A recent CNN poll indicated that a bare majority of Americans approved of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” i.e. torture, when suspected terrorists are interrogated — this up from a January poll conducted under the auspices of the ABC News/Washington Post in which 58 percent disapproved of these methods. Has America turned to the dark side in only five months’ time?

How polling questions are phrased affects people’s responses. Many more would approve of torture if they believed that Americans were in danger and that the suspected terrorists had critical information than if these factors were unsure. However, both polls phrased the questions in a generally pro-torture direction. So what changed?

Between opinion surveys, former Vice President Cheney engaged in a full-on media blitz defending torture while framing the issue in terms of America’s safety. He was remarkably successful in this. To deny any means of wringing vital information from someone intending harm to one’s nearest and dearest seemed to many a kind of ivy-towered prissiness. And if that were the issue, anyone might agree.

However, Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, who himself underwent mistreatment as a prisoner of war, spoke from a different perspective. He stated that such methods motivated the victim to give misleading information and motivated our enemies to mistreat our own people.  

It’s also well known that prisoners invent what the interrogator wants to hear to end their suffering, as in the Salem witch trials, where the accused “witches” admitted to impossible acts with imaginary beings. Thus, our courts have consistently rejected evidence gained under coercion and torture.

The case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi illustrates the wisdom of this policy. An al-Qaida “emir,” al-Libi was captured in Pakistan in December 2001 and “renditioned” to Egypt by the CIA to undergo torture. There, he provided false information linking al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. President Bush used this “intelligence” in an October 2002 speech just prior to Congress voting to authorize war. Colin Powell’s speech before the U. N. to garner support for the invasion also included it. Later, al-Libi was returned to CIA custody, where he recanted the story stating that he invented it to stop the torture. And we now know that no such link existed.

Beyond demonstrating the fallacy of torture as a necessary interrogation tool, this case and others like it suggest something more. The torture of this man continued on instructions from the vice president’s office — against FBI and Defense Intelligence Agency’s assessments that it would not be useful.

Cheney’s cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq, the pressures emanating from his office to obtain confirmation of an al-Qaida link to Hussein — these raise questions. Are Cheney’s manic efforts to tie torture to national security a ploy to hide its past use to advance his administration’s predetermined policy?  

According to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, who conducted an investigation, “What I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 — well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion — its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaida.”

Col. Wilkerson’s full statement refutes many other claims by the former vice president on this topic and is well worth reading in his guest editorial on The Washington Note on May 13, 2009, www.thewashingtonnote.com/archives/2009/05/the_truth_about.

Understandably, Americans want to leave this ugly chapter behind. But consider for a moment the low level “few rotten apples,” the leash girl of Abu Ghraib and her boyfriend among them, who suffered punishment for implementing torture while the deciders of the policy escape it. Consider also the consequences on future policy of promoting a morally and pragmatically flawed interrogation method. Neither justice nor utility is served by bypassing inquiry and criminal indictments where appropriate. We should demand accountability.   

Margaret Morris is a resident of Ventura.