Donald Trump says that “torture works” but, like many of his unwise proclamations, he has surely made his latest claim without facts or foundation. If the pro-torture lobby had any evidence at all that waterboarding someone is an effective method of gathering intelligence and saving lives we would, by now, have been presented with it.
Instead we get the so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario, often cited by those endorsing the use of torture. That, though, should be confined to where it was conceived, in Hollywood studios where government agents like Jack Bauer from the hit TV series “24” beat the hell out of the bad guys to get the truth and save lives.
The only thing that “24” has achieved is to embed in the minds of those people who can’t distinguish fact from fantasy that it’s acceptable to torture people when, in fact, it is not; it is against international law. Torture is also banned in the USA for its own citizens, so when Trump talks about “bringing it back” he’s talking about torturing anyone and everyone except Americans.
It is shocking that in the 21st century we are even discussing the use of torture, or using euphemistic terms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” but these are extraordinary times with one of the most volatile and unpredictable presidents ever now sitting in the White House.
When Trump first began talking about torture on his campaign trail I asked myself, “Does it work?” That is now part of the title of my recently-published book for which I drew on 15 years of research, including a four-day stopover at Guantanamo Bay detention facility as well as interviewing and using statements from victims of torture as varied as US Republican Senator John McCain and ex-Guantanamo and Bagram detainees. The book cuts through the moral and legal dilemmas because I wanted to find out if inflicting pain on another human being can produce life-saving intelligence. If torture fails to deliver its objective, its use as a military weapon becomes as pointless as a faulty machine gun and, like any faulty weapon, could even prove to be a liability.
From studies of World War II, Vietnam and the Algerian War of Independence, as well as political memoirs and materials recovered under the Freedom of Information Act in the US and Britain, I reached a conclusion that is, as you might guess, opposite to Trump’s uninformed view. This conclusion was also reached using formerly classified documents from the UK National Archives; it is far from uninformed.
Trump often says that he was against the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, but in a September 2002 interview with shock-jock Howard Stern, when he was asked if he was in favour of the impending war he said, “Yeah, I guess so.” However, I wonder if he appreciates that his predecessor as US President, George W Bush, delivered “Shock and Awe” to a nation which is still suffering 14 years later because of faulty intelligence obtained through torture? It is now accepted by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell that his push for war in Iraq was based on intelligence supplied as a result of the torture of terror suspect Ibn Sheikh Al-Libi.
It is essential not to underestimate the central role played by Al-Libi, who Ken Roth, head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) based in Washington, described as “Exhibit A” in hearings on the relationship between pre-Iraq War false intelligence and torture. Not only did the torture of Al-Libi in Cairo produce false information that was contained in Powell’s powerful UN speech on 5 February, 2003 to argue for the invasion of Iraq, but it also had consequences for a dozen Algerian men who were arrested in London accused of manufacturing the poison Ricin. The so-called Ricin Plot was exposed as “pure invention” in April 2005 after a six month trial collapsed and the accused were set free.
However, by the time that Al-Libi’s false confession was discredited, the war in Iraq was well under way and the civilian death toll was heading into six figures. The suffering, chaos and violence in Iraq continues 14 years down the line to such an extent that there are many who put the emergence of Daesh down as a direct result of the 2003 invasion.
There are many reasons why torture is wrong but the faulty intelligence gleaned from torture which led to the war in Iraq is also proof that there are all too often unintended consequences of using barbaric, medieval methods to gather intelligence. Trump’s advisors need to sit him down and explain the direct link between the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, the emergence of the terror group Daesh and the violence in the Middle East today, all because someone in the CIA thought it would be a good idea to torture one man.
Ibn Sheikh Al-Libi was eventually murdered by the Gaddafi regime in Abu Salim Prison in May 2009. The dreadful legacy of the torture that was forced upon him will continue to haunt us all for many years to come.
* Torture — Does it Work? Interrogation issues and effectiveness in the Global War on Terror by Yvonne Ridley is published by Military Studies Press and can be bought here.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.