Joan McCarter: Torture: The "Professional Disease" of our Nation

By Joan McCarter, DailyKos

You wouldn't think that in the United States we would have to convene a symposium like this to discuss "our nation's use of torture." Those of us who've lived our entire lives in this country always learned that we grew up in a nation of laws, a nation of mercy and justice. You wouldn't think that this nation, created under the rule of law and thriving under it through the spasms of Civil War, world wars, economic disaster and social upheaval, could throw over its very foundation and commit the kinds of acts previously limited to rogue states and totalitarian regimes.

Torture and America

Unfortunately, in George W. Bush's America, that is the reality we must face. We are all familiar with the overwhelming lack of legality and morality of state-sponsored torture. On legal grounds, humane grounds, moral grounds, torture has been repudiated by all civilized societies as an instrument of warfare. That repudiation has been codified in the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention on Torture and indeed in U.S. law. Those laws have further been institutionalized in our military's codes of conduct of war.

But through the machination of this administration's intention to expand the power of the executive, the jurisprudence of civilized nations has gone out the window. White House lawyers have argued that when acting as Commander-in-Chief, the President is above the law. And so have they argued on everything. Torture. Enemy combatants. Warrantless surveillance of American citizens.

I'm not a lawyer. I can't discuss in any depth the intricacies of the Yoo and Bybee memos and how they relate to legal precedent regarding the executive; how these advisory opinions square with the Federalist Papers and the thinking of our founders. Those are critical discussions to have—the legal repudiation of these arguments is absolutely necessary—and others participating in this symposium will provide them.

Beyond the legal arguments, beyond the moral arguments, there's another aspect to the torture debate. That's the core problem with torture used as a tool in our nation's defense:

It doesn't work.

The evidence that it is an ineffective tool in securing valid information is both anecdotal and empirical. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Field Activity sponsored a study (PDF), concluding that torture has never been proven an effective interrogative device. From an article about the report in the Washington Post:

There is almost no scientific evidence to back up the U.S. intelligence community's use of controversial interrogation techniques in the fight against terrorism, and experts believe some painful and coercive approaches could hinder the ability to get good information, according to a new report from an intelligence advisory group….

In it, experts find that popular culture and ad hoc experimentation have fueled the use of aggressive and sometimes physical interrogation techniques to get those captured on the battlefields to talk, even if there is no evidence to support the tactics' effectiveness. The board, which advises the director of national intelligence, recommends studying the matter.

"There is little systematic knowledge available to tell us 'what works' in interrogation," wrote Robert Coulam, a research professor at the Simmons School for Health Studies in Boston. Coulam also wrote that interrogation practices that offend ethical concerns and "skirt the rule of law" may be narrowly useful, if at all, because such practices could undermine the legitimacy of government action and support for the fight against terrorism.

It's perhaps a hallmark of regimes that choose to use torture that the legitimacy of government action takes a back seat to expediency, to the exercise of sheer power. Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet human rights expert who spent over a decade in Soviet prison camps had first hand knowledge of this phenomenon. He wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post:

One nasty morning Comrade Stalin discovered that his favorite pipe was missing. Naturally, he called in his henchman, Lavrenti Beria, and instructed him to find the pipe. A few hours later, Stalin found it in his desk and called off the search. "But, Comrade Stalin," stammered Beria, "five suspects have already confessed to stealing it."

This joke, whispered among those who trusted each other when I was a kid in Moscow in the 1950s, is perhaps the best contribution I can make to the current argument in Washington about legislation banning torture and inhumane treatment of suspected terrorists captured abroad. Now that President Bush has made a public show of endorsing Sen. John McCain's amendment, it would seem that the debate is ending. But that the debate occurred at all, and that prominent figures are willing to entertain the idea, is perplexing and alarming to me. I have seen what happens to a society that becomes enamored of such methods in its quest for greater security; it takes more than words and political compromise to beat back the impulse.

This is a new debate for Americans, but there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. Most nations can provide you with volumes on the subject. Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these "interrogation" practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery….

So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling? Why would anyone try to "improve intelligence-gathering capability" by destroying what was left of it? Frustration? Ineptitude? Ignorance? Or, has their friendship with a certain former KGB lieutenant colonel, V. Putin, rubbed off on the American leaders? I have no answer to these questions, but I do know that if Vice President Cheney is right and that some "cruel, inhumane or degrading" (CID) treatment of captives is a necessary tool for winning the war on terrorism, then the war is lost already.

Torture, "the professional disease of any investigative machinery," has infected the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. The results were predictable and immediate, as the New York Times reported in December, 2005. The false statements of an Al Qaida-Iraq link made by captured Al Qaida leader Ibn Al-Shaykh Al-Libi, relied upon by the Bush Administration to argue in favor of the Iraq war, came as a result of torture threats. Al-Libi told his interrogators what they wanted to hear—what the administration most wanted to hear—justification to go to war against Iraq.

There's also the complicated case of Khalid Sheik Muhammed, who was subjected to waterboarding and subsequently confessed to having been the key not only to the 9/11 attacks, but to a litany of assassination plots and terrorist attacks. He even confessed to having personally beheaded Daniel Pearl. Is it possible that this monster of a man really committed each of these horrific acts, or did torture simply break what has been argued by some was an already fragile psyche? Or did KSM confess everything to save his fellow detainees?

Many veteran CIA and military experts have argued that this is the predictable result of torture and the threat of torture. The captive will say anything, anything at all, just to make it stop. In the case of al-Libi, one CIA source was quoted

"This is the problem with using the waterboard [being held under water until you think you will die, known to the Latin American military as the submarino]. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear."

The article in which this CIA source is quoted has more:

Take the case of the Peruvian student Magdalena Monteza, abducted as an alleged subversive. After being tortured and repeatedly raped by her captors, she admitted to being part of a revolutionary cell. In the film State of Fear, she describes her story: "I'd never had sex before. I was a virgin, 19 years old… I couldn't take the torture so I decided to sign. I confessed to things I never did… If they had sentenced me to death I wouldn't have cared." The Canadian-Briton Bill Sampson was repeatedly tortured in a Saudi jail. Under torture, he admitted to being part of a network responsible for bombings and murder, thus enabling the authorities to pretend that there is no homegrown terrorism in Saudi Arabia.

And, of course, there's the U.S. army intelligence manual:

"The use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear."

Even Sen. McCain, who has first hand knowledge of torture, knows it doesn't work.

To those who say we should be cruel because our enemies are, McCain has a ready response: "Our values are different from those of our enemies. . . . We do not abuse human rights." To those who say we should use any technique to obtain intelligence, McCain says: "Torture doesn't work."

The use of torture has not made the United State safer. It puts our own troops in jeopardy of being tortured when they are captured. Further, it taints the actual case against the confessor. It leads our intelligence agencies down blind paths and muddies their investigations.

Those are the practical arguments against torture, arguments that shouldn't have to be made. Historical, legal, and moral arguments should be enough. Our policy-makers should not be in the position of having to even go to the practical reasons not to torture. Torture should be rejected as a matter of course.

Thus, the most damaging case against the use of torture by the United States is evidenced in this entire discussion. We've actually reached the point where the legal and moral arguments are not enough to repudiate the practice. It is illustrative of the damage that the bland acceptance of torture, rendition, Abu Ghraib has wrought. These putrid morals seep into our being, and infect us in all manner of ways. That serious people are having a serious discussion about the instances of whether torture is appropriate is as clear of sign of the sickness we face.

The damage done to the nation by making the unthinkable not only thinkable but actually implemented is quite possibly irreparable. Because the nation and the Congress didn't rise up in opposition to condemn it, it has been turned into a political issue. Because it has become politics, it has become a policy issue. And in trying to make it another policy issue, trying to make it in the purview of governing business as usual in, we end up bringing it into the realm of business as usual.

Thus, we end up with the torture legislation that says "Okay, it's completely illegal except maybe when the CIA does it." We end up with a law that actually strikes down centuries of legal precedent with habeas corpus. We end up with a populace that accepts the unthinkable as commonplace.

How do we as a nation recover from that? How do we regain the integrity of a nation governed by the rule of law after we've stepped into this breach?

If it is even possible to restore credibility to this nation, it will only be through efforts like this one that the ACLU is sponsoring, and by shining a bright light on it.

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I would like to ask a question! Has someone researched and written about what I suspect is a strong link between the use of torture and physical interrogation techniques, and an underlying philosophy of racism, religious or cultural bigotry, and revenge lust on the part of those in power in the U.S.?

Rebecca Procter, Santa Fe, NM


Don't blame it all on Bush, I didn't vote for him, but little by little as most of us are not informed well of anything we sit back and try to do good. Those who take advantage of this for financial and other type gains take away hard fought for freedom and abuse our constitution by neglect. Education, community education is the only thing that will ever make any thing different. Yet when we leave some people out because they are not politically correct for the times, or they are a hindrance to us we lose, I have been left out of lots of things simply for seeing the corruptions when I finally did and trying to stand up against them. Now I am not sure what to do to make anything much better, it seems like it is all slowly being eroded, taken away, and disrespected, what does freedom really mean now?


And where did my comment go? There should be no censorship here unless you are filtering out simply garbage and sometimes some people do that simply write garbage for no good reason, most don't. Still, censorship is actually taking away our first amendment rights in the first place isn't it?


Rebecca, I am actually going through this situation. I retired 5 months ago from an automobile factory in wis. They put me through a living hell and still going through what they put me through, it gets even uglier, but I can't say much right now, I believe it was because I am mexican and all the others were mostly white, when you get supervisors and union members to go along with the dirty things they did to me, something is horribly wrong with our country! I do have 2 government agencies involved now and I hope to finally sue them.
Federal government engaged in medical experiments without the knowledge or consent of that person. The fact that these atrocities in the name of american people, permanetly dishoners them, making it impossible for a nation with a large a heart as america, to accept a form of government that is, at it's root, heartless.


I think freedom has lost all of its meaning to most Americans. They babble on about how import freedom is to them yet do NOTHING positive to insure that freedom still rings in America.
Fortunately, I'm old and I won't see the final downfall of what was once a great nation.
I have no hope at all, just look at most of Kentucky and W. Virginia.
Torture is WRONG and anyone who thinks otherwise is not someone I'd even want to talk to. After, trying to show them the error of their ways. How can one argue with someone who thinks torture is OK?
I'm going to do my utmost to avoid those people as they won't listen to me anyway..


Torture is a tool used by weak men and women who have no idea what it is like to have to don the uniform and fight for this country. The military and the FBI know that torture does not work. But the discussion should not be bogged down with that issue. It doesn't matter if it works or not. It is illegal and immoral. If we do not hold the people responsible for ordering these illegal tactics, we will never recover our moral standing as the moral beacon for the world. Finally, I have one question, WWJT? Who would Jesus torture?


Hi Everyone -

We've recently finished a low-budget feature film on torture designed to engage people who would normally turn away from a frank discussion of torture.

Our website is:



David Sheldon, Film Financial Services,

Rich Lerner, Conspiracy Films,
PH – USA- 303-807-8459

Graham Green, GHG Productions

WEBSITE (with trailer):

TITLE: "THE TORTURER a.k.a Force Drift"

PLOT: “A ‘Military Interrogator’ returns from Iraq with Acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”



You’re dragged from your house to a secret prison.
You have no right to a lawyer or a fair and speedy trial.
You don’t know when — or if — you will ever be released.
You don’t know who your captor is, if he's legitimate, or what tools he will use to get what he wants.

The sound of the man screaming in a distant cell is terrifying,
but not nearly as terrifying as the sound of the electric drill that
accompanies it.

No one can hear your cries for help.
Nothing you say seems to satisfy him.
Nothing he says seems to make sense.

You tell him you don’t know the answers to his questions. He says you’re lying. He says he has proof, evidence, photographs, Internet records,
wiretaps, bags of uranium oxide.

You're hooded, frozen, stripped, probed and sexually humiliated. The deeper he goes the more you doubt our own sanity, and his. You know what you need to do to stop him, but you won’t. You're confused. Only one thing is certain: In A Post 9-11 World No One Can Hear You Scream.

TAGLINE: “In A Post 9-11 World No One Can Hear You Scream”

QUOTES (On Script):

"I got sucked right in… . It's like a Stephen King/John Grisham short story. SCARY!!! I'm a little spooked now."
CNN anchor Christina Parks

“It’s the perfect festival film”
Chad Coles, Asst. Producer, “SAW” 1,2&3

“I appreciate what you are doing.”
Anthony Lagouranis, author of “Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey Through Iraq”


Legendary Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura – Star Trek) stars in this sharp new pic along with rising star powerhouse Andrew Walker (Steel Toes, with David Strathairn), and chic Persian newbie Mahsa Masoudi (Revenge of the Nerds 2006). Sophia Choi, former CNN anchor, is also featured.

“The Torturer a.k.a. Force Drift” is a bleeding-edge psycho-thriller from writer/director Graham H Green that dives headfirst into an adrenaline-fueled world of psycho-killers, secret prisons, terrorists, and political intrigue.

This smart and gripping tale of torture and twisted sex follows a ‘military contractor’ who returns from Iraq pursued by a terrifying secret that an alluring, ambitious doctor ultimately reveals.


This will take decades of determined action to overcome. It is possible that America's reputation has been irreparably harmed by the casual use of torture after decades of practice in which the U.S. -- though often at war, and not always for decent reasons -- avoided its use. The avoidance of torture was one way America gained respect from victims and torturers alike around the world. This issue cannot be allowed to fade from the public eye and must be carried forward by the ACLU and citizens from all walks of life.

Ned Hodgman
Washington D.C.


The problem with torture is that everyone has paid too much attention to it and has condemned same in the eyes of our enemies. They (our enemies) along with the lawyers (also, our enemies) representing the NO side of torture WIN. Torture, just as Reward does not always give a desired result. Although there are time when the need for each is needed. If I stole your child and have threatened to do harm to them, you say would not do bodily harm to me to find out the answers you needed to rescue or protect them, LIAR.
WWJD ? we don't really know what Jesus would do, do we? As all we know was written by mortal mans hands and had to be approved by the powers in charge at that time. As with all religions, they are negotiated at best, and interpreted by people that conducted tortuous affairs like the Spanish Inquisition.
Is there a God ? Yes, look around, God has a sense of humor too.
The ACLU our savior? Hmm let's see they are the people behind bringing this all to light, savior to our enemies maybe, but I would bet big money or at least your life that our terrorist friends from over yonder will know that our torture is but a game and will play that card accordingly. It's just like the illegal listening in on our phone calls,,,, I don't have anything to hide and I have NOT heard of anyone being arrested unjustly from one of these wire taps, HAS ANYONE HEARD OF ANYONE BEING UNJUSTLY LOCKED UP FORM ONE OF "THESE BAD MR. BUSH WIRE TAPS"?
This is all a case of the left hand moving around so we don't noticed what the right hand is doing Bull-Shit, how many more illegals entered into OUR country today ? Most of our politicians are guilty of selling us out, they play their games and we loose. Republican and Democrats alike, if they are moving their lips and put occupation politician on a W-2 they are lying.


RE: "How do we regain the integrity of a nation governed by the rule of law after we’ve stepped into this breach?"

The Declaration of Independence tells us how: "...whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it..."

Power, once taken, is never given back willingly. It's time for another Revolution!



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