Hatred of ISIS is no justification for torture: Are you listening, GOP candidates?

Support for torture among Republican candidates is widespread, even though it no doubt aided terror recruitment

Published November 25, 2015 12:57PM (EST)

  (AP/Reuters/John Locher/Jonathan Ernst/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Reuters/John Locher/Jonathan Ernst/Photo montage by Salon)

The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris have led a number of the leading Republican presidential candidates to propose morally abhorrent strategies to combat ISIS.  Their statements display a grave ignorance of the relationship between torture and counterterrorism. Rather than clear-eyed strategies that can combat extremism in the near and long-term, several candidates appear to have allowed their loathing toward ISIS to cloud their judgment. ISIS is certainly one of if not the most reprehensible groups on the planet. However, our hatred of ISIS and everything they stand for should not lead us to blindly advocate strategies that are anathema to American values and ultimately counterproductive in defeating the enemy.

Support for torture among the Republican presidential field is widespread. Donald Trump has unequivocally announced that if elected president, he would bring back "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Dr. Ben Carson indicated support for waterboarding even before Paris, during the first Republican debate. Sen. Marco Rubio has an even longer history of backing torture as when he opposed the bipartisan McCain-Feinstein amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would restrict interrogation techniques to those in the Army field manual. While Rubio missed the actual vote, it didn’t stop him from publishing a statement that he would have voted no to the amendment because he doesn’t want to deny “future commanders in chief and intelligence officials important tools for protecting the American people and the U.S. homeland.”

Supporting torture is a fundamental misunderstanding of the lessons from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on enhanced interrogation. Torture did not result in important intelligence, and using such techniques did incalculable damage to our soft power and absolutely aided terrorist recruitment. Intelligence is one of, if not the most, important tools for fighting terrorism. However, in our desperation for intelligence the United States must not repeat the mistakes of Abu Ghraib and "enhanced interrogation." Jack Bauer's use of "any means necessary" to get the bad guys and stop an attack may enamor some politicians, but that is Hollywood. The reality of intelligence collection is vastly different.

The U.S. intelligence community is frequently lampooned for its lack of human intelligence (HUMINT) and its reliance on technical means of collection. It is argued that only human spies can penetrate the depths of a terrorist organization and overcome our opponents’ counterintelligence defenses. Former CIA officials like Hank Crumpton rightfully point out that U.S. HUMINT networks patiently established in Afghanistan pre-9/11 proved crucial in America’s response. However, soft power plays a critical role in HUMINT operations as well.

Many of America’s most important spies during the Cold War were motivated by ideology and enticed by our soft power. “The Billion Dollar Spy” recounts the story of one such agent, Adolf Tolkachev, who betrayed his native Soviet Union because of his anger at the tyranny of the Soviet system. However, Tolkachev was not alone. Brave Soviet citizens like Maj. Gen. Dmitri Polyakov, Col. Oleg Penkovsky, and Maj. Pyotr Popov all volunteered to provide intelligence to the West because they believed the Soviet regime was evil. Not all of these men committed espionage due to love of the West; Polyakov reportedly rebuffed an offer to defect to America, saying, “I am not doing this for you. I am doing this for my country. I was born a Russian and I will die a Russian.”

Safeguarding our soft power does not mean the United States halts counterterrorism operations for fear of offending someone. There is a time and a place for U.S. unilateral direct action to kill or capture terrorists plotting to attack us.  However, in conducting counterterrorism operations, we must think through the second- and third-order effects of our actions. We must keep our eye on the ultimate goal, which is to protect the United States for the long term. Human rights abuses by the United States or rhetoric demonizing all Muslims are strategic defeats that only play into the hands of ISIS and endanger us more.

How many potential agents, who could have been this generation's Penkovskys or Polyakovs, decided not to cooperate with the United States? How many saw us not as the world’s foremost purveyor of freedom, but instead mistakenly believed we were an oppressive empire that tortures and kills with impunity?  How many people have joined ISIS or al-Qaida to avenge Abu Ghraib and waterboarding? Rather than resorting to torture, using any means necessary to defeat ISIS should include abiding by American values and setting an example for the world to follow in the fight against ISIS.

John Rodriguez is an officer in the Maryland National Guard and a former Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow with the Center for National Policy. Views expressed are his own and do not represent the Department of Defense or the Maryland National Guard.

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Isis Soft Power Torture