What to Do About the Torturers?

Donald Rumsfeld
Donald Rumsfeld; drawing by Pancho

The story of America’s descent into torture in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has been told now by many writers. Mark Danner, Jane Mayer, and Ron Suskind have written brilliant expositions of the facts, showing how the drive to prevent the next attack led the administration’s highest officials to seek ways around the legal restrictions on coercive interrogation of suspects.1 After the abuses at Abu Ghraib came to light, the military itself commissioned three detailed investigative reports, including highly critical ones by Major General Antonio Taguba and by a panel led by former defense secretary James Schlesinger. Among other factors, they blamed ambiguity in the standards governing interrogation—an ambiguity ultimately attributable to the attempts at evasion directed from the top. Congressional committees have held numerous public hearings into the use of coercive interrogation tactics at both Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. The Center for Constitutional Rights, the ACLU, and the NYU Center on Law and Security have each published collections of official documents, which effectively indict the government using its own words.2

But undoubtedly the most unusual and deeply revealing take on the subject is the work of the British lawyer and law professor Philippe Sands. As Alexis de Tocqueville showed long ago, sometimes it takes the eyes of an outsider to show us ourselves. Sands, a leading international lawyer and a professor at University College London, took it upon himself to conduct his own personal investigation of one aspect of the torture policy—the Army’s adoption of coercive tactics to interrogate suspects at Guantánamo. This policy was not the worst of the post–September 11 abuses. As far as we know, no one has been waterboarded at Guantánamo, as some were at the CIA’s secret “black sites,” nor have any suspects been killed in interrogation, as happened on several occasions elsewhere. No one we know of has been rendered from Guantánamo to another country to be tortured, although some prisoners who were earlier subject to rendition and torture have since been transferred to Guantánamo.

But precisely because the Army’s interrogation policy was not the worst of the worst—to borrow a phrase—its story may actually be more instructive. The CIA has always operated to a significant degree outside the law. The military, by contrast, is at its core an institution committed to discipline and order, strictly governed by the laws of war. So the fact that illegal abusive tactics were officially authorized at the Pentagon’s highest levels is in some sense more shocking than the CIA’s crimes. We should expect more of the military.

America’s experiment with torture presents the Obama administration with one of its most difficult challenges: how should the nation account for the abuses that have occurred in the past, what are the appropriate remedies, and how can we ensure that such abuses not happen again? Torture Team offers new insight into what will surely be one…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.