08 May 2011


In the wake of all this Osama killing business I'm hearing a fair amount of commentary relating to the old torture debate. Supposedly, we are told by pro-torture advocates like John Yoo or Rumsfeld, information relating to the courier was obtained in this way and thus that the eventual death of Osama itself is accountable to these methods of interrogation and information gathering making such choices worthwhile.

This has rather serious problems with it as a set of assumptions and conclusions.

1) We are told, but it is not demonstrated, that the information relating to the courier (as well as other Osama-related data) was obtained through waterboarding or other "harsh" measures.

2) We must assume that this information could not be obtained using normal interrogation procedures and that only torture was useful in obtaining it (a very dubious assumption based on the accumulated wisdom of interrogation specialists, including some who work for the US government in the FBI or armed services).

3) We must assume that these methods as employed did not also generate false or misleading information as well which, had it been ignored, might have hastened the capture or death of bin Laden or his associates. (based on the faulty intelligence relating to the Iraq War, this is a very dubious assumption).

4) It is assumed that people objecting to torture are objecting firstly and mostly on some notion that it doesn't or cannot work to generate useful intelligence information. I'm not aware that there are many people claiming that it is completely ineffective at obtaining intelligence outcomes. The usual complaints instead are that it is ineffective relative to less invasive and damaging alternatives and that it has strategic and moral downsides which would have outweighed any potential utility as an interrogation tactic and particularly as an interrogation strategy licensed and encouraged by government officials (that is, that if some agent in a hostile country tortures a captured prisoner for information in a raw action we might understand this action if it led to useful intelligence which saved lives, but not if we order that agent to conduct his interrogations using these methods).

5) I suppose a lesser conclusion being made is that having access to these prisoners through a system of unlawful detention allows us to generate ongoing intelligence and that this related to the operations which allowed us to kill bin Laden. I would argue that it is fully possible to contain these prisoners through convicting them of heinous crimes for which they are likely guilty and to then have access to them for on-going intelligence purposes. The status of detention as either the permanent stripping of legal rights or the incarceration of convicted human rights violators (ie, terrorists) doesn't seem to matter to the question of having access for intelligence developments.

6) Update. Most disturbing of all: We're running polls on "news networks" asking who we should torture, I mean conduct an "enhanced interrogation" on, next. To my mind this demonstrates that we, the public, do not have much of a clue why we would torture someone at all. Or, more likely, that we do, but we are not publicly acknowledging that its purpose isn't information gathering. It is the inflicting of pain or torment upon an avowed enemy for revenge or retribution.
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