The George W. Bush Presidential Center opened with great ceremony in Texas last week. The occasion marked one of the most high-profile efforts to date to rehabilitate the former president’s image, who left office with the lowest approval rating (33 percent) of any departing president since Richard Nixon – who departed in a helicopter after resigning in disgrace. It has received deserved criticism, however, because it does so largely by re-writing history with a sledgehammer.
One of the more controversial components of the Bush Presidential Library is the “Decision Points Theater,” where visitors are presented with some of the stark choices that confronted the nation’s forty-third president. But rather than presenting visitors with the evidence and letting them decide on their own, the entire “game” is designed to justify the Bush administration’s actions.
On the issue of Iraq, for example, visitors are given the false choice of whether they want to “Invade Iraq” or “leave Saddam Hussein in power.” If visitors choose not to invade, they get scolded by former Bush administration officials before Bush himself appears to argue that invading Iraq was the only viable choice. On the issue of Hurricane Katrina, visitors are asked not whether they want to send food or water or medicine to the people of New Orleans, but whether or not they want to “send federal troops into the area to restore order and prevent looting” (emphasis added).
These two aspects of the Bush Presidential Library have received the lion’s share of attention, and criticism, from the media. But what has received relatively little coverage is the Library’s defense of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that undermined America’s moral standing in the world and threatened the national security of the United States.
In a five-minute video presentation, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emphasizes that the United States faced “difficult decisions” following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. President Bush, Rice argues, had to weigh his deep commitment to civil liberties against new threats to national security. “The president asked two very important questions in the decision to use these techniques,” says Rice of the interrogation program. “He asked the CIA if it was necessary and he asked the Justice Department if it was legal. Both departments answered yes.”
“Only when he was satisfied that we could protect both our liberties and our security did he signal that we could go ahead,” says Rice. “The fact that we have not had a successful attack on our territory traces directly to those difficult decisions.”
Initially, it is necessary to dispense with the demagoguery and niceties, and refer to “enhanced interrogation techniques” by what they really are: torture. Indeed, in a sweeping, 600-page report, a nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs post Sept. 11 concluded that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.” The report, by an 11-member panel convened by The Constitution Project, acknowledged that brutality has occurred in every American war, but noted that never before had there been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”
Central to the debate on the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is the question of whether those techniques are effective in gathering intelligence. Like Condoleezza Rice, the Bush administration officials who authorized the torture program often characterized the techniques as an indispensable interrogation tool for gathering strategic intelligence. In 2009 Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, stated that enhanced interrogation “prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.” Similarly, John Brennan, the current CIA director who was nominated by President Obama earlier this year, argued that “[t]here [has] been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures . . . It has saved lives.”
Others, including experienced interrogators intimately familiar with the CIA program, are skeptical of these claims. And numerous investigations, including a 6,300-page classified report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have reached the following conclusion: “enhanced interrogation,” or torture, is ineffective at producing actionable intelligence.
A review of this research is beyond the scope of this article. But three important points bear consideration.
First, while there is no direct research on the relationship between torture and false confessions, there is irrefutable evidence from the criminal justice system that techniques much less coercive than torture have produce verifiably false intelligence. Indeed, the empirical research suggests that as the coerciveness of the interrogation increases, so does the probability of eliciting a false confession.
Second, while there are many terror suspects, there are few confirmed terrorists. After an exhaustive review, the Guantanamo Review Task Force concluded that fewer than 100 of the 787 men that have been detained at Guantanamo Bay since it opened in January 2012 could ever be legitimately characterized as terrorists. But if the false alarm rate is high, and torture is an interrogation option, it is inevitable that many innocent suspects will be tortured.
Third, interrogators are generally incapable of determining whether or not a suspect is lying. The average person can differentiate lies from truths at a rate only slightly better than chance – around 54%. Trained interrogators do no better; they are also able to detect deception at a level only slightly above chance. Perversely, however, although training does not appear to improve the ability to detect lying, it does increase the confidence of interrogators in their “ability” to detect deception.
It is important to acknowledge that torture may sometimes lead to the disclosure of accurate information. However, even in cases where torture may have preceded the disclosure of valuable intelligence, it is impossible to know whether less coercive forms of interrogation might have yielded the same or even better results.
Or, in the words of Admiral Dennis Blair, President Obama’s former National Director of Intelligence: “The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means.”
“The bottom line,” Blair continued, “is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”
In politics, many issues contain ambiguities that lead to the necessity of compromise. This is not the case with the policy of torture. During his February 2013 confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, John Brennan said that the intelligence committee’s report “call[ed] into question a lot of the information that I was provided earlier on.” This report must be declassified and its findings made public. And in the light of day, Bush’s torture program can be remembered for what it really is. Like Bush’s misguided adventure in Iraq, and his disgraceful response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s torture program is a stain on our country’s conscience.
** Image Credit (Bush Mission Accomplished): Reuters / Larry Downing
** Image Credit (Torture Abu Ghraib): Wikipedia