The Twisted Logic of Torture Envy
In a world of 24-hour news coverage, even the biggest story has short legs. So we move from the glory of bin Laden’s death to false claims about the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation” techniques in just a few days.
The right will stop at nothing to steal President Obama’s thunder, taking desperate measures to heap some praise on Bush for capturing bin Laden through association while diminishing Obama’s accomplishment. The latest salvo is to claim that Bush’s support for torture led to bin Laden’s death. The only problem with the claim is that it is false.
What we are witnessing is an attempt to rewrite history to justify the unjustifiable. Defense of the Bush administration’s decision to sanction torture as U.S. policy all boils down to a single argument: torture works. The ends justify the means. Former Vice President Cheney, with unequivocal support from Bush, made this exact argument in several interviews while he was in office.
The Bush administration’s line of reasoning was then and is now deeply flawed for three critical reasons: 1) abundant evidence, which we will examine, suggests that torture is not an effective means of gathering actionable intelligence, 2) defining if something “works” is arbitrary and therefore subject to abuse and manipulation as a metric to measure viability, and 3) torture is immoral, even if the technique were proven to be effective.
Any one of the three points would undermine the argument supporting torture, but all three are true and, combined, provide overwhelming support for those opposed to the practice.
To claim that torture led to information that eventually led to bin Laden is not supported by the facts. Such a claim is nothing but a desperate attempt to cover up past criminality. The primary source from which we learned the name of bin Laden’s most important courier (eventually leading to bin Laden himself) came from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But not when he was waterboarded repeatedly in 2003, during which he claimed consistently he did not know the name of the courier. No, Khalid gave up the name sometime between 2004-2005 long after his enhanced interrogation sessions ended. Jose Rodriguez, who was in charge of the Counterterrorism Center, makes a contorted effort to claim torture led to useful information from Khalid. But listening to his tortured justification is itself torture, a cringe-worthy explanation that reeks of desperation.
Torture is ineffective
Experts close to the issue largely agree that torture is ineffective. The experience with Khalid supports this conclusion. Opponents of torture cannot be painted as liberal sympathizers.
• Former FBI Director Robert Meuller said in a December 2008 Vanity Fair interview that he knew of not one single planned attack that was prevented by information obtained through torture.
• FBI Agent Ali Soufan has written that:
There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah [the first al-Qaeda suspect subjected to waterboarding and other harsh tactics] that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.
• FBI Agent Jack Cloonan says,
I think that any agent who walked into a room and saw a subject as has been described – crawled up in the fetal position, either deprived of water or subjected to unusually warm temperatures, pulling his hair out, people on hunger strikes, and so on – understand that that person is no good to you from an intelligence perspective.
• Major Matthew Alexander, who personally conducted 300 interrogations of prisoners in Iraq, has concluded that torture does not work, particularly in the “ticking time bomb” scenario so often quoted by those who support torture.
• Brigadier General David R. Irvine has written a series of articles and given multiple presentations providing a list of reasons “why torture doesn’t work.” What are his qualifications to draw that conclusion? He is a retired strategic intelligence officer who taught prisoner interrogation techniques and military law for 18 years with the Sixth Army Intelligence School. He and a group of three dozen highly decorated generals, not exactly a cabal of liberals, wrote a letter to Senator McCain in 2005 urging that the United States heed the warning in the Army Field manual that torture is ineffective.
• Former CIA Operative Robert Baer has said, in support of Obama’s release of memos that detail the agency’s interrogation techniques, that “nobody… has presented evidence that torture works and I just don’t see it.” He later went on to say that information from torture is “useless.”
Or rather than taking the word of these people directly involved, you can believe Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who with no operational experience claims with no supporting evidence that waterboarding caused Khalid to cough up the information. You choose who has the greater credibility on this issue.
Efficacy is no argument for legitimacy
The Bush administration’s logic used to support torture means by extension that any illegal or immoral action, no matter how heinous, can be justified if such actions “work.” Even ignoring the obvious ethical dilemma inherent to such views, consider how internally inconsistent his argument is at the most basic level. If torture can be justified on the basis of national security, and is a necessity to prevent an imminent attack, why stop at waterboarding? Why not apply electrodes to testicles, cut off fingers and ears, burn skin, poke out eyes, pull out fingernails, or do anything that must be done to prevent harm to the country? If Bush and his cohorts believe that enhanced interrogation is justified to protect the United States, then why stop at techniques that do not leave permanent scars? That arbitrary limit makes no sense if the goal is to protect America at any cost. Stopping just before the point of permanent harm undermines their primary argument that they condoned waterboarding as a necessary means of gathering critical intelligence that would save us from another attack. If that was the goal, and enhanced interrogation works, then he would have to support chopping off fingers or hands if that would yield the intelligence necessary to prevent an attack.
The only refuge from this inconsistency is to claim that waterboarding is in fact not torture. If simulated drowning is not torture, then proponents avoid stepping on the slippery slope to fingernail pulling and eye gouging. But waterboarding is torture. Even the internal memos now being declassified show that the technique was known within the administration to be torture. And as others have pointed out, we executed Japanese soldiers responsible for waterboarding American prisoners of war. The technique dates back to the Spanish Inquisition, and is universally recognized to be torture. Japanese were tried as war criminals for waterboarding American and British POWs.
So where does that leave those who support torture? On a bed of moral quicksand and a pile of inconsistencies. If waterboarding works, and if that effectiveness is sufficient justification for its use, then surely the threat of permanent physical harm or death would be even more effective, and even more justified. The only honest position those who support torture can take is that they would support those more aggressive forms of torture if such actions protected the United States. If they claim otherwise, they would have to admit that there are limits to how far they would go to protect the country from attack. But if they have no limits to how far they are willing to go, they would agree in principle with those who oppose torture. The only remaining argument is whether waterboarding is torture, and we answered that when we executed the Japanese for the practice. The pro-torture position is untenable.
Torture undermines our national security
With torture we get the worst of both worlds: we gather no useful intelligence and we undermine our reputation as a democratic government of principles. Our claim to world leadership, and the export of democracy, rests solely on the idea that the United States is inarguably qualified to champion universal ideas of freedom. That claim becomes hollow if we sanction torture. We lead most effectively by example, but our ability to do so becomes limited if we abandon our most cherished values. Our policies and practices become the most effective recruiting tool our enemies could ever hope for, and we do not gain a commensurate advantage to offset that advance on the other side.
Torture is immoral
Newt Gingrich condemned torture in 1997 when he said, “… there is no place for abuse in what must be considered the family of man. There is no place for torture or arbitrary detention.”
Assume for the moment that torture is effective. Assume that torture has saved American lives. Even taking those falsehoods for truth for the sake of argument, we are still left with the inevitable conclusion that torture is inherently immoral, and therefore unacceptable. By sanctioning torture, we adopt the moral code of the very enemies we seek to destroy. We become them. That we are even discussing torture as U.S. policy is proof that we lost our way. Our only salvation is to openly confess to the criminal acts of the preceding administration, condemn them, and vow never again. There exists no ethics of torture; certain acts are wrong with no further explanation needed, just as certain rights are inalienable. Our founders did not feel obligated to define those rights other than in the broadest of terms because they are self-evident. So is the immorality of torture.
Only an appeal to moral relativism can be used to justify waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques. Torture is said to be acceptable as the lesser of two evils — making morality a relative measure. But moral relativism fails completely in every significant way. To a relativist, no moral code can be criticized because whatever a society deems morally right is so by definition, and cannot be condemned by another society. But that raises some questions that, when answered, prove the fallacy of relativism. Does morality within a society get determined by majority rule? What if torture is approved by 51% of the population one year, and 49% the next? That would mean torture is moral one year and immoral the next, clearly an untenable position. And what constitutes the unit called “society” that approves of a given moral code? Is a society defined by nationality or ethnicity? Is the United States one society, or is it made up of multiple societies of Hispanics, gays, Wall Street bankers and bikers? If so, does each of those societies have a unique moral code? Could each independently determine if torture was moral? How would conflict between them be resolved? Any reasonable answer to any of these questions dictates that ethical relativism must be false as a theory. Torturing children for fun would be universally condemned, regardless of how right a particular society found that practice. Relativism fails completely, which means that some elements of morality must be basic to humanity across time and across cultures. Torture can never be explained away.
So let’s get back to celebrating Bin Laden’s death, free from the false argument that the success was due to enhanced interrogation. It was not.
Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of, A New Moral Code (Jacquie Jordan, Inc Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook.