The Moral Legitimacy of Torture: A Longitudinal Study of the Legitimation of the CIA’s 'Enhanced Interrogation Techniques'
How was it possible that one of America’s most prominent government agencies resorted to torture when interrogating terror suspects after 9/11? And how is it possible that torture continues to be widely discussed and practiced to acquire information? We address these questions by conducting a longitudinal case study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. Drawing on rich archival data, we show how the advocates of torture mobilized the desirable end of national security to justify a hitherto illegitimate means. By doing so, advocates were able to mobilize support by experts, to stifle the sway of moral principles, and to theorize that torture was a necessary and effective means. While our study draws on an unconventional setting, it makes significant contributions to organization theory. Specifically, our research elucidates that individual evaluators use different criteria (consequentialist, deontological, legal) to construct moral legitimacy. Studying the criteria that individual evaluators invoke in their communication adds depth and nuance to existing legitimacy research, which has focused on collective actors and assumed that legitimacy criteria are fixed and evaluator-specific. Moreover, we find that individual evaluators are flexible in their interpretation of the same criterion, which facilitates a better understanding of different legitimacy judgments even when individuals cherish the same moral value.