‘Did the Torture Work?’ is the Wrong Question

By Waleed Shahid Dec 15, 2014

On this past Sunday’s "Meet the Press," Dick Cheney doubled down on his defense of the CIA’s brutal post-9/11 detainment and interrogation program detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee report released last week. When the former vice president was asked if he was troubled by the fact that 25 percent of the men alleged to be Islamic terrorists were found to be innocent, he pointed to the efficacy of the program: "I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. Our objective [was] to get the guys who did 9-11 and it [was] to avoid another attack against the United States. … And [the program] worked," he said. "…I’d do it again in a minute."

Cheney, a chief architect of the War on Terror, isn’t alone in framing the CIA’s use of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" as a question of success. The report itself finds that the agency’s torture tactics were "not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation." Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Intelligence Committee, declared that "the big finding is that torture doesn’t work and shouldn’t be employed by our country."

Mainstream media have also explored whether torture methods such as waterboarding, rectal feeding and sleep deprivation do the job. For example, under the headline "Does Torture Work?" The New York Times ran a case-by-case analysis to answer the question. PBS NewsHour ran a debate between a former CIA official and a former Guantanamo Bay prison prosecutor. The Hill tapped a former DEA interrogator to provide his expert opinion on the matter.

Even critics of torture have attempted to address this argument head-on by making an empirical argument about torture’s inefficacy.

The constant framing of the issue around torture’s effectiveness supports the efforts of people like Cheney and CIA Director John Brennan to redirect attention from detainees’ experiences in Guantanamo Bay prison and secret American prisons all over the world. Such deflection allows people to avoid seeing the torture from the perspective of the victims who remain largely invisible to the public.

While all of these men have been presented to the American public as Muslim terrorists, the vast majority of them have not had a chance to make their case in a fair trial. The situation we are left with today is the result of their voices going unheard, of being muffled callously in the name of national security. We would rather not be reminded of the illegal, indefinite detention of dozens of people all over the world in our name.

David Remes, a human rights lawyer representing 18 detainees currently being held at Guantanamo Bay prison, says the gruesome details of the report shouldn’t be a revelation. "I haven’t discussed the report with my clients. They are the very victims whose torture the report described," he says. "They already know what’s in the report. The only people who don’t know what’s in the report are the American people."

Abu Zubaydah is one such prisoner. He was accused of being a high-ranking member of al Qaeda and in 2002 the CIA shot and apprehended him in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Over the past 12 years, he was reportedly transferred between secret CIA prisons in Thailand, Poland, Morocco, Lithuania, and possibly others, before being indefinitely incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay prison.

Zubaydah has never even been charged with a crime.

According to the Associated Press, Zubaydah served as a guinea pig for torture techniques. He was repeatedly waterboarded (83 times in August 2002), subjected to other forms of physical violence and confined in what the AP calls a "coffin-size box" for extended periods of time.

After the Justice Department approved water-boarding the detainee, the sessions became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers were "to the point of tears and choking up," and several said they wanted to be transferred out of the prison, reported ABC News. After days of persistent torture, officials described him as being "completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth."

When we are left to debate whether such tactics-and many more-were effective in extracting information, we close ourselves off from the visceral human empathy that gripped even the tearful CIA officers witnessing and committing such acts of torture. On this note, President Obama has frequently noted: "That’s not who we are." Yet his calls for introspection fail to come to terms with the condition of the tortured detainees. Not only should we ask ourselves who we are and what we’ve become, but who are these detainees and why have they been caged for over a decade?

The last time the detainees themselves received widespread news coverage was in April when most of the 166 men in Guantanamo Bay prison conducted a hunger strike. Force-feeding came into focus as some detainees lost more than 30 pounds, and at least 17 had feeding tubes inserted through their noses.

Majid Khan, is detainee who has participated in multiple hunger strikes and self-mutilation beginning in March 2004. In 2006, CIA personnel took radical measures to force-feed Khan, administering a "lunch tray" of pureed hummus, raisins and pasta through his rectum. The procedure, described as "rectal hydration" and "rectal feeding," have been roundly criticized by government officials, but not by the CIA.

In a Daily Beast op-ed, Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights reported that one detainee that her group represented, Tariq Ba Odah, had been strapped into a chair and force-fed. "I was tortured in the restraining chair when they fill my belly with Ensure," Odah has reportedly said. "All my limbs are restrained and my clothes soaked from vomiting the formula mixed with water and laxatives."

When asked about their goal, the detainees on this year’s hunger strike and their legal counsel pointed to President Obama’s failure to fulfill a 2008 campaign promise that he would close Guantanamo Bay prison and end indefinite detention without charge or trial.

Obama has largely positioned himself as a mindful centrist caught between national security officials and the remnants of the loose anti-war coalition that helped propel him into office. True to form, the president has agreed that some of the tactics described in the Senate Intelligence Committee report amounted to torture, but he has avoided holding past or present officials responsible. "Rather than another reason to refight old arguments," Obama said in an official statement, "I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong–in the past."

Today, 40 percent of Guantanamo’s now 136 detainees are eligible for a review, but the process has been stalled. At the current rate, it will take at least six years to complete the first review. Still, it’s unclear how long it will take these detainees to be released. Sixty who are currently held at the prison are cleared for release but still remain behind bars.

As graphic as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,000-word torture report is, the question of program’s success must not trump the details.

Attorney Remes, for one, isn’t waiting for a great American awakening: "I’m pessimistic about what the report will accomplish," he says. "Congress won’t reign the CIA in. Our government is not going to prosecute the individuals who authorized and committed these crimes…at least some police officers get prosecuted. Those who authorized and committed torture will never be prosecuted."

Waleed Shahid is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.