If we are going to have a meaningful conversation about our national security policies, we need to be honest about what those policies entail.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s forthcoming report on the CIA’s past torture program is the most thorough and groundbreaking account to date of the methods the agency used to torture prisoners held in U.S. custody. Intelligence Committee members indicate that the report will speak to the brutality of a CIA torture program that was illegal, ineffective at gathering reliable intelligence, and deliberately hidden from government oversight.
The CIA Torture Report – reportedly – confirms what we and others have said for years: the CIA engaged in torture to interrogate prisoners after 9/11 in violation of U.S. law and international treaty obligations.
Torture isn’t a subjective term. Torture is defined as the intentional use of severe pain or suffering, both physical and mental, by public officials or others acting in an official capacity to gain information, extract confessions, or for any other purpose. Torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are never legally justified, not even in a state of emergency.
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The euphemism that torture proponents or apologists have used to describe torture, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” sidesteps the law and accountability, and sanitizes the methods themselves when there should be absolute consensus on what to call the CIA’s past interrogation program. In a commendable move, The New York Times recently committed to using the accurate language of “torture” to describe the CIA’s interrogation practices. Other media outlets should follow suit.
The CIA’s use of the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding, forced stress positions, sleep deprivation, and sensory overload are expected to be among the methods described in the CIA Torture Report. All are used in the world to break down individuals, terrify them, and harm their psyche. All result in serious health consequences that do not leave physical scars, but damaging and long-lasting psychological pain and suffering. All are tantamount to torture and cruelty.
We have extended rehabilitative care to more than 25,000 survivors of torture and severe war-related atrocities, including to some survivors who suffered from these forms of torture and cruelty in their home countries. This experience has taught us valuable lessons about the myths and misinformation often used to rationalize torture and cruelty as an effective interrogation tool. Survivors consistently tell us that they would - and did - say anything to make the torture stop or prevent the suffering of others.
Torture has also further alienated the United States from other countries and weakened diplomatic ties with our allies. In our efforts to stop those considered enemies, we have weakened our own moral stature. It is now harder for us to end torture around the world. We have little ground to stand on as we work to end human rights violations abroad.
We are a nation governed by the rule of law. Our government nonetheless took dangerous, illegal, and unconstitutional action when it approved and used torture and cruelty. President Obama signed an executive order to stop the CIA torture program when he took office, but a future president could overturn that executive order with the stroke of a pen. If the government and media do not come to agreement that these actions were torture, how can we hold those responsible accountable and prevent torture in the future?
Proponents of torture have used secrecy as a tool to prevent the American public from having the truth about the torture and cruelty the CIA perpetrated after 9/11. Instead, they have been hiding behind euphemisms to rewrite the definition of torture to protect themselves.
It’s time to stop asking whether what we did was torture. The facts in the CIA Torture Report will speak for themselves. It’s now time to start asking the President and Congress to work together to keep it from ever happening again.
Curt Goering is executive director of the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for Victims of Torture, an international nongovernmental organization dedicated to healing survivors of torture and violent conflict and to advocating for human rights and an end to torture.