Did torture work? (II)

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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13 Responses

  1. Roque Nuevo says:

    No, there is no evidence that torture works. And there is no evidence that it doesn’t work, either.

    The main problem with all the critiques of this latest torture stuff is that they all ignore the most important information we got out of KSM and others by using these methods. Peter Bergen alludes to this:

    KSM then provided a wealth of information about al Qaeda’s inner workings as well as details about past and future plots. [My emphasis]

    The main problem with all the critiques of this latest torture stuff—including Bergens’ own—is that they all ignore this most information we got out of KSM and others by using these methods. Like George Friedman writes (subscription required):   

    In the wake of 9/11, anyone who wasn’t terrified was not in touch with reality. We know several people who now are quite blasé about 9/11. Unfortunately for them, we knew them in the months after, and they were not nearly as composed then as they are now.

    Sept. 11 was terrifying for one main reason: We had little idea about al Qaeda’s capabilities. It was a very reasonable assumption that other al Qaeda cells were operating in the United States and that any day might bring follow-on attacks. (Especially given the group’s reputation for one-two attacks.) We still remember our first flight after 9/11, looking at our fellow passengers, planning what we would do if one of them moved. Every time a passenger visited the lavatory, one could see the tensions soar. […] For the government, however, the problem was having scraps of intelligence indicating that al Qaeda might have a nuclear weapon, but not having any way of telling whether those scraps had any value. The president and vice president accordingly were continually kept at different locations, and not for any frivolous reason.

    This lack of intelligence led directly to the most extreme fears, which in turn led to extreme measures. Washington simply did not know very much about al Qaeda and its capabilities and intentions in the United States. A lack of knowledge forces people to think of worst-case scenarios. In the absence of intelligence to the contrary after 9/11, the only reasonable assumption was that al Qaeda was planning more — and perhaps worse — attacks.

    Collecting intelligence rapidly became the highest national priority. Given the genuine and reasonable fears, no action in pursuit of intelligence was out of the question, so long as it promised quick answers. This led to the authorization of torture, among other things. Torture offered a rapid means to accumulate intelligence, or at least — given the time lag on other means — it was something that had to be tried.

    Friedman concludes,

    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.
    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.[…] 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. […]
    If you know that an individual is loaded with information, torture can be a useful tool. But if you have so much intelligence that you already know enough to identify the individual is loaded with information, then you have come pretty close to winning the intelligence war. That’s not when you use torture. That’s when you simply point out to the prisoner that, “for you the war is over.” You lay out all you already know and how much you know about him. That is as demoralizing as freezing in a cell — and helps your interrogators keep their balance.

    As for the Knapp piece you cite, his criteria is,

    In order to say that torture works, according to me, and according to Lowry, it has to have produced actionable intelligence that was not and could not have been obtained any other way.

    How on Earth can anyone ever find “evidence” of such an assertion, which evidently rests upon an “imaginary history,” i.e., what “could have happened” otherwise? Where is the logic in this?

    The logic, and the facts, tell a different story: the CIA interrogators couldn’t get the actionable intelligence out of KSM. That’s why they asked for authorization to use the enhanced methods. That’s why Bush/Cheney authorized them. That’s why we’re having this discussion in the first place.

    Insofar as KSM goes, Knapp says,

    it does appear to be true that Mohammed didn’t begin producing until after the torture stopped.

    Or, as Knapp says, as part of the “classic good cop/bad cop routine.” Therefore, to take a page out of Knapp’s (and so many others’) book, Where is the evidence that the “good cop” routine would have worked without the preceding “bad cop?” Common sense says that without the “bad cop” there is no “good cop.” Without the torture, there would have been no rapport to exploit later, etc etc.

    Knapp also goes for the “just talk” fallacy in reference to the Heathrow plot and so forth:

    If you read the IG report, you will find that yes, these plots were asserted. What’s less clear is whether these plots actually existed.

    Again, we’ll never know the answer. Why? Because our enhanced coercion of KSM (and other things) disrupted such plots so that they never got past the “just talk” planning stage. This is of course Cheney’s whole point.Report

  2. Alex Knapp says:


    KSM then provided a wealth of information about al Qaeda’s inner workings as well as details about past and future plots.

    Did you even bother to read the IG report or my comments? If so, you’ll note that all we had were “plots” for which there is no other evidence but KSM’s word, “al-Qaeda members” who may not be al-Qaeda members, and that the best intelligence we did receive was more likely the result of traditional, “rapport-based” interrogation. Also, I might add that the most damning evidence is that while we have zero evidence that the “plots” KSM alluded had any existence, al-Qaeda did pull off several major terrorist attacks that caught the intelligence community off-guard.

    In other words, there is zero evidence that torturing KSM saved any lives and zero evidence that any al-Qaeda operatives were captured because of KSM’s testimony. Or any other detainee’s testimony, for that matter.Report

    • Roque Nuevo in reply to Alex Knapp says:

      Yes, I did read the material. The fact that I get different conclusions than you do does not mean that I’m stupid or lazy.

      Did you read my response?

      For example, what evidence do you have that all these “plots” were “just talk?” What evidence do you have that they did not remain “just talk” in part because of our coercive interrogations of KSM and others allowed us to disrupt them?

      I said that your “zero evidence” trope is a fallacy. It’s based on imaginary history, or, what would have happened otherwise. The fact is, we used coercive interrogation and we got information. The fact is, we used coercive interrogation after CIA interrogators ran up against a stone wall. The fact is, after this, not before, the CIA asked for authorization to use coercive interrogation. This of course does not constitute “evidence.” It just makes your (and so many others’) idea that we could have gotten the information with “rapport-building” methods only counter-factual. That is, it makes them “imaginary history.”

      But, like I said in the quote you extracted here, the most important information was not about specific plots, just talk or real ones, but about about al Qaeda’s inner workings. The Friedman quote I put up explains why this is so important.

      Knowledge is power, as the cliché goes. We needed knowledge to fight al Qaeda. We got the knowledge, according to Peter Bergen, by using coercive interrogations on captured terrorists. As a result of this and of many other things, today al Qaeda’s ability to mount a strategic attack against us is close to nil. In other words, like Cheney insists, coercive interrogations helped keep the nation safe.Report

    • Roque Nuevo in reply to Alex Knapp says:

      I just noticed that you, of all people, understand The Value of Knowledge. Why is it so difficult for you to apply this insight to our war against al Qaeda and other Muslim fanatics? Are you one of those people who “have to break out of some of the ideological rigidity and gridlock that we’ve been carrying around for too long,” according to Obama?Report

  3. Travis says:

    “We got the knowledge” by trampling on the Constitution and everything it stands for. “We got the knowledge” at the cost of undermining our moral high ground and creating a generation of people around the world who see our nation not as a beacon of liberty and justice, but as a cesspit of brutality and terror.

    Was it worth it?

    The flag is worth nothing more than what it stands for. If it stands for torture, kidnappings and tyranny, then it – and our nation – are worthless.Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    If torture is wrong, it’s wrong even if KSM gave us the location of thousands of sleeper cells as well as the head of OBL on a platter.

    Once you move to “well, torture would be okay *ONLY* under the following circumstances”, you’re haggling.Report

    • Roque Nuevo in reply to Jaybird says:

      It must feel really good to live with such moral certainty. You must be very ambiguity-intolerant.

      Unfortunately, ex President Bush did not have this luxury. Just think about it for a minute: his own binds him to preserve and protect the nation, etc etc. According to you, he’d be acting under some moral imperative if he let KSM stonewall interrogators. But what if KSM had knowledge of plots to murder thousands of Americans, like everyone thought about al Qaeda at the time? What would be his moral imperative? Why would the rights of KSM transcend the rights of an entire city, which was at risk?

      Haggling is what adults must do to live in a world with competing moral imperatives. That goes double for decision-makers. Nothing is as clear-cut as you imagine and they must go ahead in the face of such ambiguity.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Roque Nuevo says:

        But it doesn’t stop with KSM, does it?
        We also found out stuff about Jose’ Padilla… stuff that turned out to, well, let’s not say that it wasn’t true, but let’s say that prosecutors didn’t feel it would stand up in court.
        And others, of course. There are others.

        When it comes down to issues of whether a kid who threw a grenade at an army vehicle (not a war crime… though doing so without an armband or some other piece of clothing saying “opposition army” is) gets “harshly interrogated”, we aren’t talking about torturing high value targets for the sake of saving the lives of American Citizens anymore, are we? We no longer have our thumbs on the scales saying “well, what about this, this, or this?”

        At the end of the day, harsh interrogation techniques are being applied to little pissant soldiers caught in the field.

        There’s nothing wrong with haggling, of course… but it’s a lot tougher to defend torturing a little pissant soldier caught in the field, isn’t it? If we can’t even say “we will only harshly interrogate KSM and other high-value targets!” and have it result in stuff like “teenagers caught on the field of battle not being harshly interrogated”, you’re going to be stuck on the horns of a dilemma.

        Your choice is between
        A) Not Doing It At All
        B) Doing It To People Who You Know Aren’t High Value Targets And Won’t Be Able To Tell You Anything Of Use In Addition To The (Very) Occasional High Value Target

        I’d pick A, when given that choice.

        I can see how someone might pick B… but you gotta admit, that we’re not talking about torturing only KSM level people when we talk about torture, Roque. Not anymore.

        We’re talking about doing it to pissants too.Report

  5. Roque Nuevo says:

    but you gotta admit, that we’re not talking about torturing only KSM level people when we talk about torture, Roque. Not anymore.

    We’re talking about doing it to pissants too.

    I don’t admit anything of the kind. I assumed that we were discussing various interpretations of the 2004 CIA inspector general report released last week, not the pissant angle you bring up. This is the topic of the two pieces linked to by ED Kain, above.

    As a matter of fact, mixing the pissant angle into this is a big problem in discussions like this one. That’s because using coercive interrogation on the pissants was not authorized by the evil Bush/Cheney duo. These acts were done by people who violated military and civil law. It’s either sloppy or disingenuous to bring this up here. Lyndie England was not a trained CIA interrogator who was acting in accordance with the Bush Justice Dept “torture memos.” She was a white trash kid getting her rocks off on helpless prisoners for her own sadistic enjoyment.

    The following describes the real problem with all of this. It’s not about “a man gaining the world and losing his soul,” like the Christianists want us to believe, because we used coercive methods to interrogate certain high-value haji enemies:

    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?Clifford May


    • Jaybird in reply to Roque Nuevo says:

      It’s either sloppy or disingenuous to bring this up here.

      Or, indeed, it could be pointing out that if there is an official policy of harsh interrogation that comes from the top, there will inevitably be harsh interrogation creep.

      I didn’t bring up Abu Ghraib, by the way. I was thinking of Abdul Wali and, to a lesser extent, Bagram.

      “No, no! We only do such things of necessity to High Value Targets! When they happen to happen to pissants, that is something that is completely criminal!” is an argument that strikes me as sloppy.

      Or, I suppose, disingenuous.Report

  6. Roque Nuevo says:

    Here’s Lowry:

    The former CIA inspector general John Helgerson tells the Washington Post that “waterboarding and sleep deprivation were the two most powerful techniques and elicited a lot of information.” Such extreme methods should obviously be used only in a carefully controlled setting against top detainees harboring information about ongoing plots. Detainees like KSM and a few of his confederates, who provided intelligence valuable enough to justify their harsh treatment.

    Years of bombast and distortion have nonetheless killed the enhanced-interrogation program. The Obama administration has put the CIA out of the interrogation business and will henceforth endeavor to limit itself to the minimalist methods in the Army Field Manual. Thus it enshrines an interrogation regime that wouldn’t have gotten KSM to cooperate so quickly, if at all. And turns its back on what worked.

    First paragraph: Shows that Jaybird is mixing apples and oranges. The sadistic treatment meted out by low-level soldiers like England is reprehensible and must be punished. I’m not aware that Cheney has ever defended it, either. So, again, this is not part of the debate.

    The last paragraph is contradicted by Friedman. He explains that “Discrete information was not needed, but situational awareness. The United States did not know what it needed to know, it did not know who was of value and who wasn’t, and it did not know how much time it had.” This “situational awareness” is what Bergan and others have called “a wealth of information about al Qaeda’s inner workings.” But then, mistakes were made:

    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.

    This is about as fair an assessment as I can imagine. It gives Bush/Cheney credit for doing what they had to do to protect the country under extremely adverse conditions and, on the other hand, it does not exculpate them for the abuses that occurred. This is the kind of attitude that is in such short supply today, when people will simply use the torture controversy to enhance their own moral standing, somehow. In the latter case, there is nothing to be learned. There is only polemics and taking sides. In Friedman’s posture, one can discern the outlines of real policy for the future in the war against the hajis.Report