Friday, December 09, 2005

The Moral Evil of Torture

One of the key claims used to justify the invasion of Iraq was based on information gained through the torture of an Egyptian detainee after being renditioned by the U.S. to Egypt for questioning. The information was untrue; the detainee, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, recanted after the U.S. invasion began, saying he lied about statements he knew his captors wanted to hear in order to stop the torture.

The new disclosure provides the first public evidence that bad intelligence on Iraq may have resulted partly from the administration's heavy reliance on third countries to carry out interrogations of Qaeda members and others detained as part of American counterterrorism efforts. The Bush administration used Mr. Libi's accounts as the basis for its prewar claims, now discredited, that ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda included training in explosives and chemical weapons.

The fact that Mr. Libi recanted after the American invasion of Iraq and that intelligence based on his remarks was withdrawn by the C.I.A. in March 2004 has been public for more than a year. But American officials had not previously acknowledged either that Mr. Libi made the false statements in foreign custody or that Mr. Libi contended that his statements had been coerced.

A government official said that some intelligence provided by Mr. Libi about Al Qaeda had been accurate, and that Mr. Libi's claims that he had been treated harshly in Egyptian custody had not been corroborated.

A classified Defense Intelligence Agency report issued in February 2002 that expressed skepticism about Mr. Libi's credibility on questions related to Iraq and Al Qaeda was based in part on the knowledge that he was no longer in American custody when he made the detailed statements, and that he might have been subjected to harsh treatment, the officials said. They said the C.I.A.'s decision to withdraw the intelligence based on Mr. Libi's claims had been made because of his later assertions, beginning in January 2004, that he had fabricated them to obtain better treatment from his captors.

U.S. government officials claimed in the past that Libi's allegations of torture remained unproven, and that he gave information about ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda while still in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. But now those same officials are saying that Libi gave the most specific and damning information about Iraq training Al Qaeda officers in the use of chemical and biological weapons after he had been turned over to Egyptian interrogators.

So when apologists for torture say that it does provide valuable and useful information, they are either lying or don't know what they're talking about. Torture clearly makes people talk, but it doesn't make them tell the truth.

Which is undoubtedly one of the reasons that Britain's House of Lords just ruled that evidence gained through torture is inadmissible in British courts.

The case arose from the detention without trial of terrorist suspects in UK prisons on evidence obtained in third countries. A lower court had ruled that evidence obtained by a foreign country could be used in a UK court and that there was no obligation on the government to ascertain how it had been obtained. In other words torture evidence was admissible if no questions were asked. The House of Lords has overturned this ruling.
Lord Bingham, in his judgement said, "The issue is one of constitutional principle, whether evidence obtained by torturing another human being may lawfully be admitted against a party to proceedings in a British court, irrespective of where, or by whom, or on whose authority the torture was inflicted. To that question I would give a very clear negative answer."

This decision from the UK House of Lords, ruling inadmissible evidence obtained under torture, has given legal backing to the fight to keep Europe free from the taint of torture.

Andrew Sullivan has a not-to-be-missed article in The New Republic on why torture is not just ineffective, but also completely antithetical to a free society. It's difficult to believe that anyone could remain unpersuaded after reading Sullivan.

There is a temptation to quote every line and paragraph in the article; it's that well-written. But given its length, I will content myself with one section, toward the beginning of the piece:

Torture is the polar opposite of freedom. It is the banishment of all freedom from a human body and soul, insofar as that is possible. As human beings, we all inhabit bodies and have minds, souls, and reflexes that are designed in part to protect those bodies: to resist or flinch from pain, to protect the psyche from disintegration, and to maintain a sense of selfhood that is the basis for the concept of personal liberty. What torture does is use these involuntary, self-protective, self-defining resources of human beings against the integrity of the human being himself. It takes what is most involuntary in a person and uses it to break that person's will. It takes what is animal in us and deploys it against what makes us human. As an American commander wrote in an August 2003 e-mail about his instructions to torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib, "The gloves are coming off gentlemen regarding these detainees, Col. Boltz has made it clear that we want these individuals broken."

What does it mean to "break" an individual? As the French essayist Michel de Montaigne once commented, and Shakespeare echoed, even the greatest philosophers have difficulty thinking clearly when they have a toothache. These wise men were describing the inescapable frailty of the human experience, mocking the claims of some seers to be above basic human feelings and bodily needs. If that frailty is exposed by a toothache, it is beyond dispute in the case of torture. The infliction of physical pain on a person with no means of defending himself is designed to render that person completely subservient to his torturers. It is designed to extirpate his autonomy as a human being, to render his control as an individual beyond his own reach. That is why the term "break" is instructive. Something broken can be put back together, but it will never regain the status of being unbroken--of having integrity. When you break a human being, you turn him into something subhuman. You enslave him. This is why the Romans reserved torture for slaves, not citizens, and why slavery and torture were inextricably linked in the antebellum South.

What you see in the relationship between torturer and tortured is the absolute darkness of totalitarianism. You see one individual granted the most complete power he can ever hold over another. Not just confinement of his mobility--the abolition of his very agency. Torture uses a person's body to remove from his own control his conscience, his thoughts, his faith, his selfhood. The CIA's definition of "waterboarding"--recently leaked to ABC News--describes that process in plain English: "The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt." The ABC report then noted, "According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the waterboarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said Al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two and a half minutes before begging to confess."

Before the Bush administration, two documented cases of the U.S. Armed Forces using "waterboarding" resulted in courts-martial for the soldiers implicated. In Donald Rumsfeld's post-September 11 Pentagon, the technique is approved and, we recently learned, has been used on at least eleven detainees, possibly many more. What you see here is the deployment of a very basic and inescapable human reflex--the desire not to drown and suffocate--in order to destroy a person's autonomy. Even the most hardened fanatic can only endure two and a half minutes. After that, he is indeed "broken."

Read the entire article. It's well-worth your time.


elendil said...

I guess it was valuable and useful information, just valuable and useful to a certain select group of people.

I hope you don't mind me self-advertising, but I have an entry on my blog covering the history of articles relating to the al-Libi case. There is also another case where the threat of torture was enough for a detainee to fabricate parts of their statement.

Kathy said...

Thank you for your comment. I appreciate the links to more information at your blog, too. I don't regard that as self-advertising. You're not promoting a product or a business. You're simply adding to the issue being discussed.

elendil said...

Thank you. I once got told off for doing that, so I wanted to tread lightly.