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As Long as We Remember...

June 24, 2005

The Unintended Consequences of Torture

Chris Charuhas

The prisoner felt something dripping onto his head. It was blood and pus, oozing from his wrists where the handcuffs had cut into them.

He was shackled to a pipe above him, his whole weight suspended by his arms. For two days he’d tried to support himself on his toes, but his burning leg muscles eventually gave out. Since then, he’d been in agony, his arms feeling like they were tearing out of his shoulders.

Over the next three days, soldiers clubbed his arms and legs. When he fell to the floor they crushed his calves under their boot heels. One day he felt his chest get heavy, then a searing pain. He died a couple of minutes later: a blood clot – created by the beatings – had lodged itself in his heart.

In the next cell over, another prisoner trembled in fear as his interrogators walked in. He tried to say, “I’m only a cabdriver!” but an interrogator kicked him in the privates first.

Soldiers came in and began bashing his leg with clubs. He tried to squirm away, but they just kept beating his leg in the same place. After the first 20 strikes, his leg went numb. After 50 blows the flesh turned to pulp.

After they finished beating him, a blood clot worked its way up a blood vessel towards his brain. He began losing consciousness, and a few minutes later he died.

Is this a story about American soldiers captured by the Viet Cong? Is it an account of American spies captured by the Gestapo in World War II? No. It’s a description of what recently happened to two Afghan civilians, beaten to death by their American jailers.

Rush Limbaugh said, “This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones (fraternity) initiation.” The vice president said the detainees at Guantanamo Bay “are still treated with respect and dignity.” Don’t believe them.

The torture and deaths described above occurred in Bagram, Afghanistan. The details are documented in reports of investigations conducted by the U.S. Army. At least 25 prisoner deaths are now believed to be criminal homicides, according to the Department of Defense.

At the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at least two prisoners died from wounds sustained during interrogation, according to military documents. Several Navy SEALs have been charged with these crimes, and two CIA personnel are under investigation.

As for Guantanamo Bay, an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported: “I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more.”

John Hinderaker of the Powerline blog said: “The people they abused were almost certainly terrorists.” Don’t believe him.

The second prisoner described at the beginning of this article was an Afghan cab driver named Dilawar. Most of his American interrogators said they believed he was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past an American base at the wrong time.

In the Army’s report on Abu Ghraib, investigators estimated that “85–90 percent of the detainees were of no intelligence value.” The report also states that “large quantities of detainees with little or no intelligence value swelled Abu Ghraib population.”

Major General Michael Dunlavey, the commander at Guantanamo Bay, complained that too many "Mickey Mouse" detainees were being sent there. Dozens of the detainees are described in classified intelligence reports as farmers, taxi drivers, cobblers and laborers. "There are a lot of guilty (people) in there," said one Army officer, "but there're a lot of farmers in there, too."

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal wrote: “According to Dick Durbin, our soldiers are the Nazis.” Don’t believe him.

Democrat Senator Durbin of Illinois said that torture is for Nazis, not our soldiers. He meant that torturing prisoners is what tyrants and despots do. It has no place in a democracy.

Last year, when a Marine was shown on film shooting a wounded Iraqi, I didn’t get upset. I have no problem with “dead checking.” If our soldiers shoot wounded enemies while moving through a building, to eliminate the danger of being shot from behind, that’s fine by me. None of my liberal friends have a problem with that, either.

What we oppose are leaders who assign untrained soldiers to interrogation duty, then allow them to torture and kill prisoners in their custody. American soldiers should be above that, and we condemn leaders who drag them down into it.

But whether U.S. troops tortured anyone, whether it was justified, or whether opponents of torture love our country are beside the salient point. The most important question is, “Does torture work?” And the answer is, not very well.

Any military intelligence officer trained in interrogation will tell you that torture produces crummy intelligence. It makes strong prisoners lie on purpose, and weak ones lie by mistake.

Surprisingly, the best way to extract information from prisoners is through the exact opposite of torture: offering sympathy and understanding in a comfortable, safe environment.

In World War II, Marine Major Sherwood Moran was legendary for his ability to get good information from prisoners quickly. Interrogators employing his techniques during the Marianas invasion got prisoners to tell them the complete Japanese order of battle within 48 hours. How did they do it? They were nice to their captives.

Moran, who spoke Japanese fluently, said: “I consider a prisoner as out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy … Notice that … I used the word ‘safe.’ That is the point: get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows … that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the ‘enemy’ stuff, and the ‘prisoner’ stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being.”

Moran explained how he treated prisoners: “Ask if the doctor or corpsman has attended to him. Have him show you his wounds or burns. They will like to do this! … On one occasion a soldier was brought in. We were all interested in the redressing, in his (broken) leg; it was almost a social affair! … This was the prisoner who called out to me when I was leaving after that first interview, ‘Won't you please come and talk to me every day?’ ”

James Corum, a professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, said: "The torture of suspects (at Abu Ghraib) did not lead to any useful intelligence information being extracted…in the end there was nothing to show but a tremendous propaganda defeat for the United States."

That’s because almost all of the U.S. soldiers interrogating prisoners were untrained. Real interrogators “know their language, know their culture, and treat the captured enemy as a human being," according to Mr. Corum.

The Muslim world did not cheer when the towers fell. There was a huge outpouring of sympathy and grief from Muslim countries. To stop terrorists, we need their help. Torturing cabdrivers will ensure that we never get it.

When the Secretary of Defense created our torture system, he demonstrated his incompetence. But these sorts of blunders are nothing new. After Napoleon murdered a popular prince, his chief of secret police said something that applies to United States torture policy as well:

“It’s worse than a crime. It’s a mistake.”

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