No torture. No exceptions.

Position:Cover story



In most issues of the Washington Monthly, we favor articles that we hope will launch a debate. In this issue we seek to end one. The unifying message of the articles that follow is, simply, Stop. In the wake of September 11, the United States became a nation that practiced torture. Astonishingly--despite the repudiation of torture by experts and the revelations of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib--we remain one. As we go to press, President George W. Bush stands poised to veto a measure that would end all use of torture by the United States. His move, we suspect, will provoke only limited outcry. What once was shocking is now ordinary.

On paper, the list of practices declared legal by the Department of Justice for use on detainees in Guantanamo Bay and other locations has a somewhat bloodless quality--sleep deprivation, stress positions, forced standing, sensory deprivation, nudity, extremes of heat or cold. But such bland terms mask great suffering. Sleep deprivation eventually leads to hallucinations and psychosis. (Menachem Begin, former prime minister of Israel, experienced sleep deprivation at the hands of the KGB and would later assert that "anyone who has experienced this desire [to sleep] knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.") Stress positions entail ordeals such as being shackled by the wrists, suspended from the ceiling, with arms spread out and feet barely touching the ground. Forced standing, a technique often used in North Korean prisons, involves remaining erect and completely still, producing an excruciating combination of physical and psychological pain, as ankles swell, blisters erupt on the skin, and, in time, kidneys break down. Sensory deprivation--being deprived of sight, sound, and touch--can produce psychotic symptoms in as little as twenty-four hours. The agony of severe and prolonged exposure to temperature extremes and the humiliation of forced nudity speak for themselves.

Then there is waterboarding, a form of mock execution by drowning, a technique that has been used in so-called "black sites." In addition to the physical pain and terror it induces, long-term psychological effects also haunt patients--panic attacks, depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder. It has long been prosecuted as a crime of war. In our view, it still should be.

Ideally, the election in November would put an end to this debate, but we fear it won't. John McCain, who for so long was one of the leading Republican opponents of the White House's policy on torture, voted in February against making the CIA subject to the ban on "enhanced interrogation." As for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, while both have come out strongly against torture, they seldom discuss the subject on the campaign trail. We fear that even a Democratic president might, under pressure from elements of the national security bureaucracy, carve out loopholes, possibly in secret, condoning some forms of torture.

Over the past decade, voters have had many legitimate worries: stagnant wages, corruption in Washington, terrorism, and a botched war in Iraq. But we believe that when Americans look back years from now, what will shame us most is that our country abandoned a bedrock principle of civilized nations: that torture is without exception wrong.

It is in the hopes of keeping the attention of the public, and that of our elected officials, on this subject that the writers of this collection of essays have put pen to paper. They include a former president, the speaker of the House, two former White House chiefs of staff, current and former senators, generals, admirals, intelligence officials, interrogators, and religious leaders. Some are Republicans, others are Democrats, and still others are neither. What they all agree on, however, is this: It was a profound moral and strategic mistake for the United States to abandon longstanding policies of humane treatment of enemy captives. We should return to the rule of law and cease all forms of torture, with no exceptions for any agency. And we should expect our presidential nominees to commit to this idea.

--The Editors

The Washington Monthly thanks the American Security Project for its assistance in coordinating this project.


As a teenager, I loved to read comic books. Superman comics were my favorite. Among the many adversaries the Man of Steel faced (and always vanquished) was Bizarro World. In Bizarro World, everything was the opposite of that which prevailed in our world. Up was down, clean was dirty, black was white, good was bad.., you get the picture.

Events of the past few years remind me more and more of Bizarro World, except now it's not a comic-book world, it's the real world. The effect of witnessing a federal government operating according to Bizarro World standards instead of those enshrined in our Constitution and legal system is truly frightening.

In no instance is this scenario clearer than when the current administration has addressed the matter of whether its agents have, since September 11, 2001, tortured prisoners. The difficulty in resolving this controversy is immense, because administration officials won't even discuss "torture," preferring instead to talk about "enhanced interrogation techniques." Federal officials like the latter term because it is not defined in federal or international law ("enhanced interrogation" being essentially a made-up term), and therefore activities falling within its ambit are not--cannot be--illegal.

When forced to answer questions regarding torture, as in the recent debate surrounding the technique known as waterboarding, administration officials dismiss such discussions as improper talk of vital national security matters; denigrate and dismiss such discussions as "silly," as Vice President Dick Cheney did in a recent interview; or deflect criticism by adding a waffle word in front of the operative term and sliding away. The administration and its supporters rely on the unfortunate propensity of many journalists, members of Congress, and others to accept whatever explanation is proffered without probing beneath the surface.

Waterboarding as an interrogation technique has been employed for centuries as a tool with which to elicit information from prisoners. The fact that the technique often achieves the desired result--confessions--even as it leaves no obvious physical evidence accounts for much of its popularity by practitioners, from the time of the Spanish Inquisition to Nazi Germany. Waterboarding causes excruciating physical pain as the immobilized victim's lungs fill with water. At the same time, the process inflicts profound psychological pain by creating the very real impression in the victim's mind that he faces imminent death by drowning. Waterboarding is, in essence, a torturer's best friend--easy, quick, and nonevidentiary. It had always been considered torture by civilized governments such as ours--until, of course, this administration.

The fundamental value of waterboarding to an interrogator lies in the pain it inflicts and the fear of death by drowning it engenders. Why else would it be used? However, in typical Bizarro World fashion, the Bush administration refuses to concede that the technique even exists as torture. Although experts (and common sense) tell us that if not stopped in time waterboarding will cause the death of a person subjected to it, the administration delights in referring to it as simulated drowning. The fact is, there is nothing "simulated" about the process of drowning by waterboarding; and there is nothing simulated about the pain it causes. Waterboarding is just drowning that stops short of death (unless, of course, a mistake is made during its infliction).

Vice President Cheney is certainly entitled to his opinion that even discussing waterboarding is "silly," but in the real world in which we live, and according to the norms of behavior according to which participants in a civilized society are supposed to operate, use of sophistry such as this would never be countenanced, and would certainly not hold up as a lawful defense in a court of law. Yet, even though the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, admitted recently that being subjected to waterboarding would to him be torture, like others in the administration he refuses to discuss the issue intelligently, and dismisses such questions as little things unworthy of his time.

No less an upholder of the law than the attorney general of the United States, Michael Mukasey, sets almost as low a standard for the concept of the rule of law as do Messrs. Cheney and McConnell. For the attorney general, the answer to the question of whether waterboarding (and, by clear implication, other techniques inflicting pain as a tool with which to elicit information from a detainee) constitutes torture and would therefore be unlawful lies neither in clear definitions nor in definite standards. For Mukasey, it all depends on the "situation's circumstances." Mukasey refused to answer questions about waterboarding during his 2007 confirmation hearings, but has since determined that the CIA does not engage in the practice. And that, for the nation's top law enforcement officer, is the end of the matter. Everything beyond that is simply speculative and hypothetical.

This administration has gone beyond even the Bizarro World standard of declaring up to be down or left to be right. Not only is torture not torture, but there exists insufficient clarity even to know what is torture so we can determine whether an interrogation technique is torture or not. While the extreme sophistry and word gamesmanship practiced to a fine art by this administration might make a high school debating coach proud, it does great disservice to the notion that we exist in a society in which there are rules and norms of behavior with clarity and definitiveness and in which government agents...

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