Chris Pyle on Torture

Friday, June 5, 2009 - 11:02

Professor Chris Pyle's latest book, Getting Away with Torture, is not just about the war crimes of the Bush administration. It is about the lawless assumption that presidents can exempt secret agents and their partisan superiors from any duty to obey the criminal law.

Pyle, Class of 1926 Professor of Politics and chair of politics, respects the lawyers, many of them conservatives, who opposed Bush's torture policy, but he is critical of the Republicans and Democrats in Congress and federal judges who would shield the torturers from prosecution and civil suits. He is also critical of President Barack Obama who, while ending torture, has embraced the Bush-Cheney notion that presidents may legally authorize secret agents to kidnap, secretly imprison, and torture suspected criminals with impunity.

The Bush administration's plan to torture prisoners was obvious to Pyle as soon as the president ordered the creation of military commissions in November 2001. "There was no reason to invent another court system and exempt it from the traditional rules of evidence," he recalled, "unless the White House expected judges to admit statements obtained by torture."

Pyle can't remember when he decided to write the book. It began as an article explaining why Abu Ghraib "could not have been the work of ‘a few bad apples' and quickly metastasized into an explanation of who committed which war crimes, and how the cover-up gradually infected not only the executive branch, but Congress and the judiciary."  He also wrote this book as a former intelligence officer. As head of the legal section of the Army Intelligence School in the late 1960s, Pyle used to teach agents that "torturing people was not just a war crime; it produced dubious statements that no sensible person would dare rely upon. And it inspired revenge."

"Writing the book was like chasing a moving target," Pyle recalled. "A legion of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters were on the story; what was needed was someone to sort out the information and place it in an historical and legal framework."

Ultimately, Pyle believes, the book is "less about torture than an argument against the idea that presidents, including Barack Obama, don't have to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. If we don't reject that claim now," he added, "by prosecuting those responsible for the kidnapping, torture, and killing of prisoners, we will discover that criminal government is habit forming."

Related Links:

Christopher Pyle Faculty Profile

Interview on WNYC