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When does coercion become torture?

The Baltimore Sun

LATROBE, Pa. -- The Senate Judiciary Committee is to vote tomorrow on the nomination of Michael B. Mukasey to be attorney general, and some senators say they won't confirm him unless he defines waterboarding as torture. Perhaps Mr. Mukasey should have asked the senators to define torture first. Until they clarify the term, it is dangerous to discuss specific techniques used in interrogation.

A usable definition has been blurred by those who insist on confusing the terms "coercive interrogation" and "torture." Some point to the United Nations' definition for an answer, but by focusing on one word in the U.N. Convention Against Torture, we can see the problem. Article 1 defines torture as "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession." The adjective that clouds the subject and allows for numerous interpretations is "severe."

What is severe? Sleep deprivation and stress positions are commonly mentioned by opponents of such interrogation, but what do those terms mean? If an interrogator keeps an unlawful combatant up 15 minutes past his bedtime, is that sleep deprivation? What about 30 minutes, or an hour? If I force a prisoner to kneel for 10 minutes, is that torture? Should it require presidential approval? If I grab an uncooperative terrorist by the front of his shirt and shake him, or if I yell at him, is that torture? What is the line where an act crosses over from coercive interrogation to torture?

Of course, at the far end of the spectrum there is common agreement. The U.S. does not electrocute prisoners' genitals or chop their fingers off one at a time. Those acts are illegal and punishable. However, advocates of coerced interrogation insist that making a prisoner uncomfortable should not be confused, or in any way equated with, torture.

There are those on the political left - and even some within the law enforcement and military community - who insist we should ban any coercion. Rapport-building is certainly one method of intelligence-gathering, and it should be used when applicable, but the technique takes time. It is best used in strategic intelligence-gathering situations. But if soldiers pick up a terrorist while planting his last IED of the day and want to discover where the others were hidden before lives are lost, there is no time to make friends. If the terrorist shows a vulnerability to a coercive technique, our forces should be allowed the option in order to gather the needed information.

Opponents argue that coercive techniques yield unreliable information. I offer two counterpoints. First, the prisoner must understand the process will not cease until the information is verified; if he confesses to planting an IED on the corner of Mansour Street, then a radio dispatch is sent for a patrol to check it out. My experience is that the prisoner will provide correct information. Second, if a person under coercion confesses anything, he will usually begin with the truth.

If the U.S. concedes that virtually any coercion qualifies as torture, our enemies will draw moral equivalencies between compelling a prisoner to kneel for 10 minutes and slowly lowering him into a paper shredder - after all, torture is torture.

Any attorney general should insist on policy guidelines allowing for interrogation techniques that fall short of a clear definition of torture, beginning with long-lasting or permanent physical harm. The bar for defining torture must be higher than simple coercion.

Allowing the left to draw moral equivalence between a slap to the belly and dismemberment does not protect the lives of Americans. Our representatives need to support coerced interrogations and stop twisting logic to demagogue the issue for political gain. We can draw limits and provide punishments for abuse of the techniques by interrogators, but for the sake of our security and American lives, we cannot prohibit coercive interrogations.

Richard Saccone is a retired counterintelligence agent who served one year in Iraq. He teaches international relations, global terrorism and political science at St. Vincent College. His e-mail is

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