A Narrow and (so far as I can tell) Untraveled Path on Torture
[Some suggest] that the fact Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi provided tidbits (or, according to several reports, unconvincing denials) that led to OBL equates to us needing torture to get that intelligence. Particularly given that CIA used the denials of KSM and al-Libi as indications they were hiding something, it’s unclear why a denial without coercion would have served differently.
But there are two points that seem key in assessing the torture question. First, both KSM and al-Libi had critical intelligence they withheld under torture. KSM knew of Abu Ahmed’s trusted role and real name; al-Libi knew Abu Ahmed was OBL’s trusted courier and may have known of what became OBL’s compound.
And neither of them revealed that information to the CIA.
They waterboarded KSM 183 times in a month, and he either never got asked about couriers guarding OBL, or he avoided answering the question honestly. Had KSM revealed that detail, Bush might have gotten OBL 8 years ago.
As I’ve said in the past, torture generates its own epistemology, in which pain, not coherence or justification, is the standard of knowledge. By that standard, non-tortured witnesses are in general less reliable sources. In the Roman Empire, a slave’s testimony was only admissible if he had been tortured, which I suppose was only logical given the premise.
Note also that if we didn’t believe this, our torture would come from mere sadism — delight in pain — and this we’ve been assured repeatedly was not the case (I’ll let you be the judge, of course).
Now pain is a really, really stupid standard of knowledge. It doesn’t lead to the truth — just to whatever the interrogator thinks is painful enough to be believable. And what is that? It could be literally anything.
Perhaps that’s still your standard; if so, I probably can’t argue it out of you (though, arguably, I would be quite correct in torturing it out of you).
But what I don’t understand is this. We’ve just passed through a time when we abandoned the universally accepted standards of decent nations regarding interrogation and detainee treatment. These were standards that we formerly proposed and advocated, along with our friends and allies. Back then our enemies, countries like China and the Soviet Union, took the stance that we recently took.
Did torture work? Eh. Possibly — can’t totally rule it out, anyway — but it doesn’t seem terribly likely, given the evidence. Just on cost-benefit terms — doubtful-to-meager intelligence payoff; terrible reputation damage — we should jump at the chance to reject torture. This remains so even if we agree that torture, in some true but trivial sense, “worked.”
In other words, why aren’t conservatives saying “Whew, I’m glad that’s over. No more torture for us!”? It would seem the only thing remotely approaching decency that one might say, if for some reason one wanted to keep ideological continuity with the second Bush administration.