Torturing Terrorists

Phil Carter has yet another piece in Slate. “Tainted by Torture: How evidence obtained through coercion is undermining the legal war on terrorism” combines Phil’s experience as a former military officer and his recent training at UCLA law school and looks at both the practical and legal aspects of torturing suspected terrorists to get information. He concludes,

As a nation, we still haven’t clearly decided whether it’s better to prosecute terrorists or pound them with artillery. But by torturing some of al-Qaida’s leaders, we have completely undermined any efforts to do the former and irreversibly committed ourselves to a martial plan of justice. In the long run, this may be counterproductive, and it will show that we have compromised such liberal, democratic ideals like adherence to the rule of law to counter terrorism. Torture and tribunals do not help America show that it believes in the rule of law. But if CIA officials continue to use tactics that will get evidence thrown out of federal court, there will increasingly be no other option.

I think that’s right. Frankly, I’d be willing to accept the moral implications of torturing the likes of Khalid Sheik Mohammed if it would help us catch other terrorist leaders and save lives. There’s little evidence that this benefit occurs, however.

In a related piece, Brendan Koerner looks at the specific statutes in U.S. and international law that govern the use of terrorism. While they’re all rather vague–probably by necessity–it’s pretty clear that much of what is officially sanctioned in our interrogation of terrorists is at best in the gray area.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. dw says:

    I think what’s key here is that there needs to be a distinction made between POWs and detainees. What happened in Al Gharib was happening to POWs, and that was beyond the pale by rule. What’s happening in Gitmo is happening to detainees, and there is no rule or treaty governing them. The US can give rights to these detainees at their pleasure — there is no compulsion to award them the same rights given to POWs. The one exception I would make would be for US citizens; they have Constitutional rights, and these must remain sacrosanct.

    We’re walking a tightrope here. Prisoners need base rights, but they are prisoners. We need information, but torture often leads to bad information. These thugs are ruthless, though, and will use their rights to wiggle free and will not respond to anything short of extreme measures. Other than American citizens and POWs, there’s not a lot of clarity.

  2. Zayphar says:

    Phil Carter writes:

    “The crux of the argument is that evidence gotten through torture is inadmissible, thus, the use of torture on terrorists means that they (and possibly their confederates) cannot be effectively prosecuted in federal court.”

    Mr. Carter is missing the central point. In these instances, the US is not trying to prosecute these people in a federal court. Therefore, the fact that the information is not useable in legal proceedings is irrelevant.

    If no useful intelligence information was being acquired, then you would have a valid argument for stopping the use of these methods. Since I am not privy to the intelligence reports I have no way of knowing the quality of the information so acquired.

    I am willing to withhold judgment, and so should you.

    Peace and Freedom for an Independent Iraq