[lit-ideas] Re: Waterboarding Bodies Mattered

  • From: Phil Enns <phil.enns@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 22 Apr 2009 15:47:22 +0700

Eric summarizes an article from MSNBC:

"Obama's National Security Director said that waterboarding had indeed worked."

Well, it is actually a bit more complicated than that.  Here is more
from Adm. Blair:

“The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some
instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information
could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a
written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these
techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have
done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and
they are not essential to our national security."

It is difficult to know how to respond to Eric's post since it isn't
clear what argument he is making.  Eric's quote regarding Adm. Blair
implies that Blair supports the use of torture. From the quote I
provided, I hope it is clear that Obama's National Security Director,
despite acknowledging that information was gained through torture,
rejects torture.

The other quote provided by Eric regards the claim that torture led to
information regarding a possible attack on Los Angeles.  This may or
may not be true, but it isn't clear what implication Eric draws from
the claim.  In the quote above, Blair points out that it may be the
case that this information could have been gotten through methods that
did not involve torture.  However, once one starts using torture,
there is no way to know what else might have worked.

There is an interesting qualification in the article Eric provided,
and I give it here:

“It may be used on a High Value Detainee only if the CIA has ‘credible
intelligence that a terrorist attack is imminent’; ‘substantial and
credible indicators that the subject has actionable intelligence that
can prevent, disrupt or deny this attack’; and ‘[o]ther interrogation
methods have failed to elicit this information within the perceived
time limit for preventing the attack.’”

In my opinion, torture is never justifiable, but I think that the
above qualification makes for a good argument.  There may be certain
extreme conditions that require torture and I am willing to allow that
this is a grey area.  What I find disturbing in the various forms the
justification of torture has taken in the last few days, is the ease
with which the argument moves from the above reasonable, qualified
policy to a more general, more vague claim that torture ought to be
one more tool for gathering intelligence.

For example, Abu Zubayday was waterboarded 83 times, producing no
information that foiled imminent attacks.  Clearly, this form of
torture was no longer being used according to the above CIA
guidelines, but instead as a means of fishing for intelligence.  There
is an important difference between waterboarding someone who is known
to have specific information about a specific attack, and
waterboarding someone to find out what they know about al Qaeda.  But
listening to Cheney and the other Bush officials recently, there is no
such distinction, only the claim that torture is an important tool.
The case of the terrorist with specific knowledge is used to justify
torture as a tool for gathering intelligence.

George Friedman, of Stratfor, wrote a piece on torture in which he
made an interesting argument.  He argued that there is a moral
imperative to use torture when there is an immediate, known threat and
a lack of intelligence.  In this case, any delay may result in death
and destruction.  Friedman responds, though, that this is not how the
'real world' works.  After 9/11, the problem the U.S. faced was that
it had very little intelligence to work with, rather than specific
intelligence.  In this case, what often happened is that both the
innocent and the guilty were gathered and when tortured, they provided
information.  Much time and effort was then spent trying to find out
what is or is not genuine.  How does the CIA determine the value of
Abu Zubayday?  Well they keep torturing him and then verifying
whatever he tells them.  How many times does one have to be tortured
in order to determine that one doesn't know anything of value?

"Torture thus becomes not only a waste of time and a violation of
decency, it actually undermines good intelligence. After a while,
scooping up suspects in a dragnet and trying to extract intelligence
becomes a substitute for competent intelligence techniques — and can
potentially blind the intelligence service. This is especially true as
people will tell you what they think you want to hear to make torture

Friedman concludes by claiming that the use of torture by the U.S. was
a result of a combination of a massive intelligence failure, a
catastrophic attack, and the fear that another attack was imminent.
He argues that in this extraordinary situation, the use of torture was
understandable.  However, he goes on to argue that once that
extraordinary situation fades, the use of torture becomes harmful to
developing good intelligence.

I am curious as to what claim Eric wants to make.  The claim that
there are exceptional circumstances that call for torture is
interesting and makes for good argument.  The claim that torture is an
effective tool for gathering intelligence requires more justification,
justification that I have yet to see.


Phil Enns
Yogyakarta, Indonesia
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