Former Military Prosecutor on How Torture Weakens America

Morris Davis says he fears use of torture is changing basic American principles

Morris Davis says the used of
Morris Davis says the used of "enhanced interrogation techniques" has failed to make America safer. Photo by Emily Stewart

A former military prosecutor who resigned from his post rather than use information obtained by torture told a Duke audience Thursday that the use of torture was changing America and making it weaker.

Col. Morris Davis, now a law professor at Howard University, said the reliance on what is officially known as "enhanced interrogation techniques" fails to provide legal and useful information and is influencing behavior and attitudes across American culture.

"Children today have grown up in a post-911 world," Davis told an audience of more than 40 people in the East Duke Parlors in East Duke Building. "The world they know is one of wireless wiretapping, full body searches at airports and torture. Every poll used to say that Americans were opposed to torture.  Now the polls show a majority approves of it, and the age group that is most approving is you guys [students]. I find that alarming, but I realize that is the world you have grown up in."

The country needs a national debate on torture, Davis said, but he noted that the government has used the State Secrets Law to prevent public discussion of torture in legal and civil court cases. 

Davis said the use of torture goes against a history of American leadership in establishing international humanitarian rules that protect prisoners from ill-treatment and minimize the damage to civilians in military conflicts.  He noted that President Ronald Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture in 1998 with bipartisan support.

But after the 9/11 attacks, a series of memos from the Department of Justice under the Bush administration removed legal restrictions under the belief that "the law that had been our strength was now an impediment," Davis said.

"Why does this matter?" he asked. "When the people at the top say anything goes, the sense of impunity moves down to the lower level and erodes military discipline. It leads to Abu Ghraib. It leads to Guantanamo. The sense that the Geneva conventions no longer applied made this kind of behavior acceptable."

Davis noted that numerous officials, including many in the military, objected to the use of torture but found their concerns overruled.

He added that while the Obama administration prohibited the use of torture, its failure to fulfill a pledge to be the "most open administration in history" has prevented victims of torture from making public any information about their treatment.

A North Carolina native, Davis was the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay from 2005-07. He is on a tour of the state and also spoke Thursday at UNC-Chapel Hill and in Smithfield, home to an airport that news reports and human rights organizations have documented as the takeoff-point for dozens of "torture flights" that rendered prisoners in the war on terror to other countries where they were allegedly tortured. 

The talk at Duke was sponsored by the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.