I support the call for accountability through an independent investigation and our country’s continued commitment to the rule of law. In the military, every soldier receives training on the Law of Armed Conflict which emphasizes our adherence to Geneva Conventions, U.S. law, and military regulations during times of war, and accountability when there are violations. We also swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States in our oath of office. All of these legal documents make it unlawful to torture or abuse detainees.
Yet, one of the most important aspects of the torture debate and demand for accountability has nothing to do with the past. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and former CIA Director General Michael Hayden, along with others, have stated that torture and abuse has kept America safe. The notion that the policy of torture and abuse kept us safe is highly questionable, but the more important aspect is that in the long term, torture and abuse will cost us lives. These immoral tactics recruited new fighters for Al Qaida — a fact publicly endorsed by Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Ray Odierno, Commanding General Multi-National Forces Iraq, Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, Retired General James Jones, National Security Advisor, and last, but not least, President Barack Obama.
While supervising interrogations in Iraq in 2006, I witnessed a majority of foreign fighters state that the number one reason they had come to fight was because of the torture and abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. By recruiting for Al Qaida, this policy cost us hundreds, if not thousands, of American lives. Al Qaida is still using our past crimes to recruit new fighters, even as I write.
This does not take into account the other negative aspects of torture and abuse. It makes future enemies less likely to surrender and future detainees less likely to cooperate, because they don’t trust us. Trust is a fundamental element to a successful interrogation. This policy also made our international partners less willing to support us in anti-terrorism operations. All of these negative effects will cost us American lives in the future.
Still, there’s a stronger argument against torture and abuse, and that is the moral one. It is contrary to the principles upon which our country was founded. We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him. This country’s greatness is not measured in its security but in the validity of our commitment to the ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice. We must uphold these principles while we conduct this war.
An independent investigation is an opportunity to look at those senior leaders who gave unlawful orders to torture and abuse prisoners and the senior military officers who followed those unlawful orders. It is a chance to emphasize again, for the next generation of America military leaders, that torture and abuse are inconsistent with our oaths of office, and that following unlawful orders is not acceptable conduct. It was the United States, along with its Allies, that rejected the Nuremberg Defense after World War II. A dangerous precedent has been set, reverting human rights principles back more than 50 years. Now is the time to correct that crime.
Matthew Alexander led an interrogations team assigned to a Special Operations task force in Iraq in 2006. He is the author of How to Break a Terrorist. He is writing under a pseudonym for security reasons.