s a member of the 9/11 Commission, I listened to hundreds of briefings and dozens of testimonies and read thousands of documents detailing the intricacies of the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. Witnesses, intelligence experts, and officials from Democratic and Republican administrations identified mistakes and missed opportunities that could have helped disrupt the plot. In all that time, no one suggested to me that if only we had tortured someone, we could have prevented 9/11. And for good reason: torture would not have spared the life of a single one of the 3,000 people killed that day.
Since then, some people have come forththat so few do so publicly is tellingto argue that the United States should adopt torture as a policy instrument in order to prevent a recurrence of what torture could not have prevented in the first place.
In its modern incarnation, torture, as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading interrogation tactics, has failed to grant its practitioners decisive advantage. While fighting the IRA in the 1970s, the British abandoned their use of coercive interrogation practices and have since managed to achieve a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. France’s use of torture in Algeria failed to defeat the National Liberation Front; indeed, it helped turn the Algerian public against France’s colonial presence.
More recently, the Bush administration has declared that the use of “harsh interrogation techniques” has elicited actionable and accurate intelligence. The experience of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a captured al-Qaeda leader reportedly tortured into confessing knowledge of Iraqi WMD, suggests otherwise.
Those who argue in favor of torture usually do so in the scenario of a single suspect with knowledge of a “ticking time bomb.” This hypothetical never addresses how torture would have to work in the real world, or how we would defuse the next bomb after America is revealed as a practitioner of torture.
For instance, in August 2006, British intelligence thwarted a plot in which terrorists planned to smuggle liquid explosives on board transatlantic airliners in order to blow up the planes. Why did this plan fail? A member of Britain’s Muslim community became suspicious of the activities of an acquaintance. Anxious to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the July 7 London subway bombings, he alerted the police, and a British intelligence agent was able to infiltrate the group. Torture, by contrast, keeps the next critical intelligence source at home, putting American citizens in danger.
Ultimately, we cannot torture our way out of terrorism, but we certainly can torture our way into more of it. Torture trades the illusory promise of short-term gain for the near certainty of eventual loss. It tries to convince us that we can defeat terrorists on the cheap by avoiding the long, hard work that counterterrorism entails. The Army’s Field Manual on counterinsurgency tells us that this work comprises building a government’s legitimacy and denying terrorist and insurgent groups like al-Qaeda the political oxygen they need to survive. Very few things could be more toxic to our legitimacy than the image of the world’s greatest democracy practicing one of the world’s oldest evils.
America is more than capable of defeating al-Qaeda. How we choose to do that makes all the difference, both in this fight and the battles to come.