SAN DIEGO - A morally bankrupt foreign policy. A degeneration of democratic checks and balances. Those are just a few of the disturbing facets of the state of the US government revealed by the debates over the confirmation of Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his views on whether waterboarding constitutes torture.
But the deepest irony of the Bush administration's ambivalent stance on such medieval tactics – practiced in the name of defending national security – is that torture is not only wrong, it's also a stupid strategy that undermines the defense of democratic societies against terror.
US leaders must correct their profoundly mistaken analysis and ignorance of the lessons of history about torture.
Torture is an ineffective counterinsurgency strategy. One defense of torture is the "ticking bomb" scenario – the idea that an imminent, massive threat to civilians might be stopped by a single detainee who possesses crucial information and will yield actionable intelligence under physical coercion. But this is mostly a law-school legend, not a frequent occurrence in a complex conflict with multiple levels of planning and diffuse local support.
Despite fearful anecdotal claims, the effectiveness of torture in generating intelligence is questionable at best. But we do know that torture produces many false confessions and new enemies, and distracts from more effective, legitimate techniques of interrogation and intelligence-gathering. We also know that democracies that have turned to torture in counterinsurgency – for example, the French in Algeria – have lost, while the British found a solution in Northern Ireland after they gave up abusive tactics.
Torture escalates conflict. The use of torture by targeted societies is strongly associated with an increase in the severity of terror used against them. In interviews with imprisoned terror leaders from the Palestinian territories to India, they state that they adopted and were supported in bloodier tactics when democratic enemies resorted to torture and attacks on civilians.
The "torture-terror nexus" can be seen in Israel. The first intifada was militant but largely peaceful, while the second intifada was characterized by suicide bombings. The tough Israeli response to the first, which an Israeli inquiry showed involved the mistreatment of about 85 percent of Palestinian prisoners, appears to have temporarily suppressed one uprising while planting the seeds of greater violence in the next.
Torture blocks international cooperation against terror among valuable democratic allies. America's adoption of illicit tactics has undermined the legal cooperation that is our best weapon against transnational terror. In Germany, an important prosecution of a terror suspect was handicapped because US evidence gathered in Guantánamo was legally inadmissible.
A Spanish prosecutor has stated that he is unable to order extraditions to the US, as a country that violates Spanish legal guarantees.
In Afghanistan, Canadian and Dutch forces holding critical contested areas are not permitted to release Afghan captives to US facilities where they might be mistreated, deported to Guantánamo, or "rendered" to abusive countries. This policy came into effect after pressure from the Dutch parliament and Canadian courts, on behalf of outraged democratic publics.
Torture drives out legitimate policing. Preventing terrorism is a question of good police work, built on strong ties with the communities that host insurgents, sophisticated knowledge of criminal networks, and swift cooperation among agencies and allies. But current US tactics alienate global publics and local communities, while the secrecy torture requires fosters bureaucratic bungling. Frustrated FBI and military intelligence professionals have resigned, citing sloppy and illegal coercive interrogations by an unaccountable collection of reservists, military police, CIA agents, and private contractors.
Torture undermines the rule of law and corrupts democratic institutions. Democracy is the system the US is fighting to defend. It is also the best defense of US national security – like the rule-of-law strategy that has enabled the United Kingdom to forestall some attacks.
Similarly, America's credibility in promoting democratic reform among unstable front-line allies such as Pakistan depends on honoring its international commitments such as the Convention Against Torture. US commanders believe that adherence to the Geneva Conventions helps ensure the safety of the troops. Democracies that use torture become less democratic, as illicit interrogations are hidden from public view, outsourced to unaccountable special services, diverted to parallel legal systems such as special tribunals, and removed from congressional checks on executive power.
The authorization of, or acquiescence to torture, by US senators is a betrayal of the Constitution they have sworn to defend. It defies the wishes of the majority of Americans of conscience, and it compromises US national security. We must demand that our elected leaders not pander to the politics of fear, but rather meet their responsibility to provide an intelligent, sustainable, and humane national defense.
Alison Brysk is a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, and co-editor of "National Insecurity and Human Rights."