The Case for Bringing Back Torture Is a Ticking Time-Bomb

A former CIA interrogator who terrorized prisoners hasn’t learned the lessons of his own immoral behavior.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

As Donald Trump prepares to become president, his campaign rhetoric about wanting to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” has opponents of brutal interrogation tactics anxious about the future. Is the United States going to torture again? Will its soldiers be ordered to perpetrate war crimes? Will its intelligence agencies increasingly attract the sort of recruit who doesn’t mind torturing people?

There is resistance to that future.

“I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do. We will not waterboard,” Senator John McCain has said. “We will not torture people … It doesn’t work.”

General James Mattis informed the president-elect, who wants to name him secretary of fdefense, that he has never found torture to be useful. On the other hand:

  • While declaring himself impressed by Mattis’s answer, Trump said, “I'm not saying it changed my mind. Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we're not allowed to waterboard.”
  • As in the aughts, the CIA is likelier than the Pentagon to run U.S. government torture chambers, or “black sites,” to use the preferred euphemism.
  • Trump is being urged by people with ties to the CIA to bring back waterboarding.

One public instance of that lobbying is a Wall Street Journal op-ed authored by James E. Mitchell, a retired Air Force officer and former CIA contractor who says that he personally waterboarded three people at CIA black sites. With his forthcoming book, Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America, he is profiting from his experience strapping down humans, forcing water into their sinus cavities, flooding their lungs, and exploiting their fear of drowning to terrorize them into sharing information.

He is concerned that President-elect Trump won’t be sufficiently brutal to prisoners. “The president-elect needs to think through what to do when the U.S. captures a major terrorist who likely has information about an impending nuclear, chemical or biological attack,” he writes. “Is he prepared to say that if intelligence cannot be elicited using only the tactics contained in the Army Field Manual—as President Obama has directed—we will simply have to live with the consequences?”

He continues:

Some in government have argued that for the U.S. to maintain the moral high ground, all harsh interrogation tactics should remain illegal, as they have been since the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 was enacted.

Yet in a ticking-time-bomb scenario, should CIA officers just do whatever is necessary and hope for clemency in the trial that would follow? As someone who was thrown under the bus by the Obama Justice Department, I believe it is unreasonable to expect CIA officers to put their lives at risk to protect a government that will not do its best to protect them in return.

Overemphasize political correctness, and we will be standing on the moral high ground, looking down into a smoking hole that used to be several city blocks.

It is telling that even a former CIA operative who personally brutalized prisoners is now invoking the dubious ticking-time-bomb scenario when defending the practice––this despite the fact that his own behavior illustrates the slippery slope to be avoided.

According to a years-long Senate investigation, “the CIA's brutal interrogations of terrorism suspects from 2002 to 2008 led to false confessions and fabricated information,” the Los Angeles Times reported, and it “produced no useful intelligence about imminent terrorist attacks and were so badly run that the CIA lost track of captives.”

Mitchell’s op-ed doesn’t claim that his brutal interrogations defused a ticking time bomb or prevented an impending nuclear, chemical, or biological attack. He simply references his actions, then slyly segues to those Hollywood-screenplay scenarios, as if terrorist organizations are in the habit of constructing time-bombs with countdown clocks that can be defused, but only if the hero gets rough with the bad guy in time.

Real terrorists don’t weaken their plots for dramatic effect.

There is no known instance of torture preventing a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack, though the practice has been perpetrated throughout human history.  One needn’t summon any particular degree of insight or wisdom to see that if the Trump administration chooses to torture, it will inevitably be used in the absence of a ticking time bomb, on prisoners with no information that would save city blocks from WMDs. That’s precisely what happened during the Bush administration. For a veteran of the Bush-era CIA to invoke ticking time-bombs is misdirection.

The defectiveness of the author’s moral compass is confirmed by his claim that opposition to torture amounts to “political correctness,” as if it is comparable to complaints that sushi is cultural appropriation or attempts to shout down campus speakers. On the contrary, the act of inflicting severe pain on a human prisoner is as apt an example of something that is substantively wrong as can be found short of murder.

What’s more, torture apologists are often beneficiaries of patriotic political correctness. It is politically incorrect to point out that the CIA under Bush and Vice-President Cheney tortured human beings even in the absence of any ticking-time bomb, transgressing against the law and numerous widely held codes of human morality. It is politically incorrect to point out that in doing so, CIA officers like Mitchell spared zero U.S. cities annihilation while handing terrorists a recruiting tool.

As a former Air Force interrogator who spent hundreds of hours questioning terrorists put it:

As the senior interrogator in Iraq for a task force charged with hunting down Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the former Al Qaida leader and mass murderer, I listened time and time again to captured foreign fighters cite the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as their main reason for coming to Iraq to fight. Consider that 90 percent of the suicide bombers in Iraq are these foreign fighters and you can easily conclude that we have lost hundreds, if not thousands, of American lives because of our policy of torture and abuse. But that’s only the past.

Somewhere in the world there are other young Muslims who have joined Al Qaida because we tortured and abused prisoners. These men will certainly carry out future attacks against Americans, either in Iraq, Afghanistan, or possibly even here. And that’s not to mention numerous other Muslims who support Al Qaida, either financially or in other ways, because they are outraged that the United States tortured and abused Muslim prisoners.

It is politically incorrect to point out that an international treaty signed by President Reagan and ratified by the U.S. Senate requires us to hold torturers accountable, and that in failing to do so we’re in the company of history’s most abhorrent regimes.

And it is politically incorrect to point out, as Jim Manzi once did:

Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage—not foolhardy and unsustainable “principle at all costs”, but reasoned courage—from its citizens. The American response should be to find some other solution to this problem if the casualty rate is unacceptable.

To demand that the government “keep us safe” by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.

As Manzi went on to persuasively argue, history strongly suggests that waterboarding and other forms of torture are associated with neither greatness nor winning:

Here are the modern conflicts in which, to my knowledge, waterboarding is believed to have been used as a widespread technique to gain intelligence from captured combatants over a sustained period and area of operations by non-US powers:

WWII-Era Japan
The German Gestapo
Various Latin American regimes (~1960 – ~1980)
Cambodian Khmer Rouge (1975-1979)
The French in the Algerian War (1954 – 1962)
The British in the Cyprus emergency (1950s)

Do you notice a pattern?

These are either dictatorial regimes, or actions of basically democratic governments in arenas of imperial border occupation. For a democracy, waterboarding is a corruption of empire.

Here’s another pattern: Britain, France, Germany and Japan have long, proud histories full of enormous accomplishment. The episodes listed here are, for all of these countries, far from their proudest moments. As I said in a prior post, while correlation is not causality, there does not seem to be a clear relationship that indicates the tactical benefits of waterboarding are associated with the conditions of strategic victory.

To my knowledge, there are two such periods of extensive use of waterboarding as a widespread technique to gain intelligence from captured combatants over a sustained period and area of operations by the United States prior to the GWOT:

The occupation of the Philippines
The Vietnam War

For all of the individual heroism, honor and ingenuity displayed in both of these conflicts, I don’t believe that either is thought of as a moment of triumph for the United States.

The moral case again torture is strong. The legal case against torture is strong. The strategic case against torture is strong.  And the historical case against torture is strong.  We shouldn’t allow torturers who perpetrated their deeds without a time-bomb ticking to blind us to the folly of waterboarding. If they succeed in obscuring the reality of what they did, the United States may be more likely to torture prisoners again, making all Americans less safe and earning the scorn of future generations.