how-the-gloves-came-off-lawyers-policy-makers-and-the-debate-on-tortureAuthor: Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault
Publisher: Columbia University Press – 267 pages
Book Review by: Sonu Chandiram

The attacks on September 11, 2001 in which 2,996 people were killed (265 on four airplanes, 2,606 at the World Trade Center in New York City, and 125 at the Pentagon in Washington D.C.) constituted the deadliest terrorist act in world history and the most devastating attack on America since the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

After the 9/11 attacks, suspected terrorists were captured and detained in the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, known in short as Gitmo. A Wikipedia article notes that according to the Pentagon’s office of the director of national intelligence, as of September 2016, a total 693. were transferred out of that prison.

But 30 percent (208 prisoners) were either confirmed (122) or suspected (86) to have returned to terrorist activities. They became repeat offenders, known as recidivists. What does that actually tell you? You can draw your own conclusions.

“Enhanced interrogation techniques” is a term to extract information from prisoners that would be useful to U.S. military authorities. These represent methods of torture of prisoners of war (POWs) including: beating, binding in contorted positions, covering with hoods, deprivation of food or drink, subjecting to extreme cold or heat, sleep deprivation (to the point of hallucination, sometimes), water-boarding, and others.

How many of the 9/11 detainees were subjected to these and/or other forms of torture? “The number of detainees subjected to any of these forms of torture has never been authoritatively established, nor how many died as a result of the interrogation regime, though this number is believed to be at least 100,” another Wikipedia article reveals, citing a Washington Post news story dated June 16, 2016.

The article states: ”The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) admits to water-boarding three people implicated in the 9/11 attacks: Abu ZubaydahKhalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mohammed al-Qahtani.

The United States is a signatory to several agreements enacted in Geneva, Switzerland that constrain torture techniques against prisoners of war (POWs). We are also bound by the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT).

The debate – between securing the United States against future terrorist attacks on the one hand versus human rights and civil liberties on the other hand came, to the forefront after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This is part of the subject of How the Gloves Came Off – Lawyers, Policy Makers, and Norms in the Debate on Torture written by Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault, who has organized the seven chapters of her book as follows:

  1. Part I. Background
  2. Introduction
  3. History of POW Treatment in the Un8ited States
  4. Modern POW Treatment in the United States
  5. Part II. Evolution of Norms Around POW Treatment
  6. POW Treatment and Lawyers
  7. POW Treatment and Policy Makers
  8. POW Treatment and Interrogators
  9. Part III. Conclusion
  10. Implications and Recommendations
  11. Appendix A: Who’s Who
  12. Appendix B: Timeline of Major Events
  13. Appendix c: Acronyms

What led to the decisions and actions for torturing the 9/11 detainees?

The author provides the answer on the first page of the Introduction: “The immediate answer to the question of why the United States tortured in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks is a surprisingly simple one: no one who could end the program, amend guidance, or overturn decisions, said no. Throughout the duration of the program, many individuals – some known and many who will remain unknown – pushed back

“They challenged the nation that torture was an effective means to gain actionable intelligence. They argued that the use of these methods would imperil U.S. servicewomen and servicemen serving abroad. They insisted that torture defiled U.S. values and rendered vague the line between U.S. methods and the methods of the terrorists being fought. But still no one said no. In fact, many people – policy makers, lawyers, and interrogators – actively said yes.

The author asks questions such as:

  • “How did we come to a place in U.S. history where techniques such as sleep deprivation, water-boarding, and rectal hydration would even be considered at the highest levels of government?”
  • “How did we arrive at a decision point in which torture was even on the table?”
  • “How did so many people said yes to these techniques?”

To get the answers and to develop a deeper perspective on the intellectual and emotional conflict between assuring safety and security in the nation and protecting the human rights (including those of terrorists), I recommend that you read this book. It will provoke thoughts within you, but it will also provide you a broader and deeper insight into human nature, regardless of where you lie on the line between assuring national security and upholding agreed-upon legal norms against torture.



Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault is a visiting assistant professor in the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. She has worked in the defense and security sectors of the United States government.