Torturing the Truth

It's time to face the ugly reality about the use of harsh interrogation tactics


When the Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote his epic, The Gulag Archipelago, some Americans read it to measure the gulf between the brute savagery of communism and the principled standards of free, civilized nations. But apparently some Americans took it as a helpful how-to volume.

Where would CIA officers have gotten the idea to extract cooperation from detainees by keeping them awake for as long as 180 hours at a time, or more than a week? Maybe from the jailers in Solzhenitsyn's grim account, who used the method on a mass scale.

Enforced sleeplessness, he explained, was favored because it was cheap, easy, and left no marks on the prisoner—not to mention that it was effective. Solzhenitsyn attested from bitter experience that "it is not really necessary to use a rack or hot coals to drive a human being out of his mind."

But American intelligence officials also learned something from the Soviets about manipulating language to conceal reality. When our enemies use methods like this, they amount to torture. When we do, they don't. A newly released 2002 memo from a Bush administration official authorized keeping prisoners awake because "we are not aware of any evidence that sleep deprivation results in severe physical pain or suffering."

That document, signed by Assistant Atty. Gen. Jay Bybee, also deprecates the unpleasantness of waterboarding, which makes the victim feel he is literally drowning. "The waterboard, which inflicts no pain or actual harm whatsoever, does not, in our view, inflict 'severe pain or suffering,'" he announced. "The waterboard is simply a controlled acute episode, lacking the connotation of a protracted period of time generally given to suffering." Did I mention that it leaves no marks?

The Bush administration and its defenders have long ridiculed anyone protesting the abuse of detainees. Former CIA director Michael Hayden and former Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, lamented that under President Obama, "the U.S. will not longer interrupt the sleep cycle of captured terrorists even to help elicit intelligence that could save the lives of its citizens." The message is simple: It's not really torture, and it works.

The former is obviously untrue as well as dishonest: Solzhenitsyn makes that clear. So do numerous U.S. government reports accusing various regimes of violating human rights through such forms of torture as sleep deprivation. Likewise, the U.S. government used to take a negative view of waterboarding. But apparently we only object when we're not the ones doing it.

That doesn't change the nature of the practice. In a confidential 2007 report that recently was leaked, the International Committee of the Red Cross outlined the harsh methods used on CIA detainees and reached the blunt conclusion that they "amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

But some people don't care whether these methods qualify as torture as long as they yield useful information—as Hayden and former Vice President Dick Cheney attest they do. Whether that's true is hard for an outsider to know. The Bush administration claimed that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammad helped foil a planned 2002 attack on Los Angeles—forgetting that he wasn't captured until 2003. Maybe we'll get a better answer if the administration grants Cheney his request that it declassify material supporting his case, as it should.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair has his doubts. "The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means," he said. "The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

And if effectiveness is the only gauge, why even debate whether these techniques fit the definition of torture? The problem with using "it worked" as an argument is that it justifies too much. By that rationale, we can justify subjecting enemy captives to every form of torture ever devised. We can even justify torturing and killing their spouses, siblings, parents, and children, right in front of them.

Cheney and others have yet to advocate going that far. But if they really believe what they say about the techniques we've used, here's a question they need to answer: Why not?