The Truth about Torture and Trump


The New York Times reports today that the government has declassified some transcripts from torture victims at Guantanamo Bay. Predictably, the transcripts remain heavily redacted, limiting their value. However, some new information does come to light based on an analysis of the documents. Equally predictable, the new release offers nothing to validate the use of torture as a means of gathering information and keeping Americans safe. This has become especially relevant as a nominee for President of the United States has stated that he not only wants to bring back the Bush Administration torture policies, but expand upon them. 

The argument made by wannabe Torquemada’s to justify their sadism is that torture is an effective way to get timely information from terrorists about future violence. Yes, torture is questionable, but the pain and suffering of a single individual that saves the lives of perhaps thousands of Americans is a justifiable means. The sainted Justice Antonin Scalia even took it upon himself to interpret torture as perfectly acceptable from an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. According to Scalia, torture is unconstitutional as a form of punishment, but the Constitution says nothing about using torture as a means of interrogation. In that case, torture is just hunky-dory. 

The truth is, however, that there is no evidence that torture is an effective means of gathering information. Torture has always been a way of getting confessions as a demonstration of power, not as an investigation technique. The validity of the confession is not an issue for the torturer, only that the power element is able to break the individual to its will. Under torture, victims will confess, regardless of their actual guilt. Consequently, information gathered through torture is questionable at best, hardly reliable and legally inadmissible in court. Torture is an exercise of power, not an investigative technique. 

An iconic image out of Abu Ghraib representing US torture

The Mad Sociologist Blog posted a number of articles on this issue in 2009. After 9/11, when Americans were feeling scared, disempowered and reactionary, we largely turned a blind eye to what President was doing. Torture even became a source of entertainment for us as we tuned in to the television show 24 and watched Jack Bauer coerce confessions and save the day every week.  We gave the neocons a blank check to keep us safe. As is the case whenever power goes unchecked, it was abused. Revelations from Abu Ghraib and Bagram shocked our American consciousness. In 2008, Senator Barack Obama included an anti-torture platform in his campaign. 

Of course, Obama is not immune to the temptations of power. For the most part, he has lived up to his promises to end torture as an American policy, though he was slow in closing Bagram and Guantanamo remains open. The fact remains that the Obama Administration has never banned extraordinary rendition. In other words, the United States may no longer torture its prisoners, but it reserves the power to subcontract torture to other nations. On this front, the Obama Administration has done little more than ask participant nations to cross their hearts that they will not torture prisoners shipped by 

Below is the MSB analysis of torture. Before entering the world of blogging, I used to edit an on-line pamphlet called Agitate. In 2008, I wrote my most comprehensive analysis of torture called Tortured Logic, Agitate 1102008 Tortured Logic

Is America a Pro-Torture Culture

May 13, 2009

Naomi Wolf, in her article We are all Torturers in America, poses an interesting question.  Where were we the last eight years that we are suddenly all “outraged” about the prospects of torture now.  After all, it’s not like the Bush Administration hid their torture from us.  And, let’s face it, attempts to spin torture as “enhanced interrogation” or “nothing more significant than fraternity hazing” are pretty hollow.  Torture is torture, and in the words of George Bush, America doesn’t torture.  Really?

I’ve not seen the research, but I don’t think there are too many people who believe that the United States does not torture.  Nor do I think that most Americans buy the spin that enhanced interrogation does not constitute torture.  What I fear is that Americans may not have a problem with the use of torture.

The United States has a long history of torture, especially psychological manipulation.  Indeed, the CIA expended a great deal of energy researching methods of psychological and behavioral manipulation during the cold war. Such techniques are described by University of Wisconsin Professor Alfred McCoy as a “distinctly American form of torture.”

Of course, this torture is justified by CIA officials and their ideological supporters as a means of protecting the country from our enemies.  During the Cold War we were convinced that we were, at any given moment, just seconds away from nuclear annihilation.  It was imperative that American intelligence be able to utilize whatever methods they could for gaining information.

Now, the terrorists will surely get us if we restrict our agents from using enhanced interrogation techniques to extract their next targets.  It’s understandable.  Having enemies and not knowing what they are up to is a scary proposition.  If torturing an individual means saving a thousand lives it can be defined as an unfortunate, but necessary evil.

Torturers like Jack Bauer became weekly heros on television

This is reinforced in our culture. Movie thrillers, novels and TV shows like 24 often hinge on the confession of a single prisoner. The consequences of that prisoner not talking are dire. So torture is not just some abstract technique used by shadowy agents in cold basements, but rather a form of entertainment, a source of personal fulfillment when we see the hero save New York from imminent destruction.

American culture emphasizes practicality. As is presented by many pundits, and politicians, reinforced through our cultural expressions, torture is a practical means by which to gain necessary information.

According to a Pew Research Poll, 49% of Americans in 2009 feel that torture is justified, at least some of the time, as a means of gaining information.


Every discussion of torture involves the prospect of gaining information. A society based on information might just be attracted to torture.  However, this discourse neglects one indisputable fact. Torture is an ineffective means of gaining information.   A person being tortured will learn quickly what the torturer (investigator?) wants to hear, and will give it to them regardless of its validity.  Agents working from information gained through torture are more likely to spend their time chasing red herrings than stopping terrorists.

McCoy reports the research of Dr. Donald Hebb who was able to use sensory deprivation to instill psychosis in his subjects in about 48 hours.  Hey, this isn’t pain after-all.  The individual is just being subject to…well, nothing. And yet psychosis ensues in short order. Of course, this begs the question, “how useful is information gleaned from a psychotic?”

So torture isn’t about information.  Experts in the field of “intelligence” are aware of this.  The claim is bogus.

But there’s another aspect of torture that human rights activists must contend with but seem to be wary of addressing.  This aspect of torture is exemplified by someone with whom I had a debate on this issue.

“Mike, the people these “alleged” techniques were used against want to kill your children.  The only thing I’m worried about is were [sic] their balls wet enough when they attached the electrodes.”

Terrorists know they are terrorists, therefore they deserve what they get. A terrorist must have the certainty that they will be tortured if captured, yet they still choose to be terrorists. So terrorists deserved to be tortured. America, the only western nation that uses the death penalty, certainly has an eye-for-an-eye ideology.

Again, our cultural expressions condone and maybe even condition this thinking.  Representations of those being tortured in the entertainment media are dangerous individuals, criminals, terrorists (not to mention mostly non-white). They are not presented as “victims of torture.”  On the other hand, when American protagonists are tortured (often white American protagonists) they are portrayed as heroes, gallantly struggling against an evil enemy torturer.

Even the mainstream information media rarely presents the possibility that the subjects of torture are actually innocent of any wrong-doing.  A critical analysis of the guilt of the victims of torture is rarely mentioned, just the ethics of subjecting people to such practices. It’s as if the media is reluctant to suggest that America might subject innocent people to torture. After all, they must be guilty of something!

Every society has a process by which they legitimize sanctions against individuals.  In the United States it is called due process.  Yet alleged terrorists are subject to heinous sanction without the application of the very process of legitimizing punitive action. In essence, the legitimization of a sanction like torture requires nothing more than the assertion of the state that the individual is a terrorist. If this is done by any other society we define it as being a crime against humanity, as a tyrannical regime imposing fear on its population.

Yet there is no public “outrage” as asserted by Ms. Wolf.  According to a Gallup Poll, only 38% of Americans support criminal charges against torturers.  President Obama has reversed the Nuremberg decision that “just following orders” is not a defense against committing crimes against humanity when he reassured the CIA that there will be no prosecution of those who were just following the orders of higher Justice Department officials.  This without public outrage.


At best, there is a concerted effort on the part of some human rights groups to press the issue.  Liberal commentators like Rachel Maddow have kept the issue alive in the mainstream media.  But I would not call the public response an “outrage.”

But there should be outrage. The fact that there isn’t is indicative of some deeper cultural currents in our society that may be ugly, but must be addressed.

Reflecting on Torture: But Nothing More

May 23, 2009

Many liberals are expressing concern over the Obama Administration’s disappointing position regarding torture. On one hand the  administration appears to be coming clean on the Bush Administration’’s legal acrobatics around the torture issue. The release of the now infamous torture memos and the endless stream of information that is pouring forth is nothing short of  sickening, but  certainly indicative of major crimes against humanity.

The revelations that have come forth demand attention,  require definitive action.  In light of this, the Obama Administration has determined to… put off making any kind of determination.  President Obama states that “this is a time for  reflection, not retribution.” Of course, this reflection is limited as photos of detainee abuse that he promised to release as a candidate are now being withheld. To justify this turnaround, Obama claims that “nothing can be gained” from their release.  Nothing can be gained by facing the truth? That’s a strange position from someone supposedly dedicated to government transparency.

Yes, Mr. President, let’s take the growing evidence of human rights violations and reflect on it.  God forbid there should be retribution against those who have not only violated human rights, but three hundred years of enlightened cultural evolution— not to mention the law. Let’s ignore the fact that similar techniques used against Americans justified a fifteen year sentence for Yukio Asano, a Japanese officer who water-boarded American soldiers in World War II.  To Asano’’s misfortune, that was a time of retribution, not reflection!

I’’m an advocate for reflecting on history, but U.S. sanctioned torture is not history when the authors of this medieval legal framework are still active: one, Jay Bybee, a federal appellate court judge and another, John Yoo teaching future legal loophole artists at Berkeley. To allow these criminals to live their lives without a legal response,— read “retribution,” by Obama —and to thrive in their fields is reflective of an underlying barbarity in our political institutions and in our society.

That the Bush Administration, or at least specific officials of the administration, are complicit in criminal  conspiracy is clear. The energy and creativity that they put into distorting established law to justify their sinister, ideological goals is awe-inspiring.

A wise man once told me that you don’’t have to justify doing the right thing.  Yet men like John Yoo and Jay Bybee felt inclined to write tens of thousands of words to defend and redefine Bushco’’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques.

The case is simple.  Torture is against the law. Namely, it’s against the US Code, the US Constitution, the UN Charter and the Geneva Convention, to name a few. The very techniques described in the torture memos are definitive acts of torture.  There, we’’ve reflected.  Now what should we do about it? Ignore the facts? Ignore our moral obligations to truth and justice? Ignore our responsibility to the cause of humanity?

What Influences Obama’s Reflection?

I would not, however, hold my breath for the Obama Administration to act. Obama is legitimized by the very power structures that legitimized Bushco; and power does not turn against itself. The institutional pressures on Obama to do nothing more than “reflect” are great.  So long as the government is motivated by power, the quest for justice will be hard-fought, regardless of who is in the Oval Office.

Primarily, Obama has inherited an institution bulging with the accumulation of power, consolidated over the last sixty years and quickened by the Bush Machiavellis. We cannot assume that Obama is above the corruptive influences of the state of which torture is just one of many manifestations. Few in history have ever endeavored to dis-empower the very institutions to which they were beholden.

Secondly, Obama may want to reserve the right privilege, as the most powerful man in the world, to exercise power in less than ethical ways.  His administration is taking its first steps.  Obama recognizes that there may come a time when decisions constrained by morality may be…inconvenient.  Should he decide that now is the time for retribution against torturers, then in five or ten years there may be a retribution time for his historical legacy.  It could be said, however, that an administration dedicated to the Universal Rights of Man would not hesitate to prosecute torturers, but an office intent on keeping the straits of moral relativism open would.

Reflection also allows Obama significant room for negotiation among competing interests.  The prospect of prosecution or political reciprocity constitutes a great Sword of Damocles over the heads of those who may otherwise work against his goals.  To prosecute would mean losing political capital, …which some people might confuse for blackmail.  The fact remains, Obama holds considerable political cards in the same hand that he holds unreleased photos of detainee abuse.

Also, the fact that the torture doctrine is a construct of elite interests poses a problem with regard to elite networks.  The relative number of elites is small and heavily interconnected. Regardless of media friendly sound-bite presentations of contention between Republicans and Democrats, the inner circle of elite power is contiguous.  The bureaucracy is often run by the same set of groups and individuals from the same schools and the same businesses.  A criminal investigation may ultimately entangle  political allies in the net.

According to Prof. Alfred McCoy, of the University of Wisconsin, the rationalization of torture is nothing new to American politics.  It goes back to the fifties and has been, more or less, an integral part of the intelligence community’’s evolution under Democrats as well as Republicans. Every administration bears the taint of torture. So can Obama take the chance of discrediting President Clinton, a major standard-bearer for the Democrats, under whom rendition and torture occurred.  And in doing so, would he also discredit his own Secretary of State?

So any prosecution of the architects of American torture will most likely be left in the hands of historians yet to come.  For now, however, there will be no such effort on the part of the enforcement authority. We may see some people get disbarred. Perhaps enough pressure will bring Judge Bybee down from behind the bench. However, those who led the United States of America, a nation conceived in the salons of the Enlightenment, back to the infamy of the Inquisition, will go free about their business.  They are as unlikely to be prosecuted as bankers.

Power trumps justice in the game of politics. Institutional  contingency trumps morality.  Expect no contrition from the power elite for being a harbinger of evil in the world.

Torture is About Politics, not Investigation!

May 23, 2009

I was recently involved in a debate about torture. During the debate, my opponent asked, ““has it ever occurred to you that the people who are allegedly being tortured have information that could save lives. They are not being tortured for the sport of it, you know.””

Really? There’s a problem with this claim. A few months ago I wrote an editorial for Agitate called Tortured Logic.  This article shreds the logic of torture as a device for gaining information.  All intelligence experts know that little valuable information comes from torture and that agents are more likely to find themselves chasing red herrings based on information gleaned from  a desperate, or even psychotic person hoping to escape intense pain or deprivation.

Historically, torture is used to legitimize power and exploitation.  This was famously demonstrated during the Inquisition.  The power institution, in this case the Church, feared that their subjects were turning away from them, embracing dangerous ideas.  They defined such activity as heresy  that must be stamped out.  They made extremist claims that Satan was behind these heresies, hoping to  destroy the Church of God. The Inquisition then proved their claims by extracting confessions of heresy, witchcraft and even Satanic worship through brutal torture.

Similarly, brutal, archaic and criminal agencies like the CIA legitimize their existence by convincing us that there are  secret cabals intent on destroying America.  Only the intelligence establishment can save us from these evil forces.  To do so, they must be ready to use brutal techniques in order ferret out the evil doers. September 11th seems to be the ultimate confirmation of this particular brand of paranoia.   However, 9/11 also constitutes a tremendous failure on the part of the intelligence community.  Extracting confessions from alleged conspirators legitimizes the very institutions that failed us in 2001, failed us in Afghanistan, and failed us in Iraq.

To confirm this perspective, we have evidence that torture techniques approved by the US government were not used to gather information.  They were actually attempts to create a false link between al Qaida and Iraq.  Officials are admitting that they were instructed to find such a connection; if enhanced interrogation was being used to gather information, then interrogators would have been instructed to determine if such a connection existed rather than prove a foregone —and ultimately false— conclusion.

So it may be that victims of US interrogators were not tortured for the “sport of it,” but they certainly were not tortured for information.  They were put under the lash for the same reasons as fifteenth century heretics.  Torture was committed to legitimize the significant expansion of power in the hands of the state.

Watch Senior Military Interrogator Mathew Alexander Vivisect Dick Cheney’s (and, consequently, Donald Trump’s) Defense of Torture


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