In what seems almost like a throwback to the seventeenth century, the
United States is debating the use of torture. The Bush administration,
against strong congressional opposition, is defending its use of what
it calls “enhanced interrogation techniques.” While denying that these
actually amount to torture, it also refuses to rule out torture in some
hypothetical cases.

In yesterday’s New York Times,
two legal experts, Gregg Bloche and Jonathan Marks, try to explain how
the US got itself into this position. For many years, the Pentagon has
had a “torture school,” called SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance,
Escape), but it was a defensive measure, to accustom its own troops to
the threat of torture. “Based on studies of North Korean and
Vietnamese” techniques, it was designed “to train American soldiers to
resist the abuse they might face in enemy custody.”

Following the war in Afghanistan, Bloche and Marks say the Defence
Department “appears to have flipped SERE’s teachings on their head,
mining the program not for resistance techniques but for interrogation
methods.” This opened the door to serious abuses:

“Within the SERE program, abuse is carefully controlled, with the goal
of teaching trainees to cope. But under combat conditions, brutal
tactics can’t be dispassionately ‘dosed.’ Fear, fury and loyalty to
fellow soldiers facing mortal danger make limits almost impossible to

Not only was this morally repugnant, but it missed a critical point.
Soviet-bloc interrogation techniques weren’t actually designed to
extract useful information; they were designed to break the will of
prisoners. “For Communist interrogators, truth was beside the point:
their aim was to force compliance to the point of false confession.” So
it’s not really surprising that “the Pentagon cannot point to any
intelligence gains resulting from the techniques.”

As Bloche and Marks conclude, “it’s the task of command authority to
connect means and ends rationally. The Bush administration has too
frequently failed to do this.”