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Trolleys, Terrorists, Torture and Truth

Trolleys, Terrorists, Torture and Truth

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program

The Editor-in-Chief


Most of us are aware of the philosophical dilemma posed by what is known as the “trolley problem.”  A runaway trolley is moving along its track and there are five people tied to a stretch of track ahead. You are able to pull a switch that will divert the trolley to an alternative track, on which one person is tied. Should you pull the switch and deliberately kill the one person to save the five? Nearly seventy percent of professional philosophers say you should. Saving the lives of many is worth sacrificing the life of one.

A Department of Justice Legal Counsel agrees and  offered a similar argument to the White House in the case of defending CIA Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs):


"It appears to us that under the current circumstances the necessity defense could be successfully maintained in response to an allegation of a Section 2340A violation... . Under these circumstances, a detainee may possess information that could enable the United States to prevent attacks that potentially could equal or surpass the September 11 attacks in their magnitude. Clearly, any harm that might occur during an interrogation would pale to insignificance compared to the harm avoided by preventing such an attack, which could take hundreds or thousands of lives."


So the argument in favor of using torture (EITs) is that it is necessary in order to save countless lives. Much of the debate concerning the senate report on CIA interrogation methods has focused on whether or not such EITs did, in fact, save countless lives. The evidence cited in the report strongly suggests that such techniques were not instrumental in thwarting any real terrorists plots or capturing any dangerous terrorists. Citing CIA and other law enforcement agency documents to buttress their claim that the senate report is inaccurate and that the EIT program was effective, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and six former CIA Directors or Deputy Directors writing in the Wall Street Journal, challenged the senate report.  However, they provided no new evidence on the issue themselves.

It’s interesting that in the trolley problem, while many people would agree that diverting the trolley to kill one instead of five by pulling a switch is moral, far fewer agree that accomplishing the same outcome by pushing a fat man off a bridge over the tracks so that he stops the trolley but dies in the process, is a moral thing to do. Apparently, deliberately pushing a man to his death seems less moral than pulling a switch. Similarly, it could very well be that the type of torture involved might alter the morality of using torture to obtain information to save lives (would it be moral to bring someone’s children in front of him and kill them one by one until he gave up his information? How many people would need to be saved to make this a moral act?). Probably, most people would agree that using the least amount of torture that is necessary to obtain the information is the most moral thing to do.

So what did the CIA do? The senate report, based as it is on mostly CIA internal documents, makes it quite clear that CIA interrogators and indeed, CIA officers and administrators, did not use nor even recommend using the least egregious torture methods necessary to obtain information. Instead, many of the out-of-country detention facilities were set up to routinely institute sensory deprivation, altered diets, 24 hour loud noises, limited clothing (if any), cold temperatures, and lack of toilet facilities to all detainees as soon as they were incarcerated (some of the detention sites did not include either heating or plumbing. One detainee died of hypothermia while chained to a wall overnight without clothes). High value detainees (HVDs) such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were, contrary to CIA claims, not questioned at all prior to instituting torture. In the case of HVD Abu Zubaydah, even when FBI interrogators, using rapport-building methods, were extracting valuable information, they were brushed aside by the CIA who immediately resorted to coercive EITs to try to force more information (apparently unsuccessfully, by their own internal reports), from Abu Zabayhah.

And what were the EITs used by the CIA on Abu Zubaydah? Such coercive EITs included "walling, attention grasps, slapping, facial hold, stress positions, cramped confinement, white noise and sleep deprivation"—continued in "varying combinations, 24 hours a day" for 17 straight days.” He was “subjected to the waterboard 2-4 times per day.” Abu Zubaydah “spent a total of 266 hours (11 days, 2 hours) in the large (coffin size) confinement box and 29 hours in a small confinement box, which had a width of 21 inches, a depth of 2.5 feet, and a height of 2.5 feet.” During some of this time insects (of which he was deathly afraid) were placed in the box with him. Abu Zubaydah was described as "hysterical" and "distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate." Waterboarding sessions "resulted in immediate fluid intake and involuntary leg, chest and arm spasms" and "hysterical pleas.” In at least one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah "became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” He remained unresponsive until medical intervention, when he regained consciousness and expelled "copious amounts of liquid." Other detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were subjected to “rectal feeding” as a punishment for not giving information.

Even for those who defend torture because it saves lives, if a moral defense entails using the least amount of torture necessary to obtain the crucial information, the CIA flunked the test. And the CIA flunked even more ethical tests. Its own documents indicate that the CIA lied to the president, to congressional committees and to administration officials about the extent and the routinization of its use of EITs. They lied about the intelligence such techniques were producing. They lied to congress and to the American public about how many detainees were held in overseas detention facilities. They claimed that some of their detainees posed an imminent threat or had knowledge crucial to foiling such a threat (criteria which were required  to be met in order to satisfy the memorandum of understanding that allowed them to conduct the rendition program, which set up the foreign prisons), when they had no evidence or even a suggestion that such was the case. On more than one occasion, detention sites were established in countries without informing the U.S. ambassador to that country or deliberately lying to the ambassador about the presence of the site. And of course they destroyed over a hundred videotapes of interrogation sessions, which might have proved one way or another how harmful to their prisoners their interrogation techniques were.

So the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program flunks the ethics test and probably the effectiveness test. What about the administrative test of being run in an orderly fashion? The CIA we see depicted in the movies may be unethical and cruel, even conspiratorial, but it always runs like clockwork, with a relentless precision that cannot be denied by terrorists, by lone-wolf zealots, or even by Jason Bourne. The CIA depicted in the senate report operated more like a malevolent branch of the Keystone cops. No one in the organization knew exactly how many detainees were being held in the overseas program, or who they were. According to the senate report, “The CIA maintained such poor records of its detainees in Country (X) during this period that the CIA remains unable to determine the number and identity of the individuals it detained.”

Many of those involved in the program were either inexperienced or had questionable service records, or both. When the CIA instituted a training program for interrogators, they refused an offer by their own counsel to oversee selection of trainees … an offer that was made on the basis of qualms expressed by the counsel regarding those selected for training.  When the Senate Committee reviewed CIA records related to several CIA officers and contractors involved in the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program, most of whom conducted interrogations, they  identified “a number of personnel whose backgrounds include notable derogatory information calling into question their eligibility for employment, their access to classified information, and their participation in CIA interrogation activities. In nearly all cases, the derogatory information was known to the CIA prior to the assignment of the CIA officers to the Detention and Interrogation Program. This group of officers included individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.”

And then there were the two psychologists, whose use of “learned helplessness” research with animals led to their theories of how to create helpless dependency upon the interrogators by breaking down the detainees’ ability to control the almost constant punishments issuing from their prison environment. Neither of the two psychologists who were the architects of much of the torture program had had experience as interrogators or in real-life detainee situations. However, they were not only given the task of evaluating the mental status of the detainees, but of prescribing and, often in the case of waterboarding, carrying out the torture (for which they received $1800 extra pay per session). The two, who were consultants rather than CIA employees, became so central to the EIT program that they formed a company to supply guards, interrogators and expertise to the CIA overseas prisons and obtained a $180 million contract with the CIA, about half of which they were able to collect before their contract was suspended by Obama’s termination of the program. However, they are insured legal assistance from the CIA until 2021 in the case of any future lawsuits or criminal prosecutions against them.

Immoral, ineffective and inept. That seems the best way to characterize the CIA overseas Detention and Interrogation Program. The argument is often made that torture shouldn’t be used because it doesn’t work. While that has been the conclusion of most experts, including the CIA itself in the past, the evidence is inconclusive due to the understandable dearth of well-controlled and conducted studies. In this case, the ineffectiveness of the EIT program was due to the same information being available from other sources or from the same sources when questioned without torture (usually by the FBI or when in the custody of another country), or the information that was forthcoming under torture was fabricated. In many cases, the detainee simply didn’t have any information to provide. And if a prisoner is subjected to torture before being questioned how is one ever to know what he would have said had he not been tortured? According to the FBI interrogators of Abu Zubayah, rapport building, including even holding the detainees hand when he was in pain while recovering from wounds he had gotten when he was captured, produced much more useful information than torture. But we’ll probably never know the answer to this question of the effectiveness of torture separate from the confounding conditions in which it has been applied, such as these CIA operations. What we do know is that applying severe torture without first attempting less severe torture or no torture at all is immoral. Lying to the government and the people who support your organization is immoral. Running a program that deals with people’s lives—both detainees and the innocent civilians they seek to harm— with extreme sloppiness and inefficiency is immoral.

The CIA is guilty on all counts.


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