Has Torture Killed More Americans Than it Saved?

The release yesterday of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of what the CIA has called “enhanced interrogation techniques” drew predictable partisan responses, with many Democrats condemning the use of torture and Republicans saying that extraordinary times necessitated extraordinary means to protect American lives. But lost in the noise is an important question: Did these enhanced interrogation techniques play a role in killing thousands of Americans? Here’s why I believe that happened:

powell-7bColin Powell’s February 2003 speech to the UN was a key element in the Bush administration’s building public support for its invasion of Iraq. There was just one problem. Powell’s contention that “Iraq provided training in these weapons [of mass destruction] to al Qaeda,” was based on false information obtained by torture. Two years later, in a Barbara Walters interview, when Powell was asked if that speech will tarnish his record, he replied:

Of course it will. It’s a blot. I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff at the time, sees his own participation in crafting that speech in even harsher terms:

My participation in that presentation at the UN constitutes the lowest point in my professional life. I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community and the United Nations Security Council. How do you think that makes me feel? Thirty-one years in the United States Army and I more or less end my career with that kind of a blot on my record? That’s not a very comforting thing.

Initially, Wilkerson and Powell didn’t believe Bush administration claims that Saddam Hussein was involved with al Qaeda. It just didn’t make sense. al Qaeda is a fundamentalist religious group, so a secular leader like Saddam was anathema to them. In the 2007 video documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, Wilkerson explains the role that torture played in bringing him and Powell around to the administration’s point of view:

The moment al Libi [an al Qaeda fighter captured in Afghanistan in November 2001] was water-boarded, he started blurting things out. Well, rather than questioning what he was saying and going into it in detail to see if what he was saying could be corroborated, they immediately stopped and ran off to report what al Libi had said – and ended the torture. And, bang, it gets up to the highest decision-makers. 

And all of a sudden Colin Powell is told, “Hey, you don’t have to worry about your doubts anymore, because we’ve just gotten confirmation that there were contacts between al Qaeda and Baghdad.” [1:25:30-1:26:03 on the DVD; also available in text form in an online transcript.]

If Powell and Wilkerson had known that water-boarding had been used to extract this new information – they only learned that later – they would have seen it in a very different light. So torture is partly responsible for a war which has killed thousands of Americans, leading to the title of this post: “Has torture killed more Americans than it saved?”

Even if claims that enhanced interrogation saved some American lives turn out to be true, we also need to ask how many it has cost. If we pursue that question, I believe we will find that such methods are unjustified on extremely pragmatic as well as moral grounds.

Martin Hellman

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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3 Responses to Has Torture Killed More Americans Than it Saved?

  1. Chris Pudney says:

    …not to mention 100,000s of Iraqis.

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    Chris, Thanks for adding that. I originally included that fact, but it interrupted the main point I was making, which is even if all you care about is American lives, torture still appears to be a loser.

  3. Russ Wellen says:

    Excellent point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone draw that linkage before.

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