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A ‘Phony’ Ban on Torture?

In his op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Congress’s Phony War on Torture,” William McGurn takes congressional Democrats to task for not immediately proposing a law to ban waterboarding. Never mind that President Obama has already banned it and new Attorney General Eric Holder has clarified that it is, indeed, a form of torture.

But what caught my eye in McGurn’s piece is his suggestion that intelligence leaders who claim that torture has succeeded in extracting critical information from U.S. captives and “helped save innocent lives” ought to testify about those claims to Congress. (Behind closed doors, of course.)

My first thought was, “terrific—let’s see what evidence they have that torture actually works.” I’m among the many who are skeptical that interrogators can get anything valuable by torturing people, given that it’s impossible to know what’s reliable. (According to this report from Human Rights First, lots of former intelligence directors agree. But then, I considered further: so what if some senior intelligence officials can show that they did squeeze out some valuable information this way? Does that mean the United States should continue torturing people to get it?

Let’s say, for example, that the CIA abducts a father of five suspected of knowing something about the workings of Al Qaeda. If they bring all his children into the interrogation room and begin chopping off their limbs one by one, might that get him to spill the beans about what he knows? Maybe. Does that mean that U.S. officials ought to do that?

The point is that some things are just a bad idea for all sorts of reasons, even if they might be effective in some circumstances. The fact that drowning a man until he’s convinced he’s about to die may cause him to tell his interrogators something he thinks they want to hear doesn’t mean that the usual techniques of persuasion that have been used successfully by the military and U.S. law enforcement for decades wouldn’t have also worked. And it doesn’t deal with the obvious fact that torturing our suspected adversaries has served to foment far more hatred against the United States in the Muslim world than has ever existed before.

The military itself, of course, has long been among the most vocal opponents of torture and abusive interrogation techniques, knowing that it leaves our own U.S. servicemen dangerously vulnerable to exactly the same treatment.

Then, of course, there’s the law: Article III of the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, signed by then-President Ronald Reagan, and its related domestic legislation.

Finally, there is, as President Obama put it when he was running for office, the notion that brutal interrogations are “an outrageous betrayal of our core values.”

In fact, I think the following Obama statement says it best:

“Torture is how you create enemies, not how you defeat them. Torture is how you get bad information, not good intelligence. Torture is how you set back America’s standing in the world, not how you strengthen it.”

Does Congress need to pass a law to this effect, as McGurn dares them to? Well, it already has. And given the aggressive assertions of executive power over the last eight years, it would appear that it is now up to the executive to enforce it.

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