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With torture, America hurt itself for nothing
December 11,2014   By:CNN.com

Editor's note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has just published "Jesus: The Human Face of God," a biography of Jesus. Follow him on Twitter@JayParini. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

London, Dec.11, 2014 -- The release of a massive report on torture Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee has been accompanied by a strong statement by President Obama, who notes that it describes in detail "a troubling program involving enhanced interrogation techniques in secret facilities outside the United States" by operatives working for the CIA.

This report -- we're talking about nearly 500 pages summarizing more than 6,000 pages of data and analysis -- will certainly refocus the world's attention on this sordid phase in recent American history.

Obama acknowledged that his predecessors in the White House faced "agonizing choices" after 9/11, and they acted in ways meant to protect against future attacks by al Qaeda. Still, this new accounting of that period has raised protests from politicians on both sides of the aisle, but especially Republicans, who don't want to drag up painful memories of the Bush administration -- not in this, their finest hour.

But it has also raised many questions demanding answers. I'm in London as I write this, and there is already a great deal of talk about this report in the press. Indeed, for many, troubling questions arise:

How could Americans have allowed their government to fly prisoners suspected of terrorist connections to "black sites" in Thailand, Morocco, and Poland, where, as the report describes, they were hideously tortured in the hopes of extracting information from them about future plots against the homeland? (And people did know that something like this could be going on, as reporters often described the existence of shadowy rendition programs without knowing the specific details.) Is this how tax dollars were best spent to protect Americans against future threats?

Other questions swirl, but one seems especially relevant as we continue our necessary efforts to combat terrorism: Is torture an effective technique for getting reliable information? The report reviews 20 prominent cases that had been brought forth -- by intelligence officials and even alluded to by former President George W. Bush -- as examples of torture that worked, It concludes that none of this brutality resulted in useful information.

This corresponds to what experts have suggested all along: Torture simply doesn't work and may actually be counterproductive in the fight against terrorism. The problem isn't with those who actually possess relevant information, it's with those who don't. Men being tortured will saying anything to stop the interrogator from drowning him or abusing him -- and some of the methods detailed in this report are truly horrific.

Top intelligence and military officials clearly warned the government as early as 2002 that this brutality doesn't work. In fact, torture generates "unreliable information," as this report affirms; it produces information that requires fact-checking that soon produces more misinformation. As Lou Dimarco observed in 2006, in a useful book about the practice of torture during the Algerian War (1954-1962): "History offers no modern examples of the strategic effectiveness of harsh interrogation techniques, but it is replete with examples of the negative strategic effects such techniques have on the counterinsurgency force."

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