The Lasting Legacies of US Torture

Dr. Lisa Hajjar, University of California - Santa Barbara

Published on: September 21, 2021

Video: The Lasting Legacies of U.S. Torture by Jadaliyya

I have been researching and writing about torture and its relationship to law, especially in the context of war and conflict, since the early 1990s. One week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney gave an interview in which he said the government would use any means at their disposal to wage a “war on terror.” I assumed he was hinting that torture would be used in the interrogation of captured terror suspects. My assumption was correct. But it took several years for the reality of the US torture program to break free of the heavy shroud of classification that enveloped it.

In this video conversation with Mouin Rabbani, I put the post-9/11 torture program in historical context, trace its evolution, explain its ultimate end, and consider its lasting legacy.

From the start of the “war on terror” in 2001 until 2006, capture, detention, and interrogation were the strategic cornerstone. This was because this war was a war for information—“actionable intelligence,” in official parlance—about shadowy enemies. But decisions to disregard or reinterpret federal and international laws that prohibit and criminalize torture were policy choices, not necessities. Government lawyers put a patina of legitimacy on the CIA’s use of violent and degrading treatment of detainees in their custody in black sites, and these rationales were adopted by civilian leaders of the Pentagon, against the protests of many JAGs. The torture program was dry docked in 2006, but not because officials concluded that coercively interrogating people was ineffective as well as illegal. On the contrary, the prerogative to torture was extinguished because lawyers fought the government over the treatment of prisoners and won a few key battles. I trace this history in my forthcoming book, The War in Court: The Inside Story of the Fight against Torture in the “War on Terror,” which will be published by the University of California Press.

The torture program might be over, but its legacies endure in three main ways: First, there has been no accountability for any US officials who bear responsibility for authorizing or abetting the crime of torture, nor, with one exception, has there been any justice for victims, at least not in US courts. Second, information about the CIA’s torture program remains classified as top-secret, thus depriving the public of information about this ignominious chapter of the country’s history. Secrecy fosters lies and ignorance, such as false but popular claims that torture produced valuable information that “kept Americans safe.” Third, the confluence of unaccountability, secrecy, and lies created something that did not exist prior to 9/11: a pro-torture constituency that now, according to opinion polls, characterizes a majority of US citizens who would be amenable or enthusiastic to see the resurrection of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the official euphemism for US torture).

The first step in dealing with the adverse legacies of torture is to recognize and expound the truth, which requires information and knowledge. In this regard, scholars, as well as lawyers, human rights practitioners, and investigative journalists have essential roles to play—or, in many cases, to continue playing. This video conversation is a small offering to that goal.

Dr. Lisa Hajjar is a professor of sociology at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Her scholarship focuses on international law, war and conflict, human rights, torture, and targeted killing.