Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Promise Not to Torture: Is President Obama Serious?

In his first address to the United States Congress, President Obama promised that the United States would not torture anyone (click here for the full text of the presidential address: In fact, President Obama went as far as to state that "without exception and equivocation.... the United States of America does not torture." I believe President Obama in his belief that we should not torture. But I do not believe all of our policy executioners' beliefs as to what torture means.
Very few world leaders have ever admitted that they endorse torture. Israel, a state outspoken about its harsh interrogation techniques of terrorist suspects, claims that it uses "moderate physical pressure" on such prisoners. The English police similarly used harsh interrogation methods against IRA suspects. Neither country ever admitted that it tortures, and both countries are signatories to the Convention Against Torture, an international treaty banning all sorts of torture and degrading and inhumane treatment. President George W. Bush publicly denied that the United States ever tortured anyone. Yet, in the recent years, it has come to light that several Guantanamo and CIA detainees have been water-boarded - a treatment that under most international treaties would qualify as torture. Other questionable techniques that could raise to the level of torture and that have been used by American interrogators include the use of sleep and sensory deprivation, awkward positions, intimidation by dogs, and mild physical contact such as shaking, only to name a few.
Why is it that world leaders routinely deny their endorsement of torture, while their countries' police and security agencies seem to engage in techniques that do in fact qualify as torture? The problem lies with the definition of torture in international law, and its application within domestic legal systems. The Convention Against Torture defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." (click here for the full text of the CAT: Yet, different countries have implemented this provision in different ways, by adding reservations, declarations, and understandings to the CAT in their implementing domestic legislation. Thus, in the United States, the meaning of the CAT has been modified in an understanding, specifying that an act, in order to constitute torture, must be "specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering...." 18. U.S.C. 2340-2340A. In light of this definition, the U.S. Army Field Manual 34-52 authorizes specific interrogation techniques, such as the use of psychological ploys, shouting at detainees or invoking a sense of fear, dietary manipulation, change of scenery, and isolation. Moreover, the same manual expressly prohibits the use of force, mental torture, threats, and insults, inter alia. Yet, our interrogators, as proven through numerous reports, documents, personal accounts, and the like, have abused the scope of their interrogative authority throughout the Bush years (click here for one such report: While I believe that our former president and some of his high-level cabinet members are to blame, I also believe that many interrogators overstepped the bounds of their authority inadvertently. The fact that there seemed to be no repercussions for such overstepping of boundaries only contributed to enhance a sense of power and impunity for the interrogators. Thus, shouting at detainees turned into shaking or slapping them; isolation turned into complete and prolonged solitary confinement, and invoking a sense of fear turned into threatening detainees with barking dogs.
I fear that the same thing could happen under President Obama. Interrogators are human and make mistakes and unless our Army Field Manual is updated to more specifically ban questionable interrogation techniques, such techniques may be used (again) in an erroneous belief that they are permissible. What should President Obama do to deal with this issue? Instead of promising that the United States would not torture, he could adopt a policy of zero tolerance toward interrogators who abuse prisoners. In order to assert "without exception or equivocation" that we do not torture, President Obama needs to do much more to assure himself that this is truly the case.

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