Harvard Kennedy School Course Will Examine ‘Consequences of America’s Use of Torture’

The class was already in the works, but a special Senate committee's report on the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program will significantly add to the weekly discussions.

Alberto Mora is co-teaching a class called “On Cruelty: Costs and Consequences of America’s Use of Torture as a Weapon of War” next semester at the Harvard Kennedy School. And given the latest news about the CIA’s “brutal interrogation” tactics used post-9/11, which included subjecting prisoners to rectal hydration and placing them in “stress positions” for extended periods of time with little to no sleep, he’ll have plenty of topics to tap into as part of the course curriculum.

“This is a really important issue,” said Mora, a senior fellow at the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. “The politics of this, and the public opinion on the torture program, hinges on the effectiveness of the program.”

Earlier this week, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program used to weed out and gather information about possible terrorist activity and threats following the 2001 attacks on American soil. The 528-page executive summary found that, among other things, the agency’s methods used between 2002 and 2009 were severely flawed, and detainees were beaten far worse than the CIA led policymakers to believe.

It’s these revelations, outlined in the committee’s findings and conclusions on the interrogation tactics, that Mora plans to discuss with his students in the spring. But given the fact that only a fraction of the information on the living conditions and torture gathered by Senate officials has been revealed, he expects additional information will keep his class discussions robust as more becomes public.

“The report continues to shock. It shocked me, because the level of brutality is much greater than what really had been acknowledged,” said Mora. “What this demonstrates is the difficulty of capturing in words the reality of the brutality and cruelty that went on.”

A class description on the Kennedy School’s website states the course will focus on “the decision to use torture and cruelty as a central component of America’s war against terror,” and how shaping a policy to allow such actions “could go so wrong.”

Mora, who served as General Counsel to the Navy under President George W. Bush, and led a charge within the administration to put a stop to the forceful and threatening means of interrogating prisoners, said the report paints a picture that is far worse than what people who originally opposed these sorts of practices had imagined.

“In addition to the depravity, the incompetence of this is just staggering,” he said. “The people who designed the program had never interrogated anyone in their lives, and had no expertise in interrogations. The program was totally mismanaged, and individuals with no experience were put in key positions with no oversight even within the CIA.”

According to the Senate report, two contract psychologists were tapped to “develop, operate, and assess” the CIA’s new detention and interrogation program, but neither of them had a background in counterterrorism, nor knowledge about al-Qaeda intelligence and activities. Beyond that, the CIA reportedly failed to evaluate the effectiveness of the methods deployed, which included “dietary manipulation,” “abdominal slaps,” and “cold water dousing.”

All of this, supplemented by a look at the history of torture, will serve as the backdrop for the bulk of Mora’s class lectures, which will be co-taught by Douglas Johnson, the director of the Carr Center.

Mora said his students will go beyond just looking at the interrogation methods used, and the evasiveness of the CIA, by examining the overall costs and consequences of torture and how it caused a ripple effect that created a “massive rift” between the U.S. and its international allies.

“When our allies found out fully what we were doing, they distanced themselves from American policies,” he said. “That distancing had foreign policy, political, and national security consequences. That damaged our ability to fight the war on terror…this was part of the cost to use torture.”

Moving forward, Mora said it remains uncertain what the next steps will be on a congressional level, but he believes people need to read and absorb the information outlined in the Senate committee’s executive summary on the CIA, to better understand the repercussions stemming from the failed policy measures that allowed the use of torture as a means of extracting information from detainees.

Based on class discussions, he hopes students will be able to answer one big question by the end of the semester: What can the U.S. do to “move the ban on torture from its current status as a policy decision to once again stand as an inviolable and inherent right of all persons?”

“It is nothing other than torture. There’s nothing ‘enhanced,’ there’s nothing ‘scientific,’ and there’s nothing from a technical standpoint other than the application of enormous amounts of brutality to the prisoners. It’s nothing more than that,” he said. “This will all be part [of the course].”