Torture Betrays Us and Breeds New Enemies
By Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar
Thursday, May 17, 2007; A17
Fear can be a strong motivator. It led Franklin Roosevelt to intern tens
of thousands of innocent U.S. citizens during World War II; it led to
Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt, which ruined the lives of hundreds of
Americans. And it led the United States to adopt a policy at the highest
levels that condoned and even authorized torture of prisoners in our
George Tenet as he promotes his new book. Tenet oversaw the secret CIA
interrogation program in which torture techniques euphemistically called
"waterboarding," "sensory deprivation," "sleep deprivation" and "stress
positions" -- conduct we used to call war crimes -- were used. In
defending these abuses, Tenet revealed: "Everybody forgets one central
context of what we lived through: the palpable fear that we felt on the
basis of the fact that there was so much we did not know."
We have served in combat; we understand the reality of fear and the
havoc it can wreak if left unchecked or fostered. Fear breeds panic, and
it can lead people and nations to act in ways inconsistent with their
The American people are understandably fearful about another attack like
the one we sustained on Sept. 11, 2001. But it is the duty of the
commander in chief to lead the country away from the grip of fear, not
into its grasp. Regrettably, at Tuesday night's presidential debate
in South Carolina, several Republican candidates revealed a stunning
failure to understand this most basic obligation. Indeed, among the
candidates, only John McCain
demonstrated that he understands the close connection between our
security and our values as a nation.
Tenet insists that the CIA program disrupted terrorist plots and saved
lives. It is difficult to refute this claim -- not because it is
self-evidently true, but because any evidence that might support it
remains classified and unknown to all but those who defend the program.
These assertions that "torture works" may reassure a fearful public, but
it is a false security. We don't know what's been gained through this
fear-driven program. But we do know the consequences.
As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a
little bit of torture -- only for the toughest cases, only when nothing
else works -- the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured
prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb. Our
soldiers in Iraq confront real "ticking time bomb" situations every day,
in the form of improvised explosive devices, and any degree of
"flexibility" about torture at the top drops down the chain of command
like a stone -- the rare exception fast becoming the rule.
To understand the impact this has had on the ground, look at the
military's mental health assessment report released earlier this month.
The study shows a disturbing level of tolerance for abuse of prisoners
in some situations. This underscores what we know as military
professionals: Complex situational ethics cannot be applied during the
stress of combat. The rules must be firm and absolute; if torture is
broached as a possibility, it will become a reality.
This has had disastrous consequences. Revelations of abuse feed what the
Army's new counterinsurgency manual, which was drafted under the command
of Gen. David Petraeus, calls the "recuperative power" of the terrorist
Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld once wondered aloud whether we
were creating more terrorists than we were killing. In counterinsurgency
doctrine, that is precisely the right question. Victory in this kind of
war comes when the enemy loses legitimacy in the society from which it
seeks recruits and thus loses its "recuperative power."
The torture methods that Tenet defends have nurtured the recuperative
power of the enemy. This war will be won or lost not on the battlefield
but in the minds of potential supporters who have not yet thrown in
their lot with the enemy. If we forfeit our values by signaling that
they are negotiable in situations of grave or imminent danger, we drive
those undecideds into the arms of the enemy. This way lies defeat, and
we are well down the road to it.
This is not just a lesson for history. Right now, White House lawyers
are working up new rules that will govern what CIA interrogators can do
to prisoners in secret. Those rules will set the standard not only for
the CIA but also for what kind of treatment captured American soldiers
can expect from their captors, now and in future wars. Before the
president once again approves a policy of official cruelty, he should
reflect on that.
It is time for us to remember who we are and approach this enemy with
energy, judgment and confidence that we will prevail. That is the path
to security, and back to ourselves.
/Charles C. Krulak was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999.
Joseph P. Hoar was commander in chief of U.S. Central Command from 1991