Wednesday, May 4, 2011 11:30 AM UTC

The illogic of the torture debate

It played no role in finding bin Laden. But if torture had proved helpful, would that have made it right?

BIN LADEN

FILE - In this 1998 file photo, al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is shown in Afghanistan. A person familiar with developments said Sunday, May 1, 2011 that bin Laden is dead and the U.S. has the body. (AP File Photo) (Credit: AP)

(updated below)

The killing of Osama bin Laden has, as The New York Times notes, reignited the debate over “brutal interrogations” — by which it’s meant that Republicans are now attempting to exploit the emotions generated by the killing to retroactively justify the torture regime they implemented. The factual assertions on which this attempt is based — that waterboarding and other “harsh interrogation methods” produced evidence crucial to locating bin Laden — are dubious in the extreme, for reasons Andrew Sullivan and Marcy Wheeler document. So fictitious are these claims that even Donald Rumsfeld has repudiated them.

But even if it were the case that valuable information were obtained during or after the use of torture, what would it prove? Nobody has ever argued that brutality will never produce truthful answers. It is sometimes the case that if you torture someone long and mercilessly enough, they will tell you something you want to know. Nobody has ever denied that. In terms of the tactical aspect of the torture debate, the point has always been — as a consensus of interrogations professionals has repeatedly said — that there are far more effective ways to extract the truth from someone than by torturing it out of them. The fact that one can point to an instance where torture produced the desired answer proves nothing about whether there were more effective ways of obtaining it.

This highlights what has long been a glaring fallacy in many debates over War on Terror policies: that Information X was obtained after using Policy A does not prove that Policy A was necessary or effective. That’s just basic logic. This fallacy asserted itself constantly in the debate over warrantless surveillance. Proponents of the Bush NSA program would point to some piece of intelligence allegedly obtained during warrantless eavesdropping as proof that the illegal program was necessary and effective; obviously, though, that fact said nothing about whether the same information would also have been discovered through legal eavesdropping, i.e., eavesdropping approved in advance by the FISA court (and indeed, legal eavesdropping [like legal interrogation tactics] is typically more effective than the illegal version because, by necessity, it is far more focused on actual suspected Terrorism plots; warrantless eavesdropping entails the unconstrained power to listen in on any communications the Government wants without having to establish its connection to Terrorism). But in all cases, the fact that some piece of intelligence was obtained by some lawless Bush/Cheney War on Terror policy (whether it be torture or warrantless eavesdropping) proves nothing about whether that policy was effective or necessary.

And those causal issues are, of course, entirely independent of the legal and moral questions shunted to the side by this reignited “debate.” There are many actions that the U.S. could take that would advance its interests that are nonetheless obviously wrong on moral and legal grounds. When Donald Trump recently suggested that we should simply take Libya’s oil and that of any other country which we successfully invade and occupy, that suggestion prompted widespread mockery. That was the reaction despite the fact that stealing other countries’ oil would in fact produce substantial benefits for the U.S. and advance our interests: it would help to lower gas prices, reduce our dependence on hostile oil-producing nations, and avoid having to degrade our own environment in order to drill domestically. Trump’s proposal is morally reprehensible and flagrantly lawless despite how many benefits it would produce; therefore, no person of even minimal decency would embrace it no matter how many benefits it produces.

Exactly the same is true for the torture techniques used by the Bush administration and once again being heralded by its followers (and implicitly glorified by media stars who keep suggesting that they enabled bin Laden’s detection). It makes no difference whether it extracted usable intelligence. Criminal, morally depraved acts don’t become retroactively justified by pointing to the bounty they produced.

* * * * *

It was striking to note in yesterday’s New York Times the obituary of Moshe Landau, the Israeli judge who presided over the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann. It’s a reminder that when even the most heinous Nazi war criminals were hunted down by the Israelis, they weren’t shot in the head and then dumped into the ocean, but rather were apprehended, tried in a court of law, confronted with the evidence against them for all the world to see, and then punished in accordance with due process. The same was done to leading Nazis found by Allied powers and tried at Nuremberg. It’s true that those trials took place after the war was over, but whether Al Qaeda should be treated as active warriors or mere criminals was once one of the few ostensible differences between the two parties on the question of Terrorism.

Speaking of which: I know that very few people have even a slight interest in the unexciting, party-pooping question of whether our glorious killing comported with legal principles, but for those who do, both The Guardian and Der Spiegel have good discussions of that issue.

 

UPDATE:  Donald Rumsfeld repudiated one of the very few honest moments in his public career by reversing himself, now claiming that “enhanced interrogation” did indeed play a “critically important role” in the U.S.’s ability to find bin Laden.  CIA Director Leon Panetta today said that it is an “open question” whether waterboarding produced important intelligence in finding bin Laden.  There’s clearly an attempt underway by the political (and media) class to rehabilitate the Bush torture regime, which is why it is more important than ever to make clear that torture is never justifiable no matter what it produces.

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