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The Imperative of Moral Arguments Against Torture

PBS Frontline's obsession with disproving enhanced interrogation's effectiveness undermined the strongest case against it.

Last Tuesday, PBS Frontline aired the documentary “Secrets, Politics, and Torture”, which detailed the CIA’s torture or “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EITs) program utilized after the attacks on September 11th. Like most exposés focused on torture in the CIA, this particular documentary outlined both the horrific interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists as well as the ultimate futility of these methods.

In one particularly vivid case, FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan remembered with frustration how in the summer of 2002 the CIA intervened in the case of Abu Zubaydah, who was alleged to be a member of al-Qaeda’s inner circle before that charge was eventually disproven. The agency thrust aside the FBI and Soufan’s interrogation methods, which depended largely on gaining the trust and respect of the prisoner and which had yielded reliable information under close supervision. Despite this progress, the CIA wanted more information, faster, and so implemented the EITs in the confines of a “black site” in Thailand. Within days Zubaydah was so psychologically shattered that his testimonies were questionable at best and incoherent at worst.

Zubaydah’s case was only one of dozens that PBS highlighted in a string of examples testifying to the poor results of torture. After spending hours of confinement in boxes, or being shackled to walls, a prisoner will say anything to make the abuses stop. The documentary focused especially on the false confessions of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, known colloquially to the intelligence community as KSM. Discovered to be the mastermind behind the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, KSM was captured in the fall of 2002. For the next several months the CIA transferred him from black site to black site, subjecting him to stress positions and upwards of 180 hours of waterboarding. The results? False information regarding fabricated plans of terrorist attacks in the western U.S., given in a fruitless effort to stop the torture.

The point being made by interviewees throughout the documentary was unmistakable: The U.S. organized and implemented a program of inhumane and grotesque techniques designed to inflict physical and psychological torture, yet none of those means helped them achieve any stated security goals. The inhumanity was unproductive.

The persistent focus on torture’s ineffectiveness, however, naturally leads to the question: if they had worked, would we be bothered? If EITs had been as effective as Soufan’s more moderate techniques, would anyone be upset by the suffering of a few dozen violent extremists? The documentary leaves the impression that the most repulsive element of the CIA’s brutality was that it was all done in vain, rendering former acting CIA Director John McLaughlin’s justifying comment, “We were at war. Bad things happen at war,” utterly indefensible.

But what if it had indeed been torture that had led to Osama bin Laden’s death, as the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” actively sought to depict? Would the U.S. be less morally culpable for the acute suffering it inflicted upon unarmed and defenseless men if American lives truly had been saved as a result? The CIA thought that the public would be largely appeased by the supposed effectiveness of the torture in “Zero Dark Thirty,” so the answer seems to be a deeply disturbing “yes.” We, alongside our leaders, appear to be comfortable with torture as long as it gets the job done.

When the CIA first sought the White House’s approval for the torture program, there were no questions of morality raised. As the documentary disclosed, President Bush’s two questions regarded the program’s efficacy, and its legality. Condoleezza Rice did not take an active stand against the use of torture until it had been proven to be ineffective, not immoral, in her eyes. The implications of this utter disregard for morality are horrifying. If efficacy and efficiency—rather than morality—become the governing ethical considerations in war, then what of the ideals the U.S. is purportedly fighting for? Sen. John McCain said in his floor statement this past December:

But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use…It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be….When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights…Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.

Senator McCain, who was himself tortured as a POW in Vietnam, understood what was lost on the CIA directors and members of the Bush administration who were so desperate for information that they ignored all codes of honor and morality. Post-9/11 America was terrified, and understandably so. America’s leaders were ready and willing to try anything to ensure that terrorism would not touch our soil again. It was a worthy mission, but as McCain reminded us in that same speech last year:

[We] are obliged by history, by our nation’s highest ideals and the many terrible sacrifices made to protect them, by our respect for human dignity to make clear we need not risk our national honor to prevail in this or any war.

America needed to be protected then, as she does today, but security itself cannot be the highest good considered, lest the very ideals upon which our nation was founded be destroyed in the process. Frontline, by emphasizing torture’s ineffectiveness as the core of its argument against EITs, ironically echoed the obsession with safety and security it criticized in the torture program’s architects.

The final argument against torture must always be moral, then, as the by now well-worn arguments against its efficacy seem always to bend under the fear and panic of each new crisis.

Kelly Thomas is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.