Death of OBL: Part Two – Tortured History

One of the outcomes of the operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden has been the re-ignition of the debate over the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on al Qaeda suspects. Since the raid, many officials from the Bush administration (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Yoo, Thiessen, Rice etc.) have stated that CIA Director Leon Panetta’s suggestion that intelligence gathered from waterboarding, stress positions, induced hypothermia, sleep deprivation, and other psychological tactics authorized by the former president and stopped by Obama, may have played a role in the killing of bin Laden. Whether true or not this is a difficult assertion to evaluate, though, on the surface it appears to be not entirely true, as Andrew Sullivan shows in his considered takedown: “The Big Lie”

Why has the issue become a major theme surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden? The reasons seem obvious. Since Obama rescinded presidential approval of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” two days into his presidency, Bush officials have been seeking validation of their controversial decision made in the wake of the September 11 attacks. If intelligence gathered through torture provided even one iota of help in locating bin Laden than the program, no matter how abhorrent, would have proven valid. The ends would justify the means in their eyes. Additionally, it would give former president Bush a substantial role in the operation itself. Fox News commentator and Republican mouthpiece Sean Hannity has already asserted that Bush deserves “at least” 50 percent of the credit, with former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld (not surprisingly) concurring. In fact, ex-Bushies argue that given Senator Obama’s past opposition to Bush-approved torture, bin Laden would never have been captured if the current president had had his way from 2005 to 2008. Give Bush the Congressional Medal of Honor!

But can we endorse or oppose torture  solely on the basis of whether it provides actionable intelligence? Whether torture aided in the capture of Osama bin Laden, and if so, to what degree, I do not know. Either way I think support or opposition of torture based on its utility is missing the point.

Opposing torture based on the argument that it is inherently unreliable is a popular argument, though it is not entirely sound. Information gathered via torture is like nearly any other intelligence source – it cannot be used as a singular source. The information needs to be vetted to some degree by finding confirmation through another source. An intelligence agency that does not have a diverse set of sources is bound to be misled regardless of the origin of their intelligence, be it a secret agent or torture. The only possible exception are rare instances when an intelligence agency can, in a sense, peer into the mind of its opponent. As unappealing as this may sound, torture has proven to be a valuable intelligence source many times in the past.

On the other hand, those that support torture based on pragmatic grounds are positively amoral. The use of the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” rather than torture (and those approved “techniques” definitely qualify as torture, just ask Christopher Hitchens) when discussing this issue, beyond providing certain legal protections, is also somewhat indicative of the fact that members of the Bush administration and their supporters in the media are well aware of their own amorality. The lame and often repeated claim that immoral actions such as torture are permitted in cases where there is a need for immediate intelligence, so-called “ticking time bomb scenarios” is moot. Such a scenario has never come up. Furthermore, even if an immoral action such as torture can be accepted under such circumstances the instances where it was used to successfully locate bin Laden (something that didn’t happen for two and a half years after Barack Obama ended the practice) certainly does not meet the condition of “immediate” need. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libbi’s interrogators would have had to have been conscious of the fact that neither detainee would have current information on the precise location of Osama bin Laden. Finding the al Qaeda leader would require solving an intelligence puzzle of many separate pieces. Not surprisingly this is exactly how events played out on May 1.

This answer may not be satisfying as it dodges the question of whether torture is ever justifiable. In my opinion the answer is that it can not be condoned under any circumstances. In the “ideal” circumstances described by torture supporters like John Yoo and Alan Dershowitz, where there is a ticking time bomb, authorities capture the terrorist responsible, they know that the terrorist will provided the location of the bomb under torture and that there is no other way to obtain said information, those who advocate torture are doing so on the basis of a utilitarian argument. They believe that the possible lasting damage to society through the gross violation of an individual’s rights is offset by the cost of saving countless lives. I, in turn, would take a similar utilitarian stance and advocate that we don’t stop with violating the terrorist’s rights for the greater good. The person who engages in or authorizes torture, regardless of how many lives he/she saves, should be also pay a price for the good of the many and be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. That would be their sacrifice under such unlikely circumstances.

Torture cannot be allowed to become a matter of routine. It is intrinsically wrong on moral grounds regardless of its dubious practical utility.


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