Torture Team is a fascinating book that ably and clearly navigates through legal memos and traces the origins of the decision to use torture on those captured and imprisoned in Guantanamo. The author, an international lawyer with extensive experience in torture cases in other parts of the world, wonders how highly trained lawyers from the finest universities in the United States could have aided and abetted the use of torture, particularly when it violated what the author refers to as the “military interrogator’s bible”: the U.S. Army Field Manual. Even worse, the legal advice advanced by these experts was, according to the author, “inconsistent” with Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.
Sands’ story of how torture came to be used, and rules changed to accommodate those engaged in it, centers on detainee number 063, Mohammed Al-Qahtani. The author painstakingly recounts what detainee 063 endured in the effort to extract “valuable” information from him. Despite the fact that the world has ample evidence that torture does not produce worthwhile actionable intelligence, great efforts were made by different actors in this book to rewrite the rules and make a case for torture. It is not clear why such previous evidence was not convincing enough to those who insisted on rewriting the rules. Earlier this year, President Bush vetoed legislation that would have put a stop to harsh interrogation techniques, saying, “This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe.”
The experience of other countries indicates otherwise. For example, during the bloody seven-year Algerian war of independence, France employed all kinds of torture techniques, as highlighted in The Battle of Algiers, yet acts of defiance against the French occupation continued. The French colonial authorities firmly believed that torture would provide information to prevent more terrorist acts, despite evidence to the contrary. Later, in the 1990s, it was Algeria’s turn to struggle with just how to deal with opponents of the regime who started a violent campaign against it. There was a split between what one would call the “no mercy” group and those who favored a dialogue. Throughout the 1970s, the British government struggled with how to deal with IRA detainees. When it was learned that “aggressive techniques of interrogation” were used, it turned a number of people off — even people who generally may have supported the policies of the British government.
Not only did the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and later Abu Ghraib turn people off in the United States and elsewhere in the world; it also did a lot to rally opposition to the war in Iraq and made it difficult for the friends of the United States to openly support its actions. It did much to discredit the United States as the beacon of democracy and moral values, particularly when the Bush administration was making so much of the need to introduce democracy in the Arab world.
The descent into the use of torture went straight from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. While still at Guantanamo, General Geoffrey Miller first received an oral version of the memo from Jim Haynes, legal counsel to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, that outlined what was “now” allowed in terms of new interrogation techniques. This is the same memo that produced the memorable lines that Rumsfeld added at the bottom of the memo: “I stand for eight to ten hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?” We may never learn why it was limited to only four hours, but we later learned about the horrors of Abu Ghraib, where General Miller was transferred, and about his role in this. The ultimate goal of interrogation is to produce useful information. Those who know a thing or two about torture, among them Senator John McCain, insist that it does not. McCain was tortured while a prisoner in Vietnam. Yet during the primaries, he made an eloquent case against waterboarding — one of the techniques used against the detainees at Guantanamo. He even chastised his then-opponent Governor Mitt Romney during the Republican debates.
What was at work was no less than an attempt, as the author puts it, at “decoupling Geneva and Guantanamo,” not to mention decoupling the U.S. Army Field Manual and Guantanamo. The author states that “Doug Feith [undersecretary of defense for policy], himself a lawyer, could not have been clearer when he told me that the intention was to remove constraints on interrogation. The policy should have been drawn up around the law; instead, the legal advice was fitted around the policy.”
The tragedy of September 11 clearly produced a sense of imminent threat and may have made it easier to bypass well-established rules against torture. The lawyers involved made it easier. It still did not change the fact that torture does not and did not provide much in terms of worthy intelligence, not to mention the cost to U.S. standing in the Middle East. Detainee 063 is a case in point. The “abuse” of this detainee started a year after he had been in captivity. What possible worthy information could he have imparted? Apparently not much.
The author concludes by stating that “September 11 gave rise to a conscious decision to set aside international rules constraining interrogations. That decision was motivated by a combination of factors, including fear and ideology and an almost visceral disdain for international obligations.” All of this was facilitated by some of the best legal minds that the best U.S. universities ever produced.