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Torture is not a partisan issue

I have been researching interrogation and teaching military ethics to midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy for years. I looked forward to the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA interrogation program to answer some specific questions raised in the course of my research.

I was initially dismayed by the publication of the majority report, along with the two rebuttals and the dueling partisan interviews and editorials that followed. Once again, it seems that we are unable to have a rational argument in this country about an important issue.

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Here is my plea to conservatives who might be apt to deem a 6,000-page report with 35,000 footnotes — all of it — simply as "hooey." Instead of dismissing it out of hand, read a few dozen pages of the majority report and of the CIA rebuttal. It has some important, uncontested points that conservatives — and all Americans — should consider.

The open-minded reader will come away from this comparative reading assignment uncertain if the CIA program produced much unique intelligence. The CIA itself concedes many of the points made by the majority report (not all of it hooey, apparently) and patiently presents counter-evidence to other charges.

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Still, notice there are many points on which the majority report and CIA rebuttal agree. Let us even grant all the contested points in the CIA's favor. Let us assume, contrary to what all the interrogation literature and almost every professional interrogator says, that torture can consistently produce reliable intelligence. Let us also assume, remarkably, that the two psychiatrists with no interrogation experience the CIA hired to design the program discovered the secrets to a successful torture program. There is still enough ground for both liberals and conservatives to conclude that the U.S. government should never again implement anything like the CIA interrogation program.

There are enough uncontested points among the reports to make a moral argument and an argument about alternate means in favor of banning torture.

Neither of the two rebuttal documents challenges the fact that horrible things were done to detainees. The descriptions of "enhanced interrogation" show depraved treatment of human beings that any reasonable person should call torture. The full descriptions of the interrogations make clear that techniques that might seem tolerable when described in isolation — standing, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, nudity — are just as cruel and dehumanizing as more obviously brutal actions when done in combination and over periods of months.

Regarding alternate means, the CIA acknowledges in its rebuttal that it cannot know if non-coercive interrogation tactics would have produced the same or better intelligence than its program (or would have been faster). This is a key admission. We can compare the negative aspects of the CIA program to the typical outcomes of the sort of non-coercive interrogation program it did not try.

There was poor program oversight and sloppiness in execution, with interrogators exceeding regulations in order to overcome their detainees' acclimatization to previous rounds of torture. This reciprocal dynamic of acclimatization and sadism belies the claim made by some that torture can be clinically controlled.

Innocent people were tortured and held long after their innocence was established.

Detainees were killed.

There was and could be no plan for what to do with detainees after they were tortured because their testimony would be unusable in trial and they could never be released without exposing the program. Holding them indefinitely in secret was and is infeasible.

Revelations about the program were a public relations disaster leading to damaged international standing, a loss of intelligence-sharing from allies, scapegoating and domestic political divisions.

Assumptions that certain detainees were guilty or must know more than they previously admitted led to a dynamic in which CIA headquarters equated detainee silence with evidence of deception. This led to wanton levels of torture that pressed detainees ignorant of certain operations to concoct stories. We know, from vast experience, that the non-coercive rapport-building interrogation techniques used by U.S. law enforcement and the U.S. military work most of the time and with a vast array of detainees, including jihadists. Non-coercive interrogation methods do not produce the negative consequences just described. Therefore, even if the CIA's enhanced interrogation program led to some successes, given its uncontested moral horror and negative repercussions, liberals and conservatives should be able to agree never again to countenance such a program.

Michael Skerker is an associate professor in the Leadership, Ethics and Law department of the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USNA. His email is skerker@usna.edu.

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