Torture: Where Do We Go Next?
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
By now, we know a great deal about what happened to detainees subjected to harsh interrogation techniques. Bush administration officials and their defenders continue to insist that waterboarding and other measures were properly authorized and fall short of the legal definition of torture, and that they produced critical intelligence that helped prevent attacks on American civilians. Many others dispute every one of those points.
What, if anything, happens to those who authorized and conducted those interrogations remains unclear, but we focus today less on the past than on the future.
What should the U.S. policy on torture be? Are there any circumstances where it should be permitted, and what happens when that policy is violated?
Senior news analyst Ted Koppel addresses and answers those questions in a commentary; we're going to ask him to explain in just a minute. But if you'd like to read his commentary, you can find it on our Web page, npr.org/talk. After you've heard his points, we'll invite you to join the conversation, and in a bit, we'll also hear from former CIA case officer Robert Baer.
Later on the Opinion Page, unanswered questions from Elizabeth Edwards' book and interviews but first, one of our periodic conversations with Koppel. Ted join us today from his home in Potomac, Maryland. Welcome back to the program.
TED KOPPEL: Well thank you, it's always nice to be with you.
CONAN: And don't we need to begin by defining torture, and whether or not that definition includes those harsh techniques?
KOPPEL: I think we get into trouble when we try to define it, but I don't think it's all that difficult if you really want to do it. I would define it as being any technique or practice which, when applied to an American prisoner in some other country or captured by some other entity, that we would object to. If we object to it being done to an American, then I think it's torture.
CONAN: Okay, then if we define it as torture, the United States is signatory to a treaty that says torture is always illegal.
KOPPEL: And I think it should always be illegal. I think the important point is one that Bob Baer mentioned in one of the promotional prologues to this program. We have to make our decisions now, while there is still some relative quiet in this country, now that it has been eight years since the attack of 9/11 - almost nine years now.
I think we have a moment in which a genuine debate can take place in this country. If we wait until something else happens here in the United States, it'll be too late.
CONAN: And yet you argue that even after we conclude this debate, we should insist that torture remain always illegal, but you also point out to those who would maintain that position that it is also going to continue.
KOPPEL: Look, I think the same thing is going to happen, Neal, on the international level as happens here domestically. As we all know, torture is absolutely illegal here in the United States. It doesn't matter what someone has been arrested for, what someone is suspected of having done, whether he is a child molester or a kidnapper or a murderer or a torturer himself, the fact of the matter is torture is against the law here in the United States. And if it can be shown in a court of law that a suspect was tortured to make a confession, by its very nature, that case is thrown out.
CONAN: Yet then you come down to the ticking-time-bomb scenario that's always mentioned in these things. A kidnapper has a child somewhere where the kid is in danger of running out of air, let's make an example. Or you have an intelligence agent who you think has information about an attack that's about to happen. What do you do then?
KOPPEL: Precisely. What you do then is entirely up to the person who is holding the suspect, but I want that person who is holding the suspect to know that no matter what the conditions after the fact, he or she will be subjected to prosecution and faces jail time.
Now we both know, Neal, that there is such a thing as jury nullification, in which a jury looks at the law, says yes, I know what the law says but frankly, under the same circumstances, I would probably have done the same thing. We're going to let this guy go.
Or let us say, for the sake of argument, that someone had been there, that someone had been captured before 9/11, and that it could have been shown that thousands of lives were saved because this person was tortured. It's entirely possible the president may, after the fact - and I stress, after the fact - may then decide that even though the law says this person is going to go to prison, that the president can then offer a presidential pardon.
What I'm really saying, Neal, is you have to make it more difficult to engage in torture, not easier. And my great fear is if we lose that leverage, if we stop saying it's against the law, that's a long and slippery slope in which all kinds of things, then, will be used as justification for torture.
CONAN: Well, let's bring other voices into the conversation. You've heard Ted Koppel lay out his point of view. If you agree, or if you disagree, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org.
And we'd also like to hear it - from this point, from Robert Baer, who was a former case officer and the director of operations in the Central Intelligence Agency from 1976 to 1997 - served in the Middle East, in Iraq and Lebanon, among other places - and Bob Baer, nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. ROBERT BAER (Former Director of Operations, Central Intelligence Agency): It's great to be here.
CONAN: And I know in your last appearance on the program, you said we have to be clear that torture is always illegal.
Mr. BAER: It should always be illegal for just - on the basis of the rule of law, and this is a country that stands for the rule of law, and we hold other world leaders accountable, Milosevic and on and on. And you know, if we can excuse ourselves, shouldn't we excuse them as well? And then where do we stand, especially, you know, in terms of the Nuremburg Trials? You just go on and on, and Ted is right. It is a slippery slope. We shouldn't go down there.
But my argument is first and foremost, we should look at the facts. What did we get out of the torture? And I am willing to bet, listening to the public statements, including statements made by the vice president, that we got nothing out of it. And this is what I'm hearing from inside, so that we can just…
CONAN: I'm sure you're referring to the former vice president.
Mr. BAER: The former vice president, yes. You know, I think once we undercut the argument that it's useful, we will never have - well, I can't say never. We won't have to face this recurring temptation to torture.
CONAN: So in resolving the debate, which both you and Ted said, we need a moment of calm to figure out this policy for the future, it's going to be extremely difficult if there's another 9/11. In the midst of this debate, you say, we have to go back and figure out what we got out of the last instance, too?
Mr. BAER: Oh, absolutely. We need to look at the transcripts from the interrogation sessions. We need to consult with the FBI to see what they got out of it. Did it lead to any arrests? Did it lead to stopping attacks?
So far, the FBI, Bob Mueller, the FBI director, and a very good agent, Ali Soufan, have said we got nothing out of it. I mean, we still don't know if this was all a terrible waste of our reputation and our time.
KOPPEL: I think, Bob, that that's kind of a dangerous - even that is a dangerous point of view to take because if the argument can be made successfully that yes, torture really is successful, and we got all kinds of stuff out of these guys that we didn't get by the more conventional means, then in fact, you enhance the argument for torture. I think that should be irrelevant.
Mr. BAER: You're probably right. I'm just such a - a former CIA case officer. Look, I have spent 30 years in and out of jails through the Middle East, South America, and I have found that torture undermines a society, whether it's in Peru or Lebanon or Saudi Arabia. It ultimately descends to the point where it's a weapon of intimidation. And I have never seen a country that uses torture that ever collected useful intelligence - ever.
CONAN: And Ted, let me add to you that you sort of put it both ways as well. You suggest that an individual CIA interrogator or somebody else in that position, given that ticking-time-bomb scenario, might decide to go ahead and do it, knowing full well that those penalties are out there but hoping maybe that they get jury nullification or maybe a presidential pardon. They might get that if they're right.
KOPPEL: That's right. And all I'm saying, Neal, is I think we're all realistic enough to know that if the scenario you sketched out at the beginning - a couple of kidnappers, one of them has a child, a 7-year-old, the child is buried, the child is running out of oxygen, if you're the person who's holding the other kidnapper, who can extract that information, is it likely that you're going to use violence? Is it likely that you're going to use some technique to try to get that information as quickly as you can? I think it is. The only point I'm making is you can't go into that, you can't go into the interrogation knowing that no matter what you do, it will be forgiven. You have to go into it knowing that look, I don't give a damn. I am so worried about this kid, or I am so concerned about the ticking time bomb and the possibility that thousands will die, I'm willing to take that risk, even if it means I'm going to prison. After the fact, people can then argue about the merits of what you did and why you did it.
CONAN: And Bob Baer, doesn't that put an awful lot of the onus on the person who's in that situation, the person who conducts the interrogation?
Mr. BAER: Absolutely. I think that ultimately, someone's going to say no to that. I'm not sure that that's workable, but I'd like to underline another point - is this idea of a ticking time bomb. In Israel, all the arrests they've made with Hamas and the Islamic jihad, they have never had a case where there was a ticking time bomb.
One couple I met in prison, two women who were going off to set off bombs in Jerusalem, their timing was minutes apart. Even if the Israelis had caught one of the bombers, the other one, there was not enough time to catch the other one. It's this whole idea of torture warrants, the ticking time bomb, the "24" scenario, which really bother me because they're absolutely as rare as hen's teeth.
It's just - I've never seen a case like this. And when we keep on reframing this torture argument in terms of the ticking time bomb, you're going to get a majority of Americans supporting torture. Or in the event of another attack, they're going to support it again, and there'll be some executive order, and we'll be back in the same place we were before.
KOPPEL: And I think one of the reasons - forgive me, Bob, I didn't mean to interrupt. Go ahead.
Mr. BAER: No, go ahead. I'm done.
KOPPEL: I was just saying, I think one of the reasons that there is so much support for torture is that the government has very successfully sanitized it. We don't talk about torture. We talk about enhanced interrogation. We don't talk about pulling out toenails. We talk about waterboarding, which sounds like some variation of surfing.
You know, we totally ignore the fact that the water torture has been used since the Inquisition, and has been used successfully by some of the most brutal regimes in the world.
CONAN: And now I have to beg your pardon for interrupting. We'll be back after a short break with Ted Koppel and Bob Baer. We're talking about the ethics of torture. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Senior news analyst Ted Koppel is with us. We're talking about his commentary on the debate over torture. It is a violation of U.S. law, he argues, and we need to put those who torture on notice. Anyone who violates the law must expect to face prosecution and prison, just as we need to accept the reality that even so, torture will happen. You can read his full commentary on our Web site, at npr.org/talk.
We also want to hear from you. Do you agree with Ted Koppel? What should the U.S. policy on torture be? Are these any circumstances where it should be permitted? What happens when that policy is violated? 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com.
Also with us is Robert "Bob" Baer, former case officer and the director of operations at the Central Intelligence Agency, author of "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism."
And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Peter's(ph) with us from Palisade in Minnesota.
PETER (Caller): Hello, how are you today?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
PETER: Great. My view on it is that these unlawful combatants are not entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention or military law, and those should be the laws that are accorded to them. Under civil law, it should be illegal; however, my position is that torture should be used, oh, in very rare instances, most often in emergency intelligence situations.
CONAN: And should the United States, therefore, repeal the international treaty against the use of torture, which it ratified?
PETER: Well, I don't know if the treaty is in legal definition with the Geneva Convention because if you operate out of uniform and target civilian populations, you're not afforded any under the Geneva…
CONAN: I believe it's in addition to the Geneva Conventions. It says you cannot torture anybody, anytime, anywhere, period.
PETER: Well, which law is superior? I don't know.
CONAN: Well, one is referring to people in uniform, and one refers to people outside of uniform. It doesn't matter; they're not inconsistent.
PETER: Well, I don't think civilians should be tortured. I don't think people should be tortured under civil law, but I believe that people operating out of uniform and conducting murders against innocent civilians, people who are non-combatants, they deserve no protections, and they should - these are people who operate completely illegally and are, you know, just dirt. They're dirt.
You know, they kill innocent people, children, everything, and I don't think that they should be - if innocent people can be saved from them, especially in an emergency, they should have to - they risk - you know, they know what they're risking by operating as they do. That should be known to the world.
CONAN: Ted Koppel, there are a lot of people who are going to agree with Peter.
KOPPEL: Absolutely, and I would make two points, actually. Peter, the first point would be I'm less concerned about what happens to them, as you define them, than I am about what concerns to us. We are a nation of laws. We are presumably a civilized nation, and I think we demean ourselves when we engage in torture.
The second point, Peter, I would make is you're assuming the guilt of the party that is being tortured before any kind of procedure has been taken to establish that guilt. There were, for example, down in Guantanamo, any number of men who were sent into or handed over to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, for example, because there was a bounty and because somebody paid them $500 or $5,000 per person. It turned out they had absolutely nothing to do with the Taliban or al-Qaida.
I'm not saying that these people were tortured. I'm just saying you can't automatically assume the worst of everybody who falls into our hands.
PETER: Well, I agree that war is a messy business, and there are certain mechanisms that could be improved upon and altogether, torture should be condemned, but not in all cases. That's my view, under - especially in a military situation, where lives hang in the balance and security.
CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: This from Sam(ph) in Wichita, Kansas, by email. Anyone who said that torture does not produce useful information has not studied history. Under torture, the Gestapo was able to obtain valuable information, which seriously affected the French underground. The real question should be: If the information obtained from torture important or less significant, was it worth the corruption that torture causes in the society, carrying out the torture?
And I guess Bob Baer, that would be to you. You said you've never seen circumstances under which torture produced important intelligence.
Mr. BAER: I've taken a look at intelligence reporting from various Arab and South American countries that do torture. I'll name them: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Peru, and the rest of them. And what I found is that overall, and with few exceptions or none that I've ever seen, the information is drivel, nonsense, especially out of a country like Egypt, which regularly practices torture. A country that almost never practices torture, Jordan, has some of the best intelligence.
CONAN: Almost never.
Mr. BAER: Almost never. It's very rare in a country like Jordan, which uses traditional police techniques, gets sources through families, through money and the rest of it, and they do much, much better than any other Arab country. The same way in South America. And you know, you look at Stalin's Russia. Torture was used, and they said this very definitely - the KGB - for, again, political intimidation, not for collecting information.
The problem is it generates so many false leads that it will tie up a country's equivalent of the FBI forever, and never really gets you anything. Again, but this goes back to Ted's point. If it does occasionally, then we are opening up Pandora's box because the next attack, not only will the vast majority of Americans agree with Peter, but 99 percent of them will, and we'll be going through this over and over and over again. And that is why we really do need a sort of truth commission on what happened during the last eight years.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Bob(ph), Bob with us from Columbus in Ohio. Bob, are you there?
BOB (Caller): Yes, yes, everybody, how are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
BOB: Good. I am a member of the United States Army, and I just came back from Iraq this March. And I was in an intelligence unit, and I can attest that torturing people does not work and should never be legalized, especially a civilized nation like us. Because a lot of times, I've heard people talk about the most perfect scenario, when someone has, you know, intelligence, and you know, actable intelligence. And in the intelligence community, there is no such thing as a time bomb or anything like that. And if you want a real intelligence, you build it through chatter, and I mean that there's a lot of sources that are coming through, and from what we have used, we've never - the United States Army does not torture, and we've never tortured any insurgents or terrorists or anything like that because we knew it wouldn't get us anywhere.
CONAN: Bob, forgive me, Bob, but it sounds like you're telling us you were taught that torture never works, but you don't know that torture never works because you haven't tried it.
BOB: No, actually, we have been shown both sides of the, you know, the issue, and as the real experience - and personally, if we chose to torture somebody, we could've. But you know, as our experience told us that it doesn't - that would not get us anywhere and would not provide us any valuable intelligence because a lot of times, the people you're dealing with are not people that you can easily scare them off.
These people are willing to die for what they believe in, so if you are torturing or anything like that, you're just going to, you know, escalate the situation. And instead of de-escalating and putting this person in a conversation mode where this person can relax and talk to you and maybe have some sense of what he was doing, if you start - because many times, these people are in a different kind of mindset. And what we have tried to do was, you know, de-escalate the situation, calm down, understand why this person was doing what they were doing and what has caused - you know, try to get to know this person.
CONAN: I understand. We've had military interrogators on, talking about such techniques, which they say work and which they say work in ticking-time-bomb situations, Bob, but do you think that if you really believe that some enormous explosive was about to go off under Camp Liberty or something like that, that you or someone else in your unit might not have tried something more violent?
BOB: Well, I personally would have tried other ways that are valuable in getting that information. But the torturing will, via violence, would always escalate the situation. And I have no see - I don't see, in any way or shape or form, a person can tell me a valuable information when I'm actually using violence, you know, upon himself.
Why would these characters stop violence from happening somewhere else? So, that just logically sound very good to me to stop violence - in the first place to stop violence.
CONAN: Bob, thank you very much for the call and for the information. I appreciate it.
BOB: All right.
And Ted, you do hear that from some military interrogators and others, who say there are other techniques that can work. The difficulty being - and I think you address this in your commentary - if there is another incident, how do you then look at the members of the families of those who were killed and said, well, we had somebody who had some intelligence about this, but we didn't get it in time.
KOPPEL: Well, you've got to be able to prove that you would have been able to get it, which is clearly an impossibility. You can assume that you were going to get it, but I must tell you then, Bob, my - Bob, forgive me. Neal…
CONAN: That's all right.
KOPPEL: …my question in return then would be, where do you stop? Lord knows enough people in this country die because of all the drugs that come in from Mexico. Every time that we grab one of these drug dealers, then, should torture be employed?
If the argument is, it should be employed because it's more effective than any other device, because you can get to the bottom of a situation much more quickly than by using some of the more patient techniques, what is to stop it from being used every time, then, there is a difficult case in which lives may be at stake, domestically and overseas? If it works, why stop at the threshold of the dungeon? Why engage in only torture-light? Use whatever it takes then. I mean, that would be the alternative argument and I don't buy that.
CONAN: And Bob Baer, that's the slippery slope you worry about, too?
Mr. BAER: Yeah. Where does it stop? I mean, you know, why not let the police do it? We did - the law has to be applied uniformly to Americans and foreigners as well.
And you know, at the end of the day, we're going to win the conflicts in the Middle East because of moral superiority, not because we match their techniques.
CONAN: We're talking with former Central Intelligence Agency Bob Baer and with Ted Koppel, senior news analyst here at NPR NEWS.
We're discussing the issue of torture. Should it always be illegal under any circumstances? What happens when the law is violated?
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR NEWS.
And let's go to Javier(ph). Javier is with us from Oklahoma City.
JAVIER (Caller): Hello. Thank you.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
JAVIER: Well, my viewpoint on the issue is that I don't believe that we're ever really going to be able to stop it. So by making it illegal, we really just get ourselves in trouble - with the world and mainly, with our own country because they're looking at, you know - as a citizen, we're looking at the government going, they're doing something that they said that we weren't supposed to do.
I don't really believe that terrorists are afraid of being tortured, or that the world really cares that we torture terrorists - or anyone, for that matter, a drug dealer or anything. They're not exactly innocent. We're not just going in to Mexico and finding some guy and torturing him because he might know a drug dealer.
CONAN: We are - yeah.
JAVIER: These are people that have crossed our border.
JAVIER: They've already broken the laws.
KOPPEL: If we know, to begin with, that they're guilty, then there are all kinds of legal, you know, legal thickets that we can dispense with. We don't have to give a guy a lawyer with - I mean, I'm talking domestically now.
You know, it bothers me to hear this only because this is not a hypothetical. Torture is against the law. The only question is, are we going to let it escalate or are we going to try and limit it to the absolute, you know, minimum that we can? And I think we have to limit it but clearly, you disagree.
CONAN: There is also a situation - and Javier, thank you very much for the call.
There is obviously the situation of what, then, do we do with those people who authorized, Ted, under your definition, what is torture. If you - if we make a new policy and say, all right, from now on, we argue that we're going to punish this every single time, there's going to be people who say, this is a little inconsistent.
KOPPEL: Well, you know, consistency is the hobgoblin - what was the…
CONAN: Little minds, that was…
KOPPEL: …of little minds, exactly. I think you've got to start somewhere.
It is - I understand what the Obama administration's concern is. They have too many issues on their plate right now to want to engage the hostility of the last administration. And therefore, I think a line just has to be drawn at some point.
And as I say, this is a relatively quiet time in the issue. This is as good a time for that kind of decision to be made as any. The next time a plane goes down here in the United States, it's going to be impossible to have a quiet discussion about it.
CONAN: Isn't that exactly the moment, Bob Baer, when people say, we don't care what the policy was five minutes ago, we're in a new world?
Mr. BAER: Absolutely. But what this shouldn't be done - is in secrecy. This is what I particularly object to. It should be done in the public, through Congress, and the Americans be presented with this choice. It shouldn't be done behind the back of the American people.
And, you know, I have to mention these 92 tapes taken by the CIA; the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have disappeared.
CONAN: They were destroyed?
Mr. BAER: Destroyed, yes. And why were they destroyed? I - people tell me that they were just horrific, that there's no question that this was torture, was occurring, and the CIA did not want to get them out. I'm not sure if that's true. I hope it's not true. But in any case, the CIA never destroys records. So, why in this case did they do it?
That is why we really need to get to the bottom of this story. And I disagree with the administration. We should just, you know, let this pass on and forget about it and move - and turn the page. We can't.
There's at least 100 people that have died in interrogation. We have to know why they died, what were the circumstances, and was anybody culpable? We simply can't turn a blind eye to the law and say, well, it was the circumstances, we were all afraid. Because we're going to afraid again. And are we a nation of laws or aren't we? And let the American people decide.
CONAN: Again, if you like to read Ted Koppel's commentary on this, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ted Koppel joins us today from his home in Potomac, Maryland. Ted, as always, thanks very much.
KOPPEL: Thanks very much, Neal.
CONAN: And Bob Baer, former CIA case officer, author of "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism," joined us from a studio at the California - at the University of California's Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley. And Bob Baer, it's nice to speak with you again.
Mr. BAER: Thanks a lot.
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