There is something surreal about the way some conservatives have seized on the death of Osama bin Laden as evidence that “torture works.” The claim rests on the assumption (for which evidence is ambiguous, at best) that, sometime circa 2004, detainees were water-boarded – tortured — into giving up the nickname of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted courier. Then the nickname, plus innumerable other leads were placed into the intelligence cycle, which churned for some seven years before Osama bin Laden was found and felled.
First, a quick aside on whether water-boarding is indeed torture. It’s only in the last decade that a 500 year-old consensus that water-boarding is torture began to be questioned. When the Spanish Inquisition invented water-boarding, it was not supposed to be a simple “dunk in the water,” as Dick Cheney described the Bush administration’s use of it. It was introduced—indeed, embraced—as a torture technique. Four-hundred some years after the Inquisition, it still considered torture when the United States executed Japanese soldiers for water-boarding U.S. troops during World War II.
Nonetheless, when the torture debate began in the aftermath of 9/11, the pro-torture camp had a special disdain for the moral absolutists who opposed the use of torture in all circumstances. Trotting out the hoary ticking time-bomb scenario, they argued with great effect: “Surely you don’t believe that a terrorist’s right not be tortured outweighs the rights of 8 million New Yorkers not to be incinerated in a nuclear inferno?” The ticking-time bomb hypothetical was tremendously successful in accomplishing its goal: to convince people that we cannot afford moral absolutes in the realm of national security policy, that sound policy is a level-headed balancing of costs and benefits. Whereas, prior to 9/11, there was no “debate” about the ethics of torture (here) is what Ronald Reagan in a “signing statement” said on the topic when the US ratified the UN Convention on Torture in 1984), nearly three-fourths of Americans today think there are circumstances justifying torture.
Two thoughts strike me as surreal about the pro-torture camp’s response to Osama bin Laden’s killing. The first is how far they’ve expanded the justification for torture. A common response to that ticking time-bomb hypothetical was that as soon as you break the taboo against torture, you step onto a dangerous slippery slope and when it comes to torture-proponents that slope has been slippery indeed. At first, torture was only justified when the terrorist knows the identity of a nuclear bomb on the verge of detonation. Then was claimed to be justified to extract knowledge about the location of a car bomb that hasn’t yet been planted. Then it was justified to extract information about the internal workings of an organization that has signaled they might plant an explosive device somewhere. And now torture advocates have given us a new standard: it’s ok to torture someone to extract a single tidbit of information that could potentially, half a decade later, result in the capture or killing of a man who is no longer an imminent threat. To me, that suggests that the main people vindicated by this episode are those that cautioned against ever modifying the prohibition on torture.
The second thought that strikes me about the pro-torture camp’s response to Osama bin Laden’s killing is the dogmatism and consequences-be-damned fundamentalism with which they have embraced the efficacy of torture. There isn’t an iota of evidence that, but for torture, we wouldn’t have uncovered the name of the courier. In fact, dozens of government officials in the know (and who, having never ordered someone tortured, have no incentive to lie about its utility) have stated that the key intelligence was not derived through torture. We now know that, while being waterboarded, Khalid Sheikh Muhamman (KSM) and Abu Faraj al-Libi either claimed to have never heard the courier’s name or made false and misleading claims about him. Only later, during normal interrogation did KSM divulge any useful information. Point for standard interrogation?
No, the torture apologists persist: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was tortured, he helped us identify the courier that led to bin Laden, Q.E.D, torture works. They don’t waste time trying to show causality. Theirs is a vindication by coincidence, like a superstitious cancer patient who identifies smoking Lucky Strikes as the cause of his remission instead of the drug cocktail that has a proven 90% success rate.
Indeed, the evidence that standard interrogation works is overwhelming. In a 2006 study by the National Defense Intelligence College, experienced interrogators concluded that traditional, rapport-based interviewing approaches are extremely effective with even the most hardened detainees, whereas coercion consistently builds resistance and resentment.
Using the rapport-building interrogation method, interrogators got the so-called “underwear bomber” to divulge substantial intelligence. The leader of the interrogation team responsible for flipping the al Qaeda operatives who revealed the location of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has credited this technique with the success of that operation The interrogator responsible for finding Saddam Hussein has likewise stated that rapport-building was responsible for the breakthrough that led to his capture: a former insurgent pointing to the exact location of Saddam’s foxhole on a map. But perhaps the best evidence comes from the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a high-value detainee at Guantanamo. According Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who led the interrogation testified that Abu Zubaydah was spilling intelligence under the rapport-building interrogation method. Then the CIA team showed up, stripped him naked, and began threatening him. Abu Zubaydah stopped talking. After a few days without progress, the FBI team was sent back in and, sure enough, Abu Zubaydah started talking again. One could hardly ask for better evidence of the failures of torture. Yet—despite the fact that Soufan’s version has been confirmed by the DOJ’s 2009 Office of Profession Responsibility Report, and the DOJ’s 2008 Department of Justice’s Inspector General Report, former officials like Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey have manipulated that episode to propagate the myth that torture works.
Then there are the well-documented flaws of torture as an intelligence-gathering tool. The torture victim will say anything to get the pain to stop, which results in garbage intelligence. It’s one thing when the intelligence is about something discrete and verifiable—e.g., the bomb is in locker 324 in Penn Station. But when the lie is unverifiable—e.g., a false name—intelligence agencies can spend years chasing ghosts or, worse, go to war under false pretenses, which is what happened when we tortured Ibn Sheikh al Libi. Under torture, al Libi claimed that Iraq had WMD, a claim that made its way into then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations justifying the invasion. There is also abundant evidence that the use of torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib was one of the single biggest motivators for foreign fighters joining the insurgency.
All of this begs the question: what is the real agenda behind the Right’s relentless pro-torture propaganda? If it doesn’t matter to the Right that torture results in bad intelligence, or provides recruiting fodder to our enemies, or makes it more likely that our soldiers will be tortured if captured and less likely that allies will engage in joint ventures with us, and if it doesn’t matter that (assuming for the sake of argument that torture placed a role in bin Laden’s killing) there were other means of acquiring the intelligence that don’t diminish our international standing and violate our fundamental values, it must be because there is something else in play, some fierce and fundamental commitment that is powerful enough to override reason, conscience, and law. My fear is that that principle is retribution – the primitive human urge for vengeance. Conservative pundits and policy makers have made an eye for an eye calculation and determined that, after 9/11, the United States is entitled – even called upon — to perpetrate a little savagery. It appears that many torture advocates have prioritized the fulfillment of that bloodthirsty impulse over sound national security policy, thereby imperiling our physical and moral safety.
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