Let’s face it: torture might have helped

A few days ago, Leon Panetta, Director of the CIA, affirmed in an interview with NBC that waterboarding, among other “enhanced interrogation techniques”, provided the necessary information to go after Osama bin Laden. Although this is the only moment in the interview that Mr. Panetta transmits some level of nervousness, he looks rather sure about his statement. He believes in his own words.

Matthew Alexander rightly reminds us in a recent article that the question about whether torture works requires a careful examination of the short, mid and long-term implications of the use of torture for broad foreign policy interests. All these layers of implications probably exceed Mr. Panetta’s concerns, but shouldn’t go unnoticed for Mr. Obama.

Over the last few days, some voices are doing their best to contradict Mr. Panetta disassociating the ‘War on Terror’ of the Bush-era from the successful military intervention in Pakistan last week. For example, Dan Froomkin argues in The Huffington Post that the torture-based strategy was completely misguided and actually hampered the fight against terrorism worldwide. Similarly, the American organisation Human Rights First has launched a campaign to “stand with US interrogators and debunk the myth that torture led the US to Bin Laden”.

In a study (Human Rights Advocacy Stories, 2009, chapter 1) about Amnesty International’s efforts to shape the UN Convention Against Torture, Jayne Huckerby (NYU School of Law) and Sir Nigel Rodley (former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and current member of the UN Human Rights Committee) warn that human rights groups “lose significant ground” when they advocate against torture with a pragmatic frame (‘torture is illegal, and it’s also ineffective’) rather than with exclusive legal arguments (‘torture is illegal; period’). This week more than ever before since 9/11, the human rights community must show the courage to fight torture irrespective of its usefulness or lack thereof. It is true that intelligence was not as intelligent as it ought to (see our post of 2 May, ‘I am not happy for your death, Osama bin Laden‘). But it is probably also true that torture might have helped (to some degree) finding and killing Osama bin Laden. Yet, that’s not the point. Human rights advocates should not pretend to know better than Mr. Panetta about the effectiveness of some techniques over others to extract information from detainees. The argument of the little reliability of information derived from pain and fear may too easily limit the strength of the immorality and illegality of torture at all times and everywhere. Besides, we may be wrong: Torture might have helped finding bin Laden. We must have the confidence to answer:  ‘So what?’

Koldo Casla

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