New Book Examines Torture as a Public Policy Issue

Posted: March 1, 2010 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: February 26, 2010 at 4:00 pm

By James Greif

James Pfiffner. Creative Services photo

A new book by public policy professor James Pfiffner examines military and Central Intelligence Agency officials’ controversial use of harsh interrogation techniques as directed by the policies of the Bush Administration.

In the book, “Torture as Public Policy: Restoring U.S. Credibility on the World Stage,” (Paradigm, 2010) Pfiffner outlines how key officials reversed long-established policies that even pre-date the Geneva Conventions, post-World War II treaties that cover the treatment of prisoners of war and other captives.

The book is a well-documented account of the sanctioned use of enhanced interrogation techniques, some of which Pfiffner argues amount to torture, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pfiffner also takes a look at historical U.S. detainee policy, laws that govern the issue and the ethical issues involved. He also provides a timeline of events detailing who approved what and when.

“A key question to presidential power is how decisions and policies made at the top get down to the bottom,” says Pfiffner. “I was interested in the process of how a president makes sure that policies are implemented.”

As an expert in the president’s role in public administration, Pfiffner was interested in the public policy process that took place in reversing and revising the treatment of those captured by U.S. forces. Political appointees ignored the reservations of career military lawyers and other public administrators.

“The top lawyers in the military objected to the use of the enhanced interrogation techniques, but the political appointees overruled them,” Pfiffner says.

Pfiffner cites a number of security scenarios during World War II and the Cold War in which policies continued to forbid the cruel treatment of enemy combatants.

Supporters of the enhanced interrogation techniques say that the policies are justified because the combatants were not formally part of an army or fighting on behalf of a country and thus not legally prisoners of war.

But Pfiffner, a Vietnam veteran and recipient of the Army Commendation Medal for Valor says, “In Viet Nam, the Viet Cong were also guerrilla warriors who did not always wear uniforms, and we didn’t have a policy [then] to use these enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Beyond the question of ethics, Pfiffner says, is the issue of whether the harsh techniques actually work.

“The efficacy question is always there. There is no evidence that harsh interrogations work consistently in getting accurate information.”

Pfiffner continues, “The classic justification is the ticking time bomb scenario where the suspect knows where there is a bomb set, and you need to get the information from them in a timely manner. The problem is that this type of scenario is unlikely and unrealistic. It makes for a great story on ‘24,’ but in the real world this very seldom happens.”

While the current political environment tends to frame the debate in terms of liberal and conservative politics, Pfiffner notes that many prominent conservatives such as Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain oppose the sanctioned use of torture.

“There are terrorists who want to kill Americans. I don’t quibble with that whatsoever or downplay the threat,” Pfiffner says “The question is, what other kinds of techniques out there are legitimate and will help us collect truthful and useful information?”

The Obama administration has put a stop to the interrogation techniques not authorized by the U.S. Army field manual, but the issue remains whether those who violated the law in conducting these policies should be held criminally responsible.

“I personally don’t think it would be helpful to prosecute CIA and military personnel [involved in the interrogations] criminally,” Pfiffner says, “but I think it is important to expose the program and conduct investigations so we know specifically what happened and can put policies in place so it won’t happen again.”

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu