In the end, torture doesn’t work

J.B. Sivanich

(part II of III)
Last week I wrote a column arguing that torture is unconstitutional and that those who are responsible, no matter their title or position, should be investigated and prosecuted. An investigation would hopefully allow many facts about torture that are not readily known to the greater public come to light, which would – again, hopefully – prevent this abuse from occurring in the United States again.
One of the most troubling aspects of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib history is that many people tortured were innocent. The Red Cross reported that 70-90 percent of prisoners held in Abu Ghraib had no connections to terrorism or were common criminals. As for Guantanamo, a group of law students and attorneys from Seton Hall University found that of 517 prisoners, only eight percent were associated with al-Qaeda. Likewise, a counterterrorism expert from the FBI said that there were only 50 prisoners in Guantanamo worth holding.
When wondering how this could happen, one should remember that Afghan tribesmen could easily label a fellow Afghani an al-Qaeda supporter and sell him to U.S. troops for a nice profit; only five percent of Afghani prisoners were actually captured by U.S. forces.
In the ongoing debate, people like Maher Assad should not be forgotten. Assad – a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent with no connections to terrorism – was detained at JFK International Airport on his way home from a vacation in Tunis and sent to Syria to live in a solitary three-by-six “grave” with no light and plenty of rats, where he was beaten regularly with shredded cables for a year straight as part of the U.S. Extraordinary Rendition program.
A persistent myth about torture is that it is effective, a claim that is based more on some intuition about human nature than actual empirical data.
Israel is the only Western country that outright legalized torture for a short period of time; their security service concluded in 2001 that the best way to get information out of reluctant prisoners was not to torture them, but to offer them what in Hebrew was referred to as the “three Ks”: kesef, or money; kavod, respect; and kussit, a crude sexual term for a woman.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who – after Osama Bin Laden – was thought to be the second most dangerous terrorist in the world, was found and captured due to information gathered from interrogation methods that were “based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information” as described by the lead interrogator, Matthew Alexander. This method of interrogating is seen as the way forward for the Obama administration.
Torture is not even guaranteed to work. The Gestapo failed to break many senior members of the German, French and Dutch resistance. In medieval France, when torture was legal and much worse methods such as bone-crushing and pouring boiling oil onto feet were used, only three to 14 percent of all prisoners said anything at all.
Japanese fascists, who were quite knowledgeable about torture, wrote in their field manual during World War II that torture is the clumsiest approach to gathering information.
Much of the time torture is counter-productive, since so much of the information that it produces is bogus.
Abdullah Higazy, an Egyptian national, falsely confessed to playing a part in the Sept. 11 attacks when told that if he didn’t confess, his family in Egypt would be tortured.
One of the most damaging results of the false confessions produced under harsh interrogation techniques played an integral role in the story of the intelligence failure leading to our invasion of Iraq. In February 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was preparing a speech that presented the case for a preemptive war against Iraq, and was, as Jane Mayer reports in her book “The Dark Side,” “highly skeptical about much of the intelligence underlying the case for war.”
Powell’s chief of staff, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, said that Powell was about to “throw the whole thing out” until then-CIA Director, George Tenet, personally told him that “a high-level al-Qaeda figure” told them that al-Qaeda operatives had received training in regard to chemical and biological weapons in Iraq.
These confessions came from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a member of al-Qaeda who ran the Al Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, and were forced out of him by Egyptian interrogators who locked him “in a cage for more than eighty hours” and then repeatedly punched him for fifteen minutes. The confessions were false; al-Libi reportedly didn’t even understand the term “biological.” As he explained it later, “They were killing me; I had to tell them something.”
Torture also prohibits the American justice system from taking its proper course. The 20th 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed al-Qahtani , who was stopped from entering the United States by immigration services, had his charges dropped by Susan Crawford, who is convening authority of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, because, as she said, “we tortured Qahtani.”
The evidence that at one point may have been used to convict and possibly execute al-Qahtani is no longer valid in court due to the abuse he suffered.
The laws put in place to prohibit torture exist for a purpose. An investigation should be organized to uphold them because they are laws; spreading information about the devastating and counterproductive nature of torture would – and should – be a welcome and necessary byproduct of such an investigation.