The Meaninglessness of Claims that Torture “Worked”
(NOTE: The odds of a commenter making the point I’m trying to make in this post in a paragraph or less approach 100%).
Tom Van Dyke, in comments, points us to this 2009 quote from former CIA Director Michael Hayden:
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.
I actually happen to agree that adding “….and it doesn’t work anyway” eliminates any courage from the position that this country should not torture (or, if you prefer, “use enhanced interrogation techniques”), at least so long as one doesn’t add “but even if it worked, no price would be worth it” (and many certainly do add that bit).
That doesn’t make the position meritless or inappropriate to argue, though. Even one who takes the unqualified, honorable position still needs to convince at least some of those who do not to take his side in order for his opposition to have any meaning. Repeating, over and over, that something is immoral will not ever convince anyone who basically acknowledges that immorality but finds security more important than morality.
So the issue of whether torture “worked” is relevant even if you are an opponent of torture under any and all circumstances, regardless of whether it works.
The bigger problem with the Hayne quote above is that it, much like most other considered arguments for the utility of torture and much like most arguments that the facts surrounding Osama bin Laden’s death prove the utility of torture, fundamentally ignores why torture opponents say that it doesn’t work. It also ignores that the moral and utilitarian arguments against torture are intrinsically linked in a way that deprives claims that torture “works” of any real meaning.
A quick refresher course of those arguments, which hold that torture 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.
4. In some instances, the torture victim will, out of hatred for his captors, whose behavior validates all of the worst things the prisoner suspects about the United States, persistently withhold information that he might otherwise be willing to provide.
There is, and always has been, one common thread to these arguments: torture will, on average, result in substantially more information being collected than otherwise would be collected, some portion of which will even be verifiably true. The core of the utilitarian objection made by torture opponents is thus largely one of opportunity costs, combined with an argument that a disproportionate share of verifiable information obtained solely because of (not merely during or after) torture will be of relatively limited utility. To the extent its opportunity costs are really high, even the usable information obtained may be of less value than that opportunity cost. To simply say that torture “works” because it provides usable information is to utterly ignore these arguments from opportunity costs.
It is understandable that arguments from opportunity costs would be ignored here: those opportunity costs are almost entirely unknowable. But those costs are unknowable precisely because of their relationship with the morality of the torturer – the moral and utilitarian arguments against torture are inextricably linked, in other words.
How, for instance, does one who has decided to torture recognize that highly valuable information which contradicts his prejudices is good information rather than a good excuse to torture more until those prejudices are confirmed? How do we measure the value of this information that is obtained, discarded, and replaced by false information? Indeed, how do we even recognize that this valuable information was obtained in the first place when it has been so quickly discarded?
Then there is the question of torture’s self-perpetuating rationale, a question often at the center of moral objections to torture. Here, the moral objection aims not at the harm to the tortured but instead at the self-inflicted harm to the torturer himself. This is the harm in which the torturer loses the ability to distinguish between truth and lie, where the torturer views any responses he does not like as a sign that the victim is not being tortured enough, while responses he does like are a sign that the torture is working. The “success” of torture, in the eye of the torturer, approaches 100%, even as he will never actually know what good, useful information he let slip through his fingers, nor what bad and useless information he obtained solely because of the pernicious effects of torture on him personally.
Relatedly, how do we distinguish between information obtained because of torture and information merely obtained after or during torture? The answer, it seems, is simply that we don’t – information obtained during or after torture is defined automatically by torture supporters as information obtained because of torture, even if, as seems to be the case with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the information is obtained many months after the torture. This is again the result of the moral corruption wrought by torture: once torture has occurred, it is only natural to assume that the reason the tortured man talks more in the future, even if months or years down the line, is out of his fear of torture. Again, says the moral argument, the corruption wrought by torture will make all that is useful seem the result of torture, and that which is not good the result of insufficient torture.
Most dramatically, though, even where the utility of torture may be demonstrable and more than just a mirage of self-deception, the moral argument would claim that the moral corruption wrought by the torture will spread like a disease to situations where its utility is at best marginal. We will, in sum, wind up with Abu Ghraib and the torture of fairly ordinary men and women. And that is most certainly not something that will enhance security.
Torture is ineffective because it is immoral. And it is immoral because it is ineffective.