Review: Torture Team by Philippe Sands

Author: Philippe Sands
Title: Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: May 2008
Publisher: Allen Lane
Length: 315 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Library browsing, looked interesting
Read If You’re: Interested in the intersection of law + politics or the legality of torture
Quote: “…[all] aggressive interrogative techniques recommended by Jim Haynes and approved by Secretary Rumsfeld [were] used” (8).
Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
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In Torture Team, Sands explores “the role of lawyers who are required to give legal opinions on sensitive political matters, and asks what responsibility they bear”. He does this by focusing on the ‘enhanced interrogative techniques’ approved and used on Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani. I did not think I would review this book. It took me a long time to read, due to the high level of detail and wide cast of characters with titles and relationships that took some effort to keep track. My understanding of the American political system and the intersecting branches of the CIA, FBI, army, navy, etc. is limited so at times I found it tiring to try to keep track of how everyone related to each other. Thankfully Sands includes a list of “principal characters and the positions they held during 2002”.

The bulk of this book consists of in-depth interviews with most major players in the decision-making process (then President Bush and Vice President Cheney excluded). I had not expected to find conversations between Sands and the villains of the book.  I expected such people would not grant interviews to be published in a book condemning their actions. The inclusions of such interviews makes this a revealing read. I also like that Sands includes his own perspective to temper the wealth of interviews. He documents the ease or difficulty of securing an interview, and the interactions that arise from his interviews, thus giving a sense of each person as just that – a person, not just a player for the ‘torture team’.

“John Yoo had declined my invitation to discuss the Alstotter case but I had a slightly more willing response from Doug Feith, although our conversation was far from easy. It had the great merit, however, of teasing out the main issues ” (228)

The chapter goes on to document the banter between Feith and Sands, with Sands concluding “Dough Feith went some way in persuading me that the Alstotter case wasn’t exactly comparable and that further inquiry would cause offence in some quarters at least” (232). Sands writes with personal investment and doesn’t just fall back on relaying “he said, she did”. This makes the book easier to swallow as I think it would have been very dry without these touches.

Sands takes an odd turn towards the end of the book in his attempt to draw parallels between the White House lawyers and Nazi lawyers.  Sands concludes, “What happened in Washington in 2002 bore no comparison with what had occurred sixty years earlier in Nuremberg” (245), but he immediately follows this with a sentences beginning “Yet it wasn’t quite that simple…”. Although I agree with Sands’ argument that the White House lawyers acted far beyond their bounds, I don’t think its appropriate to compare to them to Nazi lawyers. This side-track does not add anything to the book. I would have preferred to read more about the connections (or lack-thereof) between torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, as Sands occasionally mentions a connection but does not flesh it out. He writes in the conclusion, “At the very least, however, it is clear that the pictures of abuse that emerged from Abu Ghraib would have been less likely without the Haynes memo and the culture of ill-considered aggression it embraced” but I’m not sure how this is ‘clear’.

Also alluded to throughout the book is the process of revelation, or declassification, or investigation, of al-Qahtani’s treatment – I wasn’t too sure because Sands never explains clearly. He writes like the public knowledge of what happened was something I should already know about (I think the book was published shortly after everything came to light). Perhaps Americans know all about the case but I did not, so I would have appreciate more context regarding what was publicly known and what was investigated.

While preparing this review, I came across a cover that said ‘includes new material’. I couldn’t find specific information on an updated edition, but maybe one does exist?

The Bottom Line: An extremely in-depth exploration of the role of lawyers in how the torture of Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani came to be permitted, but Sands tempers the information overload by portraying the persons involved as real people rather than mere information sources.

Further Reading: