Will growing consensus that torture is 'morally repugnant' lead to action?

Tuesday’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation techniques has revived a national debate about the effectiveness of torture. While opinion is divided, a consensus does seem to have formed around the idea that torture is a moral abomination.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. is surrounded by reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, as she leaves the Senate chamber after releasing a report on the CIA's harsh interrogation techniques at secret overseas facilities. Feinstein branded the findings a 'stain on the nation's history.'

Just as happened in the aftermath of the May 2011 raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, Tuesday’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s massive report on the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation techniques has revived a national debate about the effectiveness of torture.

Views on what was learned by the experience of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the years after 9/11 range from a conviction that the admittedly gruesome and shocking techniques detailed in the report “saved American lives” to a certainty for other intelligence officials and interrogators that the methods produced no valuable information.

Still others, including the CIA now, take the stance that the methods’ effectiveness is simply “unknowable.”

Yet while positions on the “effectiveness” question continue to vary widely including among intelligence experts, a consensus does seem to have formed around the idea that torture is a moral abomination.

It is that consensus that is leading to a call for action that would go beyond President Obama’s banning of torture in 2009 to congressional action to ensure that the United States never again responds to a tragedy, even one as horrific as the 9/11 attacks, with criminal action of its own.

The renewed debate over the value of extreme interrogation methods does not obscure the emergence of a widely held view that, effective or not, counterproductive or not, torture is wrong and should be ruled out, some intelligence experts say.

“Almost a decade and a half after 9/11 there continues to be a debate about the effectiveness of these tools, but where there is agreement across the board is that these techniques are morally repugnant,” says Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va., and a former adviser to the US special operations command in Afghanistan.

That rejection of torture on moral grounds, beyond any debate over its usefulness, is the conclusion reached by Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who favored the Intelligence Committee report’s release, even as she questioned some of its methodology and conclusions.

“While I agree with the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) current position that it is “unknowable” whether or not its ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ elicited significant intelligence that would not otherwise have been obtained, the fact remains that torture is wrong,” Senator Collins said in a statement Tuesday on the report’s release.

Backers of the position that the torture methods employed in the years after 9/11 were effective have not been silent in the context of the Senate report’s release.

A group of former CIA directors published a long opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal Tuesday rejecting the report’s findings, insisting among other things that the interrogation methods led in some cases to more compliant and cooperative detainees who provided valuable information.

The former officials say the report is simply “wrong” to conclude that the CIA “interrogation program” did not contribute to the “takedown” of Mr. bin Laden – a matter of intense debate in particular in the days after the bin Laden raid.

The former CIA directors insist the interrogation methods were “invaluable” in the effort to destroy Al Qaeda by aiding in the capture of Al Qaeda operatives, in the disruption of terror plots, and by providing information on how Al Qaeda operates.

Jose A. Rodriguez, a retired CIA official who administered the interrogation program and subsequently authored the book, “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives,” says the techniques used delivered vital and life-saving information from the 9/11 attacks architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – a fact he says was once acknowledged by Senate Democrats.

For Mr. Rodriguez, the greatest “hypocrisy” in the Senate report release is that many of the leading Democrats behind the report once urged the CIA to do everything possible to prevent another attack on US soil.

But other former CIA officers insist that the extreme interrogation methods did not provide actionable – or above all, trustworthy – information.

And RAND’s Mr. Jones says he finds it instructive that the FBI, which also was deeply involved in overseas terror suspect interrogations, took a divergent approach to interrogation from the CIA in the years following the 9/11 attacks.

“The FBI’s general approach was that the enhanced techniques were unlikely to be successful,” Jones says. Other approaches, such as developing a knowledge of the individual under interrogation, were considered more productive, he adds.

Even a case like that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known in intelligence circles by his initials KSM, remains open to debate. Intelligence officials concur that he ended up providing useful information.

“What is less clear,” Jones says, “is whether that kind of information could have been gathered with less coercive measures. That,” he adds, “is where you get this concept of ‘unknowable.’”

But others say the verdict is in, that torture is ineffective and ultimately counterproductive in the way its practice violates American values, and that the Senate report should not lead to more debate but to action.

“As a career interrogator, I know that the lawful, humane methods for acquiring intelligence are also the most effective,” says Col. Steven Kleinman, a former Air Force interrogator who is now an expert in human-rights-compliant interrogation.

“There is no need to debate this any longer,” Colonel Kleinman says, adding that in the aftermath of the Senate report the US should “chart a new course” that will “not only respect human rights, but will also keep American safe.”

Advocates of action beyond Mr. Obama’s ban on torture say the president and Congress should work together to come up with legislation that rules out interrogation practices that violate American ideals and international moral standards.

One congressman responded to the Senate report by announcing legislation to ban any use of torture.

Saying, “We must prohibit torture by law once and for all,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, (D) of New York, said Tuesday he would reintroduce the American Anti-Torture Act of 2014. The bill would extend Army Field Manual standards to all interrogations, “ensuring that U.S. law has a single, uniform, baseline of treatment of prisoners,” Representative Nadler said, while clarifying that methods prohibited for use by the military are also prohibited for other federal agencies including the CIA.

Elisa Massimo, president of the Washington-based Human Rights First, says such legislation should not “leave room for loophole lawyering” – the kind that she and other interrogation program critics say was at the root of America’s post-9/11 torture experience.

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