Nine Heroes Who Stood Up Against Torture

Thanks to Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, torture is front-page news again. Some defenders of torture claim the participation of U.S. military personnel and intelligence officers indicates that it was necessary and legal. In fact, there was real-time opposition to torture in every agency, at every level. Many Americans refused to go along with the program because they understood—and, in some cases, saw firsthand—the disastrous moral and strategic costs of torture. And they usually paid a price for acting on their principles.
Here are just some of the courageous men and women who said no to torture and yes to American ideals.

CIA officer Glen Carle was tapped to interrogate a “high-value target” at a “black site” in 2002. He refused to use torture and denounced those who did. He quickly realized that the detainee was “the wrong guy”—he hadn’t committed the crimes of which he was accused. Despite Carle’s objections, the CIA continued torturing the prisoner in search of information he didn’t have. Carle was soon replaced and eventually resigned from the CIA. The detainee wasn’t released until 2010. Writes Carle: “Torture does not work; it makes it harder to evaluate what detainees say, and more suspect. It is unnecessary, it is counterproductive, it is illegal, and it is immoral. Torture besmirches the meaning of America.”


Former Sergeant Joseph Darby discovered photos of his fellow soldiers torturing prisoners at Abu Gharib in Iraq. After a crisis of conscience—torn between loyalty to his company and his moral beliefs—Darby sent a disc of the photographs and an anonymous letter to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. Three months later the photos were published, sparking an international furor, and Darby faced severe fallout. Due to death threats, he was unable to move back to his hometown. Nevertheless, Darby boldly testified at a pretrial hearing for one of the soldiers perpetrating the abuse. Torture, he said, “violated everything I personally believed in and all I’d been taught about the rules of war.”


When Captain (now Major) Ian Fishback reported abuses committed by his own unit during prisoner interrogations, those in command ignored his efforts. Frustrated by the lack of transparency or guidelines for interrogations and convinced the practices he observed were wrong, Fishback penned a letter to Senator John McCain about his concerns. In his letter Fishback also implied that Donald Rumsfeld was not honest with Congress about the extent of the abuses taking place at Abu Gharib. Fueled by Fishback’s letter, McCain went on to sponsor the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibits “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” of detainees.


Agents tipped off Former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson that interrogations at CIA black sites “might involve violations of human rights.” Helgerson then launched an investigation that resulted in a report documenting abusive interrogations in CIA-run prisons. In the report, he questioned the legality of these practices and called them inhumane. He also wrote a critical review for Congress in 2005 of former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, a staunch defender of the torture program. These documents proved to be foundational in the effort to expose and prohibit CIA torture.


Steven M. Kleinman has 30 years of operational and leadership experience as an intelligence officer with assignments worldwide and is the recipient of Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency elite human intelligence collector awards. He is a recognized subject matter expert in human intelligence operations, intelligence support to special operations, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, strategic interrogation, resistance to interrogation, and the evolution of violent extremism. He has served as a senior intelligence officer for the Defense Department’s special survival program, the Air Force Special Operations Command, and the U.S. Central Command. He is the recipient of the Practitioner Award for 2013 from the International Investigative Interviewing Research group.


Mary McCarthy allegedly confirmed to a reporter the existence of “black sites”—secret CIA prisons where detainees were tortured. She had also been investigating “criminal mistreatment” of prisoners by the CIA and its contractors. While McCarthy acknowledges talking to the press, she denies revealing classified information. She was nonetheless fired from the CIA. In a meeting with Senate staff in 2005, McCarthy testified that the CIA had lied about the extent and nature of the torture program—an assertion that the Senate Intelligence Committee report confirms.


When former General Counsel of the Navy Alberto Mora first learned that detainees at Gitmo were suffering “physical abuse and degrading treatment,” he began investigating. After obtaining copies of memos and briefs authorizing “extraordinary interrogation techniques” including waterboarding, stress positions, and hooding, Mora argued within the DOD against these practices. And when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appointed the Working Group to establish new interrogation guidelines, Mora lobbied to prohibit torture, citing evidence that it was not only illegal but also ineffective. The military brass rejected his arguments, however, and implemented the “Torture Memos” without his knowledge.


A retired major general in the U.S. Army, Antonio Taguba authored the document that became known as the “Taguba Report,” which exposed abuse at the Abu Gharib prison in Iraq. Taguba documented widespread “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses.” The report was published and leaked in 2004. Along with the infamous photos, his report sparked a national debate about torture. Taguba was asked to retire in 2006 due to his dissent on torture. He later characterized the Bush administration’s actions as war crimes and called for the prosecution of those responsible.


Philip Zelikow, a former State Department lawyer and adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, argued against the legality of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in a 2005 memo. He made the case that controlled drowning, hanging suspects from the ceiling for prolonged periods, and other forms of abuse were in clear violation of the Constitution. A colleague later informed Zelikow that his memo had been destroyed. His words not heeded, he predicted that “America’s descent into torture will in time be viewed like the Japanese internments,” when “fear and anxiety were exploited by zealots and fools.”


Published on December 16, 2002


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