How Should a Christian React to the CIA Torture Report?


Unless you have been living in a cave with no wi-fi internet, you have probably heard about the recent release of a CIA torture report. There has been a lot of discussion about the motivation of the report, the truthfulness of the claims made by the report, and whether torture is justified in wartime.

Unfortunately, the primary discussion surrounding the report has been political rather than moral. If one is a Democrat, than one is supposed to condemn these acts of torture and call for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the entire Bush administration to be rounded up and tried for war crimes. If one is a Republican, then one dismisses the report as a smear campaign, and either argues that the interrogation techniques used by the CIA were justified, or that the report is simply false.

Certainly we cannot entirely separate the report from politics. After all, whatever the CIA did, it was acting on behalf of the US government and its elected officials. However, this is primarily a moral rather than a political issue. Rather than taking our cues from political talking points, Christians should start with the transcendent moral law of God, which is written in the Scriptures and upon our hearts (Romans 2 : 6-16). A Christian’s political convictions should be drawn from what the Bible says, not the other way around.

Christians Believe in Objective Morality

Christians believe in and teach that morality is objective and transcendent, handed down to humanity from God. In fact, all human beings are incurably moral creatures. Although we do not know or practice moral duties perfectly, reasonable people agree that theft, dishonesty, unprovoked violence, murder, etc. are immoral. Recent scientific studies suggest that moral intuitions start at a very young age.

Christians believe that this is by divine design. Christian apologists even argue that our sense of morality points beyond itself to God. A transcendent moral law requires a transcendent moral Law Giver. This moral law entails real moral values and duties. If morality were merely a human invention or the result of an unguided evolutionary process, than it would not be real, but only a figment of our imagination. A real moral law would be true whether we believed it or not. For such a law to exist, it would need to come from beyond humanity. The best explanation for the origin of such a law is God, and this law is grounded in His perfect nature.

A moral argument for God’s existence is not my point here. My point is that Christians believe that there is a real right and a real wrong. It is at the heart of Christian doctrine, which teaches that we are all violators of God’s law, and justly subject to God’s wrath. We are saved only by grace received through faith in Jesus Christ. If morality is just a matter of opinion, or the concensus of society, or an evolutionary survival mechanism, then Christ’s death was unnecessary to atone for anyone’s sins, and Christianity is meaningless. Moral relativism is not an option for Christians.

Imago Dei

In addition to objective morality, Christians believe that all human beings have inherent worth because God created them in His own image and likeness.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” – Genesis 1:26, ESV

This Christian idea of human dignity has led Believers to oppose abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, slavery, suicide, and unjust war.

What About Violence and War?

The Scriptures are clear that Christians are to love their neighbors, even their enemies. Since all people are created in God’s image, all people should be treated with respect as intelligent and moral being who reflect the divine (even if they are not redeemed, in a distorted way). They have certain rights as human beings created in the image of God, we have certain responsibilities to treat them humanely, and vice versa.

Some Christians would argue that on this basis Christians should renounce all violent action, especially war. I do not believe this is necessary, and is actually problematic in the face of real evil. If someone breaks into my house to steal my property or attack my family, it is my right to defend my family and property, possibly with lethal force. It is not only my right, but my moral duty. The Bible supports this:

If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him. – Exodus 22:2, ESV

It may appear to be an exception, but I am not certain it is an exception. Here it honors the value of human life by affirming that it is worth defending.

The same kind of thinking could be extended to wars of defense. Dr. Albert Mohler provides a good summary of Christian just war theory in The Briefing 12-17-14.

The conclusion of Christians throughout the ages, the Christian consensus, is that war in the first place must always be the last resort possible. The only conceivable justification for the use of deadly force is that it would stop an even greater injustice or evil. That’s a recognition that in a fallen world sometimes the use of violent force is necessary, even what is rightly described as war.

One of the principles of Just War Theory is that war must always be defensive, never offensive. That is to say, it must be started as the last resort in order to defend oneself or one’s nation against an impending threat or an actual invasion. It must never be about the conquest of territory or the gaining of some kind of political or military advantage. Furthermore (and this is very important), Just War Theory is divided into the grounds by which war will be justified and then the acceptable grounds on which a war can be conducted. And one the most important principles of the Christian biblical thinking in terms of just war theory is the principle of what is called discrimination; which is to say that Christians, based upon the biblical worldview, must specifically discriminate against fellow combatants and civilians and must take every reasonable precaution in order to protect civilians and to direct deadly force only against those who are trying to initiate deadly force. – Dr. Albert Mohler

There were even guidelines for war in the Mosaic Law. In Deuteronomy chapter 20, the children of Israel were commanded to offer their enemies terms of peace before attacking a city. They were commanded to kill male combatants only, sparing the women, children, and livestock. They were even commanded to refrain from destroying any trees unless they could not be used as a food source.

Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? – Deuteronomy 20:19, ESV

It is true that the passage sets the land and people of Canaan apart, advising

But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 20:16-18, ESV

However, there is a solid biblical case that this was hyperbolic language. For example, Joshua 10:40 records that Joshua “…left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed…” in the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes.
Later on after Joshua died, “…the men of Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites who lived in the hill country, in the Negeb, and in the lowland” (Judges 1:9, ESV). There are several other examples of this in the Bible. In addition to the Biblical evidence, language such as “utterly destroy” and “you shall save alive nothing that breathes” was common in other Ancient Near Eastern texts about warfare. Just as in the Bible, there is utter destruction language used in cases we now know did not involve complete annihilation. Lastly, there is no archeological evidence of civilian populations in the fortified cities such as Jericho and Ai which were overthrown by Israel. The biblical language suggesting nations, including women and children, were completely wiped out is not much different than present day folks saying one sports team “creamed” or “slaughtered” their opponents.

The Torture Report

Now that we have established a consistent Christian moral standard, emphasizing human worth and dignity, we can judge these enhanced interrogation techniques according to Christian standards. Unfortunately, nowadays many Christians make judgements according political party lines before considering what God has revealed on a matter.

What does the CIA report tell us?

Here is a list of some torture techniques employed per the report:

1. The CIA force fed/hydrated subjects through their anus in order to establish total control over the detainee. At least five CIA detainees were subjected to ‘rectal rehydration’ or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity. This technique resulted in symptoms typically associated with violent anal rape.

2. Interrogators threatened to murder or rape family members of prisoners, including children.

3. At least one prisoner died of hypothermia while being interrogated in 2002.

4. Prisoners with injuries such as a broken foot, sprained ankle, or amputated leg were forced to stand on their injuries for extended periods of time.

5. Prisoners received death threats during interrogation, and several prisoners were subjected to mock executions. In at least one instance, a prisoner was threatened with a power drill and a gun. The interrogator played Russian roulette with the prisoner. This agent was subsequently sent home early.

6. During waterboarding, several prisoners became completely unresponsive and nearly died of drowning.

7. Prisoners were forced to remain awake for over one week (180 hours).

8. Prisoners were forced to use buckets for toilets, and were punished at times by having the buckets taken away.

9. One prisoner was placed in a coffin sized box over 11 days and was also placed in a box 21 inches (53 cm) wide, 2.5 feet (76 cm) deep and 2.5 feet (76 cm) high for 29 hours.

10. A report by the Federal Bureau of Prisons noted

The had never been in a facility where individuals were so sensory deprived i.e., constant white noise, no talking, everyone in the dark, with the guards wearing a light on their head when they collected and escorted a detainee to an interrogation cell, detainees constantly being shackled to the wall or floor, and the starkness of each cell (concrete and bars). There is nothing like this in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

11. Enhanced techniques included unauthorized forms of torture such as forcing a prisoner to stand with his hand over his head for 2 1/2 days, putting a pistol next to his head and bathing him with a stiff brush.

12. One prisoner who was later released because the CIA had mistaken his identity was forced to take ice water baths and endured 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation prior to being released.

13. The CIA used torture on suspects prior to evaluating whether they would be willing to cooperate in at least six instances.

14. The torture techniques utilized by the CIA during interrogation resulted in
hallucinations, dementia, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm including suicide. In one instance, the prisoner was psychologically traumatized to the point of being “a broken man” but CIA operatives stopped short of completely breaking him.

I found a New York Times article entitled “7 Key Points From the C.I.A. Torture Report” helpful.

Some claim that the enhanced interrogation techniques do not fit the legal definition of torture. For the purposes of this writing, I am much less interested in technical legal definitions than what you or would consider torture if these sort of techniques, such as rectal feeding/hydration, were applied to us or our loved ones.
The report indicated that interrogation techniques have downplayed by defenders of torture as relatively slight. In fact, it revealed that interrogation techniques were actually more severe than previously portrayed. For example, medical officer described waterboarding as a “series of near drownings.” CIA officials Scott Miller and James Pavitt were told that rectal exams of at least two prisoners had been conducted with “excessive force.”

The report also revealed high levels of deceipt surrounding the program. Not only did the CIA downplay the harshness of the techniques, but exaggerated the effectiveness of the techniques in order to gain support. The CIA also lied repeatedly about the number of detainees held.

The report states that the C.I.A. resisted congressional oversight, restricted access to information, declined to answer questions about the program and “impeded oversight” by the agency’s inspector general by providing false information. – from “7 Key Points From the C.I.A. Torture Report”

Thou Shalt not Bear False Witness

Perhaps most damning to the case of torture defenders are instances in which intelligence was obtained without enhanced interrogation techniques, which were later used anyway. Defenders of the CIA’s methods excuse the savage nature of the techniques as necessary to obtain intelligence that could not have been obtained otherwise. Per page 462 of the report CIA records show that Abu Zubaydah was taken into CIA custody in March 2002. He cooperated with the CIA interrogators by providing information on al Qaeda’s activities, tactics, leadership, etc. without being tortured. However, they considered him “uncooperative” because he did not provide any information on the next attack planned on the US, or al Qaeda’s agents in the US. The isolated him for 47 days, followed by waterboarding. They were unable to obtain additional information via torture. As a result of the torture, Zubaydah’s eye was so badly damaged that it was surgically removed. The justification for Zubaydah’s torture was so weak that then CIA Director Michael Hayden felt the need to lie about it in his testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2007.

The CIA also colluded with American media in a propaganda campaign to sell the effectiveness of torture to the American people. Judging from what I have seen on social media, it was fairly effective. With a wink and a nod from the CIA Director, agents shared classified information with reporters. However, the report notes that the subsequent news reported and books written included inaccurate claims about the effectiveness of CIA interrogations.

If torture really served a practical purpose of obtaining vital security information, it might be argued that the enhanced techniques were justified to save lives. However, as we have seen this is simply not the case. To be frank, I am not convinced that forced rectal hydration or threats to rape or murder the prisoners’ loved ones are morally justifiable, even if such techniques resulted in useful intelligence. Torture was apparently so ineffective that the CIA felt the need to lie to the Senate and create a deceptive media campaign in order to justify it.

Another Horrible Pro-Torture Argument

There is a popular meme circulating on social media of a picture of the man who leaped from the World Trade Center on 9/11 with the caption “This is why I don’t give a #&*! about how we obtained information from terrorists!” We have already thoroughly debunked the myth of “torture saves lives.” The other fallacy of this meme is that the barbaric actions of Islamic extremists justify barbaric torture techniques of the CIA. I might add here that the terror attack on 9/11 does not justify drone attacks on wedding parties and children. The awful truth of the war on terror is that the US government does not occupy the moral high ground. We cannot consistently condemn Islamic acts of terror while promoting democratic acts of terror. It is time for Christians to take a conscientious stand against all terror acts–those committed by Islamic extremists and those committed by our own government.


Christians should make moral decisions based on a biblical standard of morality, confirmed by conscience and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To many believers make moral judgements of government actions along party lines before considering what the Bible says. The Bible presents a strong, objective sense of morality with an emphasis on the value of human life and the inherent worth of every human being.

It has recently been reported by the Senate Intelligence Committee that the inherent dignity of prisoners was violated by the CIA, when they tortured them under the pretense of gaining useful intelligence. The report may have been politically motivated, but the acts reported were still immoral. Any political backlash against Republicans is bound to backfire anyway, since torture almost certainly continued under the Obama administration. For the most part, President Obama has followed Bush plans and policies regarding the war on terror.

Defenders of torture have argued that torture critics have blown the severity of enhanced torture techniques out of proportion. According to the report, the techniques were actually more brutal than previously reported. The torture resulted in significant psychological damage, and in some cases substantial bodily damage, and even death. Whatever the technical legal definition of torture may be, the average person would recognize the techniques used by CIA interrogators as torture. They would be outraged to discover government agents had done such things to their loved ones. On the basis of a biblical moral standard, Christians should condemn these acts of torture.

Defenders of torture have argued that torture resulted in obtaining information that saved lives, but the evidence does not support this. In fact, the case that life saving information was obtained via torture was so flimsy that the CIA Director felt it was necessary to lie to the Senate Intelligence Committee about its efficacy, and the CIA conducted a propaganda campaign in cooperation with the media to convince the public that torture was necessary.

Defenders of torture have argued that torture is justified because Islamic terrorists are guilty of horrible atrocities, including the attack on 9/11. Acts of torture conducted by the US government are no better than acts of terror by religious zealots. The latter in no way whatsoever justifies the former. In order to be morally consistent, Christians should condemn all immoral actions, whether committed by Islamic extremists or the US government.