CIA declassifies documents detailing torture. Will Americans care?

The CIA has declassified documents detailing 'enhanced interrogation' techniques used on terrorism suspects in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File
Chain link fence and concertina wire surrounds a deserted guard tower within Joint Task Force Guantanamo's Camp Delta at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on March 21, 2016.

Diapers, insects, and "mock burial" are just a few of the post-9/11 interrogation techniques detailed in newly declassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). 

The CIA released the documents in response to separate Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Vice News. The memos "underscore the cruelty of the methods the agency used in its secret, overseas black sites," ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer writes in a press release.

A glance at the US government's recent policies on torture would suggest that the content of these documents might be met with widespread outrage and disgust from Americans. Many of the methods outlined in the declassified memos, such as waterboarding, were made illegal in 2009, when President Barack Obama signed an executive order banning their use. 

Furthermore, scholars are increasingly finding that torture is oftentimes ineffective as an interrogation method. One recent study found that confessions are four times more likely when interrogators are respectful toward detainees and build rapport. Another concluded that torture "may fail to work against its real targets" and is "counterproductively good at radicalizing victims, thereby storing up future problems for the torturing regime."

But despite scholarly evidence against "enhanced interrogation" techniques and a liberal-leaning administration, more and more Americans are warming to torture. 

A Reuters/Ispos poll published in March showed that 63 percent of Americans felt "the use of torture against suspected terrorists" was "often or sometimes justified." That number suggests that the public views torture more favorably now than they did just two years ago, when 51 percent of Americans reported believing the CIA's post-9/11 interrogation techniques were justified.

Support for torture is even greater today than it was immediately following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when 45 percent of Americans surveyed said they were willing to have the government torture known terrorists if they knew about future terrorist attacks in the US. Even then, more than half (53 percent) were not.

Furthermore, the practice of waterboarding in particular was viewed more favorably in 2012, three years after it was banned, than it was in 2005

In the decades prior to Sept. 11, 2001, torture was not a primary concern of the American public, with the exception of activist groups such as the School of Americas Watch, says Rebecca Gordon, author of "Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States." While polls conducted in 1999 suggest that approximately half of Americans suspected the government of institutionalized torture practices, in both the scholarly world and among the general population, "the wrongness of torture was taken to be a more or less settled matter," Ms. Gordon writes. 

Why, then, have so many Americans accepted the practice in recent years? 

One primary motivator is fear, experts say. 

"There's no question now that national security and terrorism are growing in salience in this political cycle," Ken Gude, a senior fellow with the national security team at the Center for American Progress, told The Christian Science Monitor's Josh Kenworthy. "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."

One such leader who has tapped into this fear is presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who in February said that if elected president, he would bring back waterboarding and other torture practices, because "only a stupid person would say it doesn't work." 

Mr. Trump's remarks appeared to resonate with a nervous public. Concerns that anti-terrorism policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties fell in 2015 to 28 percent, their lowest level in five years. More than half of those surveyed said their greatest concern was that anti-terrorism policies "have not gone far enough to adequately protect the country."

Some scholars say that fictional media representations of torture may have also influenced public opinion. 

Prior to 9/11, torture in films and television was generally presented in a way that aligned viewer sympathies with the tortured, terrorism experts Michael Flynn and Fabiola F. Salek argue in their book "Screening Torture: Media Representations of State Terror and Political Domination." But in films and television produced post-2001, torture is more often carried out by protagonists and "prevails as a technique that quickly educes high-quality, trustworthy information; little to no attention is paid to the physical or psychological consequences to the victim or torturer," writes communication scholar Debra Merskin.

Despite calls for the return of waterboarding and other torture techniques by Trump and much of the American public, the ban isn't likely to be lifted anytime soon, the Monitor's Story Hinckley reports. In April, CIA Director John Brennan told NBC News that the agency would not use harsh "enhanced interrogation" practices such as waterboarding, even if the future president ordered it. 

"I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I've heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure," Mr. Brennan said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story did not mention the lawsuit filed by Vice News.

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