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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