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Fact 8

Last updated: July 19, 2023

The CIA torture program caused strategic damage to the United States and jeopardized U.S. national security.

The torture program also caused strategic damage to the United States. Alberto Mora, former Navy General Counsel during the George W. Bush administration, worked with a team of researchers at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School to identify and assess those strategic costs. He and his team concluded:

“…Washington’s use of torture greatly damaged national security. It incited extremism in the Middle East, hindered cooperation with U.S. allies, exposed American officials to legal repercussions, undermined U.S. diplomacy, and offered a convenient justification for other governments to commit human rights abuses.”

Here are three (of many) specific examples of the authors’ evidence in support of that conclusion:

  • “The torture revelations … made it harder for the United States’ to recruit potential Iraqi allies…. As General Stanley McChrystal, the former head of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, acknowledged in a 2013 interview with this magazine, ‘The thing that hurt us more than anything else in the war in Iraq was Abu Ghraib.’ He continued: ‘The Iraqi people . . . felt it was proof positive that the Americans were doing exactly what Saddam Hussein had done—that it was proof [that] everything they thought bad about the Americans was true.’ Without much cooperation from local populations, coalition forces found it difficult to develop the kind of intelligence sources necessary to identify and target insurgents.”
  • “In 2005, a U.S. military attorney told [Mr. Mora] that the British army had captured an enemy combatant in Basra, Iraq, but released him because it did not have adequate detention facilities and did not trust U.S. or Iraqi forces to treat him humanely (aiding and abetting torture is a crime under British law). Later, in 2005, Australian, British, Canadian, and New Zealand military lawyers approached Mora at a military conference sponsored by U.S. Pacific Command in Singapore and advised him that their countries’ cooperation with the United States ‘across the range of military, intelligence, and law enforcement activities in the war on terror would continue to decline’ so long as Washington persisted in using torture.”
  • “According to State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks, in the spring of 2006, a group of senior U.S. officials gathered in Kuwait to discuss how to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. Their conclusion was startling: that the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay was ‘the single most important motivating factor’ in persuading foreign jihadists to join the war. U.S. Senator John McCain reached a similar conclusion in 2008, when he asked a captured senior al Qaeda leader what had allowed the group to establish a foothold in Iraq. ‘Two things,’ the prisoner replied, according to a State Department cable. ‘The chaos after the success of the initial invasion, and the greatest recruiting tool: Abu Ghraib.’ Of course, the claims of a captured terrorist are easy to discount. But in 2009, a Saudi official echoed this sentiment, when, according to another cable, he concurred with the Obama administration’s decision not to release any more photos of Abu Ghraib, alleging that when the scandal first broke, Saudi authorities arrested 250 people attempting to leave the country to join extremist groups.”