November 21, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Renewed Debate Over Torture & National Security

• The U.S. presidential campaign and election aftermath have reignited the debate concerning the use of torture and national security.

• While the conversation has thus far been limited to campaign speeches and news programs, talk of making torture an instrument of U.S. policy must not be normalized.

• By every credible measure, waterboarding and other banned tactics qualify as torture and are ineffective, making their use doubly damaging to the U.S.

• There will be future terror attacks in the United States; refusing to rule out the use of torture has no positive effect on counterterrorism, but does have negative effects on the nation.

In an interview on November 20, Vice President-elect Mike Pence refused to rule out the use of waterboarding—among other currently banned torture tactics—by the incoming administration. This latest statement is consistent with statements made by the incoming administration during the U.S. presidential campaign. The stated rationale for not reaffirming a commitment to abide by the ban on tactics such as waterboarding during interrogations—which is prohibited by both U.S. and international law—is that it is counterproductive to tell future enemies which techniques are or are not ‘on the table’. While this reasoning may be well-intended, it ignores history, science, and the U.S. Constitution. 

The casual discussion of torture as a possible counterterrorism tool must not be normalized—nor should the use of torture be reinstated. The emotional appeal of torture in the abstract—the notion of doing whatever it takes to get information needed to save lives—is as intense as it is misguided. It is troubling that in 2016 this issue once again resonates despite overwhelming factual evidence of the operational ineffectiveness of torture, as well as its moral toxicity. Many arguments in favor of torture seek to use exigency as justification to bypass its illegality. But the illegality of torture is matched by its ineffectiveness; torture produces false confessions. Euphemisms such as ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ are used to minimize the reality and consequences of methods that have been rightfully outlawed as torture for decades.

Every presidential administration faces national security threats, including terrorism. Despite the severity of the threats and the duty of the president to safeguard American lives, the threats facing the United States are more than manageable within the boundaries of a democratic and lawful nation. In the coming months and years, reality dictates that there will very likely be domestic terrorist attacks in the United States, as is the case with many countries. The best prevention and response to the threat of terrorism remains a unified, resilient society and well-trained law enforcement and intelligence agencies firmly grounded in best practices and long-established law. Despite the rhetoric, the use of torture will not make America any safer. It will only undermine U.S. credibility in the world, and provide further fuel for extremist propaganda used to recruit the next generation of terrorists.


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