Staying within the line

Frank Foley,a Lecturer in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, explains some things about torture for the BBC.

As they came to terms with the shock of 9/11, people at the highest levels of the US government wanted to mete out a ferocious response to al-Qaeda suspects.

But let it not be said that they wanted to torture – of course not. We’re the good guys, so we don’t torture. We do something else, that’s unpleasant, but it’s not what fits under the word “torture.” Hell no.

“Everyone was focused on trying to avoid torture, staying within the line, while doing everything possible to save American lives,” Bush administration lawyer Timothy Flanigan has been quoted as saying.

What happened was that “the line” bent.

To rise to the level of torture, one legal memo argued, the interrogator would need to intend to cause suffering “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”.

If the organs don’t fail – hey presto, it’s not torture.

The Americans were about to learn a lesson that the British had already learned decades earlier in the Northern Ireland conflict.

In the second half of the 20th Century, Britain’s security forces developed what they called the “five techniques”: hooding, white noise, a diet of bread and water, sleep deprivation, and being forced to stand in a stress position against a wall for long periods.

We now know that British agents trained officers of Brazil’s military dictatorship in these techniques.

And then word got out, and people elsewhere didn’t think British security forces were the good guys, and it was all terribly wounding to the feelings.

Regardless of the label, the brutality of these techniques was widely condemned when details were revealed. The UK’s international reputation was tarnished and it lost a good deal of moral authority in its fight against terrorism.

Because, sadly, reputations don’t depend just on one’s own firm conviction that one is not a torturer.


  1. says

    That’s bullshit. If they wanted to stay within the line, they would not have immediately started by coming up with an excuse to remove personhood status from the prisoners, with that “illegal combatant” nonsense.

    (Hint: international humanitarian law and the geneva conventions are quite clear; parties to a conflict whether civilian or military have the right to be treated as prisoners of war if captured
    Annex to the Hague Convention Art. 3., which has force of US Law through USC18 section 2441

    The armed forces of the belligerent parties may consist of combatants and non-combatants. In the case of capture by the enemy, both have a right to be treated as prisoners of war.


    They deliberately constructed a theory of personhood that made the prisoners neither combatants nor non-combatants, then asserted they had no rights under the law. You only go to that effort if you are planning to violate those rights. Why else?

  2. Cuttlefish says

    I remember my father-in-law making the argument that it isn’t torture unless it ends in death. At the time, he was a McCain supporter, so I reminded him that by his definition McCain had clearly not been tortured as a POW. It took a couple of hard blinks, but he eventually said “I guess not”.

  3. says

    it isn’t torture unless it ends in death

    Interrogator: “Right, Renfield, turn the knob to 11!”
    Renfield: “Sir! 11 may kill him. 10 is rated as lethal!”
    Interrogator: “Just do it!”
    (Wailing scream and death-gurgle)
    Renfield: “I told you, sir, I think he’s gone.”
    Interrogator: “Right, now, we’ve tortured him. Let’s hear what he has to say!”
    Renfield: “…”
    Interrogator: “Ok, now, tell us about the ticking bomb”
    Corpse: “…”
    Interrogator: “How does this work, again?”

  4. Blanche Quizno says

    “Facts”? What are these “facts” of which you speak? We clearly have no use for these so-called “facts.”

  5. Bernard Bumner says


    Of course, these people are arguing legality, rather than morality. They were trying to define their way out of breaking international law.

    International law is only effective if it is enforced, and only really exists insofar as it is enfored. Basically, if you’re not prosecuted, you’re not a criminal. If you can avoid the torture definition by appealing to the lawful sanctions provision, then you’re not a criminal.

  6. says

    I’ve pointed out elsewhere that US law (18 USC 2441) clearly criminalizes torture as a capital offense, ditto war crimes (18 USC 113c). The US statute on war crimes calls out specific line items in international law, making them US law. Read it. It is crystal clear.

    Any US district attorney willing to do their job can indict Cheney, Bush, Obama, Rice, Rumsfeld, and issue an arrest warrant. Any fucking one.

  7. says

    What I have learned: when someone from Versailles-on-the-Potomac says “international law says…” LOOK IT UP. Read the laws. They are written by lawyers who understand weaselling and quested for clarity. READ the laws. “Illegal combatant” and “collateral damage” and “proportional response” does not exist. They are constructs introduced to lie about. It’s as if I invented a notion of “controlled tobacco burn” and said that it’s not smoking and laws regarding smoking therefore do not apply.

    I would appreciate it if someone else would take a look at the legislation I referenced above – it’ll take 5 minutes – and tell me I am wrong.

  8. Bernard Bumner says


    You are entirely correct, which is why they created a new category of non-personhood to which they could (not illegally by their definition) apply cruel and degrading or torturous treatments without consideration of US law.

    It (amazingly, disgustingly) arguably falls into the category of “lawful sanction”, which is the massive loophole that makes international justice so difficult to apply whenever it is a superpower committing the violation of human rights and dignities.

    You are right though, that there should be an iron clad case against them. But international law only exists when there is an appetite to enforce it. US law is persistent, but ultimately in thrall to the powerful.

  9. says

    But international law only exists when there is an appetite to enforce it.

    Am I absolutely unable to communicate, somehow, with you? I am talking about US LAW not international law. Any US Attorney could issue an indictment, tomorrow. Stop hand-wringing about how unfortunately hard it is to enforce international law, this is a US Federal crime.

  10. Bernard Bumner says

    @ Marcus,

    You aren’t failing.

    My understanding is that they (1) defined these people out of existence on US. (2) The point about international law is that it is the only other recourse to action, and it is nullified by doing (1).

    It is legal weasel work and it will be effect because (1) will never be challenged, there will be no indictment because powerful men aren’t indicted within the jurisdictions they control.

  11. sailor1031 says

    And yet they still chickened out of the really bad tortures. Those they left to “allies” such as the Karimov regime in Uzbekhistan – you know the boiling to death and such! Craig Murray’s ‘Murder in Samarkand’ has been out for a decade now so how can anyone claim that the Senate report is revelatory? What was that old CIA saying – “If you want them interrogated send them to Jordan; if you just want them tortured send them to Syria; if you want them to disappear send them to Egypt”? Such lovely friends Amerika has.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *