National Security Network

Detention and Interrogation - A National Security Legacy of Failure

Print this page
Report 7 January 2009

President Bush President Bush's Legacy Detainees Guantanamo Bay Khalid Sheik Mohammed Salim Hamdan Torture

“This government does not torture people.” - George W. Bush, October 5, 2007

Since 9/11 our society has faced difficult choices about how to reconcile the need to bring terrorists and extremists to justice while staying true to the constitutional values at the bedrock of our democracy.  The Bush administration’s response has ignored more than 200 years of history and imposed a false choice between our Constitution and our security.  This approach has not worked.  Experts have documented case after case: torture fails to elicit useful information; civilian courts have convicted terrorists; and secret prisons destroy America’s image as a beacon of freedom. The Administration’s paradigm has made us less secure and caused institutional and moral damage, which will take decades to undo.

The Administration used the post 9/11 environment to dramatically expand executive power and undermine the system of checks and balances which has served us for more than 200 years.  Rather than carefully and selectively detaining suspected militants, it chose instead to classify them all as “enemy combatants” and send them to Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Prison, and other sites where they are still in legal limbo.  Rather than bring in intelligence professionals to conduct effective, legal interrogations, it made things up on the fly and condoned torture.  Rather than using our legal system, which has been so effective at meting out justice in times of great difficulty, it chose instead to create an entirely new system outside of the jurisdiction of our courts, violating basic American principles such as habeas corpus.  The Administration’s approach has failed.  It has violated basic American values, created a legal limbo for hundreds of detainees, hurt our ability to gather intelligence, created a propaganda victory for terrorists, and undermined our standing around the world.

Detianee Policy Violates America's Values and Fails to Put Terrorists Behind Bars

The Bush administration's military commission system violates American values and constitutional traditions.  The military commission in Guantanamo Bay was neither fair nor up to the standards of American values.  For example, Salim Hamdan's trial allowed the use of hearsay testimony and evidence procured from torture, and only required four out of six jurors for conviction.  Such practices are far beneath American values.  [LA Times, 8/4/08]

The Bush administration’s military commissions system is failing to achieve the objective of convicting and jailing dangerous terrorists. After seven years of the “War on Terror,” the Administration’s military tribunal system has managed to convict only two terrorists – one of whom, Salim Hamdan, even the government admits was only a driver and not a senior level operative. Perpetrators of terrorist attacks against America, such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, could have been in federal court long ago, like Zacharias Moussaoui or the World Trade Center 1993 attackers, each of whom received life in prison without the possibility of parole. Instead, they remain in the limbo of Guantanamo Bay, glorified as enemy combatants instead of prosecuted as criminals. [Wall Street Journal, 7/24/08. NY Times, 11/3/08]

Confession of 9/11 mastermind represents a legal and international mess that the Bush administration leaves for the incoming Obama administration.  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other defendants said that they will confess to masterminding the 9/11 attacks, daring the Pentagon to give them death sentences and fulfill their quest for martyrdom.  Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress says that “It could have serious ramifications for the incoming administration. Most observers expect President-elect Obama to scrap the military commissions and use established US courts for the trial of any Guantánamo detainees. Yet, if the military commission accepts this guilty plea, it could place the Obama administration in a box. It is an unresolved question whether the prohibition on double jeopardy would preclude a separate trial in criminal court, but many legal analysts believe that it does. If so, any move to cancel the military commissions would call into question the validity of Mohammed's conviction, adding an extra layer of risk and uncertainty to the difficult decisions over the military commissions. Furthermore, carrying out the likely death sentence from such a flawed process would only enhance Mohammed's martyrdom in the eyes of his followers.”  If the trials are seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the world this will only make future terrorism trials more difficult and efforts to protect America more problematic. [The Guardian, 12/8/08. Washington Post, 12/10/08]

The Bush Administration's Use of Torture Undermines America's Credibility and Helps Our Enemies


Reporter: “And on Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, one of those tactics, of course, widely reported was waterboarding. And that seems to be a tactic we no longer use. Even that you think was appropriate?”
Dick Cheney: “I do.” 12/15/08

A bipartisan panel of senators concluded that the abuse of prisoners under American custody is the fault of senior Bush administration officials.  The Senate Armed Services Committee report, released by Senators Carl Levin (D) and John McCain (R), says "The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own... The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees." [Washington Post, 12/12/08. AP, 12/12/08. Senate Armed Services Committee, 12/08]

Torture is against the basic values of this country and hurts our struggle against terrorism.  The Administration’s “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” include sleep deprivation, standing for 24 hours at a time, and water boarding - a simulated drowning.  By all international standards they are considered torture and cause extreme physical distress.  They have done little to make us safer, while providing our enemies with recruiting and propaganda vehicles.  As Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora, who investigated allegations of torture and tried to stop the practices recently explained, “Serving U.S. flag-rank officers… maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.” Moreover, the Senate Armed Services Committee report finds that “Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are taught to expect Americans to abuse them. They are recruited based on false propaganda that says the United States is out to destroy Islam. Treating detainees harshly only reinforces that distorted view, increases resistance to cooperation, and creates new enemies.” [Senate Armed Services Committee, 12/08.  Washington Post, 6/17/08]

Torture doesn’t work.  As Richard Clarke says, “I don't know about you, but I'm sure if I were tortured, I think I would come to the same conclusion — that the way to stop the torture would be to say whatever they want.”  Retired CIA agents have alleged that the repeated and brutal torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was done in vain. “As for K.S.M. himself, who was waterboarded, reportedly hung for hours on end from his wrists, beaten, and subjected to other agonies for weeks, Bush said he provided ‘many details of other plots to kill innocent Americans’... But according to a former senior C.I.A. official, who read all the interrogation reports on K.S.M., ‘90 percent of it was total fucking bullshit.’ A former Pentagon analyst adds: ‘K.S.M. produced no actionable intelligence. He was trying to tell us how stupid we were.’” [Vanity Fair, 12/16/08. CBC, 10/27/08]

Bush administration “interrogation techniques” were modeled after discredited torture methods by totalitarian countries. 
The tragic irony of the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques is that the abuses it systematically perpetrated are deeply flawed and not designed to extract useful information.  The Administration used interrogation techniques from the military’s Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training, which is under the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), “an agency whose expertise was in training American personnel to withstand interrogation techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions.”  However, “the techniques used in SERE school, based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions...”  The techniques are specifically designed to extract false confessions, rather than useful information.  The SERE instructors are also not trained to extract information.  “Typically, those who play the part of interrogators in SERE school neither are trained interrogators nor are they qualified to be. These role players are not trained to obtain reliable intelligence information from detainees. Their job is to train our personnel to resist providing reliable information to our enemies.” [Senate Armed Services Committee, 12/08]

Bush's Policies Have Undermined America's Credibility Around the World


“A new Iraq will also need a humane, well-supervised prison system. Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture.”- George W. Bush, 2004

The policies of the Bush administration have destroyed America’s image, particularly in Muslim nations.
The Pew Global Attitudes Project reports that the U.S. image remains abysmal in most Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia.  Favorable views of the U.S. among important Muslim allies include declines to 9% in Turkey and 15% in Pakistan.  [Pew Global Attitudes Project, 6/27/2007]

Foreign reaction to the Abu Ghraib scandal and Guantanamo Bay has had a terrible impact on America’s international image, particularly in the Muslim World. 
Summarizing the foreign press’s reaction for Harvard’s Nieman Center, John Burke wrote, “Foreign reaction, be it from pro or anti-American nations, was overwhelmingly united.  Apart from the disgust over the violent images from the Iraqi prison, the most common sentiment was one of disbelief that the United States stubbornly refuses to discontinue its methods of incarceration by closing the Cuban penitentiary.  The foreign press didn’t necessarily claim a higher moral ground for their respective nations. But it was universally understood that the image of freedom, democracy and honor that the world’s sole superpower portrays is seriously compromised by its prison practices.”  [Nieman Foundation, 2/20/06]

The abuses have undercut America’s message of liberty and democracy.
  “Prominent Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said the new photos undermine US credibility in the region, even if they are three years old. ‘The interest of the United States lies in promoting democracy and human rights in Syria. The pictures make the US calls sound hollow.’” [CS Monitor, 2/16/06]