by Marjorie Cohn (ed). New York: New York University Press, 2011. 368pp. Cloth $39.00. ISBN: 9780814717325.

Reviewed by Adam L. Kress, Department of Political Science, University at Albany. Email: alk58 [at]


In this volume Marjorie Cohn brings together a diverse interdisciplinary group of experts in an attempt to understand the historical underpinnings the United States’ post-9/11 embrace of torture as well as the subsequent attempts to justify it. The book is sectioned into three parts: 1) The History and Character of Torture, 2) Torture and Cruel Treatment of Prisoners in U.S. Custody, and 3) Accountability for Torture.

Part I taken together with Cohn’s Introduction paints a historical narrative wherein torture was suborned and brushed-off by the United States when ignorance of its use served political interests in countries such as Guatemala, Columbia, El Salvador, Chile and Iran. Yet, after 9/11 Cohn argues the gloves came off and the United States moved from suborning torture to actively requiring its use. Historian Alfred McCoy underscores this contention by arguing in his chapter “Mind Maze: The CIA’s Pursuit of Psychological Torture” that the out-stretched postures and black-hoods which are now inextricably linked with the Abu-Graib prison scandal took their genesis in cold war era CIA intelligence gathering programs (pp.25-26). However, as McCoy points out, more troubling than outlining the techniques or their sanction in extreme cases, was the Bush Administration’s fervent desire to see them used in all cases regardless of the success or failure of internationally accepted humane methods of interrogation. A posture which McCoy argues was ineffective drew the rebuke of agents in the field and stood in striking contrast to more humane techniques which were used by teams in the field to gather more reliable intelligence (p.45).

McCoy’s introductory chapter is followed by two case studies which attempt to make the case that the United States has taught and sanctioned torture in other nations. The first, “Torture and Human Rights Abuses at the School of the Americas-WHINSEC” by Bill Quigly alleges that the United States taught torture techniques to foreign operatives who came to study at the School of the Americas. The chapter also alleges that such tutelage has created a series of violent military dictators such as General Romeo Vasquez, General Juan Melgar Castro, and General Paz Garcia as well as other unnamed despots throughout the Southern hemisphere — examples which then are used to justify Quigley's resounding call for openness and investigation (pp.53, 62). Following Quigly is Terry Lynn Karl’s case study of El Salvador entitled “U.S. Foreign Policy, Deniability, and the Political 'Utility' of State Terror.” In this chapter Karl takes a great deal of time developing the concept of “deniability” which was seen by top political leaders [*286] as the marketable solution for atrocities of war committed in El Salvador, but as Karl shows ultimately backfired on Congress and showed that the American people were being misused and manipulated by intentional failure to account in this case (pp.79, 86). Rounding out Part I of this volume is a piece entitled “Fundamental Human Rights and the Coercive Interrogation of Terrorists in an Extreme Emergency” by John W. Longo wherein the author ponders the moral relativism and perhaps moral hazard associated with invoking torturous methods in extreme situations. Using the historical cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Lango argues that there is some logic for not expressly prohibiting acts that would otherwise be seen as cruel, unusual or inhumane. However, his major caveat to this thought exercise is that while such acts can be rationalized as the lesser of two evils in certain extreme cases, they ought not be carried-out under the assumption of moral righteousness and absolution. He strongly argues for changing international law so that it expressly states that there is no moral justification for acts of torture and that necessity is not a defense. Rather, those who use such means should be required to follow a protocol which seeks to measure the greater good at the same time they must accept the moral implications of their acts (pp.97-99). Thus, Longo feels his desired changes to international law would allow for the use of needed force and coercion in extreme instances where it arguably serves a greater good, but at the same time prohibiting legal rationalization by nations that could be used to make any act undertaken in time of national duress a permissible act of torture (pp.113-114).

Moving on to the second section of the volume, we find a variety of personal accounts of those who experienced the impact of changes in the U.S. position on torture after 9/11. “Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America’s ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ Program” by Jane Mayer tells the story of a Canadian national of Arabic dissent who was arrested at JFK and flown to Jordan for enhanced interrogation at the hands of U.S. allied mercenaries after his name appeared on the terror watch list. The account also highlights that this program was backhandedly acknowledged by the vice-president in the months after 9/11 and later defended by administration lawyers, yet with the details still shrouded in sealed documents its true breadth remains unclear. This chapter is followed by an excellent narrative by a Guantanamo detainee as told through his attorney Marc D. Falkoff, as well as an excellent look at the complicity of psychologists in promulgating torturous interrogation techniques at U.S. detention facilities. Curiously though, this section is rounded out by a piece by Lance Tapley entitled “Mass Torture in America: Notes from the Supermax Prisons,” which while tangentially related seemed out of place given the tenor of the volume as a whole.

Lastly, the third section of this book is entitled: “Accountability for Torture” is constructed with an eye towards untangling the legal arguments surrounding the use of torture (p.240). The lead chapter, “The Law of Torture and the Accountability of Lawyers Who Sanction It”, written by Jeanne Mirer does an excellent job detailing what the laws are and summarizing the impact of each of the torture memos. Mirer also [*287] offers brief, but concise portraits of the evolving politics surrounding the issue of torture as the ‘War on Terror’ continued in the years following 9/11. Her analysis while not favorable towards the Bush Administration is more measured and academic than the following chapters in this section, which are largely normative condemnations of the Bush Administration. That said, dovetailing nicely with Mirer’s survey of the legal landscape are the chapter by Thomas Reifer entitled: “Torture, War, and Presidential Power” and Criminal Responsibility of Bush Administration Officials with Respect to Unlawful Interrogation Tactics and Facilitating Conduct of Lawyers” by Jordan J. Paust. Reifer chapter grapples with loss of oversight in the wake of 9/11 and the implicit failure of checks and balances implied therein, at the same time he explores the expanded power a president may exercise in times of war. Paust takes an in-depth look at the justice department’s evolving opinions on torture as they attempted to remain in step with and behind a White House that sanctioned its use. In addition to looking at the Yoo and Bybee memos, Paust provides analysis of all of the so-called torture memos and the politics surrounding them. He unpacks the Bradbury and Goldsmith memos and examines the political maneuvering of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she attempts to support the President and Vice-President. Ultimately, Paust’s goal is to condemn manipulation of the law and the misuse of the Justice Department by the Bush Administration, however in-so-doing he also provides clear and succinct understanding of each of the memos and their political intent. Thus, this chapter dovetails nicely with Jeanne Mirer’s before it.

In summary, this edited volume comes together as a rich supplement to more law-bound arguments about the torture debate, as noted several of its latter chapters providing a good overview of international law, domestic policy and the political climate surround torture in the context of the War on Terror. Additionally, the narrative personal accounts in the middle section make the horror associated with “enhanced interrogation techniques” clear and accessible to all. However, it bears mention that this volume is less legalistic than some in the field may expect and does not provide an academic counterbalance for its strong disapproval of the Bush Administration. This book is meant to humanize and bring home the torture debate providing resonant examples from a diverse group of authors which taken together serve as a sonorous indictment of the Bush Administration. It achieves this goal and is an excellent addition to the cannon of work relating to the post-9/11 embrace of torture by the Bush Administration as well as the subsequent erosion of constitutional and international legal principles.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Adam L. Kress.