The Harmful Narrative on Torture

Countless popular television shows and movies, such as Homeland, Fauda, 24, and Zero Dark Thirty, showcase intelligence operations and, in doing so, promote the notion that torture used by intelligence services helps produce unique and reliable intelligence. Yet, these shows and movies sustain a false and dangerous narrative that torture produces valuable intelligence that saves lives and helps intelligence agencies capture terrorists, criminals, and spies. We must prevent this false narrative from clouding the way our intelligence agencies produce and analyze intelligence. We should also keep it from destroying our values and principles, credibility, and compassion towards other people. 

There remain countless examples of intelligence services using torture as an operating technique for gathering intelligence, including those that have been wholeheartedly condemned by the international community and local populace alike. The torture program of the Bush-Cheney administration during the Iraq War is one example that continues to be defended by some individuals and upheld by many. In 2012, 3 years after Obama banned torture from US government and military use, Jose Rodriguez, a prominent CIA operative during the Bush administration, wrote an entire book defending the program and called them “hard measures” that “saved American lives.” In 2016, Trump also campaigned on bringing back these measures, claiming that he would “bring back waterboarding, and a hell of a lot worse.” As an important reminder, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, “waterboarding is a form of torture and, contrary to popular belief, torture simply does not work.” It is also a crime for which Japanese soldiers were sentenced in the aftermath of the Second World War, and, as such, is torture under both international and US constitutional law. 

United States: Theory Doesn’t Meet Practice

Furthermore, the United States sustains its disgraceful use of what many in the US government have euphemistically called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” of which waterboarding plays a small, but integral part. As previously mentioned, the Obama administration had theoretically banned enhanced interrogation techniques back in 2009. In practice, however, these techniques seem to have never left. This issue is partially due to the vagueness of US laws on detainee treatment and torture.

Despite a promise from Obama, Guantánamo Bay Prison remains open and functional as an interrogation and detention facility. Like countless other Black Sites operated by the US intelligence community, the prison serves as an extrajudicial facility to indefinitely detain and interrogate suspected criminals. While records have not been updated during the Trump or Biden administration, reports from the Open Society Justice Initiative in 2013 suggest that Black Sites are operated in at least three dozen countries, mainly in Eastern Europe, North and Central Africa, and Southeast Asia. 

In these extrajudicial detention and interrogation sites, the conditions are horrifying. Techniques used include waterboarding, mock burials, forced nudity, physical assaults, sleep deprivation, humiliation (including the use of dog leashes and dog collars on detainees), stress positions, confinement boxes, and the use of insects. These techniques are used repeatedly on detainees. In a notorious case, Gul Rahman was subjected to hypothermia after one day of being tortured and found dead in his cell, only to be later found innocent of the criminal charges of which he was accused. Suspected 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was detained without trial between 2003 and 2020, in addition to being waterboarded 183 times in 2003 alone. His detention and experience are in the publicly-released summary of the US Senate Torture Report, which should be a required reading for anyone looking to pursue a career in intelligence. 

While the Biden administration may better address the issue of torture than the Trump administration, daunting allegations were still made against high-ranking members of his national security cabinet. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, for example, has been accused of covering up the torture program during the Obama administration, despite recently arguing in front of Congress that “waterboarding is torture.” 

Still, this stated desire by some for torture to remain part of intelligence practices does not only apply to the United States. Other non-Western nations are also continuing these inhumane and ineffective practices. 

Windows to the West

The blame should not be put entirely on the United States or the Western world. Countless intelligence services of non-Western countries also continue to use torture to gather intelligence. Notable examples include Assad’s Syria, Putin’s Russia, the Iranian regime, Maduro’s Venezuela, and Communist China.

In a 2015 photographic report presented before the United Nations in New York, the Assad regime in Syria was listed as one of the worst offenders in regards to the perpetration of torture. The Syrian civil war has provided cover for Assad and his intelligence services to inflict “at least 72 kinds of torture on prisoners in its detention facilities,” as Michael Safi of The Guardian writes. According to the report, over 14,000 prisoners have been tortured to death by the regime during the war. This horrendous reality was exposed by a “former regime photographer” known as “Caesar,” as the report adds. Granted, this problem is only one manifestation of how Assad views and treats his citizens since he has repeatedly committed atrocities – including chemical attacks – against the people he claims to represent. 

Assad’s accomplice in Syria, Putin, is also behind a widespread campaign of prisoner abuse and violation of civil rights for political prisoners. Although the following case is ongoing, Alexei Navalny, a notorious anti-corruption critic of the Putin regime, has been jailed on questionable pretenses. While in detention, Navalny alleged that the Kremlin was launching a “deliberate campaign” from the Kremlin to damage his physical and mental well-being. His case is not an isolated event as other dissidents and opponents in Russia have also been poisoned.

Returning to the Middle East, Iran has been notorious for cracking down on political opponents and using drastic measures to do so. In Iranian prisons, detainees are subjected to widespread “beatings, floggings, electric shocks, stress positions, mock executions, waterboarding, sexual violence,” and much more. Iran’s justice system has deemed these practices to be legal, as judges and prosecutors – appointed by the regime – are complicit in the violence. The regime’s defense, which cites national security and the tactics’ effectiveness, rings on deaf ears and is absurd at best. 

Moving West, the Maduro regime in Venezuela has been accused of similarly atrocious crimes against dissidents and detainees. The Organization of American States (OAS) published a report that identifies over 18,000 illegal executions, 15,000 cases of arbitrary detention, 724 forced disappearances, and 653 documented cases of torture since 2014. In detention facilities, rape and sexual violence have been weaponized against individuals in custody. This problem has pushed the OAS to pressure the International Criminal Court (ICC) into prosecuting the Maduro regime for crimes against humanity, which the ICC Prosecutor has yet to do. 

China’s treatment of Turkic Muslim minority groups in the country has reached a level of evil of historic proportions, perhaps not seen since the Shoah during the Second World War. Over a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Turkic Muslim minority groups have been disappeared and forcibly detained in internment camps on the Chinese government’s notion that they might be terrorists or harm their plan to create a homogenous social fabric for their nation. The Communist Chinese regime has carefully labelled these internment camps as “vocational,” “training,” and “education” centres; yet, these misleading terms have failed to hide the true conditions inside these camps. The goal of implementing these camps for Turkic Muslim minority groups in China is, as explained by a Chinese religious affairs official, to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” To achieve this goal, the Chinese Communist regime has institutionalized forced labour, abortions and sterilizations, rape and sexual violence, torture, and beatings. Forced assimilation through brainwashing individuals from these minority groups has contributed to genocide, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid in mainland China. 

Setting a Better Example

Part of helping solve the problem regarding abhorrent detention and interrogation methods is to normalize and legitimize better methods and to continuously challenge those perpetuating a false narrative. From now on, the consensus within media circles hoping to portray intelligence practices should be as follows: rapport-building is effective and ethical, and torture isn’t. Those found spreading misinformation on this issue – meaning those perpetuating the dangerous lie that torture is not only ethical but effective – should be ardently challenged and repudiated. 

If the United States and the Western world engages in torture and mistreatment of detainees and political opponents, then there is no reason for other countries to detract from doing the same. Moreover, there would be no moral or legal basis for us to criticize their use of such a technique because we would be endorsing an abhorrent double standard. We need to be better, and if one’s objective in gathering intelligence is truly to protect civilians and constitutional values, then we also need to do better. 

Barbaric and medieval intelligence-gathering practices, like torture, need to be done away with. Torture is immoral and ineffective, creates more terrorists at home and abroad, and makes it more dangerous for our own soldiers, diplomats, and citizens abroad, who will not be given just treatment if captured and detained. However, rapport-building leads by our values and provides us with unique and actionable intelligence that saves lives, as advocated by our very own intelligence professionals, including Ali Soufan. It’s time to leave old practices in the past and follow the undeniable and irrefutable trail of evidence. 

Joseph Bouchard

Joseph is a Senior Writer with Spheres of Influence, covering geopolitics, crime, and democracy in the Western hemisphere. He has spent over a year in Latin America, notably working as a freelance journalist...