Investigation, please

Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi died last month in a Libyan prison.

The news, just confirmed this month, is of interest because Libi was tortured while in the secret detention system of former President George W. Bush’s administration. The 46-year-old former Islamic cleric, operator of a terrorist training camp, was captured in Afghanistan by U.S. forces in 2001 and turned over to our Egyptian allies. Libi was the source, according to Senate investigations, of the U.S. government’s claims that Iraq had assisted Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons.

But Libi later recanted the story. It was fabricated, he said, while he was being tortured. Libi said he was beaten and locked in a cramped box for 17 hours following a “mock burial.” He just wanted the torture to stop, so he told his inquisitors what they wanted to hear.

We have said it simply and frequently: Torture is wrong.

It violates accords, conventions and treaties that the United States is party to, which is, we suspect, why so many of the detainees who were tortured were not held on American soil but instead handed over to those of our “allies” who have fewer legal strictures against the use of torture.

But aside from the ethical arguments, we have made the case that we should not torture based on a simple tit-for-tat argument: If we torture “them,” we’ve got no reason to expect that they won’t torture “us.” If for no other reason than to spare U.S. citizens—our soldiers—from abuse, we need to come clean, punish those responsible and desist from “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

But still some insist that we need to have torture available as a solution to the “ticking time bomb” scenario.

But torture doesn’t work. It doesn’t provide useful information. People lie when tortured, as Libi did. What torture does is allow inquisitors to extract the sorts of information they need to shore up their own propaganda.

This is not new information.

Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, a Catholic priest in the 17th century, made the case against the use of torture in witch trials in his treatise Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors), published in 1631. The Inquisition was still a going concern and witch trials were common when Spee, who served as a “witch confessor” himself, noticed that accused witches who were tortured would confess to crimes they could not possibly have committed. In fact, they would fabricate crimes and tales of witchcraft simply to make the torture stop. His conclusion? There might possibly be witches, but torture would never reveal them.

In our contemporary situation, any detainee who is tortured will quickly tell tales of conspiracies, weapons of mass destruction and whatever their inquisitors want to hear. Torture produces useless information—unless, that is, the real goal is propaganda.

We need to quit quibbling. The only way to regain any respect in the community of nations and to insure that no future administration will try to make excuses for the inexcusable is to fully investigate the torture committed in our name and hold accountable those who were responsible.