The truth about torture

If there were any remaining doubts that what the CIA did to captured terrorist suspects in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was torture, a report last week by an independent investigative panel should put them to rest. According to the report by the Constitution Project, an independent legal research and advocacy group in Washington, not only did the Bush administration indisputably engage in torturing prisoners to extract information, a practice banned by both U.S. and international law, but the nation's highest officials knew about the abuses and condoned them. Ultimately, that weakened rather than strengthened U.S. security and damaged our standing in the world, the panel concluded.

Coming more than a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the panel's finding that CIA interrogators systematically brutalized detainees at secret locations abroad and at the Guantanamo detention facility may seem like old news. But the legal and moral lapses of that era have never been formally acknowledged by the government, and neither the officials who approved the policy nor the CIA operatives who carried it out have ever been held responsible for their actions. Given that lack of accountability, what's to prevent a future administration from doing the same thing again?


The findings of the bipartisan panel led by former Republican congressman Asa Hutchinson and former Democratic Rep. James R. Jones should be a wake-up call that we risk repeating the mistakes of the past. To avoid that, we need to understand how the nation went so wrong during those years and move beyond the partisan divide over whether torture can ever be justified. "As long as [that] debate continues," the report's authors warn, "so too does the possibility that the United States could again engage in torture."

The Constitution Project's report presents a chilling account of the many forms of torture practiced by the CIA against terrorist suspects. Prisoners were thrown up against walls, subjected to freezing temperatures, deprived of sleep or denied medical treatment and terrorized with threats of execution for them or their families.


The investigators unequivocally declared that "waterboarding," an interrogation technique in which water is poured through a cloth over the mouth and nose of a bound prisoner to simulate drowning — and whose graphic depiction in the movie "Zero Dark 30" stirred outrage — clearly fits the definition of torture under the Geneva Conventions. The U.S. is a signatory to that agreement banning the mistreatment of prisoners of war, and the panel concluded that violating it "damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive."

Moreover, the panel found little evidence that torture is effective in producing valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. People under torture are likely to say anything to make the pain stop if they believe it's what their tormentors want to hear, regardless of whether it's true. For that reason, the panel concluded, it had found "no firm or persuasive evidence" that information gathered through torture was reliable. It also found that the "acrobatic" legal reasoning used by the Bush administration to justify the use of torture wasn't worth the paper it was printed on.

The Obama administration took office in 2009 pledging to end such practices, and that year Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. appointed a special prosecutor to investigate possible criminal charges stemming from abuses uncovered in what was then a recently declassified report by the CIA's inspector general. But the Obama administration also made clear it wanted to avoid becoming entangled in a bitter partisan debate over prosecuting former Bush administration officials at a time when the president's priorities were focused on the failing economy and a near collapse of the financial system. Last year, the special prosecutor quietly ended his probe, saying there was insufficient evidence to bring charges.

We still don't know the full extent of the CIA's use of torture and its mistreatment of prisoners. Constitution Project investigators had no access to classified materials and thus were forced to base their conclusions on interviews conducted with officials who had first-hand knowledge of the interrogation program. A separate report by the Senate Intelligence Committee based on agency records, rather than interviews, may paint an even clearer picture, but it remains classified. Given the abuses cited in the panel's report, it should be released immediately. Identifying the mistakes of the past is essential if we are to avoid going down that road again, and for that to happen the American public must know the full extent of the crimes committed in its name.