Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 29, 2009
By: publius

THE "OTHER" REASON NOT TO TORTURE.... The Bush administration was fond of citing Abu Zubaida as evidence of the great success of its "interrogation" policy. Bush himself claimed that Zubaida was al Qaeda's "chief of operations," and that he was a fount of valuable information. Zubaida also has the dubious honor of being the first detainee waterboarded.

In 2006, Ron Suskind reported in his book that none of the administration's claims about Zubaida were true. Based on his interviews with intelligence officials, Suskind wrote that Zubaida was not only mentally ill, but also had little knowledge of al Qaeda's actual operations. He was apparently more like a travel agent -- and his stories sent the CIA and FBI down many an unnecessary goose chase. When Bush learned all this, he kept misleading the public anyway.

Today, the Post corroborates Suskind's account that Zubaida was essentially worthless -- and that we waterboarded him for nothing:

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates -- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. . . . None of [their earlier claims] was accurate, the new evidence showed.

Although you should read the whole thing, the article provides a good example of the "administrative" case against torture. The moral argument is obviously clear - and it's one I believe in. Torture is wrong. Period. Full stop.

But there are other reasons to oppose torture. Even assuming you're morally ok with torturing (maybe because you like 24), you still have to show that it's possible to administer fairly.

In other words, another reason not to torture is that it's usually impossible to know whether it's being applied to the appropriate parties. Taking the extreme step of torture requires a level of epistemic confidence we just can't obtain -- particularly in times of rage and trauma, which is often when torture is used.

And this isn't an abstract policy debate. Unfortunately, we've seen torture in action and can make some empirical observations about its use. As it turns out, and just as anyone could have predicted, torture was applied too broadly to innocent people while we were blinded by our post-9/11 anger and thirst for revenge.

Zubaida is a high-profile example of exactly why the rule of law matters. Law isn't about helping bad people. It's about putting the procedural obstacles in place to make sure we don't lash out at the wrong people in fits of rage. It's the whole "Odysseus tied to the mast" point.

The Bush administration abandoned law -- and the results were inevitable, and tragic.

publius 10:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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Just want to point out that "torture was applied too broadly to innocent people" doesn't quite square with "Torture is wrong. Period. Full stop."

If torture's wrong, any application of it is too broad. Right? Let's not water that down.

Posted by: Cap'n Chucky on March 29, 2009 at 11:02 AM | PERMALINK

Even assuming you're morally ok with torturing (maybe because you like 24), you still have to show that it's possible to administer fairly.

That was one wrinkle that was never developed in debates.

Torture, of course, isn't illegal in this country any more (if it is, I'm still waiting for prosecution), but it's something so heinous that it will never be subjected to a thoroughly public and judicial process that would make it more accountable to reality.

Most Americans, when pressed, would agree that torturing people on shoddy or fabricated evidence would be wrong. But they always hedge their bets, because they are terrified of terrorism. So they say, "What about the ticking time bomb?" If the ticking-time-bomb scenario justifies torture. Then we need to build a judicial process by which we can determine what is a ticking time bomb scenario.

For the record, I think torture is categorically wrong for several reasons (practical, political and moral) and that I hold my own country in the deepest contempt for it.

Posted by: inkadu on March 29, 2009 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

Actually, I LOVE the ticking time bomb scenario. It's a excellent way to figure out who is sooo stupid that they should be either mocked mercilessly or ignored depending on your taste.

People who want to base counter-terrorism policy on TTBS make me think of someone who does their household budget based on winning big in the lottery. Then they wonder why their finances are always a mess. You don't get sensible policies based on ridiculously improbable scenarios.

Posted by: Butch on March 29, 2009 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

The problem with the so called ticking time bomb scenario is that no one can site an example of it in the REAL WORLD. It's never happened. This entire debate is based on fiction (literally).

Add to that the PROVEN FACT that torture has been shown to yield far more bad information than traditional interegation methods and the practical case against torture is just as strong as the moral argument.

But much like the debate over the death penalty, emotion and tough guy posturing takes precedence over logic and reality.

Posted by: Thorin-1 on March 29, 2009 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

Here's the case for torture. Say you want to justify a preemptive war. You need evidence for the justification. Torture someone, and get the evidence.

Everything I've ever read about torture says that the victim of torture will tell you anything you want. If you're seeking justification for some flimsy cock-assed scheme, a victim of torture is just the ticket.

Posted by: Raenelle on March 29, 2009 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

The logic here is the same used by the Bush Administration. We should concede that they think it is okay to torture, that is a given.

But what allows a torture program (not instances of torture like in 24), is the torture two-step logic:

1. You can identify who is holding back valuable information.
2. You can distinguish true information from false information obtained from those you torture.

These two necessary premises are undermined by the very circumstances which lead to torture: we don't know who these people are and we can't tell if they are telling us the truth.

I would note that this is actually a very distinct (and infinitely more terrifying) set of circumstances to what we see on 24, which is more of a battlefield tactic used against known actors to extract specific, easily verified information. Even the torture itself, while painful, amounts to nothing more terrifying than being engaged in actual military combat.

It would do all of us well to focus less on the individual techniques of torture we used, and more on the existence of a torture program, which is the long-term, government blessed, systematic destruction of individual humanity.

Posted by: tomj on March 29, 2009 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

"24" is fiction - shading to fantasy. The idea that Jack is working against "known actors" is a plot device that has very little to do with reality. Nor would Jack's interrogation techniques - as even Kiefer Sutherland has stated in interviews. Even within those extrememely artificial constraints torture in "24" works because that's what's written in the script.

It's written that way because "Months and Years of Careful Investigative Work Resulting in Occasional Precisely Targetted Disruptions and Arrests After Which We Keep on Working on More of the Same" just didn't make for a good title in the previews.

Posted by: Butch on March 29, 2009 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

Ooops - "Nor DO Jack's interrogation techniques...".

Posted by: Butch on March 29, 2009 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

George W. Bush was the master of self deception and if he ever led this nation at all it was into a hopeless pit of self deception.

In order to embrace torture you must deceive yourself into believing that it is the enemy's weakness that is revealed by torture when, in fact, it is your own.

Posted by: Capt Kirk on March 29, 2009 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

"That was one wrinkle that was never developed in debates."

Another point never developed in the debates: What was the most specific instance of torture talked about during the campaign? It was John McCain being tortured by the North Vietnamese. And what was the result of that torture? McCain giving up the names of the Green Bay Packers (or Pittsburg Steelers) offensive line.

That is, torture yields misleading information. It gets you bullshit, not "intel". Even the Republican candidate knew that.

Posted by: Robert Earle on March 29, 2009 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

Publius said:
"Law isn't about helping bad people. It's about putting the procedural obstacles in place to make sure we don't lash out at the wrong people in fits of rage. It's the whole 'Odysseus tied to the mast' point."

This is a minor point, but: Odysseus WANTED to be tied to the mast so he could hear the Sirens' song and/but also be restrained from piloting his ship to shore (where he and his men would meet their deaths). He also had his men seaql their ears with wax so they could not hear the song--nor, for that matter, his entreaties to them to cut him loose. So, if anyone is torturing anyone in this instance, it's Odysseus willingly torturing himself. I'm not sure, therefore, how this reference makes your larger point--which, by the way, I wholeheartedly affirm.

Posted by: John B. on March 29, 2009 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

Some people were having these same arguments back in the Middle Ages: wouldn't people confess to being heretics or witches just to avoid torture, and make up vivid confabulations (including more suspects, of course) to please their tormentors? Of course, they did just that, but the corrupt Inquisition kept pressing along and ignoring such common sense. Much of the motivation of the inquisitors was to seize property and punish enemies, not just "sincere" concern for heresy and witchcraft dangers such as they were percieved. Bush's regime was their direct ideological and methodological descendant.

Posted by: Neil B ♠ on March 29, 2009 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

This argument was hashed out well in "A Man for All Seasons."

In Bolt's trial of Sir Thomas More, Cromwell says, "I put it to the Court that the prisoner is perverting the law--making smoky what should be a clear light to discover to the Court his own wrongdoing."

More replies, "The law is not a light for you or any man to see by; the law is not an instrument of any kind. The law is a broad highway upon which, any man, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk in safety."

Bush and his cronies, heirs to Cromwell, were instrumentalists of the most perverted order. They sought to use the law for their own ends, yet--delicious irony!--in doing so, they themselves have strayed from the broad highway of international law, to their own peril.

The highway metaphor is especially apt: they had better stay clear of the roads of Spain, indeed those of any of the 24 nations who participate in the the European extraditions convention.

Posted by: Martin Richard on March 29, 2009 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

I don't understand your closing comment about Odysseus; he had his sailors lash him to the mast so he could hear the sirens' call without risking killing himself when he fell prey to its charms.

What does this have to do with making sure you torture the 'right' people only?

Posted by: OmerosPeanut on March 29, 2009 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

Beyond the moral obscenity of torture, which is the point in terms of national character? Well, it's not just that we can't be sure we're torturing the right people (as if that would make a difference? please). It's that info given is unreliable. That means: not only do we sell our soul to get it, but we put our troops in danger sending them to the wrong place/wrong time, and at the very least waste money on wild goose chases. (The former packs weight with me, but maybe the greedheads will respond to the latter.) And on the subject of torture in America, check out the long piece on solitary confinement in the New Yorker this week. Sen. Webb, as far as I've seen, doesn't mention the grotesque and vicious overuse of solitary in his prison reform proposals, but perhaps that would be an opportunity to follow the saner, safer, more useful British approach.

Posted by: SF on March 29, 2009 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

The abuse of various detainees went on for weeks and months. Does anyone seriously believe that useful information is going to suddenly emerge from the deranged mental fragments left after long-term psychological crushing?

This fact alone should tell us that something other than information-gathering was at the root of the Cheney-Rumsfeld torture initiative.

Posted by: hquain on March 29, 2009 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK


We know separately that Zubaydah did think the nuclear bomb idea was not feasible, but he did think, as well, that another kind of radiological device was very feasible -- uranium wrapped with explosives to create a dirty bomb.

Zubaydah believed this was feasible, and encouraged Padilla and his accomplice to pursue it. He warned them, though, that it would not be as easy as they might think, but they seemed convinced that they could do it without getting caught.

Zubaydah's plan was to use Padilla and his accomplice for Zubaydah's own operations in the future. But they were so eager, so intent on carrying out an operation in the United States that in March of 2002 he sent them to see Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, even going so far as to write a reference letter to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed about Padilla, giving Padilla and his accomplice money, and urging them to seek out KSM about the dirty bomb plot. Zubaydah separately called Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, told him about
the dirty bomb project, and also told him he didn't think it was practical, but he wanted Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to check it out himself and to evaluate it. He told Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that he was free to use Padilla in his operations in the United States if he wished.

Comey (aka the Progressives' Saint James of DOJ) puts the lie to Finn & Warrick and their anonymous sources. Read the whole thing.

Suskind is, as they say, unreliable. So is the Post, and apparently Publius

Posted by: tao9 on March 29, 2009 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

We are a nation under rule of law, which says we do not torture. That it doesn't work has long been known. It was a callow and shameful error from which the U.S. may never recover its moral posture.

Posted by: Lisa on March 29, 2009 at 5:46 PM | PERMALINK

p.s. -- is this "our" Publius?!

Posted by: Lisa on March 29, 2009 at 5:48 PM | PERMALINK

None of this excuses raping family members or detainees themselves. The pictures of Abu Garaib show the sadistic insidious demeaning tactics being used that were meant only as punishment and torture for torture's sake.

"Being guilty or innocent had little to do with anything...we just hated us some niggers". That's how I think of anyone connected with Bush's torture program. Remember...he asked for their "heads on ice delivered to the oval office".

Now Spain and England will end up forcing us to do what we should already be doing. Prosecuting Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld etc for war crimes.

Posted by: bjobotts on March 29, 2009 at 6:57 PM | PERMALINK

Posted by: tao9 on March 29, 2009 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

Such bullshit without any regard to the fact that interrogators wrote this scenario while torturing Padilla for affirmation.

Suskind has been right on in his previous investigations so, "as they say (who is they?)", he is more reliable based on his accurate revelations previously.
Keep in mind that even though Comey is a hero in many respects for revealing that hospital scene....he was still Ashcroft's #2 man. Ashcroft was one of the most right wing conservatives in the Bush administration. Anoint me in oil Ashcroft. I can't believe anything about the Padilla case due to them leaving him a vegetable from all the torture.

Posted by: bjobotts on March 29, 2009 at 7:11 PM | PERMALINK

One example I like to use in this case occurred during my days at summer camp. We had some poor fellow we dubbed "Gladys" cuz he acted a bit like an old lady. Well, one day, we abused him a bit too much, so the camp director came into our cabin, flipped all the beds and hollered at us. He then split us into two groups, leaders and followers, and gave us lectures appropriate for each group.
Now, this guy was former military. My guess is that he was a 20-year Army man, probably an E6 or E7 (Navy equivalent would be 1st Class or Chief Petty Officer) and, get this, he had no clue as to who the leaders and the followers were!
Now, if someone who worked with camp members in their early teens and who was clearly not a stupid guy, had no clue as to what our hierarchy/chain of command was, how in the heck is an English-speaking Christian supposed to figure out whether an Arabic-speaking Muslim is telling him the truth or not?
Well, the interrogator could do a lot of careful research on top of having a lot of academic knowledge, as our interrogators in World War II did, but I somehow doubt Bush followers would have done that. Seems to me they were going for the quick'n'nasty.

Posted by: Rich2506 on March 29, 2009 at 8:43 PM | PERMALINK



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