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Yale Law Professor: Torture Is Never Justified


The Senate Select Committee Intelligence report on how the CIA used abusive interrogation on a number of detainees after the attacks of September 11 began to generate analysis and comments from the moment it was issued. Stephen Carter, professor of law at Yale, a novelist and columnist for Bloomberg View, took a couple of days to read all 525 pages in the CIA response. He joins us now from Yale University.

Thanks very much for being back with us, Stephen.

STEPHEN CARTER: Scott, it's always my pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: What did you notice that maybe escaped notice the first run-through?

CARTER: One of the things that really struck me about the report taken as a whole was the - when you read the report, it rests almost entirely on emails and CIA cables. There were no interviews of CIA personnel. And I mention that not because that means anything in the report is wrong, only because it strikes me as an odd way to put a report together. I think the report is quite excellent. I think the Senate did a fabulous job - the Senate Committee staff did - except for that strange detail.

SIMON: Ethically, how important is the question - and practically, how important is the question of whether or not abusive interrogation worked?

CARTER: I think it matters a little bit and people talk about it a lot, but my own view is that we get a little too caught up in our own narratives. So people who think the program was fine want to insist that all sorts of important information came out of it. People who think the program was bad want to insist that no information came out of it. Almost certainly, the real answer is somewhere in between, that is, it strikes me that you can have a program that is immoral and also occasionally produces good information. I myself am an opponent of this program. I've written about it many times in the past. I thought it was a terrible thing for the United States to do, but that doesn't mean I'm going to sit here and claim that no good information ever came out of it. And I think the Senate staff, I think, stretched a little too hard to try to prove that nothing useful ever came out of it. And I do think that the CIA response caught them out in a few mistakes. I think it's important for us to be able to say that the fact that a few useful facts came out of it is not a justification. The program was just as bad, even if it occasionally produced useful information.

SIMON: I'm left with a question that I almost want to whisper, but I feel it has to be asked. Despite their objections, does a report like this in some ways serve the CIA by telling terrorist networks that the United States will do anything, nothing is off-limits, to protect itself?

CARTER: Well, that's an interesting question. A few years ago I was at a National Security Conference and I was chatting with a former CIA official, and he made an argument much like, that one of the important parts of the program was it had a deterrent effect simply by its existence. I myself don't think that's enough of a justification for it, even if it happens to be true. And it's not clear that you can deter terrorism in that sense so even if some people believe the program may be a deterrent, I think its existence probably is going to be much more useful as a recruiting tool for our opponents - for those who actually want to harm us - than it is actually going to do harm to them.

SIMON: Should people be prosecuted?

CARTER: I don't know if prosecution is the right answer. I'm not persuaded that domestic law was broken. I think in a democracy the most important thing is not in the long run who goes to prison, but what we decide we want to be and what we decide we want our agencies to do.

SIMON: Stephen Carter, professor of law at Yale and columnist for Bloomberg View.

Thanks so much.

CARTER: It was my pleasure. Thank you again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.