Would a better prepared U.S. have used torture?


The so-called Senate CIA Torture Report is supposed to be released today.  Five years ago, I wrote an article for Nieman Watchdog on the Bush Administration’s decision to resort to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or torture in plain speak.  Torture, I wrote back then, was the refuge of the impatient and incompetent, an approach that abrogated America’s fidelity to international treaties even as it became habit-forming.  In other words, the resort to torture simply begat more torture, irrespective of results.  As President Obama said, “We tortured some folks.”  And so on.  W.J. Astore

COMMENTARY | May 18, 2009

Did a lack of trained interrogators with appropriate language proficiency lead Bush administration officials to embrace torture as a ‘short cut’? A former dean at the Defense Language Institute writes that America was unprepared to wage a patient and savvy war of counterintelligence against Al Qaeda – which may have made less humane and less effective methods seem like an attractive option. Seventh in a series of articles calling attention to the things we still need to know about torture and other abuses committed by the Bush administration after 9/11.

By William J. Astore

In a letter dated May 10, 2007, General David H. Petraeus wrote to American troops serving in the Multi-National Force in Iraq:

Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy.  They would be wrong.  Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary.  Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone “talk;” however, what the individual says may be of questionable value.

Petraeus’s directive to the troops was unequivocal: Besides being illegal, torture is counterproductive, unnecessary, and generates “intelligence” of dubious reliability.

Evidence suggests the U.S. military was telling the Bush Administration these cold, hard facts all along.  Why then did George Bush and Dick Cheney approve torture under the guise of “enhanced interrogation techniques”?

To answer this question, I think we need to remember not only the immense pressure the Bush Administration was under in 2002 (the events of 9/11, after all, occurred on their watch), not only their idée fixe for a settling of accounts with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but also America’s lack of preparedness to wage a patient and savvy war of counterintelligence against Al Qaeda.

I witnessed this indirectly at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC), where I served as the Associate Provost/Dean of Students from 2002 to 2005.  Clearly, the U.S. lacked translators, interpreters, and especially trained military interrogators.  I recall interrogators being pulled from assignments at DLIFLC and reassigned to operational tours in the Middle East and Central Asia; the problem was that their language proficiency was often in Chinese or Korean or a Romance language – not, as one might expect, in Arabic, Pashto or Dari.

Few people understand how long it takes to produce a skilled military interrogator.  Attaining basic language proficiency in Arabic takes nearly 18 months of constant training at DLIFLC.  But attaining mastery of the language and the culture – the acuity and sensitivity to interrogate a suspect who’s deliberately trying to mislead you – takes years and even decades of study and practice.  From 2002 to 2005, it may be that our country simply didn’t have enough skilled and disciplined interrogators to take the indirect approach.

Torture, I’m suggesting, wasn’t used because of a simple Machiavellian calculus of “the ends justify the means.”  Rather, we lacked the most humane and most effective means to attain the ends that the Bush Administration so desperately wanted – “actionable intelligence” that could prevent yet another 9/11 from occurring on their watch.  So they deployed “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which carried with them not merely the risk but the certainty of excesses and mistakes.

As investigators look more closely at America’s resort to torture, they should ask if we decided to go rough because we couldn’t go smooth.  Because we lacked the language and cultural skills to play good cop, we played bad cop as a short cut.  The problem, of course, is that short cuts are habit-forming.  And in the name of results, they often sacrifice the essential for the expedient.  In the case of the Bush Administration, not only did torture apparently provide unreliable intelligence: It also abrogated America’s fidelity to international treaties that forbade torture, and compromised our own ethos of truth, justice, and the American way.

Here, the lessons of the French in Algiers continue to resonate.  Think back to the revelations of General Paul Aussaresses in 2001, which scandalized France.  Aussaresses unrepentantly confessed that, in attempting to suppress terrorism in Algeria in the 1950s, detainee abuse, torture, even murder became routine, first-choice, approaches.  The resort to torture simply begat more torture.

Investigators should look at whether this dynamic also applied to America in Afghanistan and Iraq.  How many of our counterterrorist experts became like General Aussaresses: Self-perceived patriots who believed torture and even murder were justified in the name of protecting the state?  After all, if the state’s essential purpose is to protect its citizens, and you’re dealing with an enemy that’s malevolently contumacious, as Al Qaeda appeared to be, what’s to stop avowed “patriots” from torturing suspects, especially when the state’s leaders have authorized harsh techniques and are pressing you for results?

Patriotism, it’s been said, is the last refuge of the scoundrel.  Is torture the last refuge of the impatient and the incompetent?  If so, how do we instill patience and competence?  Of the hundreds of billions we spend on national defense each year, surely we should dedicate more funding to training and retaining skilled and disciplined military interrogators.  Counterterrorism succeeds or fails based on human intelligence (HUMINT).  But to get the most reliable HUMINT, we have to be able to outsmart our foes.  And the best way to do this is to treat them as humans, not as vessels to be beaten until they voice the echoes of our worst fears.

Updated (12/9/2014, 11:50AM EST): The Executive Summary to the “Torture Report” has been released.  I’ve scanned the first 40 pages.  One remarkable data point is that supposedly the CIA did not brief the President on the full extent of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” until April 8, 2006.  In short, the CIA and its hired contractors used certain torture techniques on their own authority for four years.  Here’s an excerpt from the report:

On August 1, 2002, based on comments from White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, the talking points were revised to eliminate references to the waterboard.  CIA records indicate, however, that the talking points were not used to brief the president. On August 2, 2002, the National Security Council legal advisor informed the DCI’s chief of staff that “Dr. Rice had been informed that there would be no briefing of the President on this matter, but that the DCI had policy approval to employ the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Records state that prior to the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah in 2002, the CIA did not brief Secretary of State Colin Powell or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, two members of the National Security Council, on the techniques. The Committee, including the chairman and vice chairman, was also not briefed on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques prior to their use.

It seems like the CIA is shouldering all of the blame here.  The failure (if it was that) to brief the president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, as well as the Senate Intelligence Committee, constitutes a fundamental breakdown in Constitutional safeguards.  (Unless, of course, the “failure” to brief senior civilian leaders was all about protecting them and maintaining “plausible deniability.”)

Whatever else the report reveals, this violation of the Constitution is especially egregious.  If true, it would suggest that the CIA should be severely disciplined or even disbanded.

But I truly doubt whether the buck stops with rogue elements in the CIA …

Update (12/10/14): Eric Fair was a contract interrogator for the Army in 2004.  In an Op-Ed for the New York Times today, he writes:

I was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib. I tortured.

Today, the Senate released its torture report. Many people were surprised by what it contained: accounts of waterboardings far more frequent than what had previously been reported, weeklong sleep deprivation, a horrific and humiliating procedure called “rectal rehydration.” I’m not surprised. I assure you there is more; much remains redacted.

Most Americans haven’t read the report. Most never will. But it stands as a permanent reminder of the country we once were.

5 thoughts on “Would a better prepared U.S. have used torture?

  1. Let us be clear here: When President Cheney said “We need to GO TO THE DARK SIDE” or words to that effect, then indeed “anything went.” Plausible deniability? Absolutely, that would be the motive for (supposedly) leaving certain officials out of the loop. The same thing happened on the watch of another brain-dead president, a certain Mr. Reagan. Word in the media is that the (now former) CIA officials involved in these sordid activities are quite pissed-off with Sen. Feinstein’s report and will issue their own outraged report or statement. But they, and other former high-ranking government officials, need not fear prosecution and punishment. Not on Obama’s watch, not on any POTUS’s watch. IT WOULD BE TOO DANGEROUS A PRECEDENT. And let us be clear on one final point: the military-intelligence apparatus does not act in defense of the citizens of USA. It acts in defense of the Ruling Class of USA.


  2. I agree with the contents of your commentary. When people with a mind set and very little knowledge of the world history acquire power they become the worst enemy of peace in the world. And if you add to the lack of knowledge the possibility for those involved to profit from the clashes they wishfully create the picture becomes extremely dark. The worst part is the consequences that those actions perpetrated in the name of the American public have for us and our families. Torture is only one of the mistakes. The actions of subcontractors paid with our tax money is another of the mess created by the narrow minds involved in this mess.


    1. The torture report point out that two professional ‘psychologists’ devised and supervised the torture program and were given $80 million subsequently to oversee it. These ‘psychologists’ were not only members of the American Psychological Society (APA) but at least one was an officer of that organization.

      As a graduate psychologist and former member of the APA I once tried to help a very small group of members who were trying to get the Board of that organization to say that members could not be associated with torture and to decertify torturers as members of the organization. . The Board was indifferent to that argument and indeed the they praised the members who headed this torture program for “helping” the national security effort by having a ‘legitimate’ psychologist involved. .

      This is just another example of how the notion of “national security” inherently corrupts society and even those citizens who are trained in ethical professions like medicine, psychology, law, etc. It will be interesting to see how the APA reacts to this key disclosure that their most prestigious members were not merely bystanders seeing that moral things were done but were the designers and overseers of the program. You will be hearing alot from them in the fallout from this report.


      1. Yes, excellent point, traven. A mania for national security can justify the worst excesses, all in the name of “keeping us safe.” But you don’t win a war on terror by inflicting more terror; it’s really that simple. Worst of all, however, is that the president is saying yet again that “mistakes were made” but that we need to look forward, not backward. So no one will be punished, and no meaningful reforms will come out of this. Indeed, reactionary elements within the government will become even more secretive and jealous of their power. Expect more abuses in the future.


  3. “To answer this question, I think we need to remember not only the immense pressure the Bush Administration was under in 2002 (the events of 9/11, after all, occurred on their watch), not only their idée fixe for a settling of accounts with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but also America’s lack of preparedness to wage a patient and savvy war of counterintelligence against Al Qaeda.” fr. article above.

    Nit picking.
    Bill.. Language is important and I feel we should avoid the language that is used by those in power to incite rather than to inform. WAR. That is the first term we should be careful of how we use it. Just as there can be be no “war on terror” since terror is a “feeling” not a tangible enemy. Like wise there is no such thing as a “war of counter terrorism” since counter terrorism is an activity not a thing. Using that term WAR is the favorite of our rulers to get away with useless and destructive programs like the “war on drugs”, the “war on poverty”, etc.We have never won even a real war since WWII, and certainly none of the recent invented wars.

    If you were referring to Bush’s “settling of accounts with Saddam” I can understand that usage but that diminishes, in my opinion, the horror that this poor excuse to lay our hands on Iraqi oil really was.


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