Views through the fenced-in guard post into the common area of a cell block in Camp 6 of Guantanamo Bay in 2012.
Photo by Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

America must never torture again

Today, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the executive summary of its findings of its comprehensive, five-year investigation into CIA interrogation practices. By doing so, the committee rendered a considerable service to our country, and deserves our thanks. Particular credit goes to the Chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who steered the process with grit, steady and effective leadership, and a clear vision of the national interest.

So we now know more – if not yet quite all – about the program of official brutality that was cynically and deceptively sold as “enhanced interrogation.” We now know that the only “enhanced” aspect of the program was the quantum of its cruelty; we know that the cruelty was applied at much higher levels of intensity than previously admitted; and we know that the degree of torment deliberately inflicted crossed the threshold of torture under any reasonable definition of the term.

Related: Senate report: ‘Brutal’ CIA program was kept from public

Here are a few examples: Each of the 183 times we subjected Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to waterboarding, we tortured. When we forced Mohammed al-Qahtani to endure beatings, stress positions, sleep deprivation, abnormally low body temperatures, and numerous other abusive techniques for 49 days of up to 20 hours-per-day interrogation sessions, we tortured. When we shipped Maher Arar – an innocent Canadian – to Syria for interrogation and he was beaten with shredded cables and held in a three-foot by six-foot “grave” for ten months, we tortured. When the CIA kidnapped Khaled El-Masri – an innocent German – from a hotel in Macedonia and flew him to Afghanistan for four months of brutal interrogations, we tortured. And when we rendered the Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi (along with his wife and four children) to Gaddafi’s Libya, where our proxies tortured him, it is we who bear the responsibility.

This fact – that we purposefully committed torture – is the only salient fact that Americans will need to know in order to confidently reach a permanent judgment about this misguided chapter in our recent history. That judgment will rest on the understanding that the American project, our very purpose as a nation from our birth until today, is to promote human dignity. And it will rest on the recognition that we as a nation are sworn to the protection of those inalienable rights that define and shield human dignity, among which is the non-derogable right to be free from cruelty. 

“When we tortured these victims, both those innocent and those culpable of acts of terrorism, we violated our laws and committed crimes, we betrayed our values and heritage, and we disfigured our national character.”
Alberto Mora, former Navy General Counsel
If Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qahtani, Arar, El-Masri, and al-Saadi did not have the right to be free from cruelty it is only because no one has the right to be free from cruelty. But we do have that right – and they did, too. When we tortured these victims, both those innocent and those culpable of acts of terrorism, we violated our laws and committed crimes, we betrayed our values and heritage, and we disfigured our national character. The issue of torture, to paraphrase Sen. John McCain, is more about who we are than what they did. Seen this way, if we wish to become again the nation we would wish to be, then we need to look into the mirror which the Senate Intelligence Committee provides us and resolve never to go that way again.

The issue now is whether, having once invited torture into our home, we will continue to make room for torture in our future. Some insist we should. These individuals, many of whom were among the chief architects, authorizers, or implementers of the torture program, can be heard to say that “it wasn’t torture”, that the torture “worked”, and that it kept us “safe.” Or, it is claimed, because “patriots” administered the torture, it must be applauded – as if the degree of the torturers’ patriotism could be of the slightest relevancy.

All of these claims are bogus. As the Navy General Counsel in the Bush administration when the torture policies were first adopted, I as well as the near-totality of military lawyers in the Pentagon recognized that the now-discredited legal memos authorizing the “enhanced interrogation techniques” licensed torture, a conclusion that is now shared not only by President Obama and the European Court of Human Rights, but by close to the totality of legal academics and experts in the United States and Europe.

And the torture policies neither worked nor made us safer – to the contrary. Our nation’s strategic defensive national interest is to protect both our people and our values equally and simultaneously. Throughout our history, brave men and women have taken risks and at times incurred casualties in order to protect our heritage and way of life. Our use of torture damaged the nation by disregarding this second strategic interest and by damaging our values. And, in addition, our use of torture blunted our moral authority; damaged foreign political support for our effort against terrorism; alienated our closest allies; created rifts in the alliance structure assembled to fight the war; impaired military, intelligence, and law enforcement cooperation; obstructed tactical operations in the battlefield; gave aid and comfort to the enemy in that it enabled them to more effectively recruit combatants and muster political support; and, for this reason, appears to have been a significant cause of U.S. combat deaths.

Time and distance from the horror of 9/11 may help us better understand why we tortured: we were angry and afraid. But this understanding should not soften our ultimate judgment on our use of torture as a weapon of war: it was inexcusable and greatly damaged our nation.

Alberto Mora served as General Counsel of the Navy. He is a senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.