An expert speaks to us about torture

Excerpt from an Interview with Malcolm Nance (an Arabic-speaking counterterrorism expert and a combat veteran with 28 years of operational experience in the Middle East), by Scott Horton, blog of Harper’s, 30 April 2010:

Question #5:

You previously served as a master instructor in the SERE program, in which pilots were prepared, among other things, to endure waterboarding. The SERE training program, we later learned, was reverse engineered to produce “enhanced interrogation techniques” for the CIA. Recently a White House speechwriter named Marc Thiessen has played a vocal role in the campaign that the Cheneys have launched to justify the use of waterboarding. He insists that it absolutely is not torture, and he insists that it’s different from the technique used by the Khmer Rouge. Does Thiessen know what he’s talking about?

Answer:

I spent 20 years in intelligence and four years in the SERE program waterboarding people before I ever opened my mouth on the subject. Marc Thiessen is a fool of the highest magnitude if he thinks he knows anything about waterboarding. His claims are based not on first-hand experience but on a classified briefing from people with an agenda of justifying what was done. That makes Thiessen into a court stenographer for war criminals rather than a person with any real claim of expertise.

As for his claim about the relationship between Pol Pot–era waterboarding and what we have done derived from the SERE program, he’s wrong. Before I arrived at SERE, I went to S21 prison in Cambodia. Right next to the Wall of Skulls sits the exact waterboard platform that the SERE program copied for our own use in the training program. Remember, our goal was to prepare pilots for the techniques they might face if they fell into the hands of our enemies. I was waterboarded on arrival at SERE, and then as a senior staffer, I performed the technique or supervised it through hundreds of evolutions.

Thiessen’s central purpose is apparently to glorify the most extreme practices used by the CIA in the Bush era and to argue that each of these practices, including waterboarding, is vitally necessary to our national security–even though no president used them before, and it seems that President Bush himself halted many of these practices over Cheney’s objection. We have prosecuted and convicted men for using these techniques in the past, and we were right to do so.

This suggests to me that, while he may cite Thomas Aquinas, Thiessen has no sense of honor and no moral compass. I give him credit for his loyalty to the Cheneys, but he’s blind to their errors in judgment. The use of waterboarding and other torture techniques was a powerful recruitment tool for Al Qaeda; it spawned thousands of would-be suicide bombers. Thiessen claims that we gained “intelligence” by using these torture techniques. But this shows that he knows nothing about the intelligence process or how our enemy grows and sustains itself.

Thousands of American POWs died and suffered resisting torture practices that we have always called the tools of the enemy. The SERE program was designed to help them grapple with this inhumanity and retain their dignity in the face of it. Now Thiessen and his boss want us to embrace the tactics we used in that program–taken from the Russians, the Communist Chinese, the North Koreans, the North Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge–as our own. He claims that these techniques are unpleasant but have no long-term physical or mental impact. Really?

I challenge him to put up or shut up. I offer to put him through just one hour of the CIA enhanced interrogation techniques that were authorized in the Bush Administration’s OLC memos–including the CIA-approved variant of waterboarding. If at the end he still believes this is not torture, I’ll respect his viewpoint. But not until then. By the way, I can assure you that, within that hour, I’ll secure Thiessen’s written admission that waterboarding is torture and that his book is a pack of falsehoods. He’ll give me any statement I want in order to end the torture.

Other posts about torture on the FM website

  1. Something every American should read, 25 March 2009
  2. We close our eyes to torture by our government. The Brits are stronger., 9 April 2009
  3. So many Americans approve of torture; what does this tell us about America?, 30 April 2009
  4. The Reverse Nuremberg Defense – “We were just giving orders“, 20 May 2009
  5. Our government does torture, but it is just like the treatment of young reporters by newspapers, 16 February 2010
  6. The US government at work, doing dark deeds in our name, 13 March 2010
  7. Reading about American torturers is a bummer. Let’s close our eyes and pretend it didn’t happen, and will not happen again., 22 March 2010

Afterword

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3 thoughts on “An expert speaks to us about torture

  1. Torture May Have Slowed Hunt for Laden, Not Hastened It“, Dan Froomkin, Huffington Post, 6 May 2011 — Opening;

    Torture apologists are reaching precisely the wrong conclusion from the back-story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, say experienced interrogators and intelligence professionals.

    Defenders of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies have claimed vindication from reports that bin Laden was tracked down in small part due to information received from brutalized detainees some six to eight years ago.

    But that sequence of events — even if true — doesn’t demonstrate the effectiveness of torture, these experts say. Rather, it indicates bin Laden could have been caught much earlier had those detainees been interrogated properly.

    “I think that without a doubt, torture and enhanced interrogation techniques slowed down the hunt for bin Laden,” said an Air Force interrogator who goes by the pseudonym Matthew Alexander and located Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, in 2006.

  2. Torture Opponents Were Right“, Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, 5 May 2011 — “They’ve long insisted that a “ticking time bomb” exception would set us on a slippery slope. The reaction to bin Laden’s death proves their point”

    Torture apologists claiming that the death of Osama bin Laden justifies America’s use of “enhanced interrogation tactics” aren’t just wrong on the merits — the arguments they’re offering are proof that carving out even narrow exceptions for torture puts us on a morally corrosive slippery slope.

    Think about it: back in 2003, 2004, and 2005, the mainstream argument for torture among its advocates was “the ticking time bomb scenario.” Alan Dershowitz endorsed it. Charles Krauthammer did too. It played a recurring role in countless episodes of the hit television show 24. And it proved so core to the public case for “enhanced interrogation” that torture opponents like Michael Kinsley and Dahlia Lithwick focused their efforts on pushing back against the most talked about “exception” in the nation.

    The return of the torture debate is striking because its apologists no longer feel the need to advocate for a narrow exception to prevent an American city from being nuked or a busload of children from dying. In the jubilation over getting bin Laden, they’re instead employing this frightening standard: torture of multiple detainees is justified if it might produce a single useful nugget that, combined with lots of other intelligence, helps lead us to the secret location of the highest value terrorist leader many years later. It’s suddenly the new baseline in our renewed national argument.

    That’s torture creep.

    Ticking time bomb scenarios happen rarely, if ever. The price of obsessing over them, rather than seeing the wisdom in an outright ban? It’s going from “torture rarely, if ever” to “torture whenever it might help kill Al Qaeda’s leader in the distant future” in less than a decade. This is exactly what torture opponents predicted. Back in 2005, Cathy Young put it this way in Reason magazine:

    Yes, a ”no torture” stance is likely to be qualified with tacit acknowledgment that, under narrow and extreme circumstances, the rules may be bent. That seems vastly preferable to open endorsement of torture. If we start with a ”thou shalt not torture” absolute, we are likely to be vigilant about lapses from this commandment, limiting them only to absolute necessity. If we start with the premise that torture is sometimes acceptable, there’s no telling how low we’re going to go on that slippery slope.

    In just a few years, torture apologists have slipped a long way.

  3. Interrogation Experts From Every Branch of the Military and Intelligence Agree: Torture DOESN’T Produce Useful Information“, Washington’s Blog, 10 May 2011

    Virtually all of the top interrogation experts – both conservatives and liberals (except for those trying to escape war crimes prosecution) – say that torture doesn’t work:

    {they provide a long list of links to articles by or citing experts saying that torture does not work}

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