CIA torture report: To release or not to release?

A long awaited report on CIA interrogations will be released today. With the discussion about publishing the CIA torture report what would be your argument for releasing it or not releasing it, what kind of impact do you expect the report could have? Read few comments.

Robert Turner, Professor, Associate Director, Center for National Security Law, University of Virginia.

As you may know, I was a strong critic of waterboarding and other “enhanced” interrogation techniques.

I commend the CIA for seeking guidance from the Office of Legal Counsel so they could collect as much information as possible from detainees without breaking the law (including our treaty obligations).

I believe the OLC lawyers reached the wrong conclusions because they were not experts in national security law. They looked at Common Article 3 of the four 1949 Geneva Conventions–which clearly requires that all detainees in an armed conflict “of a non-international character” occurring “on the territory of a State Party to the conventions” be treated humanely–and concluded that this did not apply in the struggle against al Qaeda and its affiliates because: (1) there were 75 countries participating in the conflict; and (2) it was occurring on the territory of many States (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, USA, UK, Spain, etc.). The fact that a three-judge panel of the DC Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with their interpretation, and the Supreme Court was divided on the issue, strongly suggests that (while wrong), there interpretation was not unreasonable. If you are interested, I testified on this issue before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2009.

The Justice Department investigated this matter and recommended that no one be prosecuted. I think that was the right decision. The mistakes that were made in my view did terrible damage to the United States, but I have no reason to believe that the Justice Department lawyers who authorized these measures believed they were doing anything wrong. (Keep in mind this was during a period in which Congress had authorized the use of armed force to kill members of al Qaeda and its associated terrorist groups. In a setting where it was lawful to kill al Qaeda members by any number of very painful ways, roughing up some senior enemy leaders in order to get information that might prevent the next 9/11 attack probably did not seem to some to be all that bad–particularly if they did not realize that it was contrary to America’s solemn treaty obligations.)

I have not seen the torture report, but I gather it was written under the understanding that it would be classified. I think there is widespread agreement in the United States that these measures were a horrible mistake, so I don’t think reporting specific details is necessary to deter similar misconduct in the future. On the other hand, at minimum, it will provide ammunition for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals to recruit new terrorists and turn much of the world against America. But the odds are excellent that it will also disclose details of U.S. intelligence operations–details that will likely help our enemies (in the Middle East and elsewhere) understand procedures and practices that may help them avoid detection in the years ahead.

It seems to me that the United States and Russia ought to be strong allies (as we were during World War II) in the struggle against Islamic terrorism, as it threatens both of our countries and the rule of law–a value that I believe the overwhelming majority of people in both of our countries strongly embrace. If I thought there was a serious risk of this behavior continuing, I might see some benefit to releasing the report. But the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barrack Obama denounced and prohibited such behavior (long before the public outcry), and I don’t think publication at this point will do much more than serve as a recruiting poster for Islamic terrorists and compromise intelligence methods (beyond just the abuse of detainees) that might result in additional terrorist attacks.

Jack Goldstone, Professor, Director, Center for Global Policy, George Mason University

This report will cause a storm of controversy.  On the one hand, those who carried out enhanced interrogations were told by their superiors that such interrogations were necessary to protect their country and had been determined to be legal and constitutional by the US Department of Justice.  They should not be blamed for what they did in the line of duty.  They were not dealing with innocents or harming women and children.  They were subjecting known terrorists to stress in the hope of extracting information on future attacks.

On the other hand, inflicting stress is usually less effective in gaining reliable information than patiently gaining the trust of those being interrogated, or goading them into boasting, or getting them to briefly let down their guard and let things slip.  And in general, as America is a government by the people and for the people, the American people have a right to know what kind of things were done by their government in order to protect them, and whether they are comfortable with those actions.

Governments around the world and throughout history have done things in the name of progress or security – including forced sterilizations, genocides, torture, use of poison gas – that  people later decided were breaches of fundamental human rights and should not be done again.  Without revealing those actions, however, no discussion and judgment on human rights is possible.  So I think it will be useful to have the report published and followed by a lengthy and  difficult public discussion.  That is how nations gain a conscience and grow  over time.

Kurk DorseyAssociate Professor of History, University of New Hampshire

Given that the report exists, I think it has to be released. If it isn’t released, then people around the world who are interested will start to draw conclusions about what’s in it. Given the current state of what many people think about the United States, I doubt that the report can be any worse than what people expect to find in it. I don’t have any doubt that the US used some really brutal methods in the aftermath of 9/11, so some of the details will be hard to stomach. But it is unproductive to have a debate about a report that no one is allowed to see, and we have to have an open debate about when, if ever, torture is acceptable. In any case, the report will get leaked at some point, so it might as well be released now.

Having said all of that, I can see where there might be a need for redacting information that might identify some of our allies. We should never hide from what our government did in the name of security, but it would not be appropriate to decide that some allied government, which might have felt pressure to assist the United States, or might have its own internal debate about disclosing security measures, should disclose what it did. The other exception, of course, would be for information that might identify specific agents or sources who could then be placed in danger.

As to the impact, I doubt it will make our enemies hate us any more: it’s not like ISIS can hate the US more than it does. For every person on the fence who will decide that the US is brutal, I expect that there will be 1 or 2 who will be amazed that a government will reveal its warts and address them. I would not be surprised if some leaders who already think that we are weak, like President Putin or President Xi, would see that this debate just confirms their assumptions. The main threat is that we somehow hurt our allies who counted on us to keep our secrets, so that is the one possible ramification that we need to be concerned about.

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