Turnabout on Torture: USA Today on Cheney and Obama

USA Today echoes the sentiments of our blog in an editorial today:

On the Sunday morning talk shows, the outgoing vice president and the incoming president provided viewers with an unusually stark view of the way interrogation of terror suspects is about to change.

Dick Cheney, on CNN, vigorously defended the use of waterboarding, which simulates drowning, on three high-level al-Qaeda suspects. Unlike “pull(ing) out somebody’s toenails in order to get them to talk,” waterboarding “is not torture,” Cheney asserted unconvincingly.

Barack Obama, on ABC, rebuked Cheney. Waterboarding is indeed torture, he said, echoing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ex-POW he defeated on Election Day. On Friday, introducing Leon Panetta as his pick to head the CIA, Obama succinctly underscored why torture has no place as official U.S. policy: “Not only because that’s who we are, but also, ultimately it will make us safer and will help in changing
hearts and minds in our struggle against extremists.”

Right after the vicious 9/11 attacks, the natural instinct was to put no limits on interrogation of potential enemies, to go over to what Cheney called the “dark side.” One TV show became a hit by playing to the national mood: 24. In it, counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer repeatedly saves the nation by acting decisively while others waffle, including with the occasional use of torture.

But as time has gone on, the downside of torture has become clearer.

Institutionalization of aggressive interrogation techniques led to the scandal at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, undermining U.S. standing in the Muslim world and making it hard for America to argue that it practices the values it preaches. U.S. military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been complicated because of the inadmissibility of evidence obtained with waterboarding.

What’s more, many intelligence experts agree that torture produces bad intelligence and endangers U.S. POWs. After briefings from intelligence experts about how torture does not quite work as they had assumed, even 24’s writers are introducing more ambiguity.

Ultimately, ambiguity is the truth of torture.

Obama might one day face a “ticking time bomb” situation and have to make a difficult decision. But those are as rare in the real world as they are common on TV. Meanwhile, the only way to stop the damage that torture causes is to ban the use of extreme tactics, as Obama is about to do.

On that last point, just in case Obama is faced with a ticking time bomb situation, he might want to read this interview in Harper’s with interrogator Matthew Alexander. The President will undoubtedly face difficult decisions, which will not justify the use of torture:

In Iraq, we lived the “ticking time bomb” scenario every day. Numerous Al Qaeda members that we captured and interrogated were directly involved in coordinating suicide bombing attacks. I remember one distinct case of a Sunni imam who was caught just after having blessed suicide bombers to go on a mission. Had we gotten there just an hour earlier, we could have saved lives. Still, we knew that if we resorted to torture the short term gains would be outweighed by the long term losses. I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the number one reason they had decided to pick up arms and join Al Qaeda was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantánamo Bay. My team of interrogators knew that we would become Al Qaeda’s best recruiters if we resorted to torture. Torture is counterproductive to keeping America safe and it doesn’t matter if we do it or if we pass it off to another government. The result is the same. And morally, I believe, there is an even stronger argument. Torture is simply incompatible with American principles. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both forbade their troops from torturing prisoners of war. They realized, as the recent bipartisan Senate report echoes, that this is about who we are. We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him.

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Published on January 12, 2009

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