Tag Archives: waterboarding

All Together Now!

Here is the whole list of posts I’ve written on torture…umm, enjoy!

Part I: A Tortured Post

Part II

Part III
Part IV

Part V: Conclusion (kinda)

Part VI:  The Real Conclusion

Let me know what you think!

Here are some other posts on politics, Barack Obama, and philosophy


If this series made you think, then please consider subscribing to my RSS feed or Stumbling this series.  You can find the RSS button in the top right at the sidebar.

Torture, the Real Conclusion

Read parts I, II, III, IV, and V of this series.

Remember how I said in my last post that I was concluding the series on torture? Not really. I have one more thing to add. It’s a bit of an aside, but it is something worth mentioning.

I’ve noticed that many of those that oppose torture (waterboarding specifically) are usually not as squeamish when it comes to abortion. They loudly rail against Bush policies of allowing waterboarding, but there’s nary a peep about our nation’s practice of dismembering and chemically burning human beings.

Frank Turek, who has himself been waterboarded as part of SERE training he went through as a naval fighter pilot, powerfully points out the inconsistency (HT: Wintery Knight):

Now, despite decades of its use on American service members, President Obama declares that waterboarding is torture when used on terrorists. Is it? Reasonable people cannot disagree whether scalding a person’s skin, dismembering him, or beheading him constitutes torture. Those are undeniably torturous acts that our enemies have inflicted on Americans. But since waterboarding leaves no permanent physical damage, reasonable people can disagree over whether or not it’s actually torture and should be used on terrorists.

Despite being against waterboarding, President Obama does not seem to think that scalding, dismembering, or beheading is torture in all circumstances. In some circumstances, the President actually approves of such treatment, so much so that he is now exporting it to other countries with our tax dollars. He’s even thinking of forcing certain Americans to inflict it on the innocent.

In fact, the President along with most in his party and some in the Republican Party, think that such brutality is a Constitutional right, which they cleverly disguise with the word “choice.” Choice in these circumstances actually means scalding, dismembering, or de-braining a living human being—which is literally what saline, D&C, and partial birth abortions respectively accomplish.

Many of those who are against waterboarding are either pro-choice or they are against legislation that outlaws abortion (or they think attempts to make abortion illegal are useless). I wish they’d be more consistent in their thinking.

Torture, Concluded

See parts I, II, III, and IV in this series.

Ends and Means

Some charge that allowing for torture in any case smacks of utilitarian and consequentialist reasoning. They say that even though it might save American lives, that doesn’t make it justified. Afterall, if someone told me he’d kill a thousand people if I didn’t shoot the next person that said hi to me, I would not be obligated to shoot. Similarly, killing one human being so that we can harvest his stem cells and use them to cure disease in other people is not justified (this is an argument against Embryonic Stem Cell Research, an argument that I buy.). The ends do not justify the means.

In response, I point out that there are significant disanalogies between the two scenarios. For one, it is clear that even in the few cases we resorted to waterboarding, it was measured. This is much different than killing someone to harvest his stem cells. Furthermore, no one is arguing that the ends alone justifies the means, which is what ESCR advocates often do. The saving of American lives is not the only thing that should be weighed–otherwise saving American lives would give government agents carte blanche to torture as they see fit, and no one gets even close to advocating this–but it is an important aspect that could tip the scale one way or another. The ends don’t always justify the means, but they do in some cases.

Shooting someone to stop a massacre is morally praiseworthy, while shooting someone to take his wallet is morally blameworthy. Patterico puts it this way:

I’m not sure that I am willing to subscribe to a theory of moral equivalence on all levels, because the reason you are doing something matters. It matters a lot. If you shoot me for my money, you are a murderer. If you shoot me because I am pointing a gun at your wife, you are defending her and acting legally. If you shoot an American soldier because you are fighting for Hitler’s right to exterminate the Jews, you are behaving wrongly. If you shoot a German soldier to help prevent the extermination of the Jews, you are behaving correctly.

About the notion that we had a “double standard,” arguing that our enemies had to follow international law whereas the law did not apply to the way we treated our detainees–I don’t have a keen legal mind, but again, intent does matter here. If a bully on the playground pushes Suzie down, mounts her, and pulls her hair, and Suzie has to kick the bully in the gonads to get him off her, I’m gonna punish the bully for mounting and pulling hair, but I’m not gonna punish Suzie. Yeah, she kicked him in the balls, and if the bully kicked Suzie in the crotch, you bet I’d throw the book at him, but the intent is key when assigning blame. In this case, I’m gonna apply the rules more strictly to the bully than I am to Suzie. So for someone to cry foul because we are doing the same things our enemies are doing and have done–namely, torturing captives (well, we’re not doing the same thing…beheading…waterboarding…tomato…tom-ahh-toe.)–doesn’t hold much water for me (no pun intended). The intent, extent, and context are totally different. To force the point, the waterboarding opponent must go further.


In the end, as I alluded to in the beginning, both sides have some tough thinking to do. Making a government policy of when torture is allowed is very dangerous. Hitchens and others have pointed out the very greasy slippery slope that could lead us towards. Enough testimony is in favor of waterboarding to make it at least somewhat of a grey issue (i.e, “thoughtful people can disagree on it,” as they say), but it is not totally grey. If it doesn’t cross the line in the end, it’s close enough to it that I’m mighty uncomfortable allowing it, and there are other less controversial enhanced interrogation techniques that are effective too. It has too much of a tainted history for me to confidently give it a thumbs up without my conscience giving me considerable pause.  At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with a categorical ban on it either, in the case that there really *is* a ticking time bomb scenario that calls for it.  The paramaters and cautions will need to be defined in an extremely narrow way.

I’m very conflicted on waterboarding.  Talk to me on Monday, and I’m willing to allow it in a select few very narrowly defined instances.  Talk to me on Wednesday, and I back away from that.  The bottom line is that I recognize the road this allowance puts us on, but I don’t want people who have a duty to protect American citizens to have their hands tied when it comes to fulfilling such a duty.

And it goes without saying that just as a matter of prudence, if it is true that waterboarding won’t yield good info in a specific case, don’t resort to it. Hey, if the guy will talk if we give him a batch of Toll House, I’ll don the apron and slave away in the kitchen myself.

The other side who would categorically outlaw waterboarding and other less stressful techniques aren’t off the hook either. They must face some pretty tough questions, moreso than the side that is against a categorical ban. If you are one of those folks who wants a categorical ban on the techniques in question, here are a few of the tough questions you must face:

  • Assume, for the sake of the argument, that waterboarding yielded info that saved the Library Tower and saved countless American lives (again, while we have some indication that this is true, we don’t know for sure, so just assume for the sake of argument). Recognize that, though it is torture, its fairly mild compared to other things. Do you still oppose it, even though it saved many, many American lives?
  • How many lives are you willing to give up and endanger, in exchange for a clear conscience at night?
  • How many lives are you willing to sacrifice in order to say we don’t torture?
  • Are you willing to say that putting a known terrorist on the waterboard is a greater evil than failing to protect thousands of lives?

In the scenario I painted above, you don’t have the luxury of having completely clean hands. Your hands will be dirty either way. You have a choice between a lesser and greater evil and you can’t avoid both. Failing to choose one will mean choosing the other.

There are no easy answers, and those on either side who strut about winging politicized rhetoric like it’s a video game grenade need to quit playing and get real.

Torture part IV

See parts I, II, and III of this series.

In part III of this series, I discussed whether or not waterboarding yields reliable information, and whether the “ticking time bomb” scenario is reasonable.

Those are completely prudential concerns. They leave the question of whether waterboarding is torture and whether it is permissable at all totally unanswered. Hence, part IV.

Is Waterboarding Torture?

From Wikipedia:

It can cause extreme pain, dry drowning, damage to lungs, brain damage from oxygen deprivation, other physical injuries including broken bones due to struggling against restraints, lasting psychological damage or, if uninterrupted, death. Adverse physical consequences can start manifesting months after the event; psychological effects can last for years.

Dr. Allen Keller, the director of the Bellevue/N.Y.U. Program for Survivors of Torture, has treated “a number of people” who had been subjected to forms of near-asphyxiation, including waterboarding. An interview for The New Yorker states, “[He] argued that it was indeed torture, ‘Some victims were still traumatized years later’, he said. One patient couldn’t take showers, and panicked when it rained. ‘The fear of being killed is a terrifying experience’, he said”. Keller also stated in his testimony before the Senate that “water-boarding or mock drowning, where a prisoner is bound to an inclined board and water is poured over their face, inducing a terrifying fear of drowning clearly can result in immediate and long-term health consequences. As the prisoner gags and chokes, the terror of imminent death is pervasive, with all of the physiologic and psychological responses expected, including an intense stress response, manifested by tachycardia (rapid heart beat) and gasping for breath. There is a real risk of death from actually drowning or suffering a heart attack or damage to the lungs from inhalation of water. Long term effects include panic attacks, depression and PTSD. I remind you of the patient I described earlier who would panic and gasp for breath whenever it rained even years after his abuse”.

Waterboarding is considered to be torture by a wide range of authorities, including legal experts,[2][3][30] politicians, war veterans,[4][5] intelligence officials,[8] military judges,[9] and human rights organizations.[10][11] David Miliband, the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary described it as torture on July 19, 2008, and stated “the UK unreservedly condemns the use of torture.”[31] Arguments have been put forward that it might not be torture in all cases, or that it is unclear.[32][33][34][35] The U.S. State Department has recognized “submersion of the head in water” as torture in other circumstances, for example, in its 2005 Country Report on Tunisia.[36]

Chase J. Nielsen, one of the U.S. airmen who flew in the Doolittle raid following the attack on Pearl Harbor, was subjected to waterboarding by his Japanese captors.[95] At their trial for war crimes following the war, he testified “Well, I was put on my back on the floor with my arms and legs stretched out, one guard holding each limb. The towel was wrapped around my face and put across my face and water poured on. They poured water on this towel until I was almost unconscious from strangulation, then they would let up until I’d get my breath, then they’d start over again… I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death.”

Granted, this is from Wikipedia, which is not exactly the most reliable source. The sentence immediately preceding the quote above, for example, said it does not produce long lasting effects, which completely contradicts the testimony above. And just as there are conflicting testimonies on the question of whether or not it yields reliable intel, there are also conflicting testimonies in regards to waterboarding’s effects. Some, those who’ve experienced waterboarding, say that it’s rough, but you get over it quickly. Even Christopher Hitchens, a 60-something year old sedentary heavy smoker, was ready for another go soon after his initial waterboarding…you can make up your own mind. I’m gonna go ahead and say it qualifies as torture.

Is Waterboarding Ever Permissable?

Does that mean it must be categorically outlawed?

Perhaps the most eloquent argument against a categorical ban on torture (waterboarding specifically) comes from Christopher Hitchens, who is no fan of waterboarding. In his column titled, “Believe me, it’s Torture,” he lays it all out:

The team who agreed to give me a hard time in the woods of North Carolina belong to a highly honorable group. This group regards itself as out on the front line in defense of a society that is too spoiled and too ungrateful to appreciate those solid, underpaid volunteers who guard us while we sleep. These heroes stay on the ramparts at all hours and in all weather, and if they make a mistake they may be arraigned in order to scratch some domestic political itch. Faced with appalling enemies who make horror videos of torture and beheadings, they feel that they are the ones who confront denunciation in our press, and possible prosecution. As they have just tried to demonstrate to me, a man who has been waterboarded may well emerge from the experience a bit shaky, but he is in a mood to surrender the relevant information and is unmarked and undamaged and indeed ready for another bout in quite a short time. When contrasted to actual torture, waterboarding is more like foreplay. No thumbscrew, no pincers, no electrodes, no rack. Can one say this of those who have been captured by the tormentors and murderers of (say) Daniel Pearl? On this analysis, any call to indict the United States for torture is therefore a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down. I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand this viewpoint.

The fact that Hitchens ultimately comes down against torture/waterboarding gives special weight to this argument.

McCain says there should be a categorical ban, Krauthammer no.

Albert Mohler agrees with McCain, but with important qualifications:

We are simply not capable, I would argue, of constructing a set of principles and rules for torture that could adequately envision the real-life scenarios under which the pressure and temptation to use extreme coercion would be seriously contemplated.

Instead, I would suggest that Senator McCain is correct in arguing that a categorical ban should be adopted as state policy for the U.S., its military, and its agents. At the same time, I would admit that such a policy, like others, has limitations that, under extreme circumstances, may be transcended by other moral claims. The key point is this— at all times and in all cases the use of torture is understood to be morally suspect in the extreme, and generally unjustified.

Rules institutionalize a reality and shape a society. The safe transit of automobiles requires a set of well-established, public, and intelligible traffic laws, including speed limits. At the same time, a parent rushing a bleeding child to the hospital may be stopped by a police officer, but such a parent is not likely to be arrested and prosecuted for breaking this law. Why? Because the parent’s action, under a set of unexpected but conceivable conditions, was understood by legal authorities to have been justified under this precise set of circumstances. The government does not stipulate in advance that such a set of allowable conditions exists, nor does it attempt to exhaust in advance what circumstances might exist that would be similarly justified. Instead, the law is understood to remain in full effect with full integrity even as legitimate and authorized legal agents decide not to arrest or prosecute a citizen whose law-breaking was understood to be justified under these precise circumstances. The rule is unchanged, and the law is not mocked.

These two contexts of moral decision-making can serve to develop a coherent and principled policy on the state’s use of torture and extreme coercion. First, the use of torture should be prohibited as a matter of state policy— period. No set of qualifications and exceptions can do anything but diminish the moral credibility of this policy. At the same time, rare exceptions under extreme circumstances can be considered under those circumstances by legitimate state agents, knowing that a full accounting of these decisions must be made to the public, through appropriate means and mechanisms.

Second, a thorough and legitimate review must be conducted subsequent to the use of any such techniques, with the agents who authorized or conducted such use of torture fully accountable, even to the point of maximum legal prosecution if their use of extreme coercion is seen to have been unjustified (not simply because the interrogation did not produce the desired information, but because the grounds of justification were invalid). The absence of legitimate accountability through a thorough and comprehensive process of review— with the threat of real and appropriate sanctions against those found to have acted without due justification— makes the state complicit in a web of cruelty and the official rationalization of evil.

Yeah, But…

Sounds reasonable, but there is a definite downside to this. After reporting about the CIA destroying tapes of interrogations, Bryan at Hotair states:

Agreed, the C.I.A shouldn’t be destroying evidence…The C.I.A. said today that the decision to destroy the tapes had been made “within the C.I.A. itself,” and they were destroyed to protect the safety of undercover officers and because they no longer had intelligence value. The agency was headed at the time by Porter J. Goss. Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Goss declined this afternoon to comment on the destruction of the tapes.

This is what we get when we have leaders who abdicate leadership and don’t protect their subordinates for the consequences of the choices that the leaders make. This, essentially, is the result of Sen. John McCain’s announced policy of keeping interrogation techniques like waterboarding illegal, but knowing full well that it will be used in extreme circumstances, and that when it is used the agents who used it will find themselves in legal jeopardy no matter what the outcome of the interrogation was. It’s the politics of passing the buck.

I’m not blaming McCain alone for this; most of Washington basically sides with his effort to pass off responsibility to anyone but themselves, whether or not they signed on to the actual method McCain used in this specific case.

And here we are. Buck passed, agents in fear of prosecution and politicization destroying evidence, politicians once again side-stepping responsibility for their own predictably awful self-centered reasons. We have one more reason to loathe politicians on both sides of the aisle, and one more reason to suspect that our intel agencies are spinning more and more out of control and that terrorist-connected lawyers are gaming the system and no one in a position to do anything about it has the guts to call them out.

Read the whole thing. He makes some great points. It’s a tough call. Either way is subject to abuses. On the one hand, there is the very real possibility that men who do their duty to protect lives will be subject to public humiliation and prosecution. They are the ones making the hard decisions, yet they are the ones who will be demonized by an unthinking public and reactionary politicians.

On the other hand, you have the undesirable situation of codifying torture as government policy. Yikes. Like I said, it’s quite a sticky wicket.

In the next post (you mean there’s more?!!), I will address objections that allowing for torture at all is consequentialist in nature and therefore unsound morally.

Torture Part III

See parts I and II of this series before reading this post.

Does Waterboarding et al Produce Reliable Information?

Yesterday I ended by noting that, not only does making a government policy for torture get us on a slippery slope, but some argue that not only is the “ticking time bomb” scenario is fantastical, but also enhanced interrogation, waterboarding specifically, doesn’t work. It yields unreliable information and sends U.S agents on wild goose chases. Vanity Fair’s David Rose writes,

The unreliability of intelligence acquired by torture was taken as a given in the early years of the C.I.A., whose 1963 kubark interrogation manual stated: “Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, concocted as a means of escaping from distress. A time-consuming delay results, while investigation is conducted and the admissions are proven untrue. During this respite the interrogatee can pull himself together. He may even use the time to think up new, more complex ‘admissions’ that take still longer to disprove.”

One of the most striking testimonies to that effect is from FBI agent Ali Soufan. Talking about the famous memos, he states:

One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him 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.

Soufan is a reliable witness, and no weak kneed pushover. His testimony should be considered. It should be acknowledged, though, that most of the testimonies regarding the success of waterboarding is in reference to KSM, not Zubaydah, who Soufan was involved with. Both were different men in different circumstances, and perhaps they required different approaches.

There are some doubts about Soufan’s testimony (more here).

Time Magazine, referencing Soufan’s questioning of another AQ operative, argues that waterboarding doesn’t work. The magazine notes it took a plate of “sugar free cookies” to turn him.

I’d be laughing at that if I hadn’t made that note earlier about being serious…so I’ll just take this at face value.

Ok, so a plate of sugar free cookies and “doing nice things” (not kidding…direct quote from the article) helped with Abu Jandal…but does that mean that coercive interrogation techniques should be off limits in every circumstance? To paraphrase Patterico, I think most people thinking with common sense would acknowledge that it would take more than a few snicker doodles to get a hardened terrorist to talk.

Testimony is Split

In addition to that, despite the testimonies and arguments layed out above, I’m not so sure the TTB thought experiment is just a thought experiment. There are plenty of reasons to think it happens in real life and that, in the controversial cases with the CIA, waterboarding and other less harsh enhanced techniques (sleep deprivation, playing loud music, etc) helped save American lives. Krauthammer, in a follow up column to his original piece, counters the popular meme that the TTB scenario doesn’t apply to reality:

On Oct. 9, 1994, Israeli Cpl. Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car. He was interrogated with methods so brutal that they violated Israel’s existing 1987 interrogation guidelines, which themselves were revoked in 1999 by the Israeli Supreme Court as unconscionably harsh. The Israeli prime minister who ordered, as we now say, this enhanced interrogation explained without apology: “If we’d been so careful to follow the (’87) Landau Commission (guidelines), we would never have found out where Waxman was being held.”

Who was that prime minister? Yitzhak Rabin, Nobel Peace laureate. (The fact that Waxman died in the rescue raid compounds the tragedy but changes nothing of Rabin’s moral calculus.)

That moral calculus is important. Even John McCain says that in ticking time bomb scenarios you “do what you have to do.” The no-torture principle is not inviolable. One therefore has to think about what kind of transgressive interrogation might be permissible in the less pristine circumstance of the high-value terrorist who knows about less imminent attacks.

Mark Thiessen at the Washington Post (HT: Patterico) also notes that the thought experiment doesn’t stop at being mere thought. Waterboarding of KSM yielded actionable intelligence that foiled another terrorist plot: the “Second Wave,” the bombing of the Library Tower in LA:

Consider the Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005. It notes that “the CIA believes ‘the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.’ . . . In particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques.” The memo continues: “Before the CIA used enhanced techniques . . . KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, ‘Soon you will find out.’ ” Once the techniques were applied, “interrogations have led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding al Qaeda and its affiliates.”

Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques “led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the ‘Second Wave,’ ‘to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into’ a building in Los Angeles.” KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast.

Thiessen explains that the foiling of that plot was just the start. He claims we gained lots of useful information from waterboarding KSM.

Go here to see the relevant part of the memo. Some have claimed this is bogus because the timing is odd. Patterico, in the link, gives a plausible timeline that resolves the discrepancies.

There are other voices as well that unequivocably say that waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques yield reliable information.

One of those voices comes from Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair (HT: Ed Morrissey):

President Obama’s national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.

“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.

Admiral Blair sent his memo on the same day the administration publicly released secret Bush administration legal memos authorizing the use of interrogation methods that the Obama White House has deemed to be illegal torture. Among other things, the Bush administration memos revealed that two captured Qaeda operatives were subjected to a form of near-drowning known as waterboarding a total of 266 times.

The thing is that Blair’s admission was deleted from the version originally released to the media:

Admiral Blair’s assessment that the interrogation methods did produce important information was deleted from a condensed version of his memo released to the media last Thursday. Also deleted was a line in which he empathized with his predecessors who originally approved some of the harsh tactics after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past,” he wrote, “but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given.”

He did say that the information gained was not essential to our national security, and that there’s no way of knowing if the intel could have been had by other means, but the above admission is striking.

The CIA continues to stand by its actions.

John Kiriakou, now a retired CIA agent, says waterboarding worked (HT: Hotair, again. They’ve done some stellar digging on this issue). His testimony is important to read for both sides of the debate. He says right now, waterboarding is unnecessary, but back then it was. He also says that waterboarding compromised our principles, but it saved American lives:

“What happens if we don’t waterboard a person, and we don’t get that nugget of information, and there’s an attack,” Kiriakou said. “I would have trouble forgiving myself.”

From a recent briefing on Capitol Hill:

GOP members on the Intelligence Committee on Thursday told The Hill in on-the-record interviews that they were informed that the controversial methods have led to information that prevented terrorist attacks.

When told of the GOP claims, Democrats strongly criticized the members who revealed information that was provided at the closed House Intelligence Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing. Democrats on the panel said they could not respond substantively, pointing out that the hearing was closed.

In the bowels of the Capitol Visitor Center, members of the panel gathered behind locked doors on Thursday morning to begin a series of hearings on the interrogation of terrorism suspects…

But Republicans on the panel said that not only did the use of interrogation techniques come up Thursday, but that the data shared about those techniques proved they had led to valuable information that in some instances prevented terrorist attacks…

“Democrats weren’t sure what they were going to get,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), ranking Republican on the Intelligence panel, referring to information on the merits of enhanced interrogation techniques. “Now that they know what they’ve got, they don’t want to talk about it…”

“The hearing did address the enhanced interrogation techniques that have been much in the news lately,” [GOP Rep. Jon] Kline said, noting that he was intentionally choosing his words carefully in observance of the committee rules and the nature of the information presented.

“Based on what I heard and the documents I have seen, I came away with a very clear impression that we did gather information that did disrupt terrorist plots,” Kline said.

Allahpundit at Hotair comments:

Watch the goalposts move. First the left insisted that America doesn’t torture as a matter of simple morality, whether or not that means another round of crashing airplanes forcing office-dwellers to swan-dive off of skyscrapers. That one didn’t fly, so they shifted to the cagier argument that enhanced interrogation never, ever, ever, ever, evah works — ever — except that Cheney and Obama’s own DNI claim that it does, and now a majority of the public believes them. In fact, according to Gallup, Pelosi’s slo-mo meltdown over what she knew about waterboarding has left her credibility so thoroughly shot that she’s almost exactly as popular as Darth Cheney himself.

Note that no Democrat interviewed for the Hill’s piece disagrees with Kline’s conclusion, just that they’re pissed that he chose to say anything. Like Tom Maguire says, given that The One already published the details of our interrogation techniques by releasing the torture memos, what damage is done to national security by the GOP insisting that EIT works? There’s plenty of political damage done to the left, but surely angry Democrats’ only concern with leaks is how it complicates protecting America, no? Exit question: How exactly did the GOP congressmen who talked to the Hill reveal any more or less than Carl Levin did last week when he denied that those two memos Cheney wants declassified confirm that EIT is effective? Neither he nor the Republicans revealed any information beyond asserting whether it works or whether it doesn’t. Double standard, anyone?

In the debate on torture and waterboarding specifically, all the testimonies need to be weighed. As of now, I think the balance of evidence points to the techniques being useful, but not in all cases. It is unwise to say that because waterboarding didn’t work in a few cases, that it therefore never works, and we should just toss it.

All this is just prudential reasoning, though. I still haven’t analyzed whether waterboarding is torture, and if so, whether that means it is always impermissable.  That will be for the next post in the series.  You can access the next posts by clicking on the proper trackback links in the comments section.

Torture part II

This post continues the series I began previously on torture.

What is torture?

The United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT) gives a definition in Article 1.1:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

This is a start, but still it is pretty vague. What constitutes “severe pain or suffering”? Some people would label sleep deprivation as “severe pain and suffering,” while others scoff at such a notion. The point is that definition leaves much to be desired. Perhaps, at the end of the day, it boils down to the stereotypical definition of pornography–“I know it when I see it.”

I myself might not know exactly where the line is, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make key distinctions at all. As Albert Mohler points out, sleep deprivation and a slap in the face belong in another category entirely than being tied to a rack or having jumper cables attached to one’s nipples.

Mohler goes on:

Under certain circumstances, most morally sensitive persons would surely allow interrogators to yell at prisoners and to use psychological intimidation, sleep deprivation, and the removal of creature comforts for purposes of obtaining vital information. In increasingly serious cases, most would likely allow some use of pharmaceuticals and more intensive and manipulative psychological techniques. In the most extreme of conceivable cases, most would also allow the use of far more serious mechanisms of coercion – even what we would all agree should be labeled as torture.

A “Ticking Time Bomb”

I agree. Krauthammer supplies one of these cases, the famous “ticking time bomb” scenario. It has been mulled over time and time again, but just in case you haven’t heard, the thought experiment supposes that agents of the state hold a terrorist who knows about a hidden device that, if it goes off, will kill and harm countless individuals. Krauthammer argues that in this scenario, the use of extreme coercive measures would be justified not as a matter of punishment but only for the purpose of obtaining life saving information.

In this case, Krauthammer says, saving lives trumps government restraint, for the former is the greater good.

One critique that has been brought against this is “how realistic is the thought experiment?” Sounds fine for a “24” season arc, but what about real life? In real life, it isn’t that clear cut. Do we have the right guy? How sure are we that he has the needed information? Is allowing extreme coercion in this instance, especially if sanctioned and codified by the state, put us on a greasy slope towards more heinous practices? As Christopher Hitchens notes,

Once you have posed the notorious “ticking bomb” question, and once you assume that you are in the right, what will you not do? Waterboarding not getting results fast enough? The terrorist’s clock still ticking? Well, then, bring on the thumbscrews and the pincers and the electrodes and the rack.

Though I think he overstates things, his point is well taken: once fallen human beings get on a horse, it’s hard to get off. Our propensity for self-justification and breathtaking blindness looms large.

I am sympathetic to the slippery slope point made by Hitchens, and I agree that often things are not clear cut (how sure are we that this guy has useful intel?).

In the next post, I will continue to examine the issue of torture.  You can see that post by clicking on the proper trackback link in the comments section.

A Torturous Post

I’m hopelessly behind the news ticker. It usually takes me quite a while to think about and write a post on some issues. I try not to be too knee-jerk reactionary, and that, most often, means I don’t post on something until it has come and gone from the current events scene. Thus, I offer this series on torture, which was a hot topic a few months ago.

Then again, it is bound to come up again some time or later, so perhaps I’m in front of the news ticker. Actually, it was in the news a day or two ago. (Read the whole thing.  It is important.)

I should have posted on this long ago. I just wanted to do a lot of reading up to make sure I’m thinking carefully.

I’ve done a huge amount of reading on the matter, in fact. Justin Taylor, for instance, convened a symposium of key Catholic and Evangelical thinkers to make a response on the issue. The essays were very helpful in shaping my thoughts. Chris Tollefsen at The Public Discourse and Charles Krauthammer also wrote foundational pieces on torture. Though I think Krauthammer’s piece is better reasoned than Tollefsen’s, and even though Krauthammer wrote in 2005, both are good essays to consult.

The points: A) any conservative Christian thinker (heck, any liberal Christian thinker) needs to consult those resources, and b) no one can claim there is not morally serious, rigorous, appropriately nuanced thought from a conservative and Christian perspective on the subject of torture.

For a summary of the relevant “memos” (plus links), go here.


First, I gotta get one thing off my chest from the get go. I sense that one side of this debate refuses to make crucial moral distinctions, preferring instead to sanctimoniously spout moral equivalencies like they are self-evidently true. For example, one of my friends said on Twitter, “We should prosecute those responsible torturing in Gitmo showing we are against tyranny.”

At first, I was a little intimidated by that statement, simply because I hadn’t thought much about the matter. But now, I have little patience for such words. Tyranny? Are you kidding me? You wanna see tyranny, go to Tehran right now and see what they do to people who protest the government. THAT’S tyranny.

Al Quaida tortures the bejeezus out of our guys, then beheads them. That strikes me as tyranny. Waterboarding a known terrorist five times in a controlled environment–tyranny? To suggest that these two are even remotely in the same boat by using the same word for them (Even if not the intent, the message is one of moral equivalence. If you don’t think the two are equivalent you need to be more precise and careful…even on Twitter.) is tomfoolery.

We waterboarded KSM and Zubaydah, two terrorists (Terrorists are not soldiers in uniform, since they attack citizens and make a mockery of wartime conventions. This doesn’t give our government carte blanche to do whatever–far from it–but it does bear mentioning. Also, I know some say AZ was only a minor AQ operative, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a terrorist.), a few times (not 183 times, which is an urban legend born out of a misunderstanding of the facts), in order to get information out of them. With both men, there were protocols in place in regards to the interrogation methods to which they were subjected. It was done in a controlled environment, and not by sadistic hearts bent on causing pain. Many who were involved in the interrogations had reservations about what was being done. Most were motivated by a desire to save American lives. This is not tyranny, not even close. Did the CIA cross the line? Perhaps. Should waterboarding be outlawed? Perhaps. Is it torture? Perhaps–more on all that later. But lets not twit about calling this “tyranny,” as if we’re in the same boat as dictators and terrorists themselves.

Even if you throw in the abuses at Abu Grhaib, which were heartbreaking and obviously gross deeds, it still isn’t tyranny. That was an aberration, not a sanctioned practice, and the soldiers responsible were prosecuted thoroughly.

Another example is here. These folks browbeat him just for posing the questions. Something makes me think they wouldn’t waste near as much ink denouncing human rights violations in Iran or China. We just gotta get past the rhetoric Patterico unveils.

The Other Side Needs to Quit Pretending Too

Second, some on the other side of the debate are guilty of knee-jerk reactionaryism (is that a word? Seven syllables…ma-y-an.) as well. As soon as somebody bucks the party line and questions the ethics of our interrogation methods of terrorists, they shout, “liberal ninny! You obviously don’t care about losting American lives!” These folk typically put too much priority on the effectiveness of the method. What is clear is that with AZ and KSM, our government produced a “fist of firsts,” and that alone means the utmost sober reflection is called for. We cannot blithely proceed simply because we’re in a “war on terror.” I am very uncomfortable with the “do whatever it takes to get the information we need” approach.

Both sides have a propensity to resort to emotional rhetorical flourishes, which is exactly what should be avoided. Both sides need to step back a pace or two, separate themselves from the politics of it, and really think, as much as possible, with disspassionate logic and cooler heads. Might be hard to do, but it needs to be done given the fact that this is so important.

Brushing Over Careful Distinctions

Third, many commentators go off the rails right from the start: they never actually define what torture is. They give no definition, then they simply call a certain act “torture,” implying that it is wrong. They let a word with heavy negative connotations do the bulk of the arguing. You can get away with that when talking about things like being shocked or having your fingernails pulled off, but in our case, this is a very sly, but underhanded way to go. One can take a particularist way of defining the term–starting with a clear-case, obvious example of torture, then gleaning a definition from that, followed by applying the definition to less-obvious cases–but one must formulate a definition before addressing the controversial cases that were the subject of so much talk a few months ago.

Here’s an example: most people just call waterboarding “torture,” therefore implying that it is morally impermissable or at least morally suspect. This begs a number of questions: is it torture? If so, why? Where do we draw the line and can that line be reasonably maintained?

Another example: many Christians cite Paul’s injunction to “let us not do evil that good may result,” implying that X act of coercion or torture (waterboarding, say) is evil. This is fair enough, but that presupposes that the act in question is, in fact, evil. It also leaves what is evil entirely undefined.

Darrell Cole, assistant professor of Religion at Drew University uses this kind of wording in his essay:

At first glance, the new threat that is the war on terror seems to offer the moral realists good reasons to begin the systematic use of torture on terrorists, though, again, the reasons are not as persuasive as they were during the Second World War or the cold war. In the former two wars we were fighting for the survival of Western Civilization. In the current war we simply want to spare ourselves the loss of a lot of lives—a noble cause, but not as noble as saving a civilization. The problem with this tactic for Christians, whether it be for the cause of Western Civilization or our own lives, is that Christians have always followed the apostle Paul and resisted attempts to justify doing evil for a good cause. For Christians, there are no “emergencies” that would justify moral acts displeasing to God. The refusal to do evil that good may come is a moral staple of classical Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic morality. (emphasis mine)

And again:

Christians have good reasons to distance themselves from the moral realism evidenced in Krauthammer’s essay. Nevertheless, the temptation to use a little evil on an evildoer can be overwhelming when a great deal is at stake. We may be tempted to count the cost on our conscience and try to figure out how much evil we can live with—how much evil we are willing to avert our eyes from—in order to save a society that we hold so dear. When we are tempted to count the moral costs, we often like to convince ourselves that we are only going to allow this particular evil to be done only once in this case of emergency. When our own lives are at stake, we do not fear the slippery slope. We tell ourselves that we will not become people who regularly do evil simply because we allow it in special cases, nor will we become barbarians simply because we practice a little barbarism for a good cause.

While he makes some decent points about the possibility of a slippery slope, notice that he simply lumps all coercion into one category called “torture,” never defines the word, and simply calls torture evil without argument. It is sloppy thinking to object to nebulous torture without getting specific.

Krauthammer uses the same language, therefore opening the way for Cole to brush over careful distinctions. He states that torture may sometimes be a moral duty, but in elsewhere he says, “there is no denying the monstrous evil that is any form of torture.” This is confusing. Daniel Heimbach, commenting on Krauthammer’s use of language, points this out, but gives a more charitable interpretation of Krauthammer in the end: “Coherence requires that we either say that torture is always a ‘monstrous evil’ with no exceptions, or that torture, while evil in most circumstances, is not evil all the time—that there are situations when torture is not truly evil. This later position is what I think Krauthammer actually means.”

Moreover, isn’t refusing to protect innocent lives evil? If “torture” can yield information which leads to significantly saving innocent lives, how, then, can Cole call undefined torture “evil,” and say that is a reason against its practice, but leave the the evil of refusal to protect totally unexamined? Perhaps, in the end, waterboarding is torture, and perhaps it is still morally impermissable, even if it can protect innocent lives, but Cole leaves this wholly unanswered.

In the next post, I will continue to discuss a definition of torture, before making some other points.