligence Agency interrogation program and the punishment of those found responsible for torture.
On Dec. 9, 2014, the Senate released a 528-page executive summary of that report. The results of the investigation into the treatment of 119 detainees between 2002 and 2008 present a serious moral challenge to all Americans, a fact that is unfortunately clouded by the partisan nature of the report. Republican members of the committee withdrew from the study in 2009 and have criticized the report’s authors for failing to interview key witnesses. C.I.A. Director John Brennan defended the use of what he calls “enhanced interrogation techniques.” President Obama has condemned torture but stood behind the C.I.A.
We now know that among those held, 26 were wrongfully detained; 39 were subjected to so-called enhanced interrogation techniques; three underwent waterboarding; and one innocent man was killed. The agency maintained five “black sites,” including one in Thailand, where Abu Zubaydah was held. At first he cooperated with C.I.A. and Federal Bureau of Investigation questioning; but once F.B.I. officers left the site, violence set the tone. In isolation for 47 days, he was smashed against the wall, stuffed in a small box and waterboarded 83 times until he vomited, coughed and trembled with spasms. C.I.A. employees appalled at this treatment wept, shook and asked to be transferred.
Other interrogations, based on the “psychology of helplessness,” belong in a horror film. Sensory and sleep deprivation induce a psychosis in which people lose control of what they say and think. The C.I.A. interrogation guide favors the D.D.D. method, “Debility, Dependency and Dread,” which breaks the captive’s will to resist. We live in a world where shared values no longer exist, argued the C.I.A. psychologists; breaking down captives with this technique would “save lives,” they told themselves. A New Haven University psychiatrist, Charles A. Morgan III, told The New York Times (12/10) that the C.I.A. psychologists had misunderstood the theory. These tactics were, in effect, “making people less reliable and more stupid.” Meanwhile, doctors cooperated in the violation of five prisoners under the guise of excruciatingly painful—and medically unnecessary—“rectal rehydrations.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair-person of the Intelligence Committee, was determined to publish the report before the end of the year, lest the findings be suppressed by the next Congress and the American people never know what was done in their names. Those who hoped that the report could lead to contrition and reconciliation, even a restoration of justice, may be disappointed. Three former C.I.A. directors penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal arguing that the methods employed produced important information during a time of national crisis. Most disturbingly, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said of the interrogation program, “I would do it again in a minute.”
Those responsible for torturing have broken international and U.S. law, no matter what “permissions” were concocted by the George W. Bush’s legal team. Meanwhile, a passive American public devours television shows in which police or special agents rough up suspects, overlooking that these “heroes” are doing something immoral. The argument that brutal tactics “work” is both a proven untruth and a distraction from the moral issue.
Without bold political and religious leadership, justice will not be fully served. Senator John McCain, who himself was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, courageously broke with many of his Republican colleagues to commend the release of the report. In a powerful speech on the Senate floor, he said victims tell their torturers what they want to hear and, regardless of its efficacy, torture compromises “our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.” Bishop Oscar Cantú, chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has declared torture an “intrinsic evil that cannot be justified under any circumstances,” for it violates the “God-given dignity inherent in all people.”
That so many innocent people were detained and often abused demands a public apology and financial compensation. The U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the United States ratified in 1994, bans torture and other inhumane treatment and requires that torturers be prosecuted. The American torturers imagined they could answer evil with more evil rather. If we allow this to stand, history will judge us to our nation’s lasting shame.