Hearing on Truth Commission Must Include Cost-Benefit Analysis of Torture

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced today that the Committee will hold a hearing exploring ideas on how to establish a commission to investigate past national security policies. The hearing is entitled “Getting to the Truth Through a Nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry.” The hearing will be held next Wednesday, March 4, at 10:00 a.m. A number of different models have been proposed for what such a Commission might look like, but hopefully this hearing will focus in on what is perhaps the most pragmatic task a Commission will face, that is examining the efficacy of harsh interrogation techniques – torture – and the strategic costs of policies allowing torture. As Senator Leahy notes in his statement announcing the convening of the hearing,

Vice President Dick Cheney continues to assert unilaterally that the Bush administration’s tactics, including torture, were appropriate and effective. But interested parties’ characterizations and self-serving conclusions are not facts and are not the unadulterated truth. We cannot let those be the only voices heard, nor allow their declarations to serve as historical conclusions on such important questions. An independent commission can undertake this broader and fundamental task.

Major General Tony Taguba, who is well known for conducting an honest investigation of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, told Salon.com that he supports a commission. General Taguba emphasized that any review must include close analysis of claims from Bush administration officials that abusive interrogations worked. “Some of those activities were actually not effective and those who thought so were in the academic or pristine settings of their offices,” Taguba said. “What would they know?” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Ri.), a member of both the Judiciary Committee and the Intelligence Committee, who is spearheading Senate efforts to establish a commission, agrees with General Taguba. He told Salon.com, “But it is important to prove the point, because they keep saying, ‘We saved lives. We interrupted plans. We did this, that and the other.’ Well, when you drill down, there is never a fact there. It turns into fog and evasion.”

But an examination into the effectiveness of torture is not enough. We need an independent commission to determine what actionable information – if any – has been uncovered by engaging in torture and cruelty in intelligence-gathering, whether that information could have been uncovered using other techniques, and then weigh that against the enormous costs of those policies on our national security.

Former General Counsel of the U.S. Navy Alberto Mora in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008, said

Our Nation’s policy decision to use so-called “harsh” interrogation techniques during the War on Terror was a mistake of massive proportions. It damaged and continues to damage our Nation in ways that appear never to have been considered or imagined by its architects and supporters, whose policy focus seems to have been narrowly confined to the four corners of the interrogation room. This interrogation policy – which may aptly be labeled a “policy of cruelty” – violated our founding values, our constitutional system and the fabric of our laws, our over-arching foreign policy interests, and our national security. The net effect of this policy of cruelty has been to weaken our defenses, not to strengthen them, and has been greatly contrary to our national interest.

In that testimony Mr. Mora raised the important point that this is not an abstract or intellectual concern. Not only have these policies harmed our relationships with U.S. allies and made the world a more dangerous place for Americans, but our troops have also been endangered. Indeed, “There are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.”

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Published on February 25, 2009

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