Cost of torture not worth benefits


By Chuck Fager


Let’s suppose that the last administration’s torture program actually did produce a tip that helped the SEALs hunt down Osama bin Laden. It seems unlikely, given all I’ve heard, but say it did.

Would that be the vindication the torture defenders want? Would it demolish the cavils of critics like me that even if torture “works,” the U.S. government and military shouldn’t use it?

I’ll skip moral and legal angles here; let’s talk practicalities.

The waterboarding (or other torture) that maybe squeezed out an al-Qaida courier’s name in 2003 was not an isolated act. It was part of a larger program. And the killing of one man, Osama Bin Laden, in a mansion in Abbottabad in 2011 was not its only outcome.

Against that benefit of torture, it’s only fair, indeed imperative, to weigh the program’s costs.

Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili listed some of those costs to Congress in 2005. He said it “fostered greater animosity toward the United States, undermined our intelligence-gathering efforts, and added to the risks facing our troops serving around the world.”

This warning was reinforced by interrogator Matthew Alexander, who conducted over a thousand interrogations in Iraq, including those of many “high-value” detainees, but without torture.

“When I was in Iraq,” he said in an interview in 2011, “I oversaw the interrogations of foreign fighters. And those foreign fighters, the majority of them, said, time and time again, the reason they had come to Iraq to fight was because of the torture and abuse of detainees at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

“And this is not (only) my opinion. The Department of Defense tracked these statistics. And they were briefed, every interrogator who arrived there, that torture and abuse was al-Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.

“And remember,” he added, “these foreign fighters that came to Iraq, they made up 90 percent of the suicide bombers. They killed hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers.” 

Since then, many have turned up as part of ISIS. And is it an accident that in many ISIS videos, their executioners are wearing the orange jumpsuits that were part of the U.S. "uniform" for its torture victims? 

U.S. torture contributed directly to the deaths and wounding of thousands of U.S. troops, and many more Iraqis and Afghans.

So, to sum up: on the one side, a big prize – Osama bin Laden.

Yet on the other side, the torture program’s cost in lives and national security is undeniably vast and, facing ISIS and similar groups, is far from played out. Yet were these costs necessary?

A North Carolina Citizens Commission of Inquiry is taking shape to count these costs for this state. There are many connections here with the torture program, and all need to be surfaced and accounted for.

Let's hope the Commission gets underway before a new administration decides to bring torture back.


Chuck Fager is a writer, who was Director of Quaker House, a peace project near Fort Bragg, through the years of the "War On Terror."  While there he helped research the many military connections to the torture program, organized conferences on the issue, and published numerous articles calling for accountability. Chuck has also worked with NC Stop Torture Now since 2006. More of Chuck's writing can be found at his personal Blog: