But was it right?

KSMMOn Saturday, a multi-bylined story in the Washington Post wrote that terrorists became helpful intelligence assets after — and only after — they were subjected to the CIA’s harshest interrogation methods, including waterboarding.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed (pictured) actually ended up giving tutorials to intelligence officers about al-Qaeda practices, philosophy and plans in 2005 and 2006:

These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its “preeminent source” on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.

“KSM, an accomplished resistor, provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate or incomplete,” according to newly unclassified portions of a 2004 report by the CIA’s then-inspector general released Monday by the Justice Department.

The release of this information is controversial, the Post‘s story is controversial, and the whole thing is fueling another round in the debate over interrogation of enemy combatants — but all of that is beyond the scope of this blog. The reason I highlight this story here is that the coverage seems stuck in such utilitarian terms. Did harsh interrogation “work” or “not work”? To answer the question, the various reports out there quote people on one side of the story who insist that these methods lead to bad information or help recruit additional terrorists to the cause. And then they quote the people on the other side who say that the helpful information obtained justifies the use of harsh interrogation tactics. It’s all very political.

But what I’m not seeing in any of the mainstream media coverage is any quotes from people who aren’t debating in terms of utility. There are arguments — religious and otherwise — for or against these harsh interrogation practices that look at the inherent goodness or badness of the techniques apart from whatever utility they may serve. It just boggles the mind how well these arguments have been excluded from mainstream coverage. I’m not suggesting that the media take a position on the politics, the utility or the ethics of these practices but it seems to me that a discussion of their morality is still in order.

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  • Jerry

    a discussion of their morality is still in order.

    Indeed yes.

  • Northeasterner

    I think if you don’t consider the possible utility of the interrogation techniques, then there is no reason to use them.

    After all, no one is arguing that torture is a positive good. At best, it is a regrettable necessity. Every serious person agrees that torture for reasons of revenge or sadism (Abu Ghraib) is inexcuseable. The only debate is over torture that has a reasonable chance of extracting valuable, life-saving intelligence. This is a subtle, complex debate that is not helped by partisanship. Richard Cohen’s recent column on this is spot-on.

    I think the core of the discussion is whether the use of enhanced interrogation techniques is *ever* justified. Whether such techniques are ever effective is material to the discussion of the morality of the techniques.

  • Kyle

    Northeasterner, I may be misreading you or Mollie or both, but it seems to me that she is pointing out the existence of ethicists who believe there are what we Catholics call intrinsic evils – things that are morally unjustifiable in and of themselves, independent of circumstances or intentions. Torture, in the teaching of the Catholic Church, is one of those things. For an orthodox Catholic, even if it works, you still can’t torture.

    Given the reflexive utilitarianism of our culture, it’s easy to see why that’s not dealt with very well in mainstream reporting, but I agree with Mollie and with Jerry that it’s important to reflect those points of view. Not least of all because utilitarianism is moral poison.

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  • http://augustiniandemocrat.blogspot.com/ John Brandkamp

    The only example I’ve seen of someone objecting on moral grounds, whether they’re effective or not, is Shepherd Smith’s tirade on Fox. Here’s the link. Beware though, he does drop the F bomb in his emotional outburst. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/22/shepard-smith-torture_n_190350.html

  • dalea

    Ethical and moral arguments against torture have been raised by both Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. They have been doing so repeatedly for several years.

    The usual Left blogs: DKos, MyDD, TalkLeft, FireDogLake, AmericaBlog have all raised the issue. They have also campaigned to outlaw torture. In general, the Left (as you call it)has been outspoken on the subject. That the MSM have not reported this shows how little effect the Left has on the MSM. The MSM obediently showcases NeoCon and Conservative views serving as stenographers for the right. MediaMatters has detailed how this works.

    Actual Libertarian sites, such as antiwar.com, have raised the issue in moral terms. Ron Paul brought the topic up last year. Fusionist sites have pretty much ignored the topic, or praised torture.

    Andrew Sullivan has also been out front on the topic, speaking in moral terms.

    From what I have seen, the NewMedia has been on this topic for a long time. They have raised the moral issues for years. The MSM, our traditional NewsCorpse has ignored the topic or just printed right wing propaganda.

  • Chip Smith

    The liberal media, at least the parts of it that I read, has dealt with the moral aspect of the issue from the beginning.

    In general, however, the MSM does a poor job of covering policy, while they are great at covering the horserace aspect of politics. If you want to know which side is up or down in the health care debate, go to the MSM. If you want to know what legislation is actually being considered in Congress and how it might impact the lives of Americans, you need to go to either the partisan or the non-profit media. Torture is a policy issue that has an intrinsic moral dimension, so it’s no surprise that the MSM is doing a poor job of covering it.

    A perfect example of what Molly is talking about is the difficulty the MSM has in describing the issue. The word “torture” has a moral connotation to it and is only found in quotes from one side of the horserace. They have no problem using the word “torture” to describe John McCain’s experience in captivity, yet when Americans have used the same techniques it becomes the Orwellian phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

    I chalk the reluctance of the MSM to use accurate language to describe the issue and reluctance to deal with the moral aspect of the issue to the effective job that conservatives have done at working the ref’s. The media is terrified of being accused of liberal bias, and this is a good example of them bending over backwards to avoid that charge.

  • Kyle

    I disagree with those criticisms of media coverage, speaking as someone who is very much opposed to torture. Most mainstream reporting is simply doing its job and reporting the debate over language – when torture opponents, on the right or left, use the word torture, they quote it. They also explain the objections some conservatives have to the language, and their preferred substitute. I think most readers can smell a euphemism when presented with one.

    Major reports in the New York Times and Washington Post have also described in serious detail what was done. The problem, unfortunately, is getting readers to care, when the public even in possession of the details seems ambivalent. I wish it were not so.

  • Dave

    Whether such techniques are ever effective is material to the discussion of the morality of the techniques.

    Northeasterner, did you mean immaterial?

  • http://blog.kennypearce.net Kenny

    The story linked to does contain this:

    Critics say waterboarding and other harsh methods are unacceptable regardless of their results, and those with detailed knowledge of the CIA’s program say the existing assessments offer no scientific basis to draw conclusions about effectiveness.

    “Democratic societies don’t use torture under any circumstances. It is illegal and immoral,” said Tom Parker, policy director for counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International. “This is a fool’s argument in any event. There is no way to prove or disprove the counterfactual.”

    That seems like a non-consequentialist moral argument to me, although it does seem that in order to get it in the news they had to mix it in with arguments about effectiveness.

  • Chip Smith

    Kyle wrote:

    Most mainstream reporting is simply doing its job and reporting the debate over language – when torture opponents, on the right or left, use the word torture, they quote it.

    They are not simply reporting the debate. Since they are covering the policy described by the word, they don’t have a choice, they must pick sides. And they have decided to not use the word torture. That is not a neutral decision.

    At the same time, they choose to use the word torture when the exact same techniques are used by non-Americans. They have no problem making the moral judgment carried by the word torture if Americans are the victims but avoid the moral implications of that word when Americans are the one committing the immoral act.

  • Pingback: If Torture ‘Works,’ Should We Do it? | Xenia Institute

  • Kyle

    They are not simply reporting the debate. Since they are covering the policy described by the word, they don’t have a choice, they must pick sides. And they have decided to not use the word torture. That is not a neutral decision.

    I disagree. They do not have to pick sides. They can do precisely what they did, which is describe in all its ugly detail the torturous practices that were used.


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