Torture Works…For Some Things…


By Joe Campbell
April 27th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Throughout history, the main purpose of torture – from the the castration of William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace to the water boarding of heretics before councils of the Inquisition to the various stress techniques used by the Soviet Union to break dissidents – has been to extract politically necessary confessions to justify the policies of the state (or church). In this, history has shown that torture has been extraordinarily successful.

Frank Rich in the New York Times suggests a similar motive for American torture in his latest column:

Maj. Paul Burney, a United States Army psychiatrist assigned to interrogations in Guantánamo Bay that summer of 2002…: “A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful.” As higher-ups got more “frustrated” at the inability to prove this connection, the major said, “there was more and more pressure to resort to measures” that might produce that intelligence.

In other words, the ticking time bomb was not another potential Qaeda attack on America but the Bush administration’s ticking timetable for selling a war in Iraq; it wanted to pressure Congress to pass a war resolution before the 2002 midterm elections. Bybee’s memo was written the week after the then-secret (and subsequently leaked) “Downing Street memo,” in which the head of British intelligence informed Tony Blair that the Bush White House was so determined to go to war in Iraq that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” A month after Bybee’s memo, on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney would make his infamous appearance on “Meet the Press,” hyping both Saddam’s W.M.D.s and the “number of contacts over the years” between Al Qaeda and Iraq. If only 9/11 could somehow be pinned on Iraq, the case for war would be a slamdunk.

But there were no links between 9/11 and Iraq, and the White House knew it. Torture may have been the last hope for coercing such bogus “intelligence” from detainees who would be tempted to say anything to stop the waterboarding.

Rich suggests a level of malintent which I do not think is necessary to understand the White House decision to torture. But the connection he makes is a valid one. It was largely the confessions extracted by torture that made the case for Iraq seem urgent – beyond the various circumstantial evidence presented. It is known, for example, that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and Abu Zubaydah, each of whom provided key information linking Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, were tortured in order to extract this information. We now know the information they provided was false.

In other words – torture works – it can break someone’s will – and force them to tell you what you want to hear. But history has not demonstrated it can force someone to tell the truth. In action movies it always works – in real life, apparently not.