The Question Torture Apologists Can't Answer

There may not be much point in trying to relitigate the torture question from the Bush years, but every once in a while that era's torture apologists come back around to make their case, and there is one vital question I've never heard any of them answer: How do the defender's of "enhanced interrogation" (perhaps the most vulgar euphemism since "ethnic cleansing") define torture? I'll explain more in a moment, but this was prompted by an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post about the film Zero Dark Thirty by Jose Rodriguez, a CIA officer who has defended the administration's torture program on many occasions. Since I haven't seen the film I can't say anything about the way it depicts torture, but Rodriguez takes the opportunity to say this: "I was intimately involved in setting up and administering the CIA’s 'enhanced interrogation' program, and I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture." And why aren't the things the CIA did—which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and the use of "stress positions," which are used to cause excruciating pain without leaving a mark—torture? Here's the closest Rodriguez comes to an explanation:

Detainees were given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive — with Washington’s approval — some of the enhanced techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded. (The Justice Department assured us in writing at the time that these techniques did not constitute torture.) When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped — forever.

You see, they had a memo saying that what they were doing wasn't torture, so there you go. And when the detainee became compliant, they stopped! It obviously can't be torture if it ends when the subject is broken, right?

Here's the question I've never heard someone like Rodriguez answer: Can you give a definition of torture that wouldn't include waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation? I have no idea what such a definition might be, and I have to imagine that if they had any idea they would have offered one. Because here's the definition of torture you'd think everyone could agree on: Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession. That's not too hard to understand. The point is to create such agony that the subject will do anything, including give you information he'd prefer not to give you, to make the suffering stop. That's the purpose of waterboarding, that's the purpose of sleep deprivation (which, by the way, has been described by those subjected to it in places like the Soviet gulag to be worse than any physical pain they had ever experienced), and that's the purpose of stress positions. The "enhanced" techniques that were used weren't meant to trick detainees or win them over, they were meant to make them suffer until they begged for mercy.

So to repeat: If what the Bush administration did wasn't torture, how would its apologists define the term?

Comments

You are contributing to the fallacy that torture is about "extracting information." Though torturers may believe this is so, mostly it is not. After all, under that definition, who gets tortured is based on somebody's guess that somebody they are torturing has "information."

Torture is about terrorizing "enemy" populations and signaling dominance. It's also idiotic revenge. The US, like most empires, torture(d) because it can. And it wants to.

The canonical definition from Bush torture apologists is almost certainly the one described in this article:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26401-2004Jun8.html

In the view expressed by the Justice Department memo, which differs from the view of the Army, physical torture "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." For a cruel or inhuman psychological technique to rise to the level of mental torture, the Justice Department argued, the psychological harm must last "months or even years."

So, they set a repugnantly high bar for the severity of torture, with no real precedent or justification that I'm aware of. Sleep deprivation is unlikely to be inflicted for "months or even years" to meet their standards, and stress positions may not be painful enough. Waterboarding probably doesn't trigger very many actual pain receptors; it causes incredible distress but comparing it to organ failure is sort of apples and oranges.

Waterboarding does cause "impairment of bodily function," if you consider "breathing" to be a "bodily function." And since lungs are, indeed, organs, and since they will fail when filled with water, then the sensation of drowning -- which is what waterboarding is intended to induce -- falls squarely within the definition of "pain accompanying ... organ failure."

No one has answered this question either: What if the subject is being compliant but the agent THINKS the subject has more information than he really does? Do you water board him till he has a heart attack? Maybe you tie his hands behind him then hoist him into the air by them; or just tourniquet his hands till they feel like they are on fire (as was done to John McCain) then tempt him with morphine? once the torture begins ; how does one decide to stop--- since there is always a chance he knows more than he is telling? or at least the agent thinks he knows more.......

rmcneive saved me the trouble of posting the "official" definition of torture.

Here's something else to keep in mind: Many of the techniques that, under that definition, are "not torture" were developed by regimes that were trying to avoid being labeled by such organizations as the U.S. State Department as engaging in torture. "No scars, no marks, no permanent physical injury - how can you call this torture?"

A footnote to rmcneive's correct citation above: the memo in question was written by John C. Yoo, formerly of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. Yoo is now a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law, despite vehement protests from faculty members at the appointment of a war criminal to that prestigious school's faculty.

Thanks davezimny! I'd guessed Yoo had a hand in this but, to be honest, was too lazy to follow up and verify.

To be clear, Yoo's notorious memos were (in my view, and that of most critics) little more than cover for Bush to pursue his desired policies. In the worst case he would always have a solid defense of plausible deniability: "My lawyers told me it was legal." So I'm not citing this memo as an example of a genuine, good-faith argument in favor of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

I'm just saying that most torture apologists have subsequently adopted this definition or one close to it. They may disagree somewhat on the details but partisan loyalty will keep most of them from quibbling too much. They wouldn't want to undermine Bush's own legal team, and they're happy to concede that Yoo understands the legalisms better than they do.

Thanks davezimny! I'd guessed Yoo had a hand in this but, to be honest, was too lazy to follow up and verify.

To be clear, Yoo's notorious memos were (in my view, and that of most critics) little more than cover for Bush to pursue his desired policies. In the worst case he would always have a solid defense of plausible deniability: "My lawyers told me it was legal." So I'm not citing this memo as an example of a genuine, good-faith argument in favor of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

I'm just saying that most torture apologists have subsequently adopted this definition or one close to it. They may disagree somewhat on the details but partisan loyalty will keep most of them from quibbling too much. They wouldn't want to undermine Bush's own legal team, and they're happy to concede that Yoo understands the legalisms better than they do.

I'd argue pretty strongly that sleep deprivation is as "physical" as any other kind of torture. The physiological changes that happen in the body exposed to long periods being awake create actual pain. It's not just "in your head" (and in the Gulag they also beat them to keep them awake - some extra force/method is needed to make it impossible to fall asleep).
Great article though.

Excellent. Thank you, Mr. Waldman, for getting to the point: both sides in this debate need to define what they mean by torture or we'll never get anywhere. (Until reading your piece, I'd never read a definition provided by a liberal either.)

I support water boarding, which I do not believe qualifies as torture. I'll provide my own definition in due course. First, please consider this:

A while back someone sent me the following link to a short video that shows a freelance reporter who voluntarily undergoes water boarding. The reporter previously made a bet as to how long he could take it. He expects to last 15 seconds but only goes about 4 seconds before signaling he wants it to stop.

Here is the link: http://content1.clipmarks.com/content/7E8ADC46-F3DD-4D6F-B184-3A07CF501B7C/

The reporter in the video said he felt his experience of water boarding was torture. Why? Simply because of the intensity of fear evoked. But he did not say the experience was painful. In fact, I have never heard anyone who underwent water boarding say it was painful – just terrifying. As you know, this includes Navy Seals or Army Green Berets etc who undergo water boarding as part of their preparatory training for POW resistance, or did for years. I am not sure if water boarding is still part of their training today.

(This raises another interesting point. Do water boarding opponents accuse the US Government of torturing its own armed service members? Ironically, the US service members who have undergone the experience disagree sharply on this point – many say they feel they were tortured; just as many strongly feel they were not tortured!)

Clearly the reporter in the video suffered no injuries. He’s shaken but whole and unharmed. No cuts, no bruises, no bleeding, no apparent external or internal injuries. He is instantly able to breathe, talk coherently, stand and walk normally, etc.

Here is my definition of torture:

I was under the impression that the legal definition of torture (Geneva Conventions as well as US law) refers to infliction of intense pain, or infliction of lasting damage, or long term deprivation of a basic physical necessity (like sleep, food, etc).

Water boarding, in this video, involved depriving the reporter of oxygen for exactly 4 seconds. The fear response that it provoked was clearly intense, but 4 seconds is not long term.

I always thought that was why the Bush Admin. said water boarding is not torture -- it does not meet the US or international legal definition. And, I have NEVER heard any water boarding opponent address, much less attempt to refute, this line of reasoning. Maybe I just haven't paid close enough attention.

Personally I don't believe in "hiding behind a dictionary" but since water boarding opponents so often try make their case by citing US and international law (like this Jan 2010 NY Times editorial on this subject, pointing to a Supreme Court ruling), it would be nice of opponents if they would stipulate something like the following:

“While water boarding (or other extreme techniques) may not qualify as torture legally, we consider it torture ‘subjectively’ or ‘emotionally.’"

Then at least there would be common ground for a rational discussion...if anybody is interested in having one, which I doubt…not even the NY Times editorial board, apparently.

According to all the polls I've seen on this subject, a majority of the US public continues to approve of water boarding and seemingly does not care if it’s classified as torture or not. Not that numbers make something right, but it’s interesting. A poll published the same week as the 2010 NY Times editorial said most US citizens would like to see the would-be Detroit airplane bomber water boarded than given a criminal trial with all the constitutional protections.

But as to water boarding, two questions:

One, a physical / technical question. Apparently the reason water boarding works is that most people (all people?) cannot close up their nasal passages and keep the water out of their lungs, especially when they are on a slant board with their head down. (I wonder if some people can close their nasal passages and keep the water out?)

Two, a thought experiment. Suppose you captured an enemy combatant, decided he had no constitutional rights of protection (but you happily agree that under the Geneva Convention, no one should be tortured). Now suppose you wanted to interrogate him. Suppose you decide the most effective technique is to scare the hell out of him without physically harming him in the slightest or risking his physical well being in the slightest. It’s easy enough to do this with threats, hoaxes, or even simulators, etc. To take an obvioius but crude example, you could dangle him out of the window of a 10 story building and threaten to let go. However, there are options where he would THINK he is in mortal jeopardy, but actually is safe.

Is that approach (inflicting extreme emotional distress while avoiding the slightest physical harm or even risk of any kind) legal or illegal? Why or why not?

Here's the best definition of torture: which techniques/methods, if used on a downed US pilot in the hands of captors, would make members of Congress squeal for "justice"? Given the list used by US forces/agents/surrogates, the answer is: every damn one of them.

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