I’ve sat across the table from murderers, sex offenders, terrorists, and drug dealers. As a former professional interrogator, I know there’s a good chance that information obtained through coercion isn’t accurate. This is why the release of details about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” of terrorist suspects after 9/11 is so important.
In popular media, movies like Zero Dark Thirty and the television show 24 depict torture a tool to get a terrorist to reveal information that leads authorities to the resolve the threat, often seizing a ticking time bomb or capturing those plotting an attack. It makes for great entertainment, but in the real world, cruelty is counterproductive. Torture forces a victim to say anything just to try to end the painful experience.
I understand the anger we feel toward terrorists. I’ve heard the siren song of violence in my head many times. But torture violates everything we stand for as Americans, especially our respect for human dignity.
The just released 500-page executive summary of this report reveals that the CIA’s torture program was even more ruthless than we were led to believe. Waterboarding, beatings violent enough to break bones, assault, mock executions, electric shocks to sensitive areas: all of this was performed by our government on our behalf.
Learning about these practices brings back painful memories of my colleague in the Drug Enforcement Administration, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. In 1985 Kiki was abducted by corrupt Mexican police officers working for drug lord Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. They tortured him, broke his bones, and eventually killed him. They were thugs.
The report also shows that abuse was an epic failure as an intelligence-gathering technique. It didn’t prevent any attacks and or gain information that couldn’t have been gained legally through rapport-based interrogations. As for the claim that torture produced information that led the United States to Bin Laden: no, wrong, it didn’t. At the same time, abuse elicited bogus information that hindered counterterrorism efforts.
I care deeply about the honor and effectiveness of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. It pains me to hear about what the CIA’s tactics because I know firsthand that there’s a better way. I look back with great satisfaction at the confessions and convictions my colleagues and I have won, all within the legal framework.
The United States is safest when it adheres to its laws and ideals. During World War II, our nation confronted the horrors of the prison camps of the Japanese and the knowledge of the Nazi’s Holocaust depredations. Yet the United States held to our values and consistently treated Japanese and German prisoners of war humanely in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. It was one of our finest moments.
When it comes to torture, the years after 9/11 were not, unfortunately, some of our finest moments. The intelligence committee report uncovers our trip to the “dark side,” which will always be a stain on our character and reputation.
But releasing this information is a step forward, an acknowledgement that we lost our way. I hope there will be a public reckoning and that we will take the necessary steps to emerge from this dark period of our history, never to return. Ideally, the president and Congressional leaders will use this opportunity to pursue new legislation that solidifies the legal ban on torture and all mistreatment of detainees.
The popular media does not always get it wrong. In the 1998 movie The Siege, Denzel Washington’s character confronts Bruce Willis’s, who is about to torture a detainee. Washington exhorts him, “You can’t do this! Because if we torture him – we do that – and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for is over. And they’ve won!”
Canestraro is a career law enforcement professional who served for over 25 years with the Drug Enforcement Administration. During his law enforcement career he conducted hundreds of witness interviews and suspect interrogations.