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As I mentioned in our discussion of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture on the most recent episode of the Law Talk podcast, for some years I served as a member of the Constitution Project’s task force on Detainee Treatment. The detailed recounting of the evidence I witnessed during that time left no doubt in my mind that the United States government did commit systematic acts of torture, which were contrary to this nation’s value structure, laws, and international treaty obligations. In my opinion, this is not a close case on which reasonable minds can differ.
As I note in my new column for Defining Ideas, however, I do not believe that opposition to the methods used by the CIA dictates, as a necessary correlate, that the United States should take a passive stance in dealing with Al Qaeda and its offshoot organizations. As I write there:
The real question here is on the effectiveness of the various techniques. From the outset, it should have been clear that the payoff from interrogation of high-value captives could only yield limited information of value, no matter how effectively conducted. It did not take much imagination for high-level al-Qaeda operatives to figure out which of their numbers were in the custody of the United States. The organization could therefore alter its various practices and protocols so as to depreciate the value of the information that these operatives possessed. The passage of time also degrades the value of any information that the detainees had about al-Qaeda plans or the whereabouts of its key operatives.
Indeed, the severe interrogation of these suspects therefore always carries the serious risk that even high-level targets do not possess any information of value. But it is all too easy to refuse to take these statements at face value and to continue the interrogation until the suspects make up stories that can actually mislead American intelligence officials. The constant cycle of ever more severe interrogation carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. It may well be wise to detain these subjects indefinitely so that they cannot rejoin the fray. But not to torture them.
As I mention in the column, the shortcomings of the interrogation program do not remove the need for America to continue aggressively monitoring terrorist activities through surveillance and to engage extremists on the battlefield. In the end, the detainee process was a regrettable chapter in a war that is very much worth waging. That fact should not be lost in the controversy over the CIA program.Published in