Is torture unconscionable?

The recent report into the CIA’s treatment of terrorist suspects by the US Senate Intelligence Committee has reignited discussion of the propriety of America’s behaviour after the devastation of 9/11. But it has also aroused suspicion of a party-political offensive by the Democrat majority Senate, keen to buttress President Obama’s profile as the man who reversed the damage wreaked on America’s international reputation by George W. Bush’s presidency. As Con Coughlin observes in The Telegraph, since “Democrats enjoy a clear majority on the intelligence committee, it was clear from the outset that their primary motivation was to settle old scores against the Bush administration.” This does not mean that the report is totally flawed, but the particular criticisms of the CIA that it contains are revealing – and confused.

Many commentators take a principled stance against torture in any circumstance. But the report on CIA activity also denounces the techniques used on detainees as ineffectual. This changes the criteria of justification radically. If they had been effective would they then have been permissible? And the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” cannot be tested, by definition, until much later, once testimony has been extracted. Whether or not waterboarding or sleep-deprivation or even more severe techniques are effective would not have been known during the panicked aftermath of 9/11; even if the techniques had been employed before, surely each case is different?

Sam Harris, the neuro-scientist and philosopher, mounted a qualified defence of torture in the Huffington Post some years ago. He ponders why many of us are so unwilling to sanction torture in any situation when we are seemingly more prepared to support military action in at least some circumstances. Even modern, sophisticated warfare eventuates in the deaths of many, many innocent civilians: why is this more ethical, less horrifying? Of course there is the danger of torturing somebody who has no relevant information. They may even offer false intelligence to cease the torture. But as Harris puts it, “it seems obvious that the misapplication of torture should be far less troubling to us than collateral damage.” And yet, for some reason it is not.

John Brennan, the current director of the CIA responded to the Senate Intelligence Committee report by claiming that the techniques employed by his organisation had led to “useful information that helped the United States thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives”. Is he correct or not? And if he is, are the methods vindicated by the resulting information? Of course it is the interest of the CIA’s director to defend his organisation but he may well be correct.

The journalist Christopher Hitchens willingly underwent waterboarding when there was still considerable debate about whether it should designated as torture. He was unequivocal: it is.

It can also be deadly. It seems clear that it should not be the policy of the US Secret Services to torture detainees. But should it be utterly unthinkable? I have not come to a view myself but it seems something worth thinking about seriously. It is not the policy of most Western police forces to shoot to kill (I realise this is controversial after recent demonstrations in the US) and yet we can accept that there are certain, unusual, desperate circumstances that may seem to require it.

The aftermath of 9/11 was a desperate scrabble for any intelligence that might prevent a similar attack. This was one of the largest intended attacks on civilians in recent memory and even heralded a period of modern warfare, with the US often fighting para military groups and terrorist cells rather than enemy states. Any use of torture should be regretted but I find it difficult to insist that I would have completely ruled it out in the feverish aftermath of 9/11.