Tortured Logic, Why ‘It Doesn’t Work’ Doesn’t Work by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

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by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
crossposted on May 15, 2009
May 27, 2009

For months, the torture debate has been focused to a significant extent on the issue of whether it “works” or not for eliciting useful intelligence from captured military operatives, quasi-military operatives, suspected terrorists, or people caught in some “anti-terrorist” dragnet who might well have nothing to do with the activity. Virtually every expert on gaining useful intelligence from captured operatives “from the other side,” whatever their particular classification might be, has said that it doesn’t. One must note that there are a handful of non-experts in addition to Cheney who think that torture does “work.”

The list includes the well-known GOP shill (so The New York Times said in a May 9 editorial) and MSNBC morning talk-show host Joe Scarborough and the prominent Christian-Rightist Gary Bauer. Bauer stands in favor of the use of torture along with a number of other Christian Rightists for whom that fact that Christ himself was tortured to death by the Romans (who used crucifixion to punish their enemies over a period of centuries) seems not to be of import.

Of course there was never any reason to think that the torture techniques put together by Dick Cheney and his staff and specifically approved for use by President Bush (so Cheney has told us, quite publicly) would “work,” in terms of gaining useful intelligence. After all, the techniques specified for use, as we know in (literally) painful detail from the post hoc memo written by “Judge” Bybee, were, as almost everyone knows, drawn from a torture program used on captured U.S. servicemen by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in North Korea over 50 years ago. It is also well-known that these techniques were specifically designed to elicit false confessions, not useful intelligence, from the U.S. POWs. On that level, it was successful.

Now this is not to say that torture is never useful. In fact it is very broadly useful. Brought to its highest level of use as part of state policy by the Nazi Germans, the Franco and Pinochet regimes, among others, it is very good for: terrorizing one’s own population to repress dissent; extracting information from politically active civilian regime opponents; carrying out extra-judicial punishment of regime opponents; repressing potential opposition in militarily occupied territories; extracting false confessions from non-military persons, as in the Stalinist show trials of the late 1930s; helping to establish a record of lawlessness, of total disregard for the rule of law, as long as the regime says things such as, “We are doing what we are doing in order to keep our people safe and fight terror.” For this last one, we need look no further than our own doorstep, of course.

As for whether what the Georgite regime did in terms of torture was really “torture,” Judge (sick) Bybee and Professor (sick) Yoo attempted, in very legalistic language, to define what they authorized as “not torture.” This causes one to turn to the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture to see what they say about it. Unfortunately, neither document defines “torture” in any sort of the detail in which Judge (sick) Bybee did. The authors of the Geneva Conventions just assumed that everyone “knows” what it is, and the UN Convention defines it in general terms as “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession . . .” According to Judge (sick) Bybee, techniques from waterboarding to repeated slamming against walls (even flexible ones) don’t come under that definition. And so, the “yes they are, no they are not” argument started.

Well, two former Bush regime officials settled that one. Dick Cheney has told us in no uncertain terms that he considers what was done to be “torture.” Why do we know this? Because he has stated openly that regardless of U.S. treaty obligations what was done had to be done to “save hundreds of thousands of U.S. lives.” Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. Well, those treaty obligations happen to prohibit the use of torture. So, according to Cheney, torture is obviously what his people were doing. If they were not, why mention U.S. treaty obligations? Alberto Gonzales did the same thing when, at the beginning of the controversy, he advised the President that doing what they wanted to do was OK because the Geneva Conventions were “quaint.” Again, if one doesn’t think that what one is doing is torture, why even mention the Geneva Conventions?

It just so happens that under article VI of the U.S. Constitution, as treaties signed and ratified by the U.S. government, both Conventions are part of “the supreme law of the land and [further] the judges of every state shall be bound by them.” Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the Constitution and what it says about the use of torture, our side for the most part has gotten caught up in the “it doesn’t work” argument. Thus the debate has reverted to “yes, it does,” on MSNBC led by the likes of Joe Scarborough (who on the morning of May 14, 2009 went out of his way to personally attack the former highly experienced FBI interrogator who dismissed as less than useless not only torture in general but also “torture in the ticking time bomb” scenario so beloved of “24” before this season in particular) and “no it doesn’t” on the same network led by Keith and Rachel.

VERY dangerous. WRONG argument. Why? Because it plays right into the hands of the pro-torture folks. For suppose, just suppose, that it did work in terms of intelligence gathering from military operatives? Suppose it did work specifically in the ticking time bomb scenario? Why then according to that argument, torture by the U.S. would be OK, no? Well, NO. The central issue is not whether torture works for those purposes or not. The central issue is, as above, that the use of torture is prohibited by the Constitution’s Article VI. Indeed, Bush, Cheney, Bybee, Yoo, Addington, and every other Georgite official who took part in the authorization of the use of torture violated the Constitution in general and their oath to uphold it in particular. That is the argument that our side should be using over and over again, as we struggle mightily to help President Obama re-establish the Rule of Law and Constitutional government in our great nation.

Cheney is a very smart man. He knows this. There are likely a number of reasons why he is undertaking his current pro-torture/anti-Obama offensive. Whether or not a former government official can be prosecuted post hoc for violating the Constitution and his/her oath of office is surely an open question. But Cheney knows that that might happen. And so, first and foremost, he is trying his damnedest to create a very strong “pre-trial prejudicial publicity” defense, whether of his own creation or not, just in case he is brought before a court.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for Buzz Flash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal Online; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century (POAC); and a Contributor to The Planetary Movement.


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