For and Against Torture

A former torture supporter explains why he was wrong and what he learned

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No one said the debate over the morality of torture, raging since the first days of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be easy. It's been especially difficult for Spencer Ackerman, a national security reporter who once supported the interrogation methods he now opposes. But the biggest critic of this reversal is Ackerman himself. In an act of self-examination and bravery exceedingly rare in the world of punditry, Ackerman analyzed and viciously attacked his own 2003 article defending the use "torture-lite" on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed:

A couple days after KSM's arrest, I wrote the most shameful thing I've ever published. It was supposed to be a piece for TNR's website about why we didn't need to torture KSM in order to get valuable intelligence. Instead, I bought into an untenable distinction between "torture" and "torture-lite" and it led me to sadistic places that I just didn't think through. Toward the end of the column -- which had absolutely no discussion, as I recall, of what was legal -- I wrote the repugnant line that we didn't have to torture Khalid Shaikh Mohammed because we could just tell him that we'd harm his children if he didn't tell us what we wanted to know. Counterintuitive, right? I was caught up in triumphalism at the time and didn't realize how depraved that sentiment was. Not that that makes it any better.

Tweeting that the piece was "the most disgusting thing I ever wrote," Ackerman used the self-flagellation as an opportunity to analyze the appeal of arguing in defense of torture, as he and other did. "Without offering any excuse, in retrospect I was caught up in revenge fantasies for 9/11 and rationalized them as intelligence work," he wrote.

Ackerman concluded that the CIA officers who used the controversial interrogation methods shouldn't become political targets. "I bring it up because it speaks to my reluctance to criticize CIA interrogators for what they did. There was an entire structure of both policy and public discourse that supported those decisions," he wrote. "That's what ought to be criticized. Including, shamefully, myself."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.