This Week in Torture

Debating the Obama administration’s treatment of the Bush administration’s treatment of terrorist suspects.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

To help you keep up with the debates in and about Washington, Slate offers this guide to the news of the week. Here are a few arguments on the week’s major issue, the release of memos describing the CIA’s interrogation tactics.

Should these memos have been released?

Yes. The judge in the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act case was likely to compel the administration to release the memos, anyway. And much of the information was already public, so future terrorists are not learning anything new. What’s more, releasing the memos is also an attempt to remove the moral stain from America’s image by being forthcoming about the past and reassuring about the future. In his statement accompanying the memos’ release and in one of his first declarations as president, Obama said that the United States no longer uses these techniques.

No. Even if these specific techniques are no longer used or were already known, future terrorists can still learn about the rationale behind U.S. counterterrorism strategy. And if future intelligence officials are hesitant about carrying out their duties because they fear that their actions may become public one day, then the United States could become less safe.

Do these techniques amount to torture?

No. We used these techniques on our own soldiers in training. If we did that to our own men, how could it be torture when we do it to the enemy? Read the memos. As Karl Rove says, they show an abundance of caution.

Yes. You can find lawyers to argue that the sky is made of tennis balls, but that doesn’t mean that it is. The Red Cross has the last word on defining what is and is not torture, and it determined that these techniques were torture. As for the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training, it was designed to mimic the worst behavior of American enemies, the kind of behavior for which those enemies were prosecuted. Plus, as William Saletan points out, in crucial ways, SERE does not resemble a real interrogation. David Morris, who graduated from the SERE school, testifies that, counter to the Justice Department memos, the torture does lasting damage.

Did these techniques work?

Yes. As Marc Thiessen, Bush’s former chief speechwriter, pointed out, the measures were effective. Enhanced interrogation techniques used against Abu Zubaydah resulted in the identification of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Meanwhile, former Vice President Dick Cheney has asked that memos showing that these techniques worked be declassified.

No. I prefer to listen to the people actually on the ground rather than in the White House. Ali Soufan, an FBI special agent involved in the interrogations, wrote in the New York Times that the key information retrieved from detainees either came from traditional methods or could have. According to Soufan, Ramzi bin al-Shibh’s capture came from information provided by a different terrorist operative who didn’t face torture. The information that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was obtained using regular tactics.

It doesn’t matter. This is a moral question. Listen to Shep: Americans do not torture.

Should there be a commission or prosecution to investigate further?

Yes. This is a moral test for the United States. Only if its leaders are held to account for their actions can America regain its voice in world affairs. The United States may also be obligated to prosecute under the U.N. Convention Against Torture. The attorney general should prosecute. But if he doesn’t have a case right now or the administration doesn’t want to seem overtly political, then a 9/11-style bipartisan commission can be formed to conduct an investigation.

No (practical version). As John Judis argues, investigations work only when the country is united behind the inquiry. In this case, even the Obama administration is split. The animus created by the process will tear up the country and distract the president. Plus, it would be hard to build a case against the lawyers in the Bush administration’s Justice Department.

No (normative version). To go after the prosecutors is criminalizing policy differences, and you’d better watch out who you go after—because even Nancy Pelosi may have known about those methods now under such scrutiny.