The American Way of Torture

Local physician and author Steve Miles examines the forensic record of U.S. abuses in Iraqi prisons

Whether torture works as a terrorizing tool is a different matter. But what happens is, any intelligence system has more data than it has analytical capability. And what torture does is to flood the analytic system with bad data. So you wind up with people like this guy we took to Egypt and had tortured there, who said that Saddam Hussein had a deal with al Qaeda to do biological weapons. You wind up making very bad policy decisions from that kind of advice. You also wind up alienating potential informants or potential recruits who are in the population.

The other interesting thing is, some of the proponents of torture cite some dubiously documented tactical successes with interrogational torture by the French during the Algerian war, but the fact of the matter is that the use of interrogational torture by the French was a key factor in inflaming the Algerian population against the French, and the French lost the war. A similar phenomenon has happened in Iraq. According to our own government's surveys, we took about a 50 percent hit in terms of the legitimacy of the occupation between the time before and the period after the photographs came out. So the torture has not defused time bombs, but it also turns out to be extremely counterproductive in terms of strategy and intelligence. The memos leading up to the debate about torture--the Yoo memos [arguing that the Geneva Conventions did not apply in Afghanistan], for example--are a classic example of lawyers chasing topics in a formal, legal sense when they know nothing about the topic itself. Because of the way those memos were structured, the permission for torture was given without any substantive discussion about whether it would work, or what the drawbacks would be of implementing it.

And so we wound up, really, with a nightmare. If you go read the Chinese response to our human rights report on China this year, it's amazing. The U.S. State Department, in its annual review of human rights, accused the Chinese of secret detentions, deaths of prisoners, unfair trials, blah blah blah. And the Chinese said, any nation that has suspended international law has no right to criticize any other nation.

Dr. Steve Miles's inquiry into military medical records started with a 2004 article in 'The Lancet'
Craig Lassig
Dr. Steve Miles's inquiry into military medical records started with a 2004 article in 'The Lancet'

CP: Is there any research, or have you given any thought, to the long-term effects of torture on the torturers?

Miles: I've tried to find it. There's some interesting data, two major sets. First of all, the general level of PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] among soldiers is pretty high. [Psychiatrist and author Robert Jay] Lifton did some work looking at the special psychological damage done to people who participated in atrocities, in a book called Home from the War. It was a study of those vets who threw their medals over the White House wall. There's also an interesting paper I found which suggests that levels of PTSD in returning veterans are higher in soldiers who have killed than in soldiers who have just been in battle conditions. Interestingly enough, they're especially high in people who commit atrocities. So I think there's good reason to believe that we will bear an extra burden of psychological disability, with all the social consequences of that, in the many people, from physicians to guards, who were involved in this system.

When Congress shut down MK Ultra, MK Search ran for another six or seven years. It was essentially a successor program. [Then-CIA director Richard] Helms ran it. He destroyed the original papers to try to suppress the names of the universities that cooperated in the original research, but the findings of the MK Ultra and the first part of MK Search were published in a memo that's available online. It's called the Kubark Intelligence Manual. It flat-out says that torture doesn't work. Then, in 1997, an Army counterintelligence memo summarized the conclusions of the rest of MK Search. It said that force is a poor technique. Plus there's countless documents that I found by interrogators saying, we're getting junk out of torturing these people.

The FBI people were just horrified. The FBI's an interesting organization, because although there were various individual dissents by senior intelligence people who knew that this was a messed-up procedure from the get-go, it was only the FBI that, as an institution, fought the Army tooth and nail. It's very amazing.

CP: How was the FBI even in this dialogue?

Miles: It turns out this is a very complicated operation. What's going on is this: The SEALs and the CIA basically got the
intelligence operation in Afghanistan. The Navy, Army, and CIA are in charge at Guantánamo. Iraq is essentially an Army/ CIA operation. The FBI's role is to look at particular prisoners where there is evidence they know of some activity on U.S. soil. It's not an international policing role. But they would get called in to certain cases.

The FBI people saw the abusive techniques the Army was using and they went nuts. They went nuts. First they offered to retrain the Army people because they thought they were so messed up. They took them up to their own center and tried to retrain them. They sent Miller a memo stating at length exactly why what he was doing was illegal as sin. They finally wound up telling their people, "Anytime you see a departure from our policy standards for interrogation, you are to immediately dissociate yourself from the interview and leave the site and have nothing to do with it." They essentially broke away, because they couldn't get the Army to change.

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