The dark comedy of the Senate torture report

I didn’t want to read it – until I was asked to write a preface for the French translation. I was startled by what I found

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

21 February 2015

9:00 AM

Like many journalists, I’m a bit of a know-it-all — when information is touted as ‘new’, especially in government reports, it sometimes brings out in me the opposite of sincere curiosity so essential to my trade. Thus when my French publisher asked me to write a preface to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s report on the CIA’s torture programme, and come to Paris to promote a translated edition, I was reluctant. Hadn’t I already read everything about this? As much as I detest the CIA and love Paris, a book tour to discuss waterboarding and forced rectal feeding struck me as less than appealing.

Nevertheless, civic duty spurred me and a lawyer colleague to write the preface. So I read the report — all 500 or so pages of it — first in English and then in French. To my great surprise I learned that the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture moves right along, with an authorial voice, lots of irony and plenty of gruesome detail that wasn’t in the newspapers. The principal writer, a former FBI analyst named Daniel Jones, renders the story of the CIA’s gratuitous brutality with a rhythmic repetition that approaches literature. Again and again, we’re told, detainees were grabbed by the CIA or its proxies, transported to secret prisons, subjected to ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, and eventually dropped because they didn’t reveal anything useful, or they invented stories, or, as in the case of the suspected Afghan militant Gul Rahman, died. Then, after ploughing through many pages of CIA boasting about success in foiling terrorist plots, we find out that the agency’s ‘representations were almost entirely inaccurate’ and that torture foiled not a single plot. The former FBI man has fun hanging his CIA rivals with their own words, such as when then CIA director Porter Goss briefs senators about how ‘professionally operated’ CIA detention techniques are compared with the Abu Ghraib variety: ‘We are not talking military, and I’m not talking about anything that a contractor might have done… in a prison somewhere or beat somebody or hit somebody with a stick or something.’ No, we’re talking about chaining a prisoner to the ceiling, making him wear a nappy, and letting him soil himself. After slamming him into a wall.

Once I began to appreciate the funny parts, I was good to go. However, a month before my torture tour was to begin, Muslim terrorists murdered 11 people at Charlie Hebdo and four at a kosher supermarket, and France was thrust into something resembling the debate after 9/11. The day I arrived in Paris, a certain Frédéric Péchenard, of Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, complained in Le Figaro that French security services can’t place bugs and wiretaps or track phones without a warrant. He wasn’t asking for the right to waterboard, mind you, but the US Patriot Act, passed in the chaotic wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, was also intended to give the police broader powers to stop terrorism. The CIA and the Bush White House evidently took the Patriot Act to mean carte blanche for ignoring the constitution and the Geneva conventions, so I had a good talking point. Péchenard remained my invisible adversary over three days of non-stop media appearances.

Most of my French interviewers had little sympathy for Péchenard’s demand for a Patriot Act à la française. On France Inter, my radio host Nicolas Demorand played a conversation with a prominent juge d’instruction who said that moral principle alone should rule out the use of torture — effectiveness shouldn’t even enter into the debate. As a civil libertarian, I think it’s a lovely sentiment, but as a dual American and French citizen, I felt obliged to insist on this point: torture doesn’t work. Without that clearly understood, I fear that we civil libertarians lose the argument with Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, a lot of people believe what they see in movies like Zero Dark Thirty.

The police can’t keep watch on every potential terrorist all the time, as the Charlie Hebdo killings demonstrated. So I wasn’t displeased to be greeted by a rifle-toting French soldier at the entrance to every studio and newspaper I visited. In fact, I thanked each of them coming and going, especially when visiting friends at the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné and the left-wing Le Monde diplomatique. The venerable Canard is a brash publication closer in spirit to Charlie Hebdo than, say, the Financial Times, but it’s easy to overlook in its obscure, unadvertised old building on the Rue St Honoré. Upstairs, the sangfroid displayed by the staff was notable, especially since their star comic-strip contributor and caricaturist, Cabu, was among those killed. Even more impressive was the excellent investigative story in their new issue about the Imsi-catcher, a device that allows French cops and spies to intercept texts, conversations, and emails sent from mobile phones. As the Canard writer explains, ‘No need to go through an operator: no trace of the intercept and no controls’ — in short, Frédéric Péchenard’s (as well as Marine Le Pen’s and Dick Cheney’s) dream come true. Top-of-the-line Imsi-catchers cost ‘several hundred thousand euros’, but who’s counting when you get to listen not only to a suspect but also to everyone using a phone nearby, including journalists?

Paris is supposed to be the city of light, and the French commitment to personal liberty (at least if you believe the spirit exhibited at the mass ‘Je suis Charlie’ demonstration) unflagging. My interlocutor from the pro-Sarkozy, centre-right Figaro was the very lively Charles Jaigu, the journalist who did the sympathetic interview with Péchenard that I cited everywhere on my tour. In his column called ‘Tête à Tête’, Jaigu, while highlighting his political differences with me, wrote that France had not yet ‘tipped into psychosis’ of the American sort that would lead to torture. No question of carte blanche for the police. With the Front National on the rise, I hope he’s right.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s magazine.

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Show comments
  • WFB56

    “Paris is supposed to be the city of light, and the French commitment to personal liberty (at least if you believe the spirit exhibited at the mass ‘Je suis Charlie’ demonstration) unflagging”

    If that were remotely true, how would the author explain the more than 20 arrests made in the aftermath of Je suis Charlie of people voicing opinions outside of the mainstream?

    • Peter Stroud

      They were probably arrested under the French equivalent of: behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace.

      • WFB56

        So, that’s all right then?

  • trace9

    Torture DOES work, halfwit. Too many were the WW2 resistantes betrayed by their tortured compatriots. My own father used to bash Fascists in Italy to disgorge information – on hidden explosives, arms, etc. Always worked & lives were saved. When the torturee knows his words can be tested – many tell the truth. Unlike so many journalists, eh?

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Easy to see where the Inquisition found their jailers and torturers. They still walk among us.

      • Ed  

        The unfortunate difficulty with the ethics of torture is that it does indeed work. With definite results in explosives found and lives saved, where is the line of what mustn’t be done to be drawn?

      • Ed  

        I’m shocked, shocked, that a Committee run by political party A has produced a report critical of the policy espoused by political party B.

        How could such a thing ever happen?

    • Mc

      No doubt you are in favour of torture being employed against your country’s enemies, but not against your own country’s troops or against you and your family.

      Or maybe I’m wrong and you believe it should be rolled out to your country’s judicial system. As you say, torture works, so why not ensure that the guilty always confess to their crimes and are put behind bars?

      The beauty of much torture as practiced nowadays is that it doesn’t have to kill the victim. If the torturers accidentally pick on someone completely innocent, their infallible techniques will quickly flag up the fact that they’re on the wrong track and should just try another torture technique until they get to the truth. After all, if they make a total hash of it, the victim will still walk out of there intact.

      • tjamesjones

        weasel words Mc: trace9 is right on topic here – the article is claiming that torture is bad and doesn’t work. It’s an attractive couplet, but the US document was partisan (democrat v republic) and like many I suspect that torture does work. And that people arguing it doesn’t work are just ducking the tougher argument about whether it’s worth the price – “the argument with Dick Cheney”.

        • Mc

          Strangely, you don’t seem to have caught my satire. I’m largely in agreement with you. Torture probably works if the victim has the information his torturers are after (Of course, torturers aren’t particularly worried about torturing the innocent either). The fundamental question, as you say, is whether it should be allowed, even if it does work.
          The problem with allowing torture is that it brutalizes the torturers, their victims, their families and society. More broadly, countries that are systematically engaged in torturing their citizens are all tyrannies of various shades. Those countries are infamous for using torture in their judicial process and to suppress dissent.
          Interestingly, it’s the rulers and torturers who are keen on torture, not their victims. Unsurprisingly, those rulers and torturers believe they’ll never be tortured themselves – which rather answers your question of whether it’s worth the price.
          But just to be sure, do you think torture is worth the price?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Tragic if it wasn’t so funny. Or have I got that donkey about face?

  • Jean Granville

    Of course, torture works. If someone tortures you in order to have your credit card code, you will probably give it.
    Either the CIA interrogators are not very good, or the authors of the report are taking us for idiots. In any case, torture worked fine in Algiers and in countless other hirstorical situations.
    That doesn’t make torture a nice thing to do, but it doesn’t help to pretend it is useless.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      You might give um the wrong number.

      • tjamesjones

        i don’t think they let you go free when you’ve coughed up the number jack

      • Ed  

        I think that’s quite easy for you to say when you’re not hanging upside down under a water drip. Do you have the backbone to be as brave when you are in such conditions? Do you know that? Have you ever been there?

        Are you sure?

  • ItinerantView

    “No question of carte blanche for the police. With the Front National on the rise, I hope he’s right.”
    I’d be more concerned about the internal-security apparatus the EU is constructing, their ongoing capitulation to the Istanbul process and the rising Jihadi threat and hundreds of Zones Urbaine Sensibles, not just in France.
    I’d also be more concerned that the EU and fellow travellers, seem intent, inadvertently or not, on demonising and consequently radicalising, well on their way to 40% of Europeans or at the very least deriding many of them as ‘populists’ .
    The EU funds research into behavioral monitoring technology, that makes listening to cell-phones look like child’s play;
    they also seem to be giving their nascent instruments of state, powers that far exceed National police forces.
    No surprise the Security market does things the opaque EU way, Statewatch do an interesting series on the major players;
    One can decide for themselves whether this Europrobe article, on Europol, Eurojust and Eurogendfor is hyperbole;
    The NF are part of the democratic process, as is Syriza in Greece, whether one agrees with them or not.
    I would have thought “civil libertarians” would support that basic freedom of choice.

  • Jean Granville

    Refusing to admit that torture works is not only wrong, it is also dangerous.
    The way I see it, torture is a problem for the security services which use it, because it corrupts them in the long run. Vladimir Bukowski wrote in a Washinton Post article that Soviet security services had become staffed with brutes and sadists because torture had become the easiest way to get results quickly, but in the process, they had become incapable of solving even relatively simple cases.
    But that doesn’t mean torture is ineffective in some cases.
    More precisely, torture is often used when a security service is required to get intelligence very quickly without a knowledge base to start with. In other words, to avoid using torture, you need time in order to build a good network of informers.
    So ideally, of course, the best way to obtain intelligence is to have a good contact with the population, a lot of informers and the time to examine the situation and exploit every piece of information you can get your hands on.
    Unfortunately, you don’t always have this luxury.
    Conclusion: if you don’t want to use torture, it doesn’t help to pretend it doesn’t work and take a nice moral posture agaisnt it. What is useful is to anticipate and try to collect relevant intelligence before something like 9/11 happens, and that’s easier said than done.
    Sometimes, the world doesn’t work exactly like we would like it to.

  • BlackArrow

    There is nothing comedic about torture.

    Where is mention of children being raped? Where is mention of – according to Brigadier General Janis Karpinski who commanded Abu Ghraib – Israel’s Shin Bet in there committing atrocities as well?

    We Americans have A LOT of glasnost to do, starting with the assassination conspiracies against the Kennedys, King, and all the evil we have committed since.

    Lou Coatney

    • BlackArrow

      And we Americans certainly aren’t the only ones needing glasnost.

      HOW soon is Chilcot’s report coming out?

  • zoid

    yes torture is horrific…

    but i doubt that mankind would have finessed it over the course of thousands of years, across the globe, if it didn’t work…

    the problem for me is the ‘big, bad, nasty cia’ angle….it’s naive to think that most nations do not use torture or at least enhanced interrogation techniques on enemy prisoners…so why criticise only one?….

    this just seems like another of those ‘take a pop at the united states whilst ignoring the global realities’ narratives that sell so well on the left.