Newsweek Story on Science and Torture

My Newsweek feature, “Science Shows that Torture Doesn’t Work…”, is just up online. The piece revolves around new work in neuroscience and psychology which shows that torture harms the brain and mind, impairing the ability to recall information and provide useful intelligence in an interrogation. The story can be accessed here.

Story in Newsweek: “Beyond Torture: The New Science of Interrogating Terrorists”

Newsweek has just published a story I wrote, accessible here. The story focuses on the Army Field Manual that, despite its name, currently regulates all national security interrogations in the US, including those by the CIA. Former interrogators and experts on interrogation criticize the manual’s methods as outdated and ineffective and call for the document to be radically revised in line with the latest scientific research.

Story at VICE News: The Bush Administration Whistleblower Who Says the US Has Not Closed the Door on Torture

VICE News recently published my interview with Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to US Secretary of State, Colin Powell during the George W Bush administration. The story can be accessed here. Wilkerson discusses torture and the recently-released Senate Torture Report. He makes some startling new disclosures that the CIA held and interrogated rendition detainees on the British territory of Diego Garcia.

Interview with Noam Chomsky on Senate Torture Report

Noam Chomsky, the legendary political activist and professor of linguistics, has been writing and speaking about torture for decades. From the “dirty wars” of 1980s Central America, to the more recent abuses of the war on terror, his voice has rarely been absent. Now, in what appears to be his first interview on the subject, Professor Chomsky kindly agreed to take some questions by email about the Senate’s recently-released torture report.

Chomsky told me that he was “not really” surprised by the contents of the summary, given “all that’s been learned” about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram and rendition. Moreover, the Bush administration’s use of torture was not entirely without precedent. The CIA has a long history of involvement in torture, training foreign goons to use its own specially-designed torture tactics in Central America in the 1980s, for example. But, after the Second World War, torture was largely outsourced to foreign security forces so the US could keep its hands clean of direct participation. It was therefore an anomaly when CIA set up its own prisons after 9/11 and did much of the torturing itself. Chomsky, citing the work of Alfred McCoy, a distinguished historian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told me that, “In recent years, the US usually handed torture over to subsidiaries. The Rumsfeld-Cheney innovation has been to go back to the good old days when Americans did the dirty work themselves.”

“The roots of torture in American society are very deep,” he wrote. “The modern economy and our wealth were created by massive torture in slave labor camps (cotton plantation).  It’s also been a very frightened society, since its origins.”

Fear is a “constant theme in US history”, he wrote. “Few laughed, for example, when Ronald Reagan strapped on his cowboy boots and declared a national emergency because Nicaraguan troops were only two days march from Harlingen Texas.”

He told me that the country has long been frightened of supposedly hostile groups and tends to fear the victims of its own aggressive policies.

“It’s natural to be frightened when you are spreading havoc.  Thomas Jefferson was a model of enlightenment for his time.  But he still put a passage in the Declaration of Independence about the “merciless Indian savages” and the horrors they are inflicting on the innocent colonists.  And privately he explained that freeing slaves might lead to a war in which we would be exterminated, because each one has “ten thousand recollections” of the sadistic torture we have inflicted on them.  The crazed gun culture, particularly in the South, is probably a continuation of that. And so it continues.  Enemies everywhere ready to destroy us if we don’t destroy them first.”

For Chomsky, “Torture is immoral, period.” He has no time for “ticking time-bomb” hypotheses, in which a bomb is about to go off and torture is required to find its location. “The ticking bomb argument is close to meaningless.  I doubt that a real example can be found, and if one could, why would one expect the person dedicated to a crime to tell the truth under torture?  They’ll tell the torturer anything to stop the torture, but why the truth?”

His views mirror international law, which prohibits torture absolutely and leaves no room for ticking bomb situations. Chomsky believes there should be prosecutions for the Bush-era officials who authorized and implemented the CIA program. But he doubts there will be such accountability and sees only “tactical changes” arising from the Senate’s report. Likewise, the clearly illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq resulted in no prosecutions, even though aggression is a “vastly worse” crime than torture, according to Chomsky.

Much of the public debate around torture concerns its effectiveness, not its legal or moral implications, he noted. The media’s “relative lack of concern about legality and morality…would be shocking if it wasn’t so routine,” Chomsky wrote, asking, rhetorically, if I had seen the New York Times refer to the Iraq invasion as a crime of aggression, or remind its readers of the Nuremberg judgment.

It seems that torture has been drained of its legal meaning in US political discourse and turned into a policy option for future presidents to consider. “There is no moral or legal barrier against torture (crucially, by us or our clients),” Chomsky told me. “So if there is some reason to believe that it might accomplish our goals, why not?”

In Wake of Senate Report, Rights Groups Call for Criminal Investigation into CIA Torture

In a joint letter Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday called on the Attorney General, Eric Holder, to appoint a special prosecutor to fully investigate potential criminal violations in connection with CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program. The two groups join Physicians for Human Rights, which last week called on President Obama to convene a federal commission to investigate abuses by medical professionals involved in the CIA program. The New York Times also released a statement from its editorial board, “Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses”, insisting the Obama administration launch a criminal probe (note that the paper still hesitates to describe US crimes as “torture” and, if it does, refuses as a matter of policy to use this word in its full legal sense, as I showed in a recent article at BJR and a post here).

While the Department of Justice had already conducted an investigation into potential CIA crimes since 9/11, the recently-released executive summary of the Senate’s torture report “includes significant new information relating to the commission of serious federal crimes, including torture, homicide, conspiracy, and sexual assault,” the two groups write. That being so, the Attorney General must appoint a special prosecutor, furnish him or her with the complete, 6,700-page Senate report and also provide files from the former investigation led by John Durham (which concluded in 2012 without any charges being brought).

Durham might have had access to the six million pages of internal CIA records available to the Senate, the groups write, but the Committee “has now synthesized a huge volume of information into a narrative that clarifies the extent and seriousness of criminal conduct” and indicates “a vast criminal conspiracy, under color of law, to commit torture and other serious crimes.”

Moreover, Durham seemed not have interviewed any of the CIA’s victims. “We have been unable to find any evidence that Mr. Durham or his investigators interviewed any prisoner who was subjected to the RDI program,” the letter states. “The absence or paucity of victim interviews, particularly when many of the victims remain in U.S. custody, undercuts the credibility of the decision not to indict anyone for torture-related crimes.” The groups omit to mention that the Senate did not conduct any interviews for its own inquiry, which presumably makes the case for appointing a prosecutor even stronger.

Durham had determined that the admissible evidence was not sufficient to obtain a conviction for the (alleged) crimes he was investigating. The groups speculate that some of the evidence had been rendered inadmissible by the fear of defendants disclosing state secrets. But, with the declassification of the Senate’s summary, much new information has suddenly become publicly available. “With so much information about the CIA’s program now in the public domain, presumably the calculation as to what would be admissible without disclosure of state secrets would be different now,” they write.

Furthermore, Durham’s investigation seems to have focused only on CIA officials acting outside the guidance laid down by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in its now-notorious “torture memos”. But the summary yields new evidence “that senior CIA officials did not rely on OLC guidance “in good faith,” but rather they knew that the conduct amounted to illegal torture before they ever sought the guidance and went looking for legal cover.” Indeed, the document shows how CIA officials drafted a letter to the then-Attorney General, John Ashcroft, requesting a declination of prosecution in advance, and other evidence details the Agency’s unsuccessful attempt to seek a guarantee of immunity from the Criminal Division of the Justice Department (the summary provides numerous examples of CIA personnel raising concerns about the legality of the torture program). That being so, the groups write, “the argument of good faith reliance on counsel appears inapplicable to some of the officials who were involved in conceptualizing, ordering, and executing these crimes.” Nor should the lawyers who drafted the memorandums “benefit from any presumption that they were fulfilling their responsibilities in good faith,” the letter states.

The groups insist that a new investigation is urgently required as officials who devised and authorized the torture program are still gracing the airwaves defending their conduct. Failing to investigate would “contribute to the notion that torture remains a permissible policy option for future administrations; undermine the ability of the United States to advocate for human rights abroad; and compromise Americans’ faith in the rule of law at home.” Moreover, the US is obligated under the UN Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to effectively investigate all instances of torture, unlawful killing and enforced disappearance, and to prosecute those responsible (including top government officials).

Such calls are likely to fall on deaf ears, as the Justice Department stated soon after the summary’s release that it will not open a new investigation. In fact the Obama administration has given no indication whatsoever that it will consider prosecuting CIA and Bush-era officials, while the President, responding to the summary, recycled his now tired mantra that the US must “look forward, not back”, defending CIA officers as “patriots” responding to the nightmarish aftermath of 9/11.In fact groups like Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, along with United Nations officials, civil liberties activists and some journalists, have been calling for investigations of the Bush torture regime for years, but each time they do so the political establishment seems less and less receptive to their demands. The Intercept‘s Liliana Segura expressed her exasperation thus:

When running for office in 2008, President Obama suggested his administration would investigate Bush-era officials for criminal misconduct, but he subsequently broke that promise by opposing all forms of accountability (including civil litigation brought by torture victims and a blue-ribbon federal commission). At least, back then, politicians were listening to calls for prosecution but, now, they have turned away and Congress seems united in its contempt for the rule of law. So The Hill reported, soon after the summary’s release, that “lawmakers on both sides of the issue have seemed opposed to the notion that either the U.S. or foreign governments should press charges against some CIA officials”. Even Senator Udall, one of the CIA’s fiercest critics, declined “to make a robust call for prosecutions either at home or abroad”, showing how deeply ingrained the principle of elite impunity has become. Needless to say, this tees things up nicely for a future administration intent on kidnapping suspects and torturing them in secret dungeons on the other side of the world. And, if this does indeed happen, then Democrats and Republicans must share the blame.


While the prospects for accountability in the US might be grim, there is already the chance another country will investigate. Last week the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights filed a criminal complaint in Germany against members of the Bush administration for war crimes and called for an investigation by a German prosecutor. See here for more information.