As support for torture grows, so does consensus that it doesn't work

Terrorism concerns appear to be fueling a rising acceptance of torture in the US, a poll shows. But torture doesn't accomplish what Donald Trump claims it does, most experts say. 

Mandel Ngan/Reuters/File
The outside of the Camp Five detention facility is seen at US Naval Station Guantánamo Bay in this file image. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe torture can be justified to extract information from suspected terrorists, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

A new poll shows nearly two-thirds of Americans see torture as a justifiable way to interrogate terrorism suspects, despite the fact that a diverse group of intelligence experts say so-called enhanced interrogation is not the best way keep America safe.  

Reuters/Ispos poll Wednesday showed that 63 percent of Americans felt “the use of torture against suspected terrorists” was “often or sometimes justified.” The levels of support are roughly equivalent to Nigeria, which is enduring a seven-year insurgency, and Kenya which has been hit with a number of large-scale attacks by Al Shabaab in recent years, Reuters noted.

Following terrorist attacks in Paris; San Bernadino, Calif.; and Brussels, Republican front-runner Donald Trump has continually said if he becomes president he will lift President Obama's ban on waterboarding and "make it much worse."

Public concerns of a terror threat should not be taken lightly, terror experts say, but bringing back waterboarding would not help. Even the rhetoric, they say, is not helping.

"There’s no question now that national security and terrorism are growing in salience in this political cycle," says Ken Gude, a senior fellow with the national security team at the Center for American Progress. "It’s incumbent upon our political leaders to not engage in the kind of political rhetoric that drives a jittery population toward policies like torture ... that only play right into the hands of our enemies." 

It's been shown that terrorism moves up the list of voter concerns following an attack on the United States or one of its allies. In this instance, the concern seems to be coupled with a growing support for torturing terrorism suspects. 

'A way to control them'

But while there is very little support for Mr. Trump's assertion that "torture works" as an interrogation technique, torture really has a different purpose, experts say: social control.

"Indeed, for the many governments around the world that still routinely practice torture, it is seen as much as a tool for intimidation as information-gathering," writes Colin Freeman in The Telegraph.

"As an interrogation tool, torture is a bust," adds Naomi Klein in The Nation. "Torture is a machine designed to break the will to resist – the individual prisoner's will and the collective will."

When asked why she and her colleagues tortured prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, US Army Reserve Spc. Lynndie England said: "As a way to control them," Ms. Klein notes.

The idea that useful information can be extracted by torture has been debunked throughout history – from French torturers in the Renaissance to Japanese torturers during World War II, Mr. Freeman notes. Post-9/11 America has found the same thing, most experts agree. 

"What we’ve learned over the last 15 years," Mr. Gude says, is that "it would be a terrible mistake to rush back into these kinds of policies that have done so much damage to our efforts to fight terrorism around the world," noting the hatred for America that it enflames.

The case against torture

A long list of high-level current and former experts echo that point.

  • Former Federal Bureau of Investigation interrogator Jack Cloonan, who was directly involved in the questioning of some of the United States' high-profile prisoners, told Foreign Policy it was a public misconception that harsh interrogation tactics like waterboarding were an effective way of extracting information. Instead, Mr. Cloonan said such techniques strengthened the resolve of the terrorist groups to exact revenge on the United States and were a great recruiting tool for young jihadis, elevating those tortured to "mythical status."
  • Malcolm Nance, head of the Terrorism Asymmetrics Project and a veteran of Navy intelligence, said Trump's reiterated call after Brussels to bring back waterboarding was likely giving the Islamic State free propaganda material. "Donald Trump right now is validating the cartoonish view that they tell their operatives … that America is a racist nation, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and that that's why you must carry out terrorist attacks against them," he told MSNBC.
  • Michael Hayden, the last head of the Central Intelligence Agency under the Bush administration, who has previously defended interrogation tactics used during that era, publicly explained why it would be illegal for US armed forces to obey Trump’s call to use torture. General Hayden also said Trump is already acting as a recruiter for so called Islamic State in a television interview with Al Jazeera.
  • A 2014 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report that investigated CIA claims that its use of torture in the post-9/11 era was important in preventing acts of terrorism largely debunked them. 

Public opinion on torture continues to flow in the opposite direction, however. 

Republicans have always favored torture more than Democrats, but the numbers across the spectrum are strong: 82 percent of Republicans and 53 percent Democrats, according to the poll.

So what are the best methods of intelligence gathering?

Gude says the kind of “rapport building” and “rapport based” interrogation tactics that the Obama administration has employed are understood to yield the most valuable information for thwarting potential terrorist attacks.

The Reuters poll also showed 64 percent of Americans believed a terrorist attack on US soil within the next six months was “very or somewhat likely.”

While some concern over lone-wolf attacks on US soil might be justified, Gude says, US intelligence officials’ 15 years of post-9/11 experience sees them far better placed to thwart a major terrorist attack like Paris or Brussels than their European counterparts.

“There’s currently no indication that the scale of operations that we’ve seen recently in Europe is underway here in the United States at all,” he says.

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