Administration of Torture

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Last week, in the wake of an article in The New York Times, about a secret Justice Department memo, endorsing "harsh interrogation techniques," President Bush categorically denied that the United States has tortured, or does torture, prisoners. Since 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union has requested information from the government, about interrogation techniques. Their Freedom of Information Act request yielded hundreds of thousands of documents, some more legible than others. Since then, ACLU lawyers, including Amrit Singh and Jameel Jaffer, have been sifting through transcripts, messages, and memos. Their new book, Administration of Torture, includes a handful of them. Semantics are important in all of this. What constitutes "torture"?

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With the revelations of the US torture policy memos, why isn't something being done to redress the Army's prosecution of the young solders at Abu Ghrabe,(excuse my spelling), as just rogues freelancing.

Sent by Douglas Rogers | 3:35 PM | 10-9-2007

To the caller who says his training involved extreme conditions. One element of torture is subjecting a person to helplessness. Forcing them into undesired situations. It is very different when a person chooses to undergo extreme conditions for a purpose he believes in. Then the person can choose to align his will with what he's doing. It is psychologically much easier to take. He feels heroic and not degraded. The difference is choice. This is also the difference between sex and rape. It's a matter of choice. Asserting one's will or having it controlled, manipulated and traumatized by someone else.

Sent by Irene | 3:37 PM | 10-9-2007

Rifkind (sp?) speaks without a moral compass. This was one of the most upsetting conversations I have ever heard. Rationalizing this is so close to fascism I am astounded.

Sent by Ralph Beliveau | 3:38 PM | 10-9-2007

As a combat vet and graduate of SERE training, I had to respond to Rivkin's absurd comparison to how we treat interrogation suspects. One, of many, issues he misses, is the fact that SERE training is voluntary, the trainee can end it at any time, and the trainee ALWAYS knows that regardless of the 'harshness' of the techniques being applied, the 'interrogators' will never truly harm you. The psychology behind knowing you will not be harmed is a critical fact. Further, no one is SERE training is fully water-boarded. It ends when you want it to.Why? ...because it is torture. After that, I'd tell them any lie that would end the torture. Torture does not provide reliable information. Anyone that has experienced even the slightest amount will understand this. Rivkin is ignorant of the most basic facts.

Sent by Jim | 3:46 PM | 10-9-2007

How wrong is the idea that there hasn't been a second 9/11 and therefore waterboarding, etc. is fine. Several years ago, Rumsfeld described the only objective measure of this war as whether or not there are fewer terrorists in the world. Torture, or getting as close to torture as you can without crossing some imaginary line, is a terrorist creation policy when applied, as it has been, to a huge number of innocent people.

Sent by Joe | 3:51 PM | 10-9-2007

I disagreed some caller's or guest's comments. They contended that because U.S. troops go through similar treatment in training, by definition the treatment is not torture when applied to captured individuals. However, the uncertainty and fear that comes with being captured is not at all equitable with the knowledge that our troops have that they are undergoing a training exercise, no matter how unpleasant the training is. The psychological difference between training with torture-like conditions and experiencing those conditions in a, from the prisoner's perspective, rules-free environment is real and serious. To say such-and-so isn't torture based on that kind of faulty premise is unconvincing.

Meanwhile, I don't know how far the torture debate is getting in America. For one thing, we are burdened with hypothetical situations (the ticking bomb) and the illogical claim that because no attack has taken place in America since 9/11 the techniques work. What would be useful is to know how good the information is that comes out of various treatments and to have psychologists and people who have been tortured--not treated harshly in training, but actually captured and treated badly--work with the military and the CIA and FBI and other agencies. It's not helpful for the administration to say "we don't torture and therefore any actions we take or have taken aren't torture." It would be better to decide what is out of bounds (and isn't even helpful in getting good information from people) and then say "we don't torture, and therefore there are some things we just won't do."

Sent by Lindsay A. | 3:54 PM | 10-9-2007

The guest from the military seems to look at things from the outside, rather than the inside. She says villagers can distinguish the social scientists from the soldiers, based on the things the social scientists wear on the outside of their clothing. She does not seem to realize the psychological effect that carrying a gun has inside other people. Inside, people can feel disempowered, threatened and afraid, just because that other person is carrying a gun. That gun's existence is a threat of power. It changes the situation, affecting how people respond to the person with the gun.

Sent by Irene | 4:02 PM | 10-9-2007

I was perturbed and dismayed at Neal Conan and Jackie Northam's treatment of the Tuesday "The Line Between Interrogation and Torture" segment.

The topic alone is loaded, and takes the "How bad is X or Y REALLY? Is it REALLY torture?" approach seen by too many lowest common denominator media organizations these days. I was thoroughly insulted when Northam made the ludicrous analogy mentioning how she played loud music in high school, and in some way couldn't THAT be considered torture? Sure, she back-tracked a little, and those weren't the exact words she used. But in my opinion, to even mention a metaphor like that in regard to such a serious topic is journalistic irresponsibility. The damage was done.

Things got to the point where Amrit Singh had to remind Conan that torture and cruel and unusual treatment is illegal. And to sit and listen to Neal pursue his "devil's advocate" line of questioning to the insulting point of ending one segment with the question "Some will say that we haven't had another September 11, and there's a reason for that (the implied the success of torture techniques)" made me queasy. That is not a rhetorical question. There are a host of answers to it (ask Alfred McCoy, University of Wisconsin professor), and to bring it up when there's zero air time for the guests to respond is irresponsible.

Finally, I think it was journalistically unethical for Conan to bring on guest David Rivkin (whose resume includes extensive career links to the Bush Administration, which wasn't adequately explained to the listener) after Amrit Singh left the show. He immediately started bashing her "type" of person, getting the first and last word since Singh was unable to respond. If the timing didn't work for the second guest to be on the show with the others, then BOOK ANOTHER GUEST.

I hope that Conan, Northam, and the producers at NPR will take their responsibilities to provide accurate, academically researched information (as opposed to off-the-cuff roundtable comments) to the public more seriously in the future. This is not an issue to take lightly.

Sent by Jodi | 4:32 PM | 10-9-2007

Rifkin claims that it is impossible to use rapport-building techniques on hardened jihadis, and that the FBI cannot use rapport-based interrogation because they have no Arabic linguists. In fact, rapport-based interrogation has been used successfully on highly indoctrinated enemy forces in the past, including Japanese troops in WWII and Viet Cong soldiers in the Vietnam War. It is doubtful that jihadis are more heavily indoctrinated than these previous foes. Moreover, while the FBI may not have sufficient Arabic linguists, the US military has quite a few, and it is the US military that carries out most of these interrogations.

I'm not sure if Rifkin is being deliberately dishonest or if he is truly ignorant of how interrogation works.

Sent by Christian | 8:35 PM | 10-9-2007

Our nation urgently needs to define torture, and meanwhile David Rivkin completely trivializes the issue. He says that "context" is the only difference between many of the things we do to detainees and things we do to our soldiers to prepare them for military service. "Context" is his weasel word for "consent" or "control." Whether one has control or consent about something being done to them can make the difference between a friendly gesture and a serious crime! Otherwise, the only difference between a gift and a theft, or consensual sex and rape, is context.

I'm confident that, as a lawyer, Mr Rivkin understands all of this.

Sent by Alan Rutherford | 12:17 AM | 10-10-2007

You note in your introduction above that "semantics are important." While listening to your program yesterday, I was saddened by the unbearable importance of semantics. Imagine if a prisoner at Guantanamo had listened to your intellectual debate yesterday. Imagine if he has listened in the interrogation room.
Your grad-school-seminar treatment of this flesh and blood topic only reinforces the lack of action. Torture is torture. This is not the time for genre studies. Yet your thoughtful tone encourages our society to continue a tragic deliberation and thus not to act. Read Sabato's Nunca Mas. Or Arendt. Or Orwell.

Sent by Steven Wille | 9:19 AM | 10-10-2007

Given the evidence of extreme interrogation techniques being used by the US on detainees, why has no action been taken against the US for violation of the Geneva Convention? If the US is found in violation of the Geneva Convention, what would be the repurcussions?

Sent by Dov S. | 11:16 AM | 10-10-2007

The discussion was one of the most frightening I've ever heard. Listening to Mr. Rivkin's banal explanation why the US needs to engage in systemic torture was like reading the transcripts of the Nuremberg Trial defendents. Mr. Rivkin's explanation that these methods couldn't be torture because military personnel couldn't volunteer if it was torture completely missed the point. Military personnel have the basic core information that this is voluntary and it will end. Prisoners, by the very definition of being prisoners, have no such assurances and such techniques, being performed to the extent of causing death as seen in the sutopsy reports, is certainly torture and more. That any American can hear that their country is torturing people and not demsnd an immediate cessation is beyond frightening. To quote Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us"

Sent by JKB | 11:44 AM | 10-10-2007

I find it amazing that the Bush Administration allowed the military to prosecute those American Soldiers that for carry out "harsh Interrogation techniques" that they so approve of now. America how long will we stand by and watch this administration sacrifice our Soldiers to protect themselves and to advance their own political agenda.

Sent by Robert Rennaker | 11:47 PM | 10-10-2007

torture is the best thing people can do to get the truth out of their enimies

Sent by John Doe | 10:32 AM | 10-16-2007

I am still so distressed about the premise for this discussion on torture that I woke up at 2:30 am thinking about it and considering my $35 a month contribution to Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, Ca is putting me 'in-league-with' what is abhorrent to me. After reading the other blogs I feel just as troubled by the discussion but less betrayed by NPR. How could you, all of you say torture is a matter of 'definition' and 'you know it when you see it'? Quit going there. Don't take that corner of the argument or position and present it as valid. Let the politicians screw around with semantics.

Sent by Susan Aydelote | 7:23 AM | 10-17-2007