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May 20 2009

On torture-5: The effectiveness argument

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let’s continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 2: Even if it was torture, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

Once you accept this argument, then you are truly a barbarian, because you can use it to justify any action at all. If torture is justified to save the lives of others, why have any limits at all? Why not drive hot spikes through people? Why not cut off their limbs? Why not bring back the rack and other devices of the Inquisition? Why not torture the families and children of detainees? Why not torture and terrorize entire communities?

And why stop with alleged terror suspects? Why not allow police to solve crimes by routinely torturing suspects to get information and confessions? It would save a lot of time and money too.
Furthermore, the argument that torture was successful because no further attack occurred after 9/11 (ignoring the anthrax attacks for the moment) is meaningless.
“My magic baseball cap keeps lions away from the city.”
“There are no lions in the city.”
“See, it works!”

These kinds of arguments are mainly advanced by torture-lovers like the former vice president for torture Dick Cheney (a label given to him by the former director of the CIA Admiral Stansfield Turner) and have two self-serving purposes: they provide a justification for criminal acts and so that any new attack that might ever occur in the future can be blamed on the stopping of the torture practices. To substantiate such assertions, you need to provide specific evidence of an action that has been thwarted because of information gained that could only have been achieved by torture.

But an interrogator for the FBI Ali Soufan puts the lie to even the claim that torture garnered useful information that would not have been obtained otherwise.

Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned [Abu Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah 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.

Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mr. Padilla. This is false. The information that led to Mr. Shibh’s capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods. As for Mr. Padilla, the dates just don’t add up: the harsh techniques were approved in the memo of August 2002, Mr. Padilla had been arrested that May.

As George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley says, the torturing of Abu Zubayda provided nothing of value, and the Bush administration lied about the effectiveness of torturing him in order to excuse its actions.

The Bush torture program is a wonderful example of not just the time-proven junk that comes from torture, but also the value of legal process as a way to acquiring legitimate information in legitimate ways. Putting aside the obvious immorality of the program, the reports show how we tortured people for little more advantage than the visceral and political benefits of “getting tough on terrorism.”

It is becoming clear that torture was used for more than just to show toughness. The Bush administration was desperately seeking to justify the attack on Iraq and was using torture to try get confessions to “prove” that a link existed between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

“There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,” the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.”

Similar reports are coming out elsewhere.

Khalid Shekh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month, an average of six time per day! If this most extreme form of torture is effective, why was it necessary to do it so many times? What made the torturers think that the 150th time would work better than the 149th time? Surely we can see that other motives must be at play. Either the torturers were seeking a false confession or anger, frustration, and sheer sadism had taken over from any intelligence gathering needs. What torture does best is produce false confessions and false information as the tortured person says anything at all just in order to make the torture stop.

As US airman Harold Fischer said about his experience at the hands of a Chinese torturer during the Korean war:

“[The torturer Chong] wanted me to admit that I had been ordered to cross the Manchurian border,” Captain Fischer told Life magazine. “I was grilled day and night, over and over, week in and week out, and in the end, to get Chong and his gang off my back, I confessed to both charges. The charges, of course, were ridiculous. I never participated in germ warfare and neither did anyone else. I was never ordered to cross the Yalu. We had strict Air Force orders not to cross the border.”

“I will regret what I did in that cell the rest of my life,” the captain continued. “But let me say this: it was not really me — not Harold E. Fischer Jr. — who signed that paper. It was a mentality reduced to putty.”

What torture does is produce “mentalities reduced to putty”, people willing to say anything to escape the torment, hardly the source of good information. But even in the extremely unlikely event that proof were offered that torture produced useful information that could have been obtained no other way, I would still reject this utilitarian argument on moral grounds.

There are some things a civilized society should not do merely to save some lives. We cannot live in a risk-free world. We are all going to die someday. We have no choice in that matter. The only choice we have is whether we live with dignity and honor by upholding principles of civilized behavior or we become barbarians. Bush, Cheney, and all those who support and excuse torture have chosen barbarism.

POST SCRIPT: The bogus ‘ticking time bomb’ issue

The ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario so beloved by torture apologists and based on little more than fictional TV shows and films can hardly be used for torture that extends over a month as was the case of Khalid Shekh Mohammed. See Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon parodying the absurdity of this argument.

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