Confusing Coercion With Torture

April 22, 2009|By Richard Saccone

Public officials, media outlets and members of the public who use the words torture and coercion interchangeably are making a huge mistake - one that could threaten our safety and security.

Formerly top-secret documents declassified recently by the Obama administration describe in detail 10 interrogation techniques, including the now-infamous water-boarding. This has led to the unfortunate branding of all coercive techniques as torture.

Among the enhanced techniques listed were the "attention grab" and the "facial hold." Few Americans would consider this torture; in fact, most young men have experienced these techniques from their parents. Yet the current administration has abolished these methods, categorizing them as torture.

Even somewhat harsher techniques, such as a simple slap or placing a known terrorist in cramped quarters, appear too much for opponents. What about sleep deprivation? If we keep a terrorist awake 15 minutes past his bedtime, does it constitute torture?

We cannot apply absolutes to these ambiguous scenarios. We need reasonable guidelines that allow discretion for those risking their lives to gather the information needed to protect us.

And finally: Shall we address water-boarding? It is critical to remember that contrary to the portrayal in some media, enhanced techniques were used principally on hardened terrorists who refused to cooperate through rapport building and other noncoercive methods.

For example, intelligence officials believed Abu Zubaydah, a hardcore terrorist and planner of the 9/11 attacks, retained valuable insight into the inner workings of al-Qaida at the highest levels. He had successfully resisted all other methods of interrogation. However, it is almost impossible to train to resist water-boarding. Ultimately, he lasted 32 seconds. Given this context, I am confident most Americans would not object to using that technique.

U.S. policy must authorize the use of certain interrogation methods that fall below the threshold of torture. We cannot allow our enemies to draw a moral equivalence between compelling a prisoner to kneel for 10 minutes and chopping off his fingers one by one. Our government must insist that making a terrorist uncomfortable should not be confused, or in any way equated, with torture.

Richard Saccone, a retired counterintelligence agent, teaches international relations and political science at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., and is the author of "The Unseen War in Iraq: Insurgents in the Shadows."

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