Did torture work?

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Will

Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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  1. I read the Bergan article. It is tendentious and preaches to the choir. For example,

    In a speech he gave three months later at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, Cheney said, […] My emphasis.

    Why “right-wing?” This adds nothing to Bergan’s article. All it does is try and skew the debate. One could easily call Bergen’s home base, the New America Foundation, the left-wing New America Foundation. How, exactly, would this advance the debate?

    Then, Bergan reviews Cheney’s argument: Coercive interrogations saved lives; they prevented catastrophic attacks, etc etc.

    Bergan relies on his own imagination in weaving an “alternative history” of the past eight years. For example,

    There is no reason, however, to think that any of those insights [i.e., information coerced from Abu Zubaydah, which Bergan admits gave up “insights into the organization and its personnel that were useful to the agency”] could not have been garnered by standard interrogation techniques.

    How on Earth could Bergen, or anyone, know what could “have been garnered by standard interrogation techniques?” People who use this argument are falling victim to the historical fallacy. It’s pure non historical speculation. It has no relevance whatsoever to the debate because the fact is, according to the CIA documents that Bergan uses as the basis of his critique, they could not get this information with “standard interrogation techniques.” This, in fact, is the whole reason we’re having this debate in the first place: the CIA couldn’t get the information out of KSM and therefore asked for authorization to use coercive methods. Would this be called “begging the question?”

    In the case of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, Bergan quotes the CIA inspector general’s report:

    Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, 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intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete.

    Then, after admitting, once again, that KSM “provided a wealth of information about al Qaeda’s inner workings,” Bergan tries to convince us that the plots KSM gave up to his coercive interrogators, for example an attack on Heathrow Airport, were “just talk.”

    The following is the complete paragraph:

    Following his defiance, KSM was subjected to a number of coercive interrogation techniques including being waterboarded 183 times and being told that his children — who were then being held in American and Pakistani custody — would be killed. KSM then provided a wealth of information about al Qaeda’s inner workings as well as details about past and future plots, much of which was detailed in the footnotes of the 9/11 Commission Report.

    Note how Bergan buries what was probably the most important achievement of the coercive interrogations: the “wealth of information about al Qaeda’s inner workings.” Back then very little was known about al Qaeda. This ignorance contributed the most the the atmosphere of panic that we remember (if we’re being honest about our memories). To get knowledge about “al Qaeda’s inner workings” was the only antidote. And, it almost goes without saying, this knowledge was essential in our fight against them. This is the knowledge that Cheney insists saved lives. Therefore, more question-begging by Bergen.

    Then, since it never happened because of our capture of KSM and his coercive interrogations (among other things), Bergan can now say that the Heathrow plot was “just talk.”

    This “just talk” critique is the worst sort of historical fallacy. The plots didn’t happen, so they were “just talk.” No reason to worry! But this so-called critique purposely ignores the fact that the government was actively doing things so that the plots wouldn’t happen—which is exactly Cheney’s point. So, by Bergan’s so-called logic, since the plots never left the planning stage, they were “just talk” and therefore were a poor harvest of information, which cannot justify the grievous moral fault of authorizing coercive interrogations. But Cheney’s key point is that they turned out to be “just talk” in part because of the program of coercive interrogations that Bush/Cheney authorized. I’m not all that versed in classical rhetoric, but Isn’t Bergen’s logic here also called begging the question?

    The above is just to critique Bergan’s “taking on” of Cheney. He missed his target by a mile but you wouldn’t notice it because of his rhetorical tricks.

    Then the most important point about all this is not even considered by Bergan. This is expressed by Clifford May,

    An attempt is being made to lead Americans back to a pre-2001 landscape. A message is being sent that we now face no crisis – Americans need not be overly concerned about militant Islamists waging a war against us. Indeed, this White House and this Justice Department no longer speak of war, only of crimes committed by terrorists and — with more vehemence — by those who have attempted to thwart them.

    It is likely to be a long time before a captured terrorist will again tell an American interrogator what he knows. It also may be a long time before another terrorist is captured. For now, at least, it is still permissible to use drones to kill terrorists in such remote corners of the world as Waziristan. Though how would you like to be the CIA operative pulling that trigger?

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