Torture, Its Origins, and Its Excuses—Interrogators as Holy Men?

Interrogators as holy men? Try interrogators as Red Chinese torturers.


By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

One of the most startling defenses of the Bush administration torture policy appeared in Tuesday's Washington Post. Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen makes the U.S. personnel sound less like interrogators than priests. (I suppose that might make them inquisitors.)

Thiessen wrote (emphasis added): 

Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship.' " In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely

It's hard to get one's mind around the logic. He makes interrogation sound like an honorable kabuki: Torture me enough that I am liberated to tell you what you want to know. Could it be he's watched this scene from Austin Powers too many times?

Today's New York Times brings a more sensible take on the origins of U.S. torture (though those of us who had read Charlie Savage's excellent Takeover already knew much of this). But it bears repeating. The notion of using these methods came from the fact that U.S. military personnel are trained to resist them. Why? Because the Chinese used them during the Korean War. 

A little research on the origin of those methods would have given reason for doubt. Government studies in the 1950s found that Chinese Communist interrogators had produced false confessions from captured American pilots not with some kind of sinister "brainwashing" but with crude tactics: shackling the Americans to force them to stand for hours, keeping them in cold cells, disrupting their sleep, and limiting access to food and hygiene.

"The Communists do not look upon these assaults as 'torture,' " one 1956 study concluded. "But all of them produce great discomfort, and lead to serious disturbances of many bodily processes; there is no reason to differentiate them from any other form of torture."

Worse, the study found that under such abusive treatment, a prisoner became "malleable and suggestible, and in some instances he may confabulate." 

Well there is that.

On Facebook? You can keep up with Thomas Jefferson Street blog postings through Facebook's Networked Blogs.