A Narrow and (so far as I can tell) Untraveled Path on Torture

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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107 Responses

  1. BlaiseP says:

    Torture is counterproductive to the gathering of meaningful intelligence. Let us posit a situation: a room featuring a completely sociopathic S2 interrogator, a prisoner and an executive outside that room who will read the interrogator’s report.

    It’s a variant of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The interrogator can do anything he wants in that room, torture, murder, the works. If he tortures the prisoner, he could get the prisoner to being a Servant of Satan who dances naked around an Asherah Pole every Walpurgisnacht. A tortured man will say anything the interrogator wants to hear, motivated exclusively by the urge to stop the torture.

    This interrogator is a sociopath. He knows if he takes bad intel back to the executive outside the room, when all is said and done, he will have pumped bullshit into the intelligence pipeline and he will be fired. Therefore, despite his willingness, indeed his preference for a simple solution, he will not torture that prisoner. He will use his considerable sociopathic skills to elicit useful details from the prisoner.

    Torture is for amateurs, bullies with emotions, morons who hate the prisoner and will torture him, not from any sincere wish to extract useful information but from their Barney Fife instincts, drunk with power, armed with a single bullet. Intelligence gathering is for sociopaths.Report

    • Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Bp, you’re an old vet. Isn’t ‘torture’ much more nuanced and subtle then you’re indicating above? I mean wouldn’t you wanna provide the victim an avenue to friendship, assure him/her that none of his comrades will ever know he sang, may do a little water boarding while sympathizing with him, tell him how much he hates to do this, tell him how Allah allows him to tell the Americans what they want to know and relieve the pain/suffering? I, obviously, don’t know a thing about it but I find it hard to believe it’s torture in the manner of say our own Shawnee, or Mingo, or Delaware who were experts at giving maximum pain and wrecking the body to the point where the victim preferred death.
      I would think that the threat and an the implied possibility of pain, coupled with sympathy would really disorient a person where good or at least partially accurate information would seem to the victim, to be the right thing to do.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

        The native Americans never advanced precisely because they were at perpetual war with each other, enslaving and murdering each other with insane ferocity.

        I’ve previously cited George Washington’s prohibition on torture and maltreatment of prisoners. It’s our guide to how we ought to manage this situation. The British didn’t torture their prisoners, even while the bombs were falling in the Blitz. It was a propaganda advantage.

        Now here’s what I’d do with our Fearsome Terrorists. I’d put out the rumour that we’d invented a Christian Serum through the miracles of recombinant DNA. We gave it to a few of the tough cases at Gitmo and they became model prisoners and were now confessing not only their sins but every scrap of useful intelligence to whoever would listen. Furthermore, I’d say we were sending the Converted Ones to luxurious condominiums in witness protection programs, but a few were being turned into counterintelligence operators, and they were being sent back from Gitmo. Oh, they’d go on acting like good Muslims, but the Christian Serum had really converted ’em and they couldn’t be trusted. Wait for the rumour to spread, and it would, quick as a wink.

        Then, once the rumour was set in place, I’d tell the prisoners the Christian Serum was being put into the water supply. Then I’d release a few prisoners from Gitmo back into their home countries. Their terrorist buddies would tear them to pieces.Report

        • Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Everytime I think you’re fading on us you come up with a brilliant analysis. This may be your best. I think it’s a very workable idea. You should do up a paper and submit it to the gummint. Maybe they’d put you in charge of the project and you’d get a spot on 60 Minutes. However, I did think you were a little goosey about Muslims killing each other?Report

        • dexter in reply to BlaiseP says:

          That sounds like a good idea, but how would Raytheon make money if we actually stopped the wars?Report

      • Nathanael in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

        Nope. The fact is that the threat of pain doesn’t really get you accurate information.

        The best interrogators — for getting accurate information, that is, since torture is excellent for getting false confessions if that’s what you want — have all explained that the key feature of their operations is simply to get the prisoner to feel that the interrogators are on the prisoner’s side. Extremely friendly behavior. Altering the informational environment of the prisoner — as with falsified newspapers — can be a key tool as well, so that the prisoner believes that his cause is over, a lost cause, that nobody much cares any more. But fear of pain? Not helpful.Report

        • David Cheatham in reply to Nathanael says:

          And, strangely, everyone knows this. It’s a fricken standard trope in television called Good Cop, Bad Cop.

          You have someone ‘bad’ show up, he is the ‘stick’. Maybe he does some screaming, maybe some threats, maybe he’s just a guy with a clipboard who stay silent in the corner and can be pointed at. He doesn’t even have to be physically present, he can just be some vague ‘other’. It can be a ‘my boss’. If it’s the CIA doing the questioning, the ‘bad cop’ can be the military.

          And then you have the ‘good cop’, the carrot, who’s like, ‘Dude, I’m here to help. If you tell me stuff, and it turns out that stuff is true, I can get you a better situation. If you don’t, well, I have to turn you over to that other guy. He stick you in a tiny cell the rest of your life, or worse. As long as you give me useful information, any useful information, I can keep him away from you. We already know pretty much everything anyway, but as long as you tell me true things, even if we already know them, the rules say he can’t get to you.’.

          It sounds absurd and cheesy, and I’m sure I’m explaining a simplified version of it, but it sure as hell works, and the CIA can do it like no one’s business.

          Or, you know, they can stick needles under fingernails because they were told to, and drive detainees insane by not letting them sleep. One or the other.Report

  2. Speaking for conservatives I think the attitude is no that we should torture everyone – I think the attitude is that if torture ever works then it should be a tool that is available in the most dire of situations. I’ve read the opinions of experts on torture, both pro and con, and I’m neither has convinced me. So conservatism should also tell us to not use torture until someone can prove it actually works – but if it’s illegal then the subject is moot.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      Well here’s the problem, then.

      If we accept that pain does interrogation more reliable, and if we have no moral problem with it either, then we ought to torture at bare minimum not just suspected terrorists, but suspected members of gangs and the Mafia, foreign spies, family members of the accused, and anyone suspected of conspiracy.

      I bet we’d get a whole lot more convictions that way. For anything we wanted, really.Report

    • The pro to using torture is that you will, in fact, get something out off somebody.

      The con is that you have to be torturing a guilty person in the first place for you to already have any chance at all at getting something useful.

      The ticking time bomb scenario is a red herring: if the time bomb is ticking, the subject knows they only have to hold out until the bomb goes off. That’s a powerful motivator to grit your teeth and bare it, or at least fountain off bullshit until the bomb goes off.Report

    • Simon K in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      The trouble is that the “most dire of situations” that people imagine – a nuclear bomb about to go off in downtown Manhattan and you have a guy in your custody who knows where it is and how to disarm it – doesn’t happen outside of movies. Its actually pretty much impossible – I mean, how do you know there’s a bomb? How do you know the guy knows how to disarm the bomb? Any half sane terrorist who actually wants the bomb to go off can avoid this scenario quite easily, can’t he?

      What you have in reality is a guy in your custody who might know something about one or more plots which might exist, according to your collated intelligence sources that are contradictory and uncertain. The plots might be very bad. There might be a nuclear bomb about to go off in lower Manhattan. You don’t know. There always might be a nuclear bomb about to go off in lower manhattan, for some value of might. The question is, do you torture that guy?

      I think the answer is obviously no. Simply because you don’t know what you want to know. Old school skilled interrogation is exactly what you need here, not a bunch of undertrained national guard thugs and contractor Jack Ryan wannabees playing out their sadistic fantasies. Talk to the guy. Find out about his mother. Find out what he wanted in life and how that went wrong for him. Get him drunk. Flush a Koran down the toilet – I really don’t care, flush a Bible while you’re at it too. Make friends with him. Get him to trust you. Upset his mental equilibrium and change his loyalties. A timeshare salesman can do this better than Jack Ryan can do it. In fact they’re experts and the CIA should probably recruit them. Then ask him what he knows.Report

    • David Cheatham in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      This is what’s baffling to me. There are hypothetical circumstances where it is reasonable to torture, just like there are hypothetical circumstances where it is reasonable to, for example, nuke Denver. (Perhaps self-replicating nanotech has escaped a lab there, and within a day the entire planet would be eaten.)

      This does not mean we need to make nuking cities _legal_.

      If you truly, honestly, have to save the damn world by doing something illegal, you just _do_ the illegal thing and trust history to vindicate you. If enough people are around afterward to give you a trial, that’s _why_ we’re tried by a jury of our peers, and it’s why we have pardons even if convicted.

      If you torture someone and find out how to stop a nuke, I won’t convict you if I’m on the jury. If you torture someone and _don’t_ find it out, I won’t either. Hell, I might not even convict you if you tortured the _wrong_ person, as long as your suspicions of that person had some basis in fact and there actually was such a nuke.

      But I sure as hell don’t want it legal for you to wander around claiming ‘Hey, there might be a nuke, I’m going to torture…this guy. Come with me, please.’.

      There are emergency circumstances when you can act outside the law to try to stop horrible things. And afterward, you show up _in court_ and justify why you did those illegal things.

      We do not make those things _legal_. We certainly don’t secretly make doing them in secret legal.Report

      • This is a perfectly reasonable stance, and one I support myself.

        I figure, if the penalty for torture is 20 years in the clink, and you’re not willing to buck the possibility that you’ll spend 20 years in the clink, then you really don’t care *all* that much about the supposed innocents you’d be saving in your ticking time bomb scenario, do you?Report

  3. Robert Cheeks says:

    Perhaps, I’m wrong but I thought Mr. Panetta said that Bush’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques were part of the reason OBL was found and perhaps killed.Report

    • Scott in reply to Robert Cheeks says:


      I said the same thing in the thread below but was told that I was wrong.


    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

      Maybe you should ask The Donald.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

      I helped too! I paid taxes!

      Therefore: Jaybird is part of the reason OBL was found and perhaps killed.Report

      • Robert Cheeks in reply to Jaybird says:

        I love the qualifier “….and (perhaps) killed.” And, I’m with you dude. I don’t share Jason’s faith in the Gifted One.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          It was an echo, not a choice.Report

        • Scott in reply to Robert Cheeks says:


          We may never know if we really got OBL as Barry won’t release the OBL death photo for fear of offending his Muslim buddies, though we get all the photos of mistreated detainees and American coffins you want.Report

          • Pat Cahalan in reply to Scott says:

            So you’re saying that releasing photographs of a very popular leader with half his head shot off isn’t likely to have some serious side effects?

            Maybe. On the other hand, I can see that one can make the reasonable calculus that there’s no benefit to be gained from releasing any photos directly, and possibly consequences that can easily be avoided. In good faith and all. Especially given all the bat-insanity over published documents.

            If I was going to release anything, I’d do it deniably, myself. Have someone “lose” a USB stick while they’re talking with Julian Assange’s lawyer, and let Wikileaks do it. But that’s just my cynical political calculation.Report

            • Robert Cheeks in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

              Pat, based on available evidence/statements by gummnt officials/etc do you absolutely believe OBL is sleepilng with the fishes?Report

              • If he’s not, Obama has made the biggest political blunder since Nixon decided he liked the sound of his own voice and started recording stuff that he really ought to have left off the record.

                Which is possible, in the infinite universes sense of possibility, but I’m not giving it much in the way of probability. Their ain’t no certainty, Bob. Not in this Universe, anyway.Report

              • North in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                Bob, let’s be realistic. If OBL was alive he’d have had a tape or video of himself on the airwaves crowing about it by yesterday evening at the latest (and Obama would be packing his bags as the GOP launched an realistic impeachment drive in congress). The fact that AQ hasn’t even tried to cobble together a fake OBL video/tape strikes me as corroborating evidence that Obama nailed the big fish himself.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to North says:

                Possibly, but thanks to Hisself and his orders to dump the body in the Gulf, 24 hours after he was gunned down, we’re in the miasmatic world of ‘what ifs.’ And, we can both do hypotheticals all day. The point is, just like CSI, the body was the proof and Barry ditched it.

                You either take Barry’s word, or the word of his loyal epigones or you don’t.Report

              • North in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                Bob, I luv ya but I’m gonna be frank. If Obama had produced a body then we’d have Islamists rioting all over the place and you’d be here on the League talking about how it was probably a fraudulent body and asking to see its long form Saudi Arabian birth certificate.Report

              • tom van dyke in reply to North says:

                Mercy, Bob.

                News: Bin Laden’s daughter sez they killed him. Captured him alive and terminated him with extreme prejudice right in front of his family.

                Jason. 😉

                News: They took TWO bodies, bin Laden & son’s. What happened to the 2nd body?

                All of this is from al-Arabiya, and considering that our own White House can’t get its story straight, this is still grain-of-salt stuff.


              • Jaybird in reply to North says:

                What upsets me is that, very soon, Bob will chastise me for my god skepticism and he’ll say it’s part of the modern disease with which I am infected.Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to North says:

                This, Jaybird. This.Report

            • Scott in reply to Pat Cahalan says:


              It probably will upset some but not as many as were upset with the detainee photos plus releasing the photo would prove that OBL is dead. As it is right now we leave ourselves open to everyone calling us a liar as we can’t prove it and turned OBL into Elvis.Report

              • Pat Cahalan in reply to Scott says:

                You’ll note: the decision to release detainee photos was rather taken away from those who were in the Administration at the time.

                I’m pretty sure those would have stayed in a vault somewhere until about 12 years from now if Dubya had anything to say about it. I’m almost certain that Obama would have sat on them as well if the secret had been kept that long.

                That was a face-loser for the country.Report

              • Mark Thompson in reply to Scott says:

                Photos are not the only way of proving that he’s dead. I’m guessing that the statements of one of OBL’s daughters who was there probably go a long way to achieving that, maybe even more than photos would in certain quarters.

                Also, I give it about two months before these photos are made available in a coordinated leak.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                I agree Mark, the problem though is, what if she was ‘tortured’ to sing the song the regime requires? I mean, yous guys opened this can-o-worms.
                My point is by destroying the body so quickly, Barry laid the foundation for doubt. After all he sent the Seal Team in to bring out a body or a live person(?) instead of firing up the compoud to 1,000 degrees or so from the air.
                Do you have the faith in Barry necessary to believe his story?Report

              • I have the faith that comes from recognizing that there is no incentive for the POTUS to lie as to the fact (as opposed to the facts) of bin Laden’s death. Such a lie is rather easily disproven, no?

                That in and of itself was enough for me on Sunday night, but since then there’s been ample corroborating evidence from any number of independent sources: a guy live-tweeting unknowingly; live video footage of the aftermath; the statement of one of bin Laden’s daughters; the Situation Room photo which, to be faked, would require that Hilary Clinton is good at pretending to show nervousness, concern, etc. (if she were, there’s a good chance she’d be President right now instead of SoS).Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                Mark, it surely appears there was a raid on a compound. What I’m concerned about is the proof of OBL demise.
                Because Barry ditched the remains in the Gulf (see above) we have no evidence re: who it was, unless you take Barry and his coterie at their word and, sorry, but I don’t.
                There are body doubles, photo shop, faked id’s, photos, etc. All kinds of evidence can be corrupted. I’m pretty sure you’re a lawyer. Isn’t the ‘Best Evidence’ the body? Don’t you want to identify the remains with certainty? The question becomes why did Barry order him dumped into the Gulf when the right thing to do was to keep the body for positive/public ID.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                Mark, I think there’s a great deal of political incentive for Barry to lay claim to killing OBL. Don’t you?Report

              • Chris in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                Bob will believe nothing short of an autopsy preformed by himself.Report

              • 1. There’s plenty of incentive for Obama to want credit for killing OBL. But if the claim that OBL is dead is a lie, the odds of this lie being exposed approach 100%, don’t you think? If you’re going to lie, you lie in a way that is either unfalsifiable or extraordinarily difficult to falsify. Does Obama have incentive to take that risk a year and a half from the next election?


                we have no evidence re: who it was, unless you take Barry and his coterie at their word

                Surely you, as a good, patriotic, god-fearin’ American, trust that the upstanding and courageous men of SEAL Team 6, the very epitome of all that is Good about this Great Nation, would refuse to stand by and permit some politician to deliberately lie about the identity of the man they took down in order to further his own political ambitions at the expense of our security. Or are they part of this “coterie” as well?Report

              • I’d say the ball’s in bin Laden’s court to prove he’s alive.

                Heh heh.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                Oh Mark, I’d trust the Seal Team, and I look forward to their testimony, although I doubt it’s coming anytime soon. Besides, as you know, OBL was notorious for using body doubles and I couldn’t blame some young soldier/salior/marine for not accurately identifying the corpse of a good double, could you?
                As I said, and as you know as a lawyer, it’s always the case in forensics that the body speaks the truth to us. Sadly, the POTUS got rid of the best evidence.
                Mark, replace Barry with Bush, and tell me, under indentical circumstances, you’d accept and believe Bush’s word?Report

              • Bobbo, I have no problem saying that I would take Bush’s word on this. FSM knows how many times I hoped to hear him make that announcement. In terms of “willingness to tell the truth as he understood it,” I never had any reason to trust him less than I trust Obama on that front. Conversely, I’ve also never had any reason to trust Obama any more than I trusted Bush on that front.Report

              • BSK in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                You never see to amaze, asscheeks. If OBL is really alive, all it would take is a quick video by him to completely undermine Obama and, by extension, America and likely give his followers an amazing rush. He’s dead. And the reason you don’t have the proof is because Obama (rightly) assumed that the right thing to do morally (dispose of the body as properly as possible) was more important than scoring political points with people like you who change the game every time he scores.Report

              • Robert Cheeks in reply to BSK says:

                BSK, you bootlicking commie-dem, what if OBL’s been dead for a long, long time? And, remember there’s nothing in Barry’s background that speaks of courage. He was never ‘down for the struggle’, just a beneficiary who used the ‘struggle’ for his own gain. Kinda like Jesse Jackson smearing MLK’s blood on his shirt, etc. The bottom line kids, is Barry had the opportunity to present apodictical proof and, for whatever reason alledgedly pitched it off the deck of the Vinson. Gee, why?

                Mark, I am very proud that you would follow Bush on this story, without proof. Now that’s faith in your gummint.

                RTod, I don’t watch Fox, because I can’t get it. You keep drinking the Koolaide.Report

              • Anderson in reply to BSK says:

                He could conceivably have been taken alive to a CIA prison; at least, that is the theory I heard from one conservative friend yesterday, tho even he presented it as speculation.Report

              • Rtod in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                If birtherism has taught me anything, it is there is no amount of conclusive evidence than can force people to abandon belief in what they wish to believe is true. What I am most looking forward to is watching the “entertainment” branch of FOX struggle with it’s “USA! USA!” meme that will want us to have defeated OBS competing with the “If It’s Anti-Obama We Totally Support It” meme and the temptation to stoke the fires of those that are claiming it is a conspiracy and OBL is still kicking.Report

              • BSK in reply to Rtod says:


                The crazies are already on to it. Saw a blog today that insisted Obama couldn’t give the command and it had to be offered by a military person. So, yes, he’s dead, but Obama was a chicken shit who couldn’t get it done. Perfect!Report

              • tom van dyke in reply to BSK says:

                Actually the story now is that the live video feed from the SEAL’s helmets to the Situation Room somehow blacked out for 20 minutes. When it came back, OBL was—ta-da!—fucking dead.

                The White House narrative changes hourly, and I’ll prob give up on trying to make any sense of it. I’m no fan but I’ve actually started reading Greenwald. Let him sort it out. He won’t front for any administration, that much he’s proved, to his credit.Report

              • Mark Thompson in reply to BSK says:

                Did anyone in the government ever actually claim that they were able to watch during the raid itself? I seem to recall that the phrase being bandied about on Monday was that they were getting “real time updates,” which I assumed meant “something other than live video.”

                FWIW, though, I am getting frustrated by all the reports coming from WH sources that keep having to be modified or retracted. This doesn’t seem to be one of them, but there’s no shortage of others.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BSK says:

                Heh. Never trust the first sitreps from an engagement. That’s the Fog of War made manifest.Report

              • tom van dyke in reply to BSK says:

                MarkT, the helmet cam blackout was another piece of info that just trickled out. I had read the assembled at the WH had been watching live video from the swoop.

                I’m serious about letting Greenwald sort all this out. I’m done with it. Let Glenn and Obama deal with HRW, etc.


          • Robert Cheeks in reply to Scott says:

            Scott, our commie-dem friends here at the League would, rightfully, argue that people like you and I might argue that the photo of Osama was faked. So, a photo really doesn’t prove much, thanks to photoshop.Report

        • Wow, would that be a horrible idea. “Hey, let’s set up a propaganda coup and claim we killed Osama!”

          (weeks pass)

          “CNN reports that a new videotape has been released showing Osama bin Laden sitting surrounded by yesterday’s copy of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and he mentions the final score of yesterday’s Lakers win over the Celtics in game 1 of the NBA Finals.”Report

  4. Steve S. says:

    “why aren’t conservatives saying ‘Whew, I’m glad that’s over. No more torture for us!’?”

    Being careful to note that we are not speaking of all conservatives but just those who are post hoc justifying torture, it doesn’t seem to me that there is any underlying principle involved. They can’t stand the idea that a black Democrat named Hussein presided over the denouement. In other words it’s got little to do with torture per se, it’s naked tribalism.Report

  5. tom van dyke says:

    The flat claim used to be, torture doesn’t work. But even Glenn Greenwald’s not that big an idiot, and allows that it may—his argument is more nuanced, along Jason’s line here, that a) there’s no proof the same info couldn’t have been got without it [unprovable one way or the other], and b) the price is too high [reputation, humanity, etc.] regardless of the value of the info [at least arguable, altho tough to sell to the family of a terror victim].

    As for the info in this case, I’ve heard it both ways, that no usable info was gathered through “enhanced interrogation,” but then there’s this:

    CIA Director Leon Panetta stomped on the White House’s political script when he told Tuesday night’s broadcast of NBC Nightly News that the waterboarding of jihadi detainees contributed information that led to the location and killing of Osama bin Laden.

    “We had multiple series of sources that provided information with regards to this situation… clearly some of it came from detainees [and] they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of those detainees,” he told NBC anchor Brian Williams.

    When asked by Williams if water-boarding was part of the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Panetta simply said “that’s correct.”

    Read more: http://dailycaller.com/2011/05/03/torturous-evasions/#ixzz1LPxWixIyReport

    • Mike Schilling in reply to tom van dyke says:

      Some of the information came from group D, some of whom were subject to E, and some part of E was torture. if you can conclude from that that some of the information used was derived from torture, much less that it was information that wasn’t also gotten without torture, much less that information obtained only by torture was necessary for the operation’s success, you’re a better sophist than I am.Report

    • The claim that torture doesn’t work has always been a secondary argument to the moral and legal arguments.

      But it’s also always been a more nuanced claim than “torture doesn’t work because the victim won’t ever tell you anything accurate.” Instead, it’s that it doesn’t work because:
      1. There’s little way of separating the wheat from the chaff since there’s no way of knowing when the victim has told all that he knows or, for that matter, has begun telling what he knows. So you’re going to wind up wasting far more time chasing false leads than good leads.
      2. The victim will ultimately tell the torturer whatever the torturer wants to hear. If he doesn’t tell the torturer what the torturer wants to hear, no matter how accurate the information he provides is, that information will get discounted and the torture will continue until he tells the torturer what the torturer wants to hear. So some amount of good intelligence will get ignored and discounted in exchange for bad intelligence.
      3. Sometimes, even oftentimes, what the torturer wants to hear will be correct information – the torturer is asking his questions for a reason, and will have at least some information that forms the basis for his questions. But if the victim is just verifying what the torturer already correctly suspected, then he’s not really providing much of significance. If he’s verifying what the torturer already incorrectly suspected, then the torture is just assuring a tremendous waste of resources pursuing a false lead.

      In other words, the torture will largely (though not entirely) result in the same information being obtained and same leads followed as would have otherwise been obtained and followed. It will also, however, result in a large number of additional false leads and maybe a small number of additional true leads, which may or may not have been obtainable through other forms of interrogation.

      The Bush Administration liked to claim that the 30 prisoners subjected to “harsh interrogation” yielded sufficient information for 8500 intelligence reports. That’s just about 300 reports per prisoner; not surprisingly, I’m not aware of the Bush Administration ever providing details on what percentage of those 8500 reports turned out to be primarily based on verifiably true statements.

      Can you imagine having enough knowledge about any one aspect of your life for someone to be able to write even 100 reports about what you told them about that one aspect of your life? I sure as hell can’t.Report

      • Yes, those would be the arguments, Mr. Thompson. Deja vu all over again. I don’t find them remotely self-evident although not necessarily false either.

        On the whole, I’ve considered the ineffectiveness argument more of an easy way to dodge the moral hazard portion of our program. We have Panetta’s statement that they worked, and I happen to agree with the last CIA director, Michael Hayden on the rest:

        “Most of the people who oppose these techniques want to be able to say, “I don’t want my nation doing this,” which is a purely honorable position, “and they didn’t work anyway.” That back half of the sentence isn’t true.

        The facts of the case are that the use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer. It really did work. The president’s speech, President Bush in September of ’06, outlined how one detainee led to another, led to another, with the use of these techniques.

        The honorable position you have to take if you want us not to do this — and believe me, if the nation says, “Don’t do it,” the CIA won’t do it. The honorable position has to be, “Even though these techniques worked, I don’t want you to do that.” That takes courage. The other sentence doesn’t.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to tom van dyke says:

          We have Panetta’s statement that they worked

          No, we don’t. We have Panetta’s statement that they were used as part of a system that eventually located OBL.Report

        • Nathanael in reply to tom van dyke says:

          The fact is that the torture didn’t work. It didn’t make us safer. It destroyed the US reputation in the eyes of *billions* of people, which is a loss which cannot be recovered for decades if at all, and it led to the imprisonment of one innocent detainee, and then another innocent detainee, and then another, and then another.

          The fundamental “it doesn’t work” problem isn’t that you don’t get any accurate information. You do get some. You just can’t sort it out from all the lies you get because people will say anything under torture.Report

          • tom van dyke in reply to Nathanael says:

            Yes, Mr. Nathanael, people keep saying that. But it’s far from self-evident. Better you should take Michael Hayden’s challenge, that even if torture does work, we shouldn’t do it and accept the consequences.Report

            • There is a lot of open questions about the efficacy of torture. I’ve read a lot about the subject, and in a very real way the chips fall down where the authors decide the chips fall down.

              That is, quite often, the definition of what “works” means, or where you draw the line at when you say something has “worked” that is used winds up answering the author’s own question about whether or not torture “works”.

              I’m unconvinced that there is any credible evidence that torture can be used, effectively, to increase one’s reliable information store in an intelligence operation, across all intelligence operations. The (likelihood that you are going to get false or misleading or incomplete information from a knowledgeable interrogated suspect) plus (the likelihood that you are going to get false or misleading information from someone who is being interrogated incorrectly) far outweighs (the likelihood that you are going to get true information from a knowledgeable subject).

              That said, intelligence work is about cross-validation. About half of the information gathered through intelligence operations is false, I’m led to believe, so it’s only through cross-analysis that you can get a reasonable probability to assume you have good intelligence.

              If you’re focused entirely on the second factor, then finding a bit of data that can contribute in any way to a successful cross-analysis can be claimed to be “working”. Similarly, any false data that can be discarded through cross-analysis can be claimed to be not relevant, since it is the process of the cross analysis that is important. So if torture victim B tells me 20 things, and only 3 of them is true, my idea of whether or not torture works is going to depend on the results of the analysis with the other 400 bits of information I’m using. If I have reasonable probability to believe two of the true things, and reasonable probability to not believe all but one of the false things, I’ve got two good leads and one bad one. I might think that’s successful.

              I honestly believe that most of the informed people who support enhanced interrogation *aren’t* sadists (the laypeople, that’s something else). They’ve been involved in intelligence analysis where the outcomes have validated that belief.

              That doesn’t make them right, because as we all know, the plural of anecdote is not data.

              Many of the “torture does not work” folk rely upon externalities, which alters the analysis significantly. If you start including, “If our opponent knows we torture, they’re less likely to surrender”, your calculus on whether or not something *works* is a lot more complicated.

              If you’re taking a utilitarian view, the safest course (IMO) is to keep torture illegal, and keep the punishment high, and try people who do it. As David points out above, if your cause is just and your motives are clear and you’re willing to face a jury of your peers and say, “Yes, goddamn it, I did what I thought was the least crappy thing I could do at the time,” at the very least you’re protecting your troops from moral hazard.

              If you’re taking an absolutist moral view, then we’re done already because torture is just out, on the possibility that you might be torturing an innocent person isn’t worth any possible outcome. If you believe in an afterlife, it’s actually less reprehensible to freaking murder somebody than it is to torture them: in the first case they’re dead and making peace with their maker, in the second you are damaging them in ways that often cannot be repaired.Report

              • +1.

                Also you point out (correctly, IMHO):

                If you’re taking a utilitarian view, the safest course (IMO) is to keep torture illegal, and keep the punishment high, and try people who do it. As David points out above, if your cause is just and your motives are clear and you’re willing to face a jury of your peers and say, “Yes, goddamn it, I did what I thought was the least crappy thing I could do at the time,” at the very least you’re protecting your troops from moral hazard.

                As a practical matter, this is the course that should have been taken on this issue from Day One. The absolutist moral position, while honorable, does not reflect the tradeoffs that we, as a society, have enshrined in evaluating culpability for acts of violence (we have developed various affirmative defenses for criminal acts, which conceivably include the use of torture under some conditions where it is the only available means of protecting others). But so too, the arguments against any culpability at all represent a sea change from those agreed-upon tradeoffs – torture is to be deemed automatically justified so long as it is performed by the “right” persons.Report

              • > But so too, the arguments against any
                > culpability at all represent a sea change
                > from those agreed-upon tradeoffs –
                > torture is to be deemed automatically
                > justified so long as it is performed by
                > the “right” persons.

                Yeah, this. This is scary. I don’t like it.

                I don’t care who is in office. I don’t want people to be able to do this on governmental say-so. I accept the fact that it might happen. I accept the fact that it may even be justifiable in a particular case. Heck, if I was Jack Ryan, I’d shoot that dude in the leg too in Patriot Games to get info on how many people were coming into my house to kill me and my kids. I probably wouldn’t believe what he told me 100%, though. And I certainly wouldn’t feel all fine and dandy about it myself, afterwards. I’m not even sure being tried by a jury and being found innocent would abate my conscience. But I’m damn sure this isn’t an exception we need to be putting in our legal code.Report

  6. E.C. Gach says:

    Does torture always have to be painful? Or could there be exquisitly pleasant ways of forcing information out of people(note: I say “forced” beacause I’m not talking about a circumstance in which a prisoner gives up information willingly)? And I ask this in all seriousness.Report

  7. CharleyCarp says:

    I don’t think anyone doubts, or has doubted since the beginning of this episode, that with the right ‘techniques’ you can get someone to confess that they saw Goody Barebones kill a cow with a mere glance, that they signed their names in blood in the devil’s book, and that they flew on a broomstick from Salem to Boston. The question is whether you can get information that you don’t have, in useful form. A guys tells you 100 things and 99 of them are false. 1 turns out (years later) to be true and the advocate jumps up: torture has worked. Or you end up alternating the beating with spoonfeeding, and you get Fouad Al Rabia giving a briefcase full of cash to Osama bin Laden.

    In the meantime, for years, potential informants have sat quiet, because the risk that they themselves would be whisked off to some black site for further exploitation was way more than trivial.

    But, no, I’m happy to go with the moral question. The panel of judges who told Charles I that the honor of the law prevented him from putting John Felton to the rack were right.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to CharleyCarp says:

      Quite so. Just adding to this:

      The question is whether you can get information that you don’t have, in useful form. A guys tells you 100 things and 99 of them are false. 1 turns out (years later) to be true and the advocate jumps up: torture has worked.

      …that you can get the same results without the torture. The question is not whether torture ever coincides with useful intelligence. It’s whether, on the margin, torture adds anything — and if so, how much.

      It’s always been my position that on the margin, torture adds a lot of useless information that’s especially persuasive to the interrogator. Even if it were done entirely in secret, and even if we didn’t care about the morality of the act itself, we’d still be badly served by torture.

      In this post I tried to give conservatives an “out” — a way of thinking past their embrace of torture. It saddens me that they are digging deeper rather than taking it.Report

  8. Brian says:

    Most of the torture debate consists of people who have never endeavored to think for 5 minutes about morality attempting to provide themselves with a substitute by giving themselves that rush of adolescent self-righteousness attendant upon announcing “I’m against torture.”

    Well, bully for you. Now you don’t have the deal with matters too intellectually challenging for you.Report

  9. Tom Maguire says:

    Re: “So conservatism should also tell us to not use torture until someone can prove it actually works …”

    Actually, conservatism interpreted as respect for the wisdom of humans past would tell us that a lot of previous generations were quite sure torture could be effective some of the time.

    IMHO the “Torture is evil” side should just stop there and not engage in the utilitarian arguments. First, even the enhanced interrogators recognized that there were lines not to be crossed – they just drew them in a different place. Just e.g., I suspect Dick Cheney could be persuaded that kidnapping a terrorist’s daughter and threatening to rape her would provide effective coercion, but I am certain he would not approve it (or find anyone to do it), ticking time bomb or no.

    Secondly, the “torture doesn’t work” doesn’t sell except to people who want to believe it. John McCain admitted that he and almost all his fellow prisoners gave up info about their units (a mix of truth and lies, yes, but still some truth) under duress. John LeCarre, before the political winds shifted, made it clear in his fiction that he thought torture could motivate a prisoner to reveal the truth (he also made it clear that other techniques also worked). George Orwell had a famous torture scene, although information was not really the objective.

    Back in reality, the Brtits did rough up some of their German prisoners in WWII, as they did with the Irish during the Troubles. The Israelis also did, until they decided to stop. My guess is they employed these techniques because they believed that this approach was sometimes effective.

    And I think most people look into their hearts and see a person who would fold up like a cheap suitcase under duress (I am sure I would.) Now, I am also sure I am not a trained, motivated terrorist but I find it unlikely that every terrorist we pick up is not only trained to resist torture but aced the training.

    So in my view, the people who find any type of enhanced interrogation to be morally offensive should just oppose it on those perfectly defensible grounds. “It’s wrong” is a valid argument.

    Obviously, the next problem is defining “it”. I just don’t have a problem with “walling” a prisoner, and some of the other enhanced techniques sounded like a frat party gone awry, but maybe I have the soul of a thug.Report

    • mark boggs in reply to Tom Maguire says:

      I think the problem comes knowing exactly “when” it is going to work. Will it work if the guy you’ve got is there by mistaken identity? Will it work if the guy you’ve got there is really just a fringe player with no real knowledge of anything meaningful? “When” will you finally know either of these things? Maybe if they turn the screws just a little tighter, that will be “when” this person spills the beans. And if not then, maybe with a few more turns. Of course, if it is mistaken identity or a fringe player, with each screw turn, you’ll probably get more and more garbage to sort through, and since the guy is being more productive (nevermind the quality of what he produces) with each turn of the screw, imagine how much more productive he’ll become with another turn of the screw.

      I think “when” we can definitively answer “when” this stuff is guaranteed you could start to make a utilitarian argument for torture. If you’re willing to gamble your humanity and the moral high ground you claim to hold over your enemy to cover the “just in case” position, it quickly becomes a Pandora’s box in terms of what you might learn from just about anybody.Report