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Thursday, February 14, 2008

torture helps the terrorists win

Torture has been in the news a lot this week. On Tuesday, in an interview with the BBC, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia justified the use of torture to extract information:
BBC: All I’m saying about it, is that it’s a bizarre scenario, because it’s very unlikely that you’re going to have the one person that can give you that information and so if you use that as an excuse to permit torture then perhaps that’s a dangerous thing.

SCALIA: Seems to me you have to say, as unlikely as that is, it would be absurd to say that you can’t stick something under the fingernails, smack them in the face. It would be absurd to say that you couldn’t do that. And once you acknowledge that, we’re into a different game. How close does the threat have to be and how severe can an infliction of pain be? There are no easy answers involved, in either direction, but I certainly know you can’t come in smugly and with great self-satisfaction and say, “Oh, this is torture and therefore it’s no good.” You would not apply that in some real-life situations. It may not be a ticking bomb in Los Angeles, but it may be: “Where is this group that we know is plotting this painful action against the United States? Where are they? What are they currently planning?”

Then yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed H.R. 2082, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, by a vote of 51-45. What does that have to do with torture? See sec. 327 of the bill:
(a) LIMITATION.—No individual in the custody or under the effective control of an element of the intelligence community or instrumentality thereof, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by the United States Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations.
(b) INSTRUMENTALITY DEFINED.—In this section, the term ‘‘instrumentality’’, with respect to an element of the intelligence community, means a contractor or subcontractor at any tier of the element of the intelligence community.'

Simply put, the bill would outlaw torture techniques like waterboarding. Former torture victim and current flip-flopper John McCain voted against it.

Arguments against terrorism usually depend on considerations like moral high ground, the Geneva Conventions, the treatment of U.S. troops when captured by others, and, in a word, law. The pro-torture argument depends on the need to gather life-saving information as speedily as possible, hence the trope of the ticking timebomb. And really, what can one say to that? That respect for the rule of law is more important than saving lives? That the ticking timebomb is a foolish rhetorical figure?

While those may be winning arguments among reasonable people, these are not reasonable times. This is an age of hysteria, when appeals to law and reason carry little weight in many quarters. With that in mind, I propose a new argument against torture, one that addresses the ticking timebomb question head on, to wit: Is torture likely to help us find the ticking timebomb before we are blown to kingdom come?

This is not a question of law or constitutionality but, rather, a question of criminological reliability. No other basis for opposing torture has any chance of convincing people who have no regard for law. So let us ask then, does torture make us safer by yielding time-sensitive, reliable information or not?

I would not presume to answer this question myself, not being an experienced torturer and all. Let us turn then not to apologists for torture like, say, Alan Dershowitz, but rather to an actual U.S. military interrogator and see what he thinks of torture-generated information.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on November 8, 2007 with just such a witness. The occasion's formal title was Oversight Hearing on Torture and the Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment of Detainees: The Effectiveness and Consequences of “Enhanced” Interrogation, and the star witness was
Steven Kleinman
Colonel, USAFR
Intelligence & National Security Specialist
Senior Intelligence Officer/Military Interrogator.

Suspiciously, the hearing transcript is still not available via Lexis-Nexis, but the House Judiciary Committee's website has a pdf of Kleinman's written statement to the Committee.

According to Kleinman, torture actually compromises interrogations:

'As the parties argue the legal and moral implications of using coercive methods to extract information that, according to the scenario, would save thousands of lives, there is an erroneous pre-supposition both sides seem too willing to accept: that coercion is ultimately an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information.

This conclusion is, in my professional opinion, unequivocally false.' [Italics his.]

How can he say such a thing? What experience does he have?

'Before addressing the concept of what has been described as “enhanced” interrogation methods, I believe it might be useful to present a brief summation of what over twenty years of operational experience has taught me about interrogation, both what it is and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not.'

Twenty years' experience is great, Captain America, but what about the ticking timebomb? Don't we need to extract the information by any means necessary? What about subjecting detainees to stressful situations until they can't take it anymore?
'Excessive stress, insufficient sleep, poor nutrition, and other environmental influences can result in substantial memory deficits. This is manifested not only as gaps in memory—that is, difficulty in recalling specific events—but also in unintended fabrication. What this suggests is that after exposure to the various environmental stressors, the source will be more likely to report some combination of real and imagined facts, believing sincerely that both are true, but ultimately being sincerely wrong on many counts. From an intelligence collection perspective, this is exceptionally problematic.'

But can't an experienced interrogator tell the difference? Here, in the absence of the hearing transcript, let us turn to one of the few news items to cover the hearing, from Talking Points Memo:
'But if a detainee has his hands tied, or if a detainee shivers because a room is chilled, then "I don't know whether he's shivering because the room is cold or because my questions are penetrating," Kleinman said. That degree of abuse "takes away a lot of my tools."'

According to one of the nation's most senior military interrogators, a man whose patriotism and intelligence are amply evidenced throughout his statement, torture actually makes it harder to get useful information out of detainees. It takes away the interrogators' tools, as he put it.

Why do Antonin Scalia and John McCain, to say nothing of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, want to take away our interrogators’ tools and tie their professional hands behind their backs? How can they claim to love America when they are cleearly helping the terrorists conceal information from interrogators? Are they more interested in torturing detainees than in protecting American citizens?

I think there's only one possible conclusion to draw from these considerations: George W. Bush and the other advocates of torture want the terrorists to win. Why else would they take away our interrogators' tools and help the terrorists conceal what they know? If the pro-torture people want to continue to plead on the terrorists' behalf, I think it's our obligation to tell the world whose side they're really on.

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Anonymous steve said...

Yes, Napoleon Bonaparte said the same thing; as does the Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation; as did experienced US interrogators in this article a few years ago. As I pointed out somewhere, if torture doesn't work, as the great preponderance of expert evidence attests, then there is no need to be sucked into debating "ticking-bomb" fantasies at all.

4:55 AM, February 15, 2008

Anonymous sw said...

Oh no, no, no, no, Jeff.

I propose a new argument against torture, one that addresses the ticking timebomb question head on, to wit: Is torture likely to help us find the ticking timebomb before we are blown to kingdom come?

First, the argument is not new.

Second, the argument falls into the trap. You'll tackle the trope head on? What will you say? "Torture does not work; torture does not help with the ticking time bomb; X knows this, Y knows this, etc. etc. etc."

But torture works.

It works.

As Elaine Scarry has convincingly shown, torture is an incredibly powerful tool - against individuals, against groups, and, as Naomi Klein discussed in the Nation (link pending), against the people supposedly supporting the torturers. It works to convey power at a time of great fear. It works to brutalise people, including the torturers themselves. And it has been a very effective rhetorical trope: we will do anything to protect you, it says. But if you cross us, we will do anything to you.

By pretending to get into a criminological debate about torture, you're dealing with hypotheticals ("If you knew where a ticking bomb was and somebody was plucking out your fingernails, would you tell them where it was?" Hell, yes. "So, torture works." D'oh!) You are accepting the premise that torture is about gaining information: it is not. It is not about obtaining information. It is about informing. Torture sends a message - to its victims, its perpetrators, and everybody else.

One should not be suprised that torture has reappeared with this administration. This government is full of scared, bullying men and women, and nothing temporarily soothes the cowardice of such people as effectively as violence wrapped in a macho justification. (Can't you just see Scalia, imagining himself a Jack Bauer figure?)

You say that Bush and all want terrorists to win. They do. And they have. They are terrorists.

9:22 AM, February 15, 2008

Anonymous steve said...

Jeff is merely pointing out the fact, attested by many interrogators throughout history, that torture does not work in the way that proponents for torture claim it does, ie to elicit reliable information.

To say that it "works" in other ways is not a refutation of this fact. It remains a fact worth pointing out.

I do strongly agree, though, that it is a mistake to "address the ticking timebomb question head on", to accede to its terms, to accord any respect to its sadistic and epistemically fantastical weltanschauung.

That is why I think it is reasonable to point out that torture does not elicit reliable information, and on that basis alone simply refuse to hold any further discussion about ticking time bombs. There was some discussion of this in this comment thread at Crooked Timber.

9:44 AM, February 15, 2008

Anonymous sw said...

I really don't want to get into yet another pissing match. I never said Jeff was "merely" doing anything. And pointing to other ways in which torture does work is, of course, not a refutation of the fact that it doesn't work in one way (that people can "go" on a green light does not mean that they cannot "stop" on a red one - I've got that much figured out). The point, rather, is not to get bogged down in a misleading "Torture doesn't work" argument - because it does. And then the point is to figure out what the "ticking time bomb" argument does. You simply dismiss the argument, refusing "to hold any further argument." I was trying to point out that the very argument is a rhetorical key to how torture works - about spreading fear, intimating control through intimidation, adopting (hypothetically at least) the mantle of machismo and the saviour. The question must be attacked for what it is, not refuted factually and then waved off.

10:28 AM, February 15, 2008

Anonymous sw said...

Just to bring Jeff's last two blosts together . . .

And here's the link I promised; this is another involving our friend John McCain and his own "principal" role in the torture narrative. They are both excellent articles.

12:38 PM, February 15, 2008

Anonymous sw said...

Shoot, does the third one not work?

12:41 PM, February 15, 2008


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