Senate report will set the record straight on torture

In 2009 with bi-partisan support, the Senate intelligence committee began an investigation of the CIA’s use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  I served as an interrogation expert on the investigation team based on my role with the Defense Intelligence Agency's Defense Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Center and my experience interrogating high value detainees at Guantanamo.

Now the findings of that investigation are about to be released. In May, the intelligence committee voted 11-3 to declassify the executive summary and conclusions of the 6,000-plus page report, and the redaction process is reportedly nearing an end. Americans will soon be able to see for themselves what the U.S. government did in their name—and what it lost as a result.

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Ever since the controversy over this issue erupted 10 years ago with the publication of photos from Abu Ghraib, torture proponents have asserted that abusive interrogations were necessary to save American lives. Interestingly, most of those who hype the alleged necessity and efficacy of torture haven’t conducted a single interrogation, let alone of a hardened terrorist.  Those of us who have know that torture is doubly dangerous; it undermines the fight against terrorism and everything we stand for as a nation.

While the intelligence committee’s report remains classified, news reports and statements by those familiar with it confirm that torture didn’t help locate Osama Bin Laden and was generally a failure as an intelligence-producing technique. From my professional experience, I know that sophisticated rapport-building techniques are a much better way to produce actionable intelligence.

Torture is not merely ineffective: it’s counterproductive. It’s true that torture tends to make people talk, but it doesn’t make them tell the truth. In a bid to make their suffering stop, torture victims will say what they think their interrogators want to hear. There are well-documented incidents in which torture produced bogus information that sent U.S. intelligence officials down blind alleys, wasting precious time and resources. 

Then there are the broader, strategic threats to U.S. national security. The U.S. government’s embrace of torture called into question its commitment to “stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity,” the pledge that President Bush so eloquently made in his second inaugural address.  Torture cost our country credibility it needs to lead other nations in the fight against terrorist enemies. It alienated populations whose support is essential, created a PR bonanza for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and fueled the very terrorism that it was supposed to combat. Any tactical benefits—if they exist—are far outweighed by the disastrous strategic consequences. 

I hope once the report is made public it will serve as a bookend to this sorry period in our history. It should provide a definitive rebuke to those who continue to argue, contrary to all evidence, that torture was essential in the fight against terrorism. I also hope the report will enable Americans--who, according to polls, are considerably more willing to tolerate the use of torture if they think it helps keeps the country safe-- to understand that when it comes to interrogation standards, our values and interests are aligned.

That is important, because a better-informed public is the best prophylactic against a return trip to the “dark side.” While President Obama made clear from the outset that his administration would not engage in torture, a future president could reverse his executive order banning the practice. Congress should use the release of this report to support legislation to strengthen the prohibition against torture in a way that better guards against the temptation to, as Senator Lindsey Graham said, “play cute with the law.”

All of this depends, however, on learning the right lessons from our past.  That won’t happen if Americans get the facts filtered through the lens of torture’s advocates.  According to a report in the New York Times, Former C.I.A. Director George Tenet—who initially approved and implemented the “enhanced interrogation” program—is working behind the scenes with the C.I.A. to discredit the Senate report. The C.I.A. has a right to respond to the Senate’s findings, and that’s exactly what it is has done in a document that will be released along with the report. Americans should be able to read both documents, and make up their own minds.

Obama deserves credit for supporting declassification of the report. Now he should instruct the C.I.A. to stand down. A strong democracy is capable of examining its mistakes and learning from them.  The President should exercise leadership to ensure that all Americans understand how the torture program came to be, what it entailed, and what—if anything—was gained from it.  That way, the next time our nation is tested, we don’t sacrifice our ideals out of fear and ignorance.

Quigley is a senior fellow for national security at Human Rights First, and a member of the defense council at the Truman National Security Project. He is a naval intelligence officer who served as a senior High Value Detainee Interrogator at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and as a program manager at DIA’s Defense Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Center. Michael served two combat tours in Iraq, including one with Joint Special Operations Command. His opinions are his own and are not endorsed by the U.S. Navy Reserve or the Department of Defense.