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Don't Open the Door to Torture

Laura W. Murphy,
Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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November 29, 2011

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is pursuing a deeply misguided effort that threatens to reopen the door to torture.

At the most recent Republican presidential debates on national security, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has said President Obama had “outsourced” public policy on torture to the ACLU – a misrepresentation if ever there was one. To be sure, the ACLU is opposed to the use of torture – but so, too are CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and many other high level current and former military and national security officials. The ACLU strongly believes that our use of torture makes it more likely that our soldiers will be tortured when captured and that its use undermines core American values.

An amendment offered by Ayotte to the defense spending bill will likely come to a vote today. It seeks to roll back the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), which prohibited the military from using interrogation techniques not allowed in the Army Field Manual. A Republican-controlled Senate overwhelmingly supported the prohibition by a vote of 90-9 in 2005. Ayotte’s effort should be rejected by at least the same margin.

Our military and intelligence agencies have made clear they do not want this issue revisited. In 2009 they unanimously reported they had all the authority they needed to effectively interrogate. Responding to calls to bring back “enhanced interrogation techniques,” when he was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan last year, General Petraeus unequivocally stated “we should not go there.”

While Ayotte and several of the GOP presidential candidates seem unclear on whether waterboarding is actually torture, McCain, himself a victim of torture while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has been more forthright. “It’s torture. It’s in violation of the Geneva Conventions, of the international agreement on torture, treaty of torture signed during the Reagan administration,” he said. The practice was used by Japanese prison camp guards (who were later prosecuted for war crimes) and by the Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror.

The Ayotte amendment would also overturn an executive order that strengthened the DTA by requiring all U.S. interrogators, not just those in the military, to abide by the Army’s interrogation manual. By allowing some interrogators to evade established protocols and requiring the creation of a secret annex of approved techniques, Ayotte threatens to muddy the waters and hinder U.S. military operations. Even the Bush administration rejected the idea of an interrogation annex because of concerns that the resulting lack of clarity would obstruct training and ally collaboration.

Our intelligence professionals also see abusive techniques as likely to produce false or misleading information. “Most military and FBI people say that you can gain better results through other techniques because once you hurt someone badly enough, they’re going to tell you whatever they want you to hear in order to make it stop,” McCain said. ”We can gain better information through using different techniques, which are not in violation of any of the treaties or obligations, not to mention our image as a nation.”

McCain’s final point bears emphasis. Reconsideration of torture resurrects harmful images of Abu Ghraib and the serious damage that abusive practices have done to America’s standing in the past. Our position as a nation grounded in the rule of law has always been one of our greatest strengths. When we stray from those values, we diminish that standing and create additional obstacles for our troops trying to win hearts and minds in their missions abroad.

Ayotte’s amendment and the recent statements by Republican candidates on torture seek to reopen old wounds, flatly reject the best advice of military and intelligence professionals and offend America’s core values. Any one of those alone should be a sufficient reason to oppose the amendment and reject calls for a return to torture.

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