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The Torture Debate, Redux

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been insisting again that the coercive interrogation techniques used against terrorism detainees after 9/11 prevented attacks on the United States. Protecting American security is "a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business," Cheney told "These are evil people. And we're not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek."

What's more, Cheney says, limitations on these interrogation techniques would endanger the American people. "There is a 'high probability' that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack in the coming years," he says, "and the Obama administration's policies make it more likely the attempt will succeed."

It would be easy for Cheney's critics to dismiss these comments as an attempt to defend a controversial legacy. But as Cheney is not alone in these views, and the debate about the merits and morality of torture has manifestly not ended with the election of President Obama. His assertions merit more careful examination.


Cheney asserts that information will one day be made available proving that the interrogation methods he championed made it possible for the United States to prevent other 9/11-style attacks. Until such information is released, we have no way to judge the veracity of his claim.

Meanwhile, however, those who engage in or approve of interrogation techniques that many view as illegal or immoral must defend the efficacy of these methods. The act demands a commensurate return. If it produces nothing of great value, it descends from interrogation to mere torment.

Those opposed to such techniques reject even the possibility that--putting moral, legal, and strategic calculations aside--the techniques might be useful. They demand direct evidence that torture prevented a terrorist attack. Such direct evidence is rare.

Torture makes people talk. But what they say under duress is not reliable. The consensus view of those experienced in interrogation is that there are better ways than torture to extract information. The approaches they favor are sophisticated and culturally based. They are subtle rather than brutal.

Experienced interrogators who first questioned al-Qa'ida captives argue that they were making progress using accepted law enforcement techniques before they were replaced by others who were determined to speed up the interrogations with rougher methods. These methods provided information that contributed to a weakening of al-Qa'ida, but they also produced a tremendous volume of false information.

Many Americans went along with rough treatment of suspected terrorists, not because they were convinced of the necessity of such treatment to extract information, but because they were angry and fearful and didn't mind seeing suspected terrorists punished.

Those who support interrogation practices, in which the interrogator seeks to build a relationship with the suspect, admit that these techniques require time. Proponents of coercive interrogation often insert a ticking clock in their arguments, claiming that a specific threat is, or was, imminent. A captured terrorist knows where a bomb is about to go off--we are minutes away from carnage. Urgency demands getting rough. Outside of Hollywood and ethics classes in law schools, such scenarios are hard to find.

Anyway, Cheney, in his interview, warns of what terrorists will do in the "coming years." This hardly constitutes an imminent threat, and certainly not a specific plot yet to be uncovered through interrogation.

The problem is that there is no way to empirically test these competing views. We cannot run an experiment in which 20 people are told a secret, then 10 of them are tortured and 10 are interrogated in other ways, and the results compared. We can't even hold a seminar on the topic. Who would present papers based on case studies of torture that worked?

Would we not be justified in using them to prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack involving nuclear or biological weapons? The pro-coercive interrogation camp argues that those who flinch at taking off the gloves to interrogate a terrorist would surely think differently if the lives of "perhaps hundreds of thousands of people" were at stake.

Who knows what anyone might do in such unlikely, but desperate circumstances? My decision would be a matter of personal conscience. It would not depend on government authorization or on Mr. Cheney's approval. Nor would I expect to avoid the consequences of that decision.

A sustainable and successful counterterrorist strategy must weigh factors beyond the efficacy of coercive interrogation. In the end, the inhumane treatment of suspects feeds the false narrative of our terrorist foes, promotes their recruitment efforts, and is used to justify their acts. It erodes public support at home and among our allies for what all agree will be a long struggle against terrorists and their apologists. Effective or not, torture is bad strategy.

Brian Michael Jenkins, author of "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" (Prometheus, 2008), is senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

Comments (6)

Joseph A Cottone sr:

Unfortunatley, Mr. Cheney is right, he didn't say he enjoyed having to approve those methods, but it is or was necessary to gain very valuble information on threats that had we not gotten through that method could have been as bad as the previous terrorist attacks or even worse.And one terrorist attack is enough for me to have approved of those methods. I for one am not of the "feed the beast, hoping that he'll eat me last" line of thought, I would certainly do what ever it takes to defend my country & especially my family. I'll answer to my maker for any decision I've made defending my loved one's. Nobody else matters.
Imagine if Chamberlain had the courage to act instead of feeding the beast how different things could have been.!!!
Joe Cottone sr

Phillip Velasco:

I agree with Mr. Cottone. The last paragraph of this article struck me with inflicted fear grip that terrosits have on society. While I agree it is wise to at least attempt to understand the terrorists and their motives and find methods for its removal, we as a society should not have to conform unneccessary facets of our lifestyle to accomodate their ideologies, for it is the job of our government and what ever tools they have at their disposal to ensure the saftey of their citizens....including interogation tactics. Notwithoutsaying our government's policies are the best, espcially after the last administration...but that is the role of the gov't.

By wieghing heavily on terrorist reprecussions in regards to prior (claimed successful but brutal)interogation tatics,that itself is engough to fuel the hate, violence, ignorance and ultimately attention these terrorists strive for. In other words, if I were to place myself in a terrorist's shoes, I would claim victory, at least to some extend, just by reading that last paragraph; fear has definately instilled. I would also chuckle that the idea of the treatment of an 'inhumane' terrorist. (Isnt that an oxymoron?)Criminal'Suspects' are treated inhumanely everyday in the US. I haven't hear of any major calls to stop that so I believe it's really not a question of inhumane treatment but more of a call to help rationalize terrorist attitudes toward global peace. Which is actually not a bad idea in theroy but the situation is best described as teaching a pirahnna to befriend other fish in its surrounding area.

Lets look on the opposite side of the spectrum. When more humane interogation methods are used a humane show respect is given to the terrorists. Do you think terrorists can differentiate humane and fear respect? Wouldn't terrorists see the change of interogation as sign of breaking through the gates. What then would be their next step?Moving onward toward castle?


Unspiek Baron Bodissey:

The first step toward producing a cogent, persuasive argument is the use of proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. If you cannot be troubled to learn the basics of your native tongue, how can I be persuaded that you have thought through your arguments with any rigor? I cannot take your arguments seriously, Mr. Velasco.

Todd Lester:

The bleeding hearts of the US never fail to amaze me. Across this country, crime is rampant because the only people who have "rights" are the criminals. And it is sad how quickly the bleeding hearts forgot about 9/11. I consider it to be the single most horrific event in world history. After watching and hearing what the people on those planes and the people in those buildings were subjected to, one would think a rationale human being would more than support the torture of these sub-animale fanatics who actually call for "the killing of women and children". Where are the bleeding hearts for the children that are targeted by terrorists?
True, non-violent interogation methods can be effective and have their place. I support it 100% in those cases where that is true. If accurate, thorough intel can be obtained while creating positive PR for the US, fantastic. But when that is not the case, I also support the use of torture 100% where it is necessary and/or most effective for combating an enemy who feels killing citizens is their repsoniblity and the will of God.
I find it equally sad that the bleeding heats and the like of the US are as fanatical and blind to reason and facts as our enemy's are.

A very well written, well thought out argument against the scourge of torture. If proponents of "harsh interrogation" and "coercive tactics" (such as Dick Cheney's cabal) are so convinced they are in the right, why not drop the jargon and call the thing what it is: TORTURE.

For those so convinced that Americans must compromise our morals (not to mention our laws) to ensure our safety (and become the enemy we despise), this would be a good start towards having an honest debate.

In the end, we must not only outlive this Enemy, we must, if necessary, die as better men than him.


First, we must define torture. Has anyone? Is torture merely being confined and not knowing when or if you will be released? Many would think so. Most of what I heard called torture wasn't much worse than occurs in fraternity hazing. In the old days, hazings were much worse than I've heard being done to any terrorists. Some of what I've seen called torture was what some people do on a daily basis of their jobs. I personally would define torture as anything which subjects lasting harm and I'm not talking about emotional harm.

American morals.... where do you start with that one. We are greatest group of whiners on the planet who use the gov't to steal from our fellow citizens to improve our quality of life. Where is our moral compass?

Finally, how did the Geneva Conventions apply to people who did not sign or conduct themselves in accordance with them? Why would any nation sign the Geneva Conventions (other than for political reasons) if the other state agrees to abide by them no matter what.

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