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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Interrogation Policy after Osama bin Laden

Event Recap

One day after the tenth anniversary of the 9/11terror attacks, the Boisi Center hosted a major panel discussion on the future of American interrogation policy in front of an overflow audience in Higgins Hall, featuring a former CIA interrogator, a constitutional scholar, and a moral theologian.

Glenn Carle, a 23-year CIA veteran and author of the 2011 book The Interrogator, opened the panel with a riveting account of his experience as an interrogator in the post-9/11 world. Given explicit orders from his superiors to use all necessary means to obtain intelligence from several captives in secret American prisons, Carle strongly believed that physical abuse was counterproductive to the effort. After more than a year in charge of the interrogation of a “high value target” in two separate locations, he was replaced by a case officer more amenable to the administration’s aggressive interrogation policies. Carle also bemoaned the effects of public efforts to make torture an accepted method of interrogation, citing polls showing that young Americans under age 35 support torture at much higher rates than older Americans.

Boston College theologian Kenneth Himes, O.F.M. argued that the public debate on torture should focus on justice, not utility. To be sure, he said, the utility argument fails: studies have shown torture to be only marginally useful— resulting in intelligence that is unreliable in nature and limited in quantity— even as it problematizes American foreign relations and increases the likelihood that American soldiers could face a similar fate. More importantly, however, torture is a grave violation of the inherent dignity and integrity of the human person, and Himes was deeply troubled that Americans now see it as a debatable policy option rather than a deplorable war crime. He closed by arguing for increased oversight and training of interrogators (especially contractors), greater public awareness and support of officials who have spoken out against torture, and a more robust and informed national conversation about interrogation policy.

Sanford Levinson, professor of law and government at the University of Texas, began by explaining that defining torture is a central problem in abolishing it. Clear and strict definitions are elusive. The word itself is never used by those who employ it, and it is diversely understood in psychological or physical terms, or by its intended or perceived effects. For his part, Levinson argued that torture is the treatment of a human person as a slave without rights. Focusing on rights instead of interrogation methods, he said, will help us face the deeper questions about whether we believe all people have rights we should respect.

In the lively question and answer period that followed, Carle endorsed truth commissions over prosecutions of Americans who authorized or conducted torture; Levinson argued that political leaders and media outlets failed in their duty to bring the question of torture into broad national debate; and a host of BC students and faculty members expressed their hope that this kind of rigorous moral, legal and political conversation would continue in the years ahead.