The death of Jamal Khashoggi reveals a universal truth about torture

Torture at Abu Ghraib
Torture at Abu Ghraib

Reports from Turkish sources suggest that dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was beaten and tortured to death. It’s not clear at what stage in his dismemberment he actually died, but in audio captured by the Turkish authorities, he reportedly can be heard screaming as his fingers are chopped off.

Khashoggi’s killers evidently didn’t ask him questions. After he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, there was no pretense of interrogation.

His killers were there to exact punishment and revenge.

It’s an unimaginable scene of horror. My fingers shake with rage and sorrow as I type this.

But Khashoggi’s treatment also reveals a universal truth about torture. People don’t torture to get information. There are effective ways to do that, and torture isn’t one.

Fundamentally, torture is about power, revenge, rage and cruelty. It’s about stripping people of their humanity.

And that’s why torture is so abhorrent. That’s what it is (almost) universally condemned as a human rights violation. That’s why it is (almost) always the mark of totalitarian regimes that want to control people.

Professional interrogators use methods that have been proven to work. They do not use tactics reverse-engineered from training to resist the kinds of methods the Chinese Communists used to extract false confessions from captured U.S. servicemen that they could then use for propaganda during the Korean War.

But those and other brutal tactics were precisely what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld let loose in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, to spread through the U.S. military and intelligence services like a virus, to Afghanistan, Iraq, to the CIA black sites in Thailand, Poland, Lithuania and Romania, and to the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

Air Force Reserve Colonel Steve Kleinman recalled to Jane Mayer, in her book “The Dark Side,” that he was sent to Iraq in the fall of 2003 because he was an experienced and accomplished interrogator – and was horrified to find that military-CIA task forces were abusing prisoners instead.

Kleinman tried unsuccessfully to put an end to it. And as he told Mayer, “I got into serious arguments with many people. They wanted to do these things. They were itching to. It was about revenge, not interrogation. And they thought I was coddling terrorists.'”

The first time the American public actually saw torture taking place it had nothing to do with interrogation at all, only misplaced punishment and revenge. That was when photos from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published in April 2004. And that was hardly the beginning or the end.

Nor was it an accident or the work of “bad apples.” As a mostly forgotten bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report concluded in 2008:

The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at [Guantanamo]. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.

Most people still probably think that torture at the direction of government officials only occurred at the CIA black sites. But that’s because of the success of the Bush Administration’s five-year disinformation campaign to hide the direct line between its policies and what happened at Abu Ghraib, and between Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Because in those other instances, they couldn’t even pretend that the torture was necessary to extract intelligence.

After the 2014 release of the redacted executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into torture at the CIA black sites, it became even clearer that torture was completely ineffective as a method of interrogation and was extraordinary brutal — beyond any conceivable moral justification. And it happened during a period when many of the advocates and actors were feeling impotent in the face of an attack on the homeland, and angry at the Muslims they felt were responsible..

So why do it? The obvious answer is that it was ultimately for the same reasons the Saudis tortured Khashoggi: For revenge.

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