Arsenault Debuts New Book On Norms in Torture Debate

Professor Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault (left) debuted her new book in a conversation moderated by Trevor Nielsen (SSP’17; at right).

April 5, 2017
By Matt Ellison

“Enter Sandman” by Metallica played over the speakers in the Bioethics Library to kick of the debut event for a new book by Professor Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault. Just released from Columbia University Press, Arsenault’s book, How the Gloves Came Off: Lawyers, Policy Makers, and Norms in the Debate on Torture, looks at the history of the American norm against torturing prisoners and what changed following the attacks on September 11, 2001.

The discussion brought together many students and friends of the School of Foreign Service, especially from the Center for Security Studies, for an engaging conversation of an important issue, American torture and mistreatment of prisoners captured in counterterrorism operations—a topic now back in the headlines thanks to comments on the Presidential campaign trail this fall.

Metallica was not the only artist on Arsenault’s “Torture Playlist” which also featured songs as diverse as the Meow Mix song, the theme from Sesame Street and Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” “The songs that you were listening to as you walked in were a selection of songs that were played to compel detainees to speak in Guantanamo Bay. It’s a fascinating issue of the use of music as torture,” Arsenault said.

Arsenault explained that her book had its origins in the days she worked in the Department of Defense around the time that news of torture and abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at the hands of U.S. military and intelligence officials, first came to light. “At the time when I was at the DOD, [the news of] Abu Ghraib had not yet broken and then it broke. It was a crippling revelation to me of how broken our values were with our interests,” Arsenault said.

“The need to talk about the things that the United States had done that were so deeply against our values and also so deeply against our operational and strategic interests became something that I felt I wanted to write about.”

Arsenault discussed through a series of questions and answers with the audience many of the topics covered in her book, including the historical American norm of treating detainees well, how and why that norm changed after September 11, 2001, and who was responsible.

The thesis of the book focuses on a period following September 11, during which U.S. military and intelligence personnel were given legal permission to conduct interrogations with “enhanced interrogation techniques” including depriving sleep, hooding, binding in stress positions, confining to small boxes, beating, humiliating sexually, and in three cases, waterboarding.

Much of the torture was conducted at unofficial “black sites,” off of U.S. soil, including at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

“If you pick up a copy of the book, you’ll see I look at the three sets of actors involved because I like a book that tells a story from multiple points of view—like Game of Thrones and Graham Allison.” Arsenault said. “I look at the story of the interrogators, I look at the policymakers, but I blame the lawyers the most.”

“What does accountability look like in this context? Who has been assigned the moral blame for the torture program?” Arsenault asked. “I think that’s what’s missing in this debate. You have people on both sides of the debate. One group of people say, essentially, you should prosecute everyone involved. Who has been criminally prosecuted? The individuals involved in Abu Ghraib. Individuals like Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman. These are the individuals at Abu Ghraib that stripped detainees of their clothes, put them in pyramids, covered them in feces, put dog collars on them,” Arsenault said.

“The argument that I lay out in the book in fact those are the individuals who bear the least responsibility for this program. These were individuals who were operating in a prison that had been formerly operated by Saddam Hussein. It’s a horrible place to be. Abu Ghraib was described in one of the depositions as essentially something out of Mad Max. It was medieval.”

“The reasons why the events happened at Abu Ghraib are complex, but this was not an authorized program. They were individuals who got out of control. There was a lack of command authority. The individuals who’ve been charged are the individuals who are literally at the lowest level of the program.”

“I hope that no one walks away thinking that I’m letting people off the hook, in fact, quite the opposite.” Arsenault went through a list of senior Bush administration officials from the President himself to Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet (SFS’76), all of whom she said absolutely shared the burden of responsibility for the programs run on their orders and under their authority.

For her, however, the Bush administration lawyers, such as Jay Bybee and John Yoo in the Office of Legal Counsel, ultimately bear the greatest burden for the torture. “In looking at the legal questions of who bears the most blame, the question is who had the last opportunity to prevent a crisis. Who had the last opportunity to prevent something from going haywire,” Arsenault said. “Those legal memos were the singular decision point that could have been changed. The lawyers had every opportunity to say no and they didn’t. The interpretation that the lawyers had was heretofore unprecedented.”

While questions of moral and legal transgressions pervaded Arsenault’s talk, as they do her book, she also emphasized the real damage these programs have done to U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism efforts—both by destroying trust and advancing what is ultimately an ineffective means of discovering information.

“My personal philosophy about counterterrorism is that counterterrorism is based on trust. It’s trust at the local level—you need individuals to trust us if they’re going to help give us intelligence—you need interagency trust, and trust between states. At a basic level, we eroded trust through our development of the program and continuation of the program.”

“The fascinating thing is that there has been very little scientific study done on which interrogation measures are best,” Arsenault said. “Virtually all interrogators—from Vietnam, to the Persian Gulf War, to Iraq 2003—say coercive techniques do not compel good intelligence. If what you want is operational intelligence, coercion is not going to render it. Because individuals who are under duress with say anything. They might tell you intelligence, but they might tell you a raft of lies. Virtually all interrogators believe that the most effective means to interrogate is rapport building. Just like General Mattis said—beer and cigarettes, building up trust.”

Arsenault acknowledged that when she was writing the book, there was not much public interest in a book about torture. All that changed following comments during the 2016 presidential campaign, in which then-candidate Trump advocated torture of captured terrorists. “Now the book is relevant—which is not the place really where I wanted the book to be, or really where I wanted America to be,” Arsenault said.

“At the most basic level, Mr. Trump cannot revoke through executive order what has been concluded through law. When President Obama came into office, he issued Executive Orders 13491 and 13492. Taken together, these executive orders said things like we’re going to close Guantanamo Bay and we’re going to restrict all interrogators, including CIA interrogators, to only the techniques that are laid out in the Army Field Manual.”

“My biggest concern is the discourse around torture and the discourse around coercive treatment. President Trump is the most powerful norm entrepreneur. Every time President Trump says things like ‘it works, I know it works,’ those words matter. Even after he meets with General Mattis and Mattis tell Trump that torture doesn’t work, he says ‘I listened to Mattis and he told me I can have a couple of beers and a couple of cigarettes and I’ll get what I want—but I still think that torture works,’ I think that is deeply, deeply damaging to America and deeply damaging to counterterrorism cooperation with our allies.”

“One of the challenges with what President Obama did was that it was simultaneously both bold and tentative. It was a complete repudiation of President Bush’s policies, but it was just an executive order, not a statutory requirement. Up until a year and a half ago, I was quite concerned, but in 2015, an amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that passed through the Senate essentially said the same thing as President Obama’s executive orders. The amendment said that all interrogations in the future have to constrain themselves to Army Field Manual 222.3, which says no coercive techniques, essentially. So this is law.”

One of the problems that Arsenault raised, as she concluded, is a breakdown of critical thinking about national security issues that she said was in part to blame for the willingness among some to make statements endorsing the use of torture or suggesting that, for example, there is something especially violent about Islam.

“The fact that beliefs like that are circulating in the United States is deeply troubling,” Arsenault said. “I think it comes back to the triumph of the liberal arts education. All of you by the fact that you are here have an obligation to talk to your friends and family. Who is from a place where people might believe that torture works? Probably all of you. You have an obligation to have these conversations with your friends and your family and ask them questions like why do you think that, on what basis do you draw that conclusion?”

How the Gloves Came Off: Lawyers, Policy Makers, and Norms in the Debate on Torture, part of Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare, is out now from Columbia University Press.