stating the obvious


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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31 Responses

  1. Avatar matoko_chan says:

    Torture should be extralegal, spontaneous, and vanishingly rare.
    Those obscene scumbags made an institution of torture in MY country, they legalized it and systemized it, and ginned up a whole burocracy to support it.
    Hang ’em high.Report

  2. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Damn skippy, matoko.Report

  3. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    The rules on torture have been laid out long ago. We helped write them and we agreed to abide by them.

    It’s strange that some conservatives don’t seem interested in conserving the traditional definition of torture.Report

  4. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

    The most intelligent thing I’ve read so far about this issue, by : George Friedman

    The endless argument over torture, the posturing of both critics and defenders, misses the crucial point. The United States turned to torture because it has experienced a massive intelligence failure reaching back a decade. The U.S. intelligence community simply failed to gather sufficient information on al Qaeda’s intentions, capability, organization and personnel. The use of torture was not part of a competent intelligence effort, but a response to a massive intelligence failure.

    That failure was rooted in a range of miscalculations over time. There was the public belief that the end of the Cold War meant the United States didn’t need a major intelligence effort, a point made by the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan. There were the intelligence people who regarded Afghanistan as old news. There was the Torricelli amendment that made recruiting people with ties to terrorist groups illegal without special approval. There were the Middle East experts who could not understand that al Qaeda was fundamentally different from anything seen before. The list of the guilty is endless, and ultimately includes the American people, who always seem to believe that the view of the world as a dangerous place is something made up by contractors and bureaucrats.

    Bush was handed an impossible situation on Sept. 11, after just nine months in office. The country demanded protection, and given the intelligence shambles he inherited, he reacted about as well or badly as anyone else might have in the situation. He used the tools he had, and hoped they were good enough.

    The problem with torture — as with other exceptional measures — is that it is useful, at best, in extraordinary situations. The problem with all such techniques in the hands of bureaucracies is that the extraordinary in due course becomes the routine, and torture as a desperate stopgap measure becomes a routine part of the intelligence interrogator’s tool kit.

    At a certain point, the emergency was over. U.S. intelligence had focused itself and had developed an increasingly coherent picture of al Qaeda, with the aid of allied Muslim intelligence agencies, and was able to start taking a toll on al Qaeda. The war had become routinized, and extraordinary measures were no longer essential. But the routinization of the extraordinary is the built-in danger of bureaucracy, and what began as a response to unprecedented dangers became part of the process. Bush had an opportunity to move beyond the emergency. He didn’t.

    Top that if you can.Report

  5. Avatar Cascadian says:

    Today we still have battles over the use of military dollars. Intelligence isn’t unique in its inefficiencies and yet the military budget is larger by far than anyone else’s.

    Arguing that Bush didn’t have the skills to competently and legally dispatch his duties is widely agreed upon.Report

  6. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    E.D. writes:

    There are lines a free society simply cannot cross, even in order to protect its security, and if it does choose to cross them well then it ought to do so with the full force of the law at its back, in public.

    But he then agrees that if it happens ever, torture should be extralegal. It seems if we put the full force of the law behind torture, that would be the ultimate institutionalization of it. I must be missing something.Report

  7. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Here’s my point, Michael. I personally think torture is wrong, no matter what. And no matter what, I think that it is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. If it’s going to happen (despite my opposition!) then it should happen publicly. It should happen through legal means. My theory is that it will never happen that way; if decided in public, I believe it would be shot down. Thus the line:

    If it has to be done under the cold cloak of secrecy, then perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it at all.Report

  8. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I meant to say that this was an excellent post, I should say. I didn’t mean to criticize at all. It’s just that I was puzzled by what you said about the force of law. The first time I read it, I thought you were making some form of the argument that if we as a society are going to concede the ticking time-bomb scenario (precisely defined) as justifying torture, then we should codify it in law. From what’s in the post I didn’t get that you held the absolutist view. So I understand better what you are saying now.

    It does seem however that you can’t agree with matoko’s comment and also believe what you just wrote in the previous comment. He/she said torture should be extralegal, spontaneous, and vanishingly rare. You say it should absolutely never happen, but failing that it should be explicitly precontemplated, brought within the law, and made public. I think you two are actually on quite different sides of the question. After all, “vanishingly rare” is precisely the notion that “never” seeks to distinguish itself from. Perhaps you only meant to agree to the “Hang ’em high” sentiment?Report

  9. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Actually, Michael, yes – it was the “hang ’em high” I was agreeing with. I still hold the absolutist view on torture, no matter what. The ticking time bomb as a hypothetical still leaves too much wiggle room. It’s simply not a practical theory by which to justify a law.Report

  10. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Indeed. Before I finally realized what you were saying I wrote a long comment saying how conceding the TTB scenario formally in law (as opposed to morally, which I think we as a country, myself included, largely did in error after 9/11) would only worsen the logical regression from there that inevitably results in what happened. It didn’t make sense to think you would have held that position. I am glad I misunderstood you.Report

  11. Avatar Stephen says:

    Who says that the Bush Administration tortured only two Really Bad Dudes? Or even a “handful” of detainees?

    Even with respect to the two Really Bad Dudes — one of them was merely a bit player, who had already spilled his guts under ordinary (non-torture) interrogation methods.

    If we’re going to have an honest debate about torture, let’s not distort the basic fact situation.Report

  12. Avatar Bill says:

    The current ‘debate’, as it were, over torture has broken into two main questions:
    1) was it legal? (or moral)
    2) was it effective?

    I find it ironic that the republican party, which preaches morality over all other considerations has pretty much given up the first question and has concentrated on the second. The question of ‘did it work’ is mainly a scientific one. It can be analyzed with data and statistics but it *is* a rational process. Given the sorry state of science under the Bush administration though, they’ve shown that this is not their strong suit.

    Torture is an issue that cannot be ‘won’ by republicans. And the longer it drags on, the worse they look.Report

  13. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

    Stephen: George Friedman, whom I’ve excerpted above, provides the best picture of the “basic fact situation” that I’ve seen: we lacked basic information about al Qaeda after 9/11; using torture was a fast way to get it; torturing KSM, for example, allowed us to arrive at a cleared picture of the enemy; after we did have a clearer picture, torture was not needed, or even probably used, as a program. This is really something one can call “analysis,” as opposed to the moral posturing that passes for analysis here and almost everywhere else.Report

  14. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

    I find it ironic that the Democratic Party, which preaches morality over all other considerations, is as guilty as the Republicans when it came to authorizing the government’s program for torturing high-value captives.Report

  15. Avatar Bill says:

    Roque Nuevo:
    Interesting position on both points:
    a) the contention that the Democratic Party stresses morality over, say, science.
    b) the contention that the Democratic Party is as guilty as the Republicans.

    I think I could rebut those contentions but it doesn’t particularly matter if I do. In the public’s mind, it is the Republicans who are defending torture thus they are the ones who are linked to it. That is why I say that the longer the issue drags on, the worse they look.Report

  16. Avatar Stephen says:


    I had read your comment before I posted mine. It’s true that there was a failure of American intelligence, but that failure doesn’t justify the torture program even as a temporary measure.

    Zubaydah is the al Qaeda bit player I was referring to. He talked under ordinary interrogation methods – there was no need to torture him, and nothing was gained by doing so. Except the Administration did gain something that it avidly sought: a false confession of a working relationship between Sadaam and al Qaeda.

    Moreover, by waterboarding KSM 189 times, the Administration clearly wasn’t seeking information. It certainly looks like unadulterated vengeance, not an attempt to gather information.Report

  17. Avatar lebecka says:

    Shep, although pompous, in this clip speaks for me, and i like that way the woman commentator, politely but firmly, did not let that jerky guy commentator jabber on and on about how wonderfully effective the (oh so gentle) torture techniques were.
    Under Shep’s leadership — Aux barricades, America!!Report

  18. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

    Stephen: Neither I nor Friedman are justifying torture. My point is to understand why the administration authorized it in the aftermath of 9/11. I think Friedman’s analysis is compelling and—while it doesn’t justify anything—it made me see the pressure on Bush and to understand that most people in his shoes would have done the same—even if it was just wrong.

    As for the “bit player” you mention, the fact that he was a “bit player” is not a counter example to refute Friedman. To the contrary, he’s saying that we needed to fill in the gaps of our knowledge of al Qaeda so a “bit player” would help here, even if a “top dog” like KSM would help more. We had to get the information where we could find it. We didn’t have the luxury of waiting to get a higher-level al Qaeda militant.

    Your comment that there was no need to use torture—if that’s what it was—on Zubaydah is just idle speculation in my mind. The people at the scene at the time thought that there was. Hindsight is no good here, especially since we don’t know what information he gave us under torture—if that’s what it was.

    As for KSM, I think the 189 waterboardings is not accurate, but, as for your point that KSM was “clearly” a victim of vengeance, it’s also hindsight-fueled speculation. Again, we don’t know what information we got out of him to be able to say such a thing as you do with such confidence. Plus, if vengeance really was a motive in his treatment, do you really want to claim victim status for him?Report

  19. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

    Bill: I think I could rebut those contentions

    I think you can’t.

    The Republicans are defending their “enhanced interrogation” program, which of course reflects well on them because they’re not whining about the situation they “inherited” after 9/11. If anyone wants to prosecute them, they’re right there.

    But the fact is that the torture program had bipartisan support. That’s what I meant by my comment. Democrats had a chance to dissent and they didn’t—until now, when it seems like a good political move to do so.Report

  20. Avatar Bill says:

    First, while it wasn’t directed at my post, an easy bit of rebuttal:
    RN: “Your comment that there was no need to use torture—if that’s what it was—on Zubaydah is just idle speculation in my mind. The people at the scene at the time thought that there was. Hindsight is no good here, especially since we don’t know what information he gave us under torture—if that’s what it was.”

    Ali Soufan was the person on the scene at the time. He doesn’t believe that there was a need to torture and makes that case here:

    Anyway, the first point was that Democrats value morality over anything else.

    I would suggest that what Democrats actually value is a process that happens to produce moral results. That process involves information, data, research and discussion of dissenting opinions.

    To this I contrast the Bush administrations imposition of political positions on scientific enquiry, application of dogma against the historical record (global warming or economic crisis) and over reliance on morals based issues such as gay marriage.

    The predominant Democratic meme tends to be towards “spreading the wealth” but while moral arguments have been made for this, the primary driver is an economic one.

    Next, the concept that Democrats are just as culpable.

    At this point, it is difficult to say to what degree they are culpable, if any, but at any rate, the decisions were made and executed while Republicans were in power, both in the White House and in Congress. There would be no actual way that Democrats could stop it, if they knew, except by making it all public, thereby opening themselves up to treason charges.

    If they are guilty, then it would be akin to a civilian watching a police officer beating a suspect, and not reporting it. Guilty? Perhaps, but not “as” guilty as the republicans who planned it, organized it, carried it out and tried to hide it.

    Also, the Republicans *have* changed their stance on torture. Reagan was against it. Bush said that “we don’t torture”. Now they are saying that they do, but it isn’t really torture or worse, that they do but at least it worked.

    To be honest, I did not expect that the Bush administration would use torture. It is such an obvious lapse in morality that I figured it would be a no brainer for Bush, who usually likes to make decisions on the basis of faith. But then again, I guess I underestimated the influence of Cheney.Report

  21. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

    Bill: Thanks for writing. I appreciate the effort.

    First off, we agree on Bush’s approach to gay marriage, stem-cell research, and probably a lot more. He was certainly imposing morality on politics and even science in an unacceptable way. I wasn’t thinking about these topics when I wrote my other comments because I’m not really interested in them at all. Insofar as I have thought about them, I tend to think that they are simply divide-and-conquer political strategies. In other words they’re not real problems. But that’s just me.

    Global warming, though, is another kettle of fish. How can you possibly think that the global warming enthusiasts are not imposing morality on science? I’m not really aware of anything Bush himself said on the topic, but it’s obvious to me that anyone who opposes today’s global warming hysteria is opposing the imposition of morality on science, not the opposite. How can one possibly believe, for example, that they know what the Earth’s ideal temperature is and that they have the power to achieve this mythical temperature, if they are not speaking from a moral position cloaked in science? How can one possibly have the moral arrogance to project present tendencies into the future, and bleat about “the children” without the commonsensical caveat that we just don’t know what will happen in the future because it hasn’t happened yet?

    I can’t argue economic theory with you but I can’t see why “spreading the wealth” is not based on morality. Anyhow, the present crisis seems to have everyone by the balls, not just the Republicans. That’s the way crisis are—unexpected and demanding a new approach that discards old dogmas.

    The Democrats’ culpability or lack of it is not illustrated by your analogy. I agree that the Republicans made the decisions and that they deserve the blame, if that’s how it turns out. But the Democrats were far from passive bystanders. How would you know that they had no way of stopping it short of blowing the whistle? That really short-changes congressional power. Of course they could have and if they had tried and failed, then they would not be implicated. But they didn’t try. That’s the point.

    Like I said, your analogy is a false one. A civilian witness to police brutality is not implicated in the least, no matter what he chooses to do about it. The Democrats (according to press accounts) approved the administration’s torture program. That’s entirely different from being a passive bystander. To extend you analogy, if a civilian witness to police brutality joins in, then he must share the blame. In Mexico, people say, “Peca tanto el que mata la vaca el que la agarra la pata. It means, “The one who kills the cow sins just as much as the one that holds down its leg.” It rhymes in Spanish, though. The Democrats were definitely holding down the cow’s leg here.

    I looked at the link you posted and found it quite compelling, although I don’t see any reason to believe that we got everything we needed out of Zubaydah before he was tortured—if that’s what it was. Ali Soufan left the scene, after all, and we don’t know what information we got out of him later. In fact, the article you link to shows the urgency of the post-9/11 atmosphere graphically and really adds veracity to Friedman’s thesis rather than subtract from it.

    In any case, the Ali Soufan story is compelling for another reason: our government lost an important resource when he quit. It’s really a shameful waste considering the situation we’re in.Report

  22. Avatar Bill says:

    I see that I probably won’t convince you, but that’s OK. As you say, there are some things we agree on.

    I think that the main difficulty with point 2 is that we fundamentally disagree as to the degree that the Democrats were involved. Since we cannot know that without an inquiry, I think we are doomed to disagree on this until such an inquiry occurs. On the other hand, the fact that most (not all) democrats support such an inquiry and most (not all) republicans oppose it might seem to be a bit telling.

    As to Zubaydah, it is impossible to get *everything* out of him no matter what methods are used since he might know things that may not seem significant to him but are to us. Who can say? But that is really the point. Neither humane methods nor torture can guarantee getting all information possible so to pick torture on grounds of efficiency is a specious argument. In fact, there is evidence that the latter is true…that humane methods produce more information, less disinformation, and is faster than torture. And as a byproduct, it doesn’t scandalize the country.

    Some of the best interrogators use these methods….
    Matthew Alexander
    Jack Cloonan
    Hanns Scharff (
    Col. Robin Stephens (

    to name a few….Report

  23. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:


    I certainly don’t question that “humane” methods plus a trained and creative interrogator (like Ali Soufan) can produce quality intelligence and possibly even in less time. I don’t question it because I can’t. I just don’t know anything about it. But it’s easy to see that among honest and serious public figures today there’s an honest and serious debate that goes beyond the moral posturing evident on these blog comments. So I really don’t know enough to take a position on these questions and I don’t want to take anyone’s opinion at face value either.

    My whole point is that these moral questions are easy to decide and pontificate about after the fact (Mexicans say, “Al toro pasado todos somos toreros” [Once the bull has passed, everybody’s a bullfighter]) But they’re a lot different in the heat of battle and Bush was in the heat of battle, not you or I.

    Maybe I can use this Christopher Hitchens article to illustrate my point, which I put up here as a quote from George Friedman: our intelligence services had failed us at 9/11 and we were in a panic to get information. The “ticking bomb” scenario was really ticking in some people’s minds and those people were responsible for the country’s safety.Report

  24. Avatar Bill says:

    Fair enough.
    I agree that we don’t know everything about the decisions of the past so I do support some kind of inquiry to get those facts (such as they are).

    But to *me*, there is enough for a preliminary opinion.

    Essentially, it seems to me that the US gov. broke the law when they directed torture be used against prisoners.

    Now there are some implications in that statement….first that it was torture, second that the gov. ordered it, third that it was illegal. You may dispute these assumptions but until contrary data arrives, it seems sufficient to me on a balance of probabilities.

    Is it enough to prosecute? No. That’s why an inquiry is needed. Otherwise, if they are guilty, then they are getting away with war crimes. And if they are innocent, then they are forever under a cloud of suspicion.

    And to return once again to my original point, dragging the process out and delaying things make the Republicans look bad.

    BTW: One big difference between 24 and real life: Jack himself knows that what he does is illegal. He believes that it is justified but expects to face the courts for his actions. He does not try to claim that it is legal. In that sense, Jack is heroic because he is taking responsibility for his actions.Report

  25. Avatar Grendel72 says:

    Roque Nuevo, would those intelligence agencies who “failed us” be the ones who gave the Bush administration memos with titles like “Bin Laden Determined to Attack US”? The ones that detailed plans to use commercial airlines? Those intelligence agencies?
    The intelligence agencies didn’t fail us, the politicians willfully ignoring evidence that didn’t support their pet theories failed us.

    More to the point, are we such despicable cowards that we betray everything we stand for as a country in fear of a few morons with boxcutters and exploding shoes? We beat countries that had freaking NUKES, and we’re cowering because of some cave dwelling religious nuts?Report

  26. Avatar freeman says:

    @Roque Nuevo:

    Sure, I can top it.
    Japan was faced with an even more “impossible situation” in WWII.
    It didn’t matter one bit when the USA prosecuted them for waterboarding and other torture.Report

  27. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

    would those intelligence agencies who “failed us” be the ones who gave the Bush administration memos with titles like “Bin Laden Determined to Attack US”? The ones that detailed plans to use commercial airlines? Those intelligence agencies?

    Yes, they would be.

    Your point isn’t all that clear, though. So, they gave Bush a memo? What about it?

    This, again, is a common “hindsight” error in thinking about history. There was a prescient memo; Bush ignored it (if he did, which I don’t know); therefore Bush failed. It’s an error because there was so much data to analyze and no one could say with certainty before 9/11 what data was significant, although some people were prescient about al Qaeda. Maybe the truth is always just staring us in the face but we can’t see it until it hits us over the head.

    But my point stands: after 9/11 the government didn’t know enough about al Qaeda to act so to prevent the follow-on attack that everyone thought was coming. That’s the intelligence failure that Friedman refers to. This created a “ticking bomb” climate in the government that allowed people to think it was legitimate to authorize torture—if that’s what it was. Friedman is very clear when he says that we eventually did understand al Qaeda and that therefore the torture program should have ended, both from the moral and from the practical points of view.

    More to the point, are we such despicable cowards that we betray everything we stand for as a country in fear of a few morons with boxcutters and exploding shoes? We beat countries that had freaking NUKES, and we’re cowering because of some cave dwelling religious nuts?

    This is the kind of thing that I find repulsive. For sure, you’ve put me in the category of “torture defender,” therefore in the category of a “despicable coward who betrayed everything his country stands for.” That’s exactly what these public expressions of outrage do to people: they make it impossible to hold a reasonable discussion.

    As for the “religious nuts” living in caves and attacking us with boxcutters, I suggest you read up about asymmetric warfare. Also, remember that these cave-dwelling religious nuts with boxcutters operated the only attack on the US since the war of 1812—and that was by the British Empire!Report

  28. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:


    Maybe, maybe not. I was referring to “topping it” with a more illuminating analysis, which you clearly haven’t done. In fact, you added more examples that support it by showing that an impossible situation will lead people to violate the code of civilization, or whatever, like the Japanese did back then.

    Thanks for trying, though.Report