Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Torture Memos

In our first week of existence, discussion really took off around the topic of the recently-released torture memos. After reading an article in the New York Times, I asked whether we needed to rethink our moral qualms about torture if these "harsh interrogation techniques" actually yield valuable intelligence.

As the Co-Director of Nebraska's Human Rights and Human Diversity Initiative, and having taught numerous classes on justice and human rights, I have a pretty good sense of my position on this question. Clearly, torture damages the international credibility of countries that make use of it, brutalizes those who engage in it, and is a grave violation of human rights under any circumstance.

Most interesting, to my mind, is that the information coming to light in these torture memos shouldn't be surprising in the least. I remember, quite clearly, preparing to teach an introductory course on justice in 2004-2005 and pulling articles on the Abu Ghraib scandal. At that time, there were articles about the Bush administration bringing in lawyers to consider ways to effectively work around the Geneva Conventions. These articles suggested that military personnel might be unclear about which techniques constituted torture and about whether the government allowed "harsh interrogation techniques" to be used on "enemy combatants." But it is hard to say that the Bush administration was unclear in its intentions (despite assertions that the United States doesn't torture), given the decision to bring in lawyers who might find ways around the Geneva Conventions.

Just some additional food for thought, as we kick off the Tweet Academy blog. If you'd like to become a blog contributor, send a Direct Message to @Tweet_Academy on Twitter. We're hoping to get a balance of students and faculty. And, of course, if you're not following us on Twitter just yet, you can click on the link on the right to follow Tweet_Academy and comment/contribute new topics to our on-going 140 character discussions.


  1. It is interesting to ponder whether we would allow or even encourage torture if it were to produce significant results, while ignoring international and American law. I guess I would support the use of torture in extreme circumstances (i.e. the ticking bomb scenario).

    However, from the Times article I discovered several interesting points. First, there is a lack of delineation between torture and harsh interrogations. My problem with this is the fact that some aspects of harsh interrogations are within the bounds of US law. It seems that some people have begun to intertwine the use of torture and harsh interrogations to mean the exact same thing, when they don’t. Secondly, and most interestingly, in the article, Adm. Blair admitted in a later press statement that, “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." Overlooking the fact that not all information gained through torture is reliable, people, especially the former VP and other top Republicans, have been proclaiming the success of these techniques, saying that the use of torture was effective in preventing future attacks. While this may be a completely legitimate point, though I contend it to be distorted, the Blair statement above illustrates the fact that other means of interrogation may have been just as or more effective. This is where I support the FBI’s interrogation methods, which favor rapport building and other tactics within the law. Empirically, these techniques have proven to be much more effective and legitimate. We do not lose face at home or abroad, by doing what the FBI does. Answering criticism about the timeframe necessary to build rapport, if there was enough time to water-board two “enemy combatants” (and I hate the use of that phrase) 266 times, I think they had plenty of time to develop a relationship with some of the people.

    An important question that seems to go hand and hand with the discussion of the use of torture has been what the Obama administration will do. Some have supported Truth Commissions, while others favor prosecution of the perpetrators of the torture, especially former administration officials. Personally, I support the prosecution of the lawyers who were trying to get us around the Geneva Conventions and extending the powers of the president because of their blatant manipulation of the law. They must be accountable for providing the legal cover to torture. However the situation turns out, something must be done quickly as there appears to be a devolution of the intelligence community into two camps with officials on each side leaking documents that support their view. Infighting in such a critical area must be avoided.

    Furthermore, I would like to see some discussion about extraordinary rendition. I have disliked this process from the start and believe that the media and public need to do more to stop it. Sure, the CIA has said they no longer have the black prison sites, but what about turning people over to less scrupulous countries (Jordan, Egypt, Syria) in order to get “information.”

    I look forward to criticism and further discussion and appreciate the creation of this blog.

  2. Tyler Cowen has an interesting follow-up to this discussion on his blog today, arguing - essentially - that we cannot afford to prosecute anyone for ordering or actually torturing detainees.

    Check out his argument:

    My sense is that he's right about the dangers inherent in attempting to prosecute those responsible, as this is undoubtedly a huge mess in which the administration - and Americans in general - might be mired for years to come. Having said that, though, I'm not convinced that it shouldn't be done. There are a whole host of difficult, embarrassing, and unpleasant things that (I argue) need to be done in order to clean up from some of the policies of the past. Simply because those things are difficult, embarrassing, and unpleasant doesn't mean they ought not to be undertaken.