The New Yorker has an in-depth piece on America's outsourcing of torture. It tells the story of how what was originally a limited scheme for capturing terrorists already convicted in foreign courts and returning them to face a shitty despotism's version of justice turned into a wholesale outsourcing of torture for the sole purpose of evading US law on the matter. It covers a lot of familiar ground - Maher Arar, the Swedish rendition, the torture plane, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and "waterboarding" - but it also adds something new: the opinions of US officials intimitely familiar with the scheme.
One of those people is Michael Scheuer, a "former C.I.A. counter-terrorism expert who helped establish the practice of rendition". He describes the origin of the extraordinary rendition scheme in the mid-90's and the deal originally struck with Egypt to provide terrorists who had been convicted in absentia in their security courts in exchange for their being questioned (using Egyptian methods, of course) before their execution. It was a vile deal, the two countries doing each other's dirty work, but according to Scheur was at least backed by some form of judicial process, however flawed, which generally protected innocent people from rendition. Unfortunately, as the case of Maher Arar shows, that no longer seems to be true.
Another of the new Yorker's sources is Dan Coleman, a former FBI agent responsible for convicting the bombers of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He is utterly scathing of rendition and of the interrogation procedures used by the US at Guantanamo, pointing out that while it produces confessions, they are of questionable value:
"Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to someone who’s been deprived of his clothes?" he asked. "He’s going to be ashamed, and humiliated, and cold. He’ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There’s no value in it."
Instead, Coleman prefers to treat terrorism suspects like human beings with rights - not just because its the right thing to do, but also because it works:
many of the suspects he had interrogated expected to be tortured, and were stunned to learn that they had rights under the American system. Due process made detainees more compliant, not less, Coleman said. He had also found that a defendant’s right to legal counsel was beneficial not only to suspects but also to law-enforcement officers. Defense lawyers frequently persuaded detainees to coöperate with prosecutors, in exchange for plea agreements. "The lawyers show these guys there’s a way out," Coleman said. "It’s human nature. People don’t cooperate with you unless they have some reason to." He added, "Brutalization doesn’t work. We know that. Besides, you lose your soul."
Something else you lose - and something which both Coleman and Scheur value highly - is any ability to prosecute terrorists in a court of law. No court in a civilised country will accept evidence extracted by torture, and prosecutions have already collapsed because of this (or because of the US's fear of allegations of torture). In Germany, Mounir Motassadeq, the only person to be convicted for involvement in the September 11th attacks, was given a retrial because the evidence against him was too weak. that retrial is now collapsing because of the refusal of US authorities to make high-value terrorist captives available to give evidence. The same is happening in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui in the US; the government wants to convict (and murder) him on the word of these captives, but refuses to allow them to be cross-examined because it might "disrupt the interrogation process" (and lead to questions about how the information was extracted). And other countries, such as the UK, have not been able to charge their citizens released from Guantanamo because of the taint of torture.
Quite apart from the inability to prosecute, there is also the fact that torturing people is grossly counterproductive in the war against terrorism. The British learned this in Northern Ireland, where their use of internment and brutal interrogation methods simply turned the population against them and increased the flow of recruits to the IRA. The US's use of torture is almost certainly doing the same thing. And in a war of ideas whose success ultimately depends on convincing poor Muslims to eschew terrorism, that is not something the US can afford to do.