Torture is still widespread, and it’s time to stand up against the scourge
Jonathan Power says a new book by a former US official highlights the ineffectiveness of torture compared with other means of interrogation
Looking for a good cause for 2018? Try campaigning against torture. During his bid for the US presidency, Donald Trump said: “Torture works. OK, folks? Believe me, it works ... And waterboarding is your minor form, but we should go much stronger than waterboarding.”
At the moment, as far as I know, the US is not torturing anyone. President Barack Obama put a stop to the practice by the administration of president George W. Bush. Even Trump says that since Secretary of Defence General James Mattis is against reintroducing torture, it probably won’t happen. But Mattis could one day be sacked and someone more pliant installed in his place.
Four years ago, the US Senate Intelligence Committee published its report on America’s use of torture since September 11. The report showed that the use of torture did not gain valuable intelligence and that information could have been better unearthed by sophisticated traditional methods of interrogation.
In a new book, Unjustifiable Means, Mark Fallon writes that “waterboarding, sleep deprivation, dog leashes, sexual humiliation all send us tumbling into the filth where our sworn enemies live, and it legitimises their struggle in the eyes of their followers even as it delegitimises us in the eyes of the world”. In his role at the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, Fallon was a regular visitor to Guantanamo Bay where he fought hard but unsuccessfully to persuade the authorities to treat detainees humanely.
Fallon was also commander of the task force that investigated the lethal October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. The attack convinced him “that building rapport with detainees yielded far better actionable intelligence than the strong-arm approach, and prevented more attacks in the future”. The FBI, he states, did a first-class job with non-violent interrogations to reveal who was behind that attack.
But later, Bush took the September 11 investigation away from the FBI and placed it with the less scrupulous Department of Defence headed by Donald Rumsfeld. He had no qualms about authorising the use of torture, which the CIA also endorsed.
Guantanamo, we now know, housed only a few detainees who had knowledge useful to the US. Too many were badly tortured. The International Criminal Court should investigate the war crimes committed, even though any charges it makes will be vetoed by the US in the UN Security Council. The court should publicise what it knows and stand by it.
According to Amnesty International, 141 countries out of 193 still practice torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Torture is a worldwide disease. All of us need to campaign against it.
Jonathan Power is a foreign affairs columnist and commentator