The Weak Case for Torture

The Weak Case for Torture April 23, 2009

I am probably in the minority at this blog in that I watch a fair amount of Fox News, frequent conservative blogs, etc. Most days this isn’t a problem as the slanted noise machine talking points mislabeled as news one gets from these sources are in line with my own Radical Individualist Calvinist Capitalist Stooge beliefs. Occasionally, however, the experience can be a painful one, and the last couple of days, with all the renewed attention on the use of waterboarding and other forms of tor- er, “enhanced interrogation” have been some of the most painful in recent memory.

The latest meme running through these sites is that while it may be honorable to be opposed to torture on principle, we ought to be reasonable and just admit that torture works. Here, for example, is Jonah Goldberg:

I have no objection to the moral argument against torture — if you honestly believe something amounts to torture. But the “it doesn’t work” line remains a cop out, no matter how confidently you bluster otherwise.

And here’s Michelle Malkin, making the same point:

We need to have an honest debate on interrogation techniques and securing America against attack from radical, committed terrorists. Conservatives should stop pretending that waterboarding isn’t a form of torture that the US has opposed for decades when used abroad, especially against our own citizens. But everyone else should stop pretending that it doesn’t work, and that we would have been safer without its use.

Yet while there is no shortage of confident assertions made over the last few days that ‘torture works’ and that it’s silly to pretend otherwise, the evidence adduced to support this claim tends to be rather thin. Malkin, for example, points to a New York Times story concerning a memo written by Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence. According to Malkin, the memo establishes “the truth that waterboarding produced information that saved hundreds of American lives, perhaps thousands.” Blair’s actual description of what waterboarding gained, however, is a tad less grandiose:

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.

Nothing in there about thwarted plots or saved lives. And while getting a “deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization” is no doubt important, one wonders whether it might have been possible to gain such a “deeper understanding” without waterboarding suspects hundreds of times.

Ironically, Adm. Blair’s own assessment of the use of torture is exactly the sort of position Malkin condemns as unserious:

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.

Another attempt to prove that ‘torture works’ came in the pages of the Washington Post, with former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen quoting selectively from a Justice Department memo:

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. The memo explains that “information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the ‘Second Wave.’ ” In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.

It’s a great story. The only problem is that to make it work, one would have to assume that the U.S. government has some kind of secret time machine:

What clinches the falsity of Thiessen’s claim, however . . . is chronology. In a White House press briefing, Bush’s counterterrorism chief, Frances Fragos Townsend, told reporters that the cell leader was arrested in February 2002, and “at that point, the other members of the cell” (later arrested) “believed that the West Coast plot has been canceled, was not going forward” A subsequent fact sheet released by the Bush White House states, “In 2002, we broke up a plot by KSM to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast.” These two statements make clear that however far the plot to attack the Library Tower ever got—an unnamed senior FBI official would later tell the Los Angeles Times that Bush’s characterization of it as a “disrupted plot” was “ludicrous”—that plot was foiled in 2002. But Sheikh Mohammed wasn’t captured until March 2003.

One wonders: if the case that torture saved lives is so rock solid, why do its advocates keep having to distort the facts in order to make their case?

UPDATE: In case anyone is interested, my previous posts critiquing the idea that ‘torture works’ can be found here and here.

UPDATE II: It looks like I’m not the only one who’s found the torture discussion on Fox News a little hard to take (warning: video contains profanity).

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  • Mark DeFrancisis

    Very good post.

  • But BA, torture does work — when people read my posts, they flee! 😉

  • LOL, Henry – you’re too hard on yourself. I love your posts. The fact that my head hurts after reading some of them ( a sort of childish despair at having taken the alarm clock apart, let’s say) is shortening my purgatory…

    BA – thank you for this post. I find the torture apologetics pretty disturbing, myself.

  • David Nickol

    An article in today’s New York Times begins:

    Even the most exacting truth commission may have a hard time determining for certain whether brutal interrogations conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency helped keep the country safe.

    Last week’s release of long-secret Justice Department interrogation memorandums has given rise to starkly opposing narratives about what, if anything, was gained by the C.I.A.’s use of waterboarding, wall-slamming and other physical pressure to shock and intimidate Qaeda operatives.

    The question of whether or not torture “works” can probably never be answered definitively and is almost a meaningless question.

    And some things just don’t add up. On the one hand, we have been told that waterboarding is such a horrific torture that it takes only a few minutes to break the toughest of men. On the other hand, we are told that it was used 183 times on Khalid Sheik Mohammed. I am most definitely not implying that waterboarding is not torture. Clearly it is. But did they get the answers to 183 questions, one per session? Or did it take 182 sessions to get him to the point where the 183rd session broke him?

  • Matt

    Thanks. I really do hope people enjoy them.

    I felt I had to say something here. Of course, I agree with BA’s point, but I wanted to say it with a bit of humor (and jokes aimed at oneself are a good way of doing that).

  • S.B.

    Jonah’s real argument, and this may be from another post, was that the “it doesn’t work” line is dangerous for torture opponents, because it assumes that if torture DID work, well then it might be different. Whereas if your objection to torture is moral — i.e., you wouldn’t want to do it even if it indisputably “worked” in some sense — then you shouldn’t care whether it “works” or not.

    So why do you care?

  • S.B.

    Think of it this way: Look at the “abortion lowers crime” debate. If you oppose abortion on moral grounds, then why get into a fight over whether abortion actually does lower crime? It’s not good, from an abortion opponent’s point of view, to get into a debate the premise of which is that the moral wrongness of abortion would be diminished if it turned out that potential criminals were getting aborted.

  • blackadderiv


    If that is his argument, then it’s an odd one. Conservatives are well known for making ‘even if’ arguments. Even if affirmative action did work as advertised, it would still be wrong because it’s wrong to treat people differently on account of their race, etc. There’s nothing inconsistent or wrongheaded about this type of argument. For one thing, the purpose of an argument is to persuade. Even if I have a moral objection to torture, you may not, and the point of making the argument to you is to persuade you. Further, if it is true that torture actually harms national security, puts American lives at risk, etc., then that would seem to be something one ought to care about, regardless of whether one has a principled objection to the practice.

  • S.B.

    OK, that’s a good answer. Never mind then. Carry on!

    Except for one thing, though: I still think it’s a treacherous argument. No one without high level clearance can possibly have a good idea whether certain techniques “worked.” Intelligence successes are, almost by definition, kept secret for a long time.

    Suppose — just by hypothesis — the CIA did find out from a harsh interrogation where a particular hideout was in Pakistan, and satellites have since then been monitoring that area and the CIA was currently attempting to infiltrate the hideout with local informers. Do you think you or I would know about that? Who in the CIA, regardless of their opinion on torture, would burn an ongoing successful operation?

    By the way, the link to the right for “American Life League” is misspelled.

  • I do think Malkin and co. do have a point (though not the one they intend) when they argue the moral argument loses focus when the effectiveness is brought in.

    I think a lot of people try to use the “it doesn’t work anyway” line and then get dragged into utilitarian calculus which almost always ends us badly for toture opponents.

    I prefer the “I don’t give a **** if it works, it’s intrinsic” line of argument; I just think it’s clearer and doesn’t lend itself towards devolving into inconsistency. Other arguments about America’s image, information gathered, etc. are just distractions and sideshows when compared to protecting the innate human dignity that Americans should protect.

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  • blackadderiv

    Except for one thing, though: I still think it’s a treacherous argument. No one without high level clearance can possibly have a good idea whether certain techniques “worked.” Intelligence successes are, almost by definition, kept secret for a long time.

    It’s true that we lack information about how exactly the use of these sorts of tactics has panned out in recent years (this goes both for the successes and for the failures). However, we do have quite a bit of information on the use of coercive interrogation in other times and places, and on the whole this evidence isn’t terribly favorable.

    Granted one can always say “that was the past; this time we finally got the bugs out” or “we now have this new awesome technique that really does work, and if only you saw it in action you’d agree.” Certainly this is possible, but based on past experience we are entitled, I think to be highly skeptical of such claims. Further, the fact that most interrogators don’t think that coercive interrogation works very well (while many of the people advocating it don’t have any real experience when it comes to interrogation) suggests that I am right to be skeptical here.

  • David Gamaliel

    There are apparently some who are willing to shoulder that identity “to save lives” or because they think it is proportionate.

    (1) When you have absolute power over someone, and they suffer as a direct result of your behavior, you are absolutely responsible.

    (2) When you torture your identity changes. You become a torturer. The nation becomes “a nation that tortures.”

    (3) Successful torturer/unsuccessful torturer. It’s all the same. Either way it is destructive of one’s relationship, human to human, and human to God.

    (4) Bottom line: It may be forgivable, but it is never excusable.

    One man’s thoughts.

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  • S.B.

    What does it mean for torture not to “work,” anyway? Does it mean that a generalized program of torture won’t, on the whole, be a net benefit (perhaps because you’ll end up torturing the wrong people, and getting wrong answers)? This should be clarified, because just saying that torture never “works” might be read as implying the frankly-ludicrous claim that even if we had Osama bin Laden under questioning, he would be able to withstand absolutely any form of torture, and would never crack and tell the truth about anything.

  • blackadderiv


    I address that question here.

  • S.B.

    I knew I was having deja vu.

    But that earlier post seems to vacillate on the distinction I raised.

    Most of the post seems to concede that torture could occasionally “produce accurate information,” and instead questions whether torture is an effective strategy as a general matter. But the post also begins by saying — flatly — that “if . . . your goal is to get reliable intelligence out of a person, . . . then just as clearly torture does not work.” Well, now, that’s quite an unbelievably strong assertion. Who says that every person who ever has actionable intelligence is completely impervious to pain? It seems far more plausible to me that, as the movie cliche goes, everybody cracks at some point.

  • digbydolben

    Here’s what actually DOES work:

    It’s a far cry from what the Bush Administration does, and it actually DOES contribute to the protection of interests and personnel.

    And the reason that this question IS important is that there probably WILL arise, again, the problem of extracting information from terrorists in order to save the lives of a large number of people. When this technique is available, people working in intelligence should not be seduced into using torture, which has been historically PROVEN to obscure the truth and, eventually, undermine the construction of truly effective defense policy.

    (By the way, I find it deeply and tragically ironic that certain CATHOLICS are actually defending a practice that was used on my ancestors, to enable the British government to hunt down and murder priests!)

  • digbydolben

    Mercifully, that should be, above: “What the Bush Administration did.”

  • blackadderiv


    The key word there is reliable. Consulting a psychic will at least sometimes get you accurate information. But it isn’t a reliable way of doing so.

  • S.B.

    But never? Again, if you had Osama in custody, and he wasn’t talking under whatever threats you were making that aren’t torture (maybe threatening not to let him watch his favorite television show), and you then started to use torture of some kind, how can you possibly say, as if it were an a priori truth, that Osama either 1) wouldn’t talk, or 2) would provide false information?

  • blackadderiv

    What is Osama’s favorite television show, I wonder? It’s probably Seinfeld.

    Can I say as an a priori truth that if you tortured Osama bin Laden he either wouldn’t talk or would provide false information? Well, no. I can’t state as an a priori truth that if you asked a psychic to stare into his crystal ball and tell you where Osama bin Laden was he wouldn’t answer or would give false information either. That’s not really the question.

  • S.B.

    But that analogy is begging the question: the whole question is whether torture is as unreliable as consulting a psychic. And I say that that’s something you can’t possibly predict . . . which is why the effectiveness argument is a bit treacherous. Someone might say, “Well who cares if it’s not perfectly reliable . . . it has a much better chance than letting Osama sit comfortably in silence, and that’s a chance I’m willing to take.”

  • S.B.

    Maybe this is a bit harsh, but consider what Megan McArdle says:

    I’ve long said that we shouldn’t waste time arguing that torture doesn’t work. For one thing, the evidence for those arguments seems empirically shaky, especially since many people employing them insist on arguing that torture basically never works, rather than that it doesn’t work very often and therefore has a bad cost-benefit ratio. For another, arguing that something doesn’t work isn’t necessarily an argument for not doing it–it could just as easily be an argument for improving our technique. And if advances in brain scanning research let us develop a reliable lie detector, as seems possible in the relatively near future, then torture will work very, very well.

    If that happens, we’re in a nasty spot. Most people who make this argument do not, in fact, care whether torture works. They would still be every bit as much against it if waterboarding worked perfectly. Yet when they argue about whether torture works, they’re conceding that torture’s effectiveness is relevant to the question of whether or not we should engage in it. That implicitly means that if torture becomes nearly perfectly effective, they should change their minds–otherwise, it’s not a relevant criteria. So if we get that lie detector, they have to explain why we still shouldn’t use this very valuable interrogation method–or confess that they’re basically opportunists who will say anything that might advance the case. This will make it somewhat harder to convince people to listen to their other, better arguments.

    Thus I think it is much safer to keep arguments about torture on solid moral ground: we shouldn’t torture because it’s wrong.

    And she follows it up with this, which is addressed to the same argument you’ve made above, i.e., that effectiveness arguments might be convincing to some people:

    In theory this is true. In practice, people who argue opportunistically don’t fare well much outside debate tournaments.

    In real life, when someone argues that we shouldn’t torture, and also that torture doesn’t work, and also that torture leads to socialism, their arguments lose force, particularly if they are forced to admit that one of their arguments was wrong. That’s because the people you’re arguing with care whether torture works, and you don’t. They are interested in the factual question of what interrogation techniques produce usable information. You are interested in proving that torture doesn’t work as a way of forcing them towards your moral conclusion. They will rightly suspect that your investigation of the factual question is not likely to be of a high quality. And indeed, that is what I find in these arguments: people wildly overstating an at best modest case that torture rarely produces all that much usable intelligence.

    Once someone has been through that wringer with you, and you say, okay, well, you’re right, I didn’t really care whether torture worked, and my arguments weren’t very good, but Look! Another argument against torture! . . . well, you’ve proven that you’ll say anything to try to herd them towards your moral conclusion. And also that you’re willing to waste phenomenal amounts of time making irrelevant arguments. They will be angry with you, and not particularly inclined to listen to yet another argument.

    Acting as if you’re persuadable when you’re not often seems like an initially attractive way to sucker your ideological opponents into an easy victory. But I’ve rarely seen it work in practice. Think of the ridiculous debates over breast cancer and abortion, or the rear-guard action against climate-change science. When they conceded, people didn’t say, “well, okay, science is hard, it was a mistake, could have happened to anyone.” Those arguments severely weakened the credibility of those movements on their issues, and they now have to fight the perception that they are mendacious ideologues who will say anything, no matter how stupid, to win.

  • blackadderiv

    If Ms. McArdle’s argument is that those who oppose torture would persuade more people if they conceded torture saves lives but that it’s still wrong, then I don’t find the claim very persuasive.

    Part of the problem may be that she’s assuming arguing against the effectiveness of policy X involves pretending that you would be in favor of policy X if it were effective. But this clearly isn’t true. As I noted above, you can argue against affirmative action as hurting minorities without saying that you would be all in favor of it if you thought affirmative action did work as advertised. You don’t have to lie and pretend that you wouldn’t still think it was wrong.

  • blackadderiv

    But that analogy is begging the question: the whole question is whether torture is as unreliable as consulting a psychic.

    Your question was whether I thought it an apriori truth that Osama wouldn’t give accurate information under torture. I’d hope you’d admit that’s a fairly low threshold.

    Someone might say, “Well who cares if it’s not perfectly reliable . . . it has a much better chance than letting Osama sit comfortably in silence, and that’s a chance I’m willing to take.”

    That’s exactly the claim I dispute.

  • S.B.

    I know you dispute that claim, but there’s really nothing you can offer (as to a prediction of what Osama would do) except your own say-so. Which, again, is why I suspect that it’s not going to be very convincing to someone who has a different intuition.

  • blackadderiv


    There are four possibilities:

    1. We don’t torture; torture is less effective than alternative methods.

    2. We torture; torture is more effective than alternative methods.

    3. We don’t torture; torture is more effective than alternative methods.

    4. We torture; torture is less effective than alternative methods.

    Of the four possibilities, 1. is preferable to 2. and 3. is preferable to 4. If we don’t know whether or not torture is more effective than the alternatives, then we can’t assume that any of the four possibilities is more likely than the other, and so even on a pure cost/benefit analysis, torture doesn’t make sense. If we think that torture is liable to be less effective than alternate methods, then torture really won’t make sense. The only way torture will make sense even on a pure cost/benefit analysis is if we are pretty confident that torture is more effective than alternative methods, something which, by your own statements, you don’t think we can know. Therefore, we shouldn’t do it.

  • Geoff

    If I may, I’d like to submit this article I wrote on the subject of the nature torture and its relationship to Christianity. As another person rightly said, the proper argument is: “I don’t give a damn about whether it works or not. It’s intrinsically immoral.”

    If I could write it again, I would make use of Gaudium and Spes, in which I read a few months after writing the article the enumeration of “attempts to coerce the will itself” as one of many “infamies” which “poison human society” and are also a “supreme dishonor to the Creator himself.”

    The main idea people have to get over is the idea that “torture” is some certain “amount” of suffering, which is, in itself, subjective. Torture is not merely “inflicting a certain amount of suffering.” Torture is a concrete action: a means to an end.

  • S.B.

    I also liked this point from Michelle Dulak Thomson, quoted in email on Megan McArdle’s blog:

    It’s rather as though someone responded seriously to Swift’s “Modest Proposal” by pointing out that eating boiled baby isn’t really very good for you anyway. Not only is it obvious that this isn’t your motivating objection, but you always run the risk of someone putting out a new study declaring boiled baby “Nature’s Most Perfect Food.”

    In G. K. Chesterton’s satirical novel The Flying Inn, there’s a chapter mostly about a journalist who thinks in this fashion:

    “In his early days he had had a great talent for one of the worst tricks of modern journalism, the trick of dismissing the important part of a question as if it could wait, and appearing to get to business on the unimportant part of it. Thus, he would say, ‘Whatever we may think of the rights and wrongs of the vivisection of pauper children, we shall all agree that it should only be done, in any event, by fully qualified practitioners.’

  • If people were only advocating torture as a form of satire, akin to Swift’s Modest Proposal, then the comparison might be apt. Sadly this is not the case.

  • digbydolben

    SB and others:

    Information IS coming out that torture HAS NOT “worked” and that it HAS put American lives in danger:

    …A commission could help restore America’s standing by distancing ourselves from past abuses. Alberto Mora, a former general counsel for the Navy, has said that some flag-rank officers believe that Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo constitute “the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq,” because they galvanized jihadis. An Air Force major and interrogator of prisoners who goes by the pseudonym Matthew Alexander told Harper’s Magazine that “hundreds but more likely thousands of American lives” were lost because of “the policy decision to introduce the torture and abuse of prisoners.”
    Third, a commission could help counterterrorism efforts. Foreign governments have been wary of cooperating with us for fear of being tarnished by scandal. At home, Arab-American and Somali-American communities have been leery of reporting tips because they see the authorities as unjust and hostile to Muslims.

    And it should be no surprise that a method of treating prisoners which is “intrinsically evil” is ALSO stupid and ineffective.

  • S.B.

    That could equally be an argument for the CIA just keeping things much more secret: i.e., keep high-level captives at black sites, and certainly never seek legal advice from the Department of Justice or the White House (too many people in the loop).

    “Effectiveness” isn’t an effective argument.

  • digbydolben

    Except that a tactic so terrible and dramatic as torture ALWAYS becomes known–particularly by those who are being victimized by it.

    You don’t want a discussion of the “effectiveness” of torture because you KNOW that there’s eventually going to be another terrorist attack and, after the “philosophical” discussion has failed to resolve the issue–as you, probably correctly, expect it not to–you WANT this disgusting, immoral measure to be available for another one of your right-wing Presidents.

  • S.B.

    Um, thank for the hysterical psychoanalysis, “digby”, but I think torture is immoral period, and I think the “but it doesn’t work” argument sounds like the “babies aren’t good to eat anyway” argument referenced above. Learn to read.

  • “Effectiveness” isn’t an effective argument.

    For this to be true, one of two things would have to be the case. Either people who support torture really don’t care about whether it is effective, or they are somehow uniquely unwilling to accept arguments against the effectiveness of torture (as opposed to, say, arguments against the effectiveness of the minimum wage, affirmative action, etc.) Neither of these possibilities seems very plausible to me, but if you have some evidence in favor of one or the other of them, I’d be glad to hear it.

  • Also, digby’s hysteria aside, he does have a point. Counting on the government to keep something a secret doesn’t have a very good track record, and certainly you can’t just assume away the consequences of having the secret get out just by saying that this is an argument for keeping things secret. See this Jim Manzi post for further elaboration on this point (among others).

  • S.B.

    Well, taking off from Manzi’s post, he makes a distinction between “legal” (or legalized) torture (meaning that it is official policy, cabined by lawyers’ analysis) and “extra-legal” torture (i.e., soldiers hold a gun to a German’s head and demand answers, without telling anyone else of what they did). He says that he assumes “lots” of the latter kind occurred throughout American history.

    Which, again, supports my point: If the argument against “legalized” torture is just that it leads to bad publicity, then the obvious answer (from someone convinced that torture sometimes is necessary) would be that torture should be an “extra-legal” option. Just keep quiet, preserve plausible deniability, etc.

  • blackadderiv

    If the argument against “legalized” torture is just that it leads to bad publicity

    Though this is an important consideration, it’s far from the only reason I’ve given here. As you’ve read my posts and comments on the subject, you should know this.

  • S.B. – Are you Catholic?

  • S.B.

    Why do you care?

  • S.B.

    BA — strike the word “just,” then; that’s not the issue.

  • S.B. – Just wondering. Are you going to answer?

  • digbydolben

    As a rejoinder to the irrepressible “SB,” I want to repeat here what I just said to Mr. Campbell on another thread on this website:

    Following precisely from what you’ve written here, doesn’t it follow logically that when Muslims and other people in the developing world see the officials of the United States Central Intelligence Agency using a “torture policy” which, speaking practically, has been PROVED NOT TO WORK, the damage done to our defense forces everywhere in the world arises precisely BECAUSE we are being perceived to use a method that, strictly speaking, does NOT defend us, and can be assumed, therefore, to arise out of vindictiveness, racist attitudes of superiority, or, perhaps–as in the instance of the actual policy in Iraq–a desire to misrepresent to our own people the REASONS for invading a country?

    In other words, isn’t the IMPRACTICALITY of the torture policy as much a part of its immorality as the IMPRACTICALITY of certain wars is a part of their being “unjust”?

    And the reason for my last comment above is that, as I understand “just war teaching,” the practical objective of a “just war”–that is, the object, or people, or “cause” being defended–has to be KNOWN in advance to be actually benefited by the “war of defense.”

    To put it another way, the ineffectiveness of torture is PART of its immorality, and to discount the EVIDENCE of its ineffectiveness is a CRUCIAL CONSIDERATION in determining its ethical appropriateness–just as it is with “just war.”

  • S.B.

    No, you’re not “just wondering.” You have no cause to wonder. So bugger off.

  • Stuart – Not everyone who comments here is Catholic. I’m just wondering if you are. Do you always get this hostile when someone asks you if you’re Catholic? Some witness that is…

  • S.B.

    Yes, I am.