The Strategic Costs of Torture

How “Enhanced Interrogation” Hurt America

The human toll: at Guantánamo Bay, January 2002. REUTERS / STRINGER

It has been more than seven years since U.S. President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13491, banning the U.S. government’s use of torture. Obama’s directive was a powerful rebuke to the Bush administration, which had, in the years after the 9/11 attacks, authorized the CIA and the U.S. military to use “enhanced interrogation tech­niques” in questioning suspected terrorists. Some detainees were shackled in painful positions, locked in boxes the size of coffins, kept awake for over 100 hours at a time, and forced to inhale water in a process known as water­boarding. Interrogators sometimes went far beyond what Washington had authorized, sodomizing detainees with blunt objects, threatening to sexually abuse their family members, and, on at least one occasion, freezing a suspect to death by chaining him to an ice-cold floor overnight.

By the time Obama came to office, the CIA had apparently abandoned the most coercive forms of torture. Obama sought to ensure that the United States had truly turned the page. Today, however, many Americans are considering electing a president who wants to bring such abuses back. During a February debate among the Republican presidential candidates, Donald Trump vowed to reinstate torture, including treatment that would be “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Asked in a subsequent talk show if he stood by his proposal, Trump replied, “It wouldn’t bother me even a little bit.” And this is hardly a fringe view: according to a 2014 Washington Post–ABC News poll, a majority of Americans now think that the CIA’s use of torture was justified.

In 2014, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a series of reports as part of a five-year investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. The committee’s Democratic majority, joined by the Republican senator Susan Collins, argued that the use of torture had not produced unique intelligence. The Republican minority claimed that it had. Meanwhile, several former senior CIA officials launched a website,

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