Last Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” former Vice President Dick Cheney told Jonathan Karl that he was “a big supporter of waterboarding.” It’s a remarkable admission, because waterboarding is—as acceptable as it has become in the media—still clearly illegal. Since Cheney sat on the National Security Council when it authorized the use of waterboarding this, as Andrew Sullivan notes, amounts to confessing he committed a war crime on national television.
As Scott Horton explains in a blog post, “Section 2340A of the federal criminal code makes it an offense to torture or to conspire to torture. Violators are subject to jail terms or to death in appropriate cases, as where death results from the application of torture techniques.” Waterboarding has always been considered a form of torture in American courts, and after WWII we tried a Japanese military official for having committed war crimes in part because he had waterboarded American soldiers. According to Jane Mayer’s recent book The Dark Side, the International Committee of the Red Cross has already concluded that our use of waterboarding is “categorically” torture and opens American government officials up to prosecution for war crimes. Furthermore, as Andrew Sullivan points out, not only is there no statute of limitations for torture, but the attorney general is legally required to prosecute any official who has admitted to ordering torture or face prosecution himself.
Not that we have any political stomach to prosecute the former vice-president for war crimes. In the popular press Dick Cheney is sometimes portrayed as a kind of bureaucratic Jack Bauer, willing to do whatever it takes to protect us from terrorism. Even those of us who deplore the idea of torture seem to concede that it has helped protect us from terrorism. We accept all too easily that, as Cheney’s daughter Liz recently put it, the alternative to torture is just asking “the terrorists to please tell us what they want.”
But as I wrote recently there is no evidence that we obtained any useful intelligence at all from torturing suspected terrorists. Nor did Cheney or anyone else within the Bush administration apparently ever study the question of whether torture actually works. Rather they seem to have simply assumed that brutal methods were necessarily more effective. The truth is that expert interrogators largely agree that a skilled interrogator can get people to talk just as easily with purely legal methods. Gen. David Petraeus, who commands U.S. troops in the Middle East, has said that torture is “frequently neither useful nor necessary.” And Malcolm Nance, a former instructor in the SERE program, which American military personnel to survive torture, goes farther and says that torture unequivocally does not work. The information you get using torture is unreliable because people will say anything to make the torture stop. Former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who was waterboarded as part his Navy Seal training, puts it this way: “You give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.”