Less than an hour after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its report on the mistreatment and torture of detainees taken into custody after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, I received a call from a man I’ll call Major James. I’ve known Major James for decades. He served in the United States Army for twenty years, including a tour of duty in the first Gulf War. His area of specialty was military intelligence, and he was often called upon to question enemy prisoners of war. He was reluctant at first to go on the record with me, but when I assured him I would protect his anonymity, he talked to me for nearly two hours. Here is a part of our conversation related to the Senate report on torture.
What were your initial thoughts when you read a summary of the report?
“I was shocked and horrified by what had been done in the name of the American people by these so-called ‘patriots’ who claim they got good intelligence from detainees. If you torture a man, he will tell you whatever you want to hear! He will say anything to get you to stop torturing him. We (in the Army) were not taught to get information from prisoners with force. We were instructed to interact with them on a human level, gain their trust, befriend them. What was done by (the CIA) is, to my way of thinking, criminal.”
And what do you think should be done to those who are accused of committing this torture?
“They should be brought up on charges, on criminal charges. And they should also be handed over to the International Court (in the Hague) to be tried as war criminals. What seems to be getting lost in the debate over the report and these actions is that if you act like a terrorist so you can get information from him, you are no better than a terrorist. This kind of behavior goes against everything we believe and hold dear as Americans. We didn’t torture Japanese and German prisoners of war during World War II even though they had mistreated the Americans they captured. You don’t stoop to the level of the enemy in order to prove you are just as tough as he is. I think that has been lost in today’s world. People just want to be protected from the bad guys and don’t care how it gets done. But how it is done does matter! We cannot claim the moral high ground and then behave like those we condemn.”
Could there conceivably be blowback as result of those who wish us harm reading this report?
“There was blowback before the report was ever declassified. ISIS recently said they waterboarded (American hostage) James Foley before they executed him. Them doing that and then announcing they did it is a clear sign that they are using our actions to bring us to their level. In other words, ‘If you can do it to our people, we can damn well do it to yours.’ This is a vicious cycle and will only end in more horrible actions in the future. I often ask people who advocate using torture on detainees, Well, if they did that to an American POW, would that be torture? And the answer is yes, it most certainly would be. Just because we are the ones doing these things does not change the fact that it is illegal and immoral. We are better than that.”
Are you hopeful that this will be the end of torture by the United States?
“I’m hopeful, but I’m not naive enough to believe someone will refuse to cross the line again. The only way to assure that is to punish the ones who are responsible. That is the only solution.”
After our long conversation, Major James shared an experience with me that happened near the end of the Gulf War. An Iraqi captive was brought in for questioning. When Major James offered him coffee and cigarettes, the soldier acted confused. The Major asked if something was wrong. Through the translator, the POW said, “Were the positions reversed, Saddam (Hussein) would have had us beat you, use electricity on you, and then take you out and execute you. But you are American. Americans are not animals like Saddam.”