The Problem with Keeping Torture Secret

Interview by Steven Gertz and Brooke Sauro

How did your time in the MAAS program influence your academic pursuits? Did you have any professors or experiences that prompted your thinking about issues surrounding torture and human rights?

I chose the MAAS program because of the political and intellectual interests I developed in my teenage years. In 1975, I traveled to the Middle East for the first time as a 13-year-old. Two life-changing experiences—seeing the poverty and desperation of the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, and witnessing Lebanon’s overnight descent into war—led me to become a compulsive consumer of news and information about war and conflict. Then, as an undergraduate at Tufts University (1979 – 1983), I wrote my thesis on Israeli human rights violations in the occupied territories just as the world witnessed a dramatic rise in human rights activism, especially in conflict zones. This work sowed the seeds of my interest in torture and the decision to pursue graduate study of the contemporary Middle East.

The year I started the MAAS program (1984), my class included several people who had spent years living in Beirut during the war. Learning alongside politically savvy and war-hardened classmates I count as being the most significant aspect of my education at Georgetown. I concentrated in International Affairs, and realized by the end of my two years that the kinds of issues I was interested in pursuing for a PhD could not be satisfied if I stayed the course of Political Science. Hisham Sharabi was a big influence in persuading me that what I should study is Sociology. He was right.

I wanted to stay in Washington, DC, in no small part because of the intellectually stimulating atmosphere created by faculty and students affiliated with the MAAS program. But Georgetown did not have a PhD in Sociology, so I went to the American University. For my dissertation topic, I chose the Israeli military court system in the West Bank and Gaza, which immersed me in the world of torture and the law, human rights and war. I have stayed immersed in these issues ever since.

Bring us up to date on how various members of the American government are approaching the use of torture for security reasons. What kind of legacy did the Bush administration leave on this issue?

Days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration started making decisions that led to the official authorization of torture tactics and indefinite incommunicado detention for people who would be detained at Guantanamo, Bagram, or CIA black sites, as well as kidnappings, forced disappearances, and extraordinary rendition to foreign countries to exploit their torturing services. The decision to subject detainees to torture and abuse was not a necessity but a choice, and a disastrous one at that. While Barack Obama put an end to some of these practices when he took office in January 2009, the legacy of torture has left a permanent stain on how many Americans continue to think about torture.

One adverse effect of this legacy is that in the US today, there is no consensus about what is lawful and effective in terms of interrogation. The “torture debate” resurfaces again and again when some people (mainly those on the right) argue that the waterboard and other “coercive techniques” were effective and should be reinserted into the playbook of options. That was the position of the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 election; he recruited some of the intellectual authors of the torture policy to be advisers for the campaign and presumptively would have appointed them to positions in the government had he won the election.

The recent Hollywood film Zero Dark Thirty suggests that torture played a role in the American government’s search for Osama bin Laden. How did this movie come about, and is there any truth to the claim?

In 2011, the White House, the CIA, and the Pentagon provided director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boals unprecedented access to information about the bin Laden operation, including the name of a Navy SEAL who was involved in the planning from the beginning. Zero Dark Thirty was originally scheduled for a pre-election release, but was subsequently delayed until December 19, 2012. Incidentally, the filmmakers and those who cooperated with them are now subjects of Senate inquiries to see whether any classified national security information was divulged.

Zero Dark Thirty is a good film in terms of depicting the shift in counter-terrorism policy from torture to targeted killing. But it wrongly implies a connection between CIA torture and the acquisition of intelligence that led to bin Laden’s assassination. President Obama’s decision to not pursue accountability for those who authorized torture left an opening for some torture enthusiasts to attribute the success of the bin Laden mission to “coercive interrogations” of the kind depicted at the beginning of the film. For example, in a May 2, 2011, interview on ABC News, former Vice President Dick Cheney, the chief architect of the Bush administration’s interrogation and detention policy, speculated: “All I know is what I’ve seen in the newspaper at this point, but it wouldn’t be surprising if in fact that program produced results that ultimately contributed to the success of this venture.”

The White House reportedly was surprised that a revived torture debate could overtake the celebratory coverage of the killing of the world’s most hunted and wanted man. More information had to be released to persuade the public that it was not the waterboard but “normal interrogation procedures” and years of conventional spy work and electronic surveillance that led the US to the compound. A similar set of events and debates followed the release of the film.

In my opinion, there are two main reasons why this torture debate keeps recurring. First, the Obama administration continues to shroud the facts about interrogation and detention policies during the Bush administration; indeed, the Obama administration has become the most secrecy-dependent in American history. The second reason is Obama’s decision not to pursue legal accountability for the intellectual authors of the torture policy. They continue to successfully represent themselves to many Americans as hard-eyed realists rather than what they are: criminals whose actions had deadly and destructive consequences even for the very goals they might have thought they were pursuing.

Let’s return to your own work in combating the use of torture. Jadaliyya interviewed you in January about your recently published book Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights. In that interview, you said you wrote this book in order to empower students to “be boldly, aggressively, and unapologetically anti-torture.” Can you share any stories of students who have been so influenced?

This year, I am a visiting professor in the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at the American University of Beirut (AUB). I am teaching this book to my mostly Arab students, and have been very gratified by the impact that it appears to have had on them. For example, one Syrian student started the semester thinking—like many people do—that torture may be effective and necessary to deal with threats to a government. He was aware that the Syrian regime uses torture, and was convinced that it was legitimate. By the end of the semester, his thinking had completely changed. What he learned was not just facts about torture, including its inefficacy, but how torture provides a critical lens to assess government power and policy and state-society relations.

CASAR and the Issam Fares Institute at AUB will be hosting a book event for Torture that will take the format of interlocutors and a response by me. One of the interlocutors, Fateh Azzam, who has had a lifelong career in human rights-related work, told me that he is so enthusiastic about the book’s expansive geographic and historical coverage of the topic and its accessible language that he intends to look into having it translated into Arabic.

Lisa Hajjar is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.