A quick update on torture

by John Quiggin on May 4, 2011

In my post on bin Laden’s death, I noted the spin in a New York Times story suggesting that torture had helped to extract the clues leading to bin Laden’s location, even though the facts reported suggested the opposite. This analysis, also in the NYT, confirms both the spinning and the fact that the evidence produced under brutal torture was deliberately misleading. Given the failure of the Bush Administration to get anywhere near bin Laden, it seems likely that they were in fact misled, deluded by the ancient belief that evidence extracted under torture is the most reliable kind.

It’s noteworthy that the URL for the story is “torture”, but the article itself doesn’t adopt that description and doesn’t even use the word until well after the lede.

{ 60 comments }

1

Warren Terra 05.04.11 at 4:20 am

Everything I know about torture I learned from reading, much of it fiction. Still, there seems to be an awfully strong argument that enough torture will make anyone talk – and they’ll say exactly what they think you want to hear.

As such, this passage from the Times story you link is very disturbing:

Armed with Mr. Ghul’s account of the courier’s significance, interrogators asked Mr. [Khalid Sheikh] Mohammed again about Mr. Kuwaiti. He stuck to his story, according to the official.
After Mr. Libi was captured in May 2005 and turned over to the C.I.A., he too was asked. He denied knowing Mr. Kuwaiti and gave a different name for Bin Laden’s courier, whom he called Maulawi Jan. C.I.A. analysts would never find such a person and eventually concluded that the name was Mr. Libi’s invention, the official recalled.

According to that passage, they asked KSM – under torture – about Mr. Kuwaiti; and at least when interrogating Mr Libi (allegedly not under torture) they not only asked about Mr. Kuwaiti, but did so specifically in terms of asking for confirmation that he was Bin Laden’s courier.

Let’s say KSM had confirmed their story under torture – why would anyone believe it? You’re basically telling the guy “this torment will stop when you agree that Mr. Kuwaiti is Bin Laden’s courier”. Surely the only way torture could be remotely reliable (and even so still not normally excusable) would be if its perpetrators tried very hard not to tell their victim just what it is they want to hear.

2

may 05.04.11 at 4:24 am

the silence is deafening

3

Daniel 05.04.11 at 4:37 am

I am interested to see that we are now giving very serious consideration to the “ticking semi-retired terrorist argument”

4

logern 05.04.11 at 5:01 am

Don’t the guilty often try to justify their crimes with excuses? To make others believe they were compelled by circumstances, often by the people they committed the offense against?

I’m talking about John Woo and others, of course.

5

Chris Bertram 05.04.11 at 6:09 am

Note that the torture being justified here is not of the catastrophe-imminent “ticking time-bomb” variety, but rather of the “do it routinely to people who we think of as ‘bad guys’ and maybe some snippet we glean will prove useful eventually” kind.

6

Warren Terra 05.04.11 at 6:24 am

@ logern, #4

I’m talking about John Woo and others, of course.

His obsession with doves flying off is annoying, and Face/Off is an appallingly bad film – but “crimes”? Surely not.

Or did you mean John Yoo?

7

weaver 05.04.11 at 6:44 am

they were in fact misled, deluded by the ancient belief that evidence extracted under torture is the most reliable kind

I doubt they were misled. I’m sure they belived that evidence produced under torture has precisely the features tactical critics of torture allege: it gets you the answers the victim thinks you want to hear. Useless as intelligence, but great for show trials and propaganda, which was the point of it.

8

Phil Ruse 05.04.11 at 6:52 am

I would imagine Bin Laden was found as the result of an accumulation of evidence gathered over the years, yes – even the Bush years! Hence the suggestion that because Bin Laden wasn’t caught during those years somehow shows torture ‘played no part’ is an invalid assumption.

That’s not to say your belief of the unreliability of evidence extracted under torture is wrong, just that most – even the torturers – are I’m sure also aware of this; the accumulation of evidence will include some less reliable that others.

I find this whole “torture is wrong and anyway it doesn’t work” argument unsettling. Why not stick with “torture is wrong”?

9

dsquared 05.04.11 at 6:59 am

Phil, “I would imagine … Hence” is an argument-schema with very low added value indeed.

10

Warren Terra 05.04.11 at 7:09 am

@ Phil, #8

I find this whole “torture is wrong and anyway it doesn’t work” argument unsettling. Why not stick with “torture is wrong”?

Because some people don’t agree with the first part, but it might be possible to convince them of the second part? After all, there seem to be a lot of people who adopt a stance of saying “I know torture is bad, but I believe the information we obtain is worth it”. Lecturing them about how torture is bad may make us feel good, and may be morally impeccable – but I doubt it will sway them.

11

Zamfir 05.04.11 at 7:43 am

I find this whole “torture is wrong and anyway it doesn’t work” argument unsettling. Why not stick with “torture is wrong”?
Because it usually come up in a context like warfare, where we clearly do lots of other things that are wrong. Like killing foreign conscripts whose only crime was being 18 when the war started.

Yet there are good arguments (even if not good enough to convince everybody) to do those things anyway, because they are indeed effective. And it would suck to let people the people win who have no qualms about the effective-yet-wrong things. Nasty situation, and it can quickly turn well-menaing people into bad guys. But that’s a real and sometimes unavoidable dilemma of war.

That’s why the “not very effective” part matters. If torture was truly, clearly very effective, it would be a standard unavoidable part of warfare. The argument against toruture is that doesn’ t do much, is still bad, and that it has a devious, revenge-like attraction that makes people believe in its effectiveness even in the lack of evidence.

12

repsac3 05.04.11 at 7:59 am

“His obsession with doves flying off is annoying, and Face/Off is an appallingly bad film – but “crimes”? Surely not.”

Now Michael Bay, on the other hand…

13

Matěj Cepl 05.04.11 at 8:20 am

What’s also terrible (and I don’t say that fixing this would make torture a bit more palatable) is how amateurish all this torture is. In the Middle Ages people used to be more honest and thus were able to think more clearly about what they were doing. And of course, thinking about it, they knew very well how to torture well. And if the current tortures tried to take a look at that literature, they could find out that actually after hundreds of years long discussion the conclusion was that torture doesn’t work.

This is not to say that more professional torture would make the practice acceptable, just how sleazy and dishonest our public life now is.

From other point of view, it could be also interesting to ask what actually is purpose of torturing people. I don’t believe that Syrians, Northern Koreans, Iranians, Libyans, Chinese, and Americans (to list counties which officially allow torture) are really after finding the truth. I don’t believe even politicians are that stupid. So what they are after? An interesting question, I would say.

14

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.04.11 at 8:58 am

If torture was truly, clearly very effective, it would be a standard unavoidable part of warfare.

No, it’s banned by international law. As are other barbaric acts, that may or may not be effective. It’s banned because it’s barbaric, not because it’s not very effective.

15

ajay 05.04.11 at 9:45 am

True. Chemical weapons are very effective in certain circumstances, as are expanding or explosive bullets and blinding/dazzling weapons, but they’re banned none the less because they’re barbaric.
There’s another class of illegal weapon that aren’t particularly barbaric but are banned because they’re unacceptably indiscriminate, which I suppose is a slightly different issue – cluster munitions, landmines, nuclear weapons, some biological weapons like crop blights and rusts.

16

chris y 05.04.11 at 10:46 am

C.I.A. analysts would never find such a person and eventually concluded that the name was Mr. Libi’s invention, the official recalled.

Why would they conclude that rather than that “Kuwaiti”/”Jan” used different names in different contexts or with different people. I mean, you would, wouldn’t you. The guy’s birth certificate (long form) probably says ‘Ali.

17

Zamfir 05.04.11 at 10:51 am

The problem with international law on warfare is that it is full of things that countries are only willing to abstain from if the other side does so too. It’s to some extent a proposal for a mutual voluntary deal to limit the worst excesses of war, but only to the extent that it will not greatly change the outcome of war if both sides stick to the rules. Most countries do not accept international law if it hurts them strategically, or if potential opponents would get a noticable advatage from ignoring it.

When the effectiveness of a practice is perceived as high, either for them or for an opponent, those practices either do no make it into law at all, or the law gets ignored without much moral qualms. The Korean DMZ is still filled to the brim with land mines. And having a nuclear arsenal aimed at civilian cities is rather common among the civilized people of this world, it’s the barbarians who have to do without. Those same very civilized countries have stockpiles of the other crap too, just in case it becomes too useful to ignore again.

No matter what you personally think of this, there are clearly many people who have no moral objection to having ready-to-lauch nuclear missiles for second-strike purposes, but who do strongly object to torture even against a torturing opponent. And others who could be convinced to become such persons.

Those are the people that need to be convinced against torture, especially in cases where the opponent is willing to torture. And that’s why arguments won’t work if they are based solely on the inherent wrongness of torture or on reference to international law . People who think those arguments on their own are enough are not really the target group of anti-torture arguments, the target group are people who need to be convinced that the potential gains from torture really do not outweigh the wrongness, not for us and also not for the other side.

18

engels 05.04.11 at 10:58 am

Phil’s talking point was given it’s most idiotic form Megan McArdle.

19

ajay 05.04.11 at 11:04 am

The problem with international law on warfare is that it is full of things that countries are only willing to abstain from if the other side does so too.

I don’t think this is actually the case for anything except chemical weapons; IIRC the Hague Convention had a no-first-use proviso. (It’s out of date now anyway, superseded by the CWC which is an outright ban). But you couldn’t get away with using blinding weapons, for example, by arguing that the other side had used them as well.

As for land mines in the DMZ, the US has not signed up to the relevant convention for pretty much exactly this reason – that land mines are too useful to discard. (Neither has North Korea, which has also laid a huge number in the DMZ).

Those same very civilized countries have stockpiles of the other crap too, just in case it becomes too useful to ignore again.

I don’t think this is true. To pick three, the UK, France and the USA have got rid of all their biological weapons, and the first two have also got rid of all their chemical weapons (as required by treaties like the CWC); the US is in the process of doing the same.

20

Matt McIrvin 05.04.11 at 11:29 am

the silence is deafening

I wish. Rush Limbaugh’s going full tilt with the argument that the Obama administration only managed to do this because the Republicans wouldn’t let them emasculate themselves. It seems to be wall-to-wall, blatant lies, but that’s SOP for him.

21

NomadUK 05.04.11 at 11:55 am

the USA have got rid of all their biological weapons

That would be a lot more believable a statement if the US had actually agreed to any kind of verification scheme, and wasn’t actively engaged in ‘biological defence’ research. Quite handy, that.

22

Zamfir 05.04.11 at 12:10 pm

@Ajay: my point was not su much about the formulation of the laws, but to the extent that international law is seen as a binding force, something that would be morally wrong to break.

There are clearly parts of it that are seen as moral rules in themselves, especially things that are related to the protection of civilians. But I argue that parts of it carry a large practical aspect, in the sense that the participants agree that it would be better if everyone stuk to the rules, but where they see no deep moral problem with breaking the rules when others breaks them too.

If the enemy starts using blinding weapons to their noticable advantage, I doubt many military leaders would see it as the right thing to do to refrain from use. It’s their job to make the others die for their country, etc. A large reason people do not use them anyway is that no one thinks they would gain from a situation where everyone uses them, nor that they would gain an important edge from being the first to use them. In cases where people do expect such an edge, like the Korean land mines, international law gets set aside.

Under those circumstances, I think there is not much to gain from referring to international law when it comes to torture, except perhaps for things like definitions. The stance on toture we want to see accepted, namely that it should not be done under any realistic condition, is far stronger than people’s position on international law itself.

The set of people who think international law should not be broken under any realistic condition is far smaller than the group of people who already accept that torture should not be done , and mostly a subset of that group too.

23

Andrew 05.04.11 at 12:26 pm

The US first learned of the courier in 2002-2003 via CIA interrogations of detainees – the methods of which are not specified.

In 2003 KSM was asked about the courier, and replied that the courier was not important and was retired.

In 2004 Hassan Ghul, while being interrogated, gave a fuller picture of the courier. al-Libi, also in 2004 under interrogation, denied that al-Kuwaiti was an alias of the courier, and gave a different name, later concluded to be unused by the courier.

The Times article then states:

Because Mr. Mohammed and Mr. Libi had both steered interrogators away from Mr. Kuwaiti, C.I.A. officials concluded that they must be protecting him for an important reason.

This supports the conclusion that intelligence gathered during the Bush Administration, as well as the Obama Administration, ultimately led the US to bin Laden.

It does NOT support the conclusion that the US was misled by KSM or al-Libi – quite the contrary, in fact.

As to the harsh techniques described in the article generally, the theory proponents give for its usefulness is NOT that it always induces those subjected to give truthful answers. There is no “truth serum,” either in substance or technique. Remember that the interrogation program was designed by people who trained the US military in methods of resisting harsh interrogation. They would expect a person still carrying the torch to use similar techniques in resisting – and would evaluate their words, and emotional reactions, with that expectation in mind.

Given what information we have, it is impossible to tell whether enhanced interrogation techniques were helpful or not.

We can conclude that the final location of bin Laden was discovered using intelligence gathered over several years, from many sources, with a variety of methods. Nothing more.

24

ajay 05.04.11 at 12:46 pm

If the enemy starts using blinding weapons to their noticeable advantage, I doubt many military leaders would see it as the right thing to do to refrain from use.

Ah, the Argument from Personal Incredulity.

21: No doubt Nomad has satellite pictures of US mobile biological weapons labs. I understand they’re in the area around Lawrence, Kansas, north, south, east and west of it.

25

dsquared 05.04.11 at 1:05 pm

Well, somebody in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 had access to weaponized anthrax, and most of the main suspects are Americans working in the defence industry.

26

ajay 05.04.11 at 1:18 pm

24: not so; the 2001 attacks did not use weaponised anthrax.

27

Acre 05.04.11 at 1:39 pm

I thought the details pretty conclusively stated that torture didn’t work….
http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=13512344&page=1

If I interrogate you for several years and you don’t give up the name of your own protege, nor does anyone else who knew this and was waterboarded, that’s a pretty conclusive result, no ?

28

Zamfir 05.04.11 at 1:55 pm

Ah, the Argument from Personal Incredulity.
Point taken :) I’ll try a more formal version of the argument: the standard job of the military involves being prepared to intentionally kill and otherwise incapacitate other people, with little regard for possible long-term maiming that will unavoidably occur in the process, even if that maiming was not intended in itself. Furthermore, to send yourself and other people you know well and might have control over into similar risks. And a willingness to accept some amount of certain death and bodily damage to civilians, and very large large amounts of damage to their possesions.

All of that falls easily within international law. And many, perhaps most people think it is necessary and not immoral to engage in this slaughter, given certain conditions.

Blinding weapons or expanding bullets can have atrocious results, but both blindness and unrepairable maiming are still common results from warfare without them. Clearly, these weapons are not restricted because their results are seen in themselves as unacceptable results of war, but merely as unwanted results that should be minimized if that leaves the rest of the outcomes the same.

29

Doug T 05.04.11 at 2:00 pm

One problem I’ve had with the confident assertion that torture must be ineffective is its use in the Battle of Algiers. My understanding is that the French pretty regularly used to torture captives to get information (in some cases probably in the ticking time bomb scenario.) And they were in fact able to get intelligence on insurgent networks and ultimately were able to break them up and pretty much eliminate the FLN from the Algiers area.

Without knowing much of the details, this seems to be a case study where torture was used to gain intelligence and the intelligence did have value. However, my dangerously little knowledge about the situation is pretty much just from reading a Savage War of Peace, so I’m open to correction. Maybe the French were able to win the battle because of other factors, with the torture being an irrelevant sidelight.

But this makes me hesitant to stake too much on the argument that torture doesn’t work, preferring to stick to the moral argument against it, with the utilitarian concerns as a secondary back-up.

30

ajay 05.04.11 at 2:02 pm

Clearly, these weapons are not restricted because their results are seen in themselves as unacceptable results of war, but merely as unwanted results that should be minimized if that leaves the rest of the outcomes the same.

I was entirely in agreement with you until you used the word “clearly” which tends to set off all sorts of alarm bells and illuminate big signs reading “IMMENSE UNJUSTIFIED LEAP OF ARGUMENT AHEAD”.

In particular I don’t think the last clause – “if it leaves the rest of the outcomes the same” – is justified, because we’re talking about surrendering a military advantage by giving up, eg, cluster munitions. And, in fact, there is an example going on right now of one side – Libya – using cluster munitions and mines, and the other side – NATO – still sticking to its commitments not to do so.

31

Zamfir 05.04.11 at 3:14 pm

No problems Ajay, I’ll try to make it more careful. The ‘clearly’ was intended for the first part of the sentence, and you are right that the rest of the sentence undeservedly hides in its shadow.

Normal, ‘legal’, accepted warfare does not accept intended blinding or maiming, and in particularly not weapons designed with that aim. But it does accept intended killing, and it accepts maiming and blinding as likely side effects of intended killing.

I do not think this situation can be explained by seeing maiming and blinding as intrinsically worse things than death. Sometimes they might be, but it is not how treat them in general in other contexts. And even in warfare, maimed and blinded people are treated, not left to die.

From there we get my, conjectural, explanation for this (in my opinion) somewhat paradoxical situation: People would prefer a mutual situation where wars are unlikely to be lethal, just as they prefer wars with less maiming and blinding.

But they will not give up the right to intentionally kill in warfare, partially because killing is an effective tactical and strategic method in itself, and partially because weapons that are designed to have only temporary incapacity as result are not effective enough to rely on. Such weapons are easily defended against and unlikely to destroy weapons, machinery or buildings. A war without killing would be so much different from a war with killing that a losing side will inevitably return to killing. This makes a ban on lethal weapons powerless from the start, and is therefore not even attempted.

On the other hand, people are willing to give up the right to intentionally maim and blind, not because these things are worse than death, but because it will not greatly change the balance of power. The winning side in such a war would be with high certainty the same party as in a war without such restriction. When this likely equality of outcome does not apply, people no longer accept the restriction. Such as with land mines in Korea, or how guerillas do not accept the restriction to wear clearly identifiable uniforms.

I hope this made my argument clearer, without overly rhetorical abuses?

32

ajay 05.04.11 at 3:29 pm

Hmm. So, basically, you’re arguing that:
if the USA and Borduria are at war, respecting all relevant laws like the CWC, and either
a) Borduria starts using gas
or
b) the USA believes that it will gain significant advantage from using gas,

then the USA will definitely start using gas?

That, in fact, all countries will ignore any and all laws of war if they think that they’ll gain a military advantage from doing so?

I’m not sure this is the case. Also I think it’s a tough argument to have, because if I argue that (say) the US didn’t use nerve agents in Vietnam, you can just say “well, they didn’t think they stood to gain a military advantage from doing so”.

33

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.04.11 at 3:37 pm

One problem I’ve had with the confident assertion that torture must be ineffective is its use in the Battle of Algiers.

Even without the Battle of Algiers, I think it’s just obvious that torture can be effective, at least in the case where the information you’re trying to extract is immediately verifiable, like, say, the password for a document that is right here, in front of you. I think people understands this, and they probably take the line “we shouldn’t torture because torture doesn’t work” as an insult to their intelligence.

34

Bruce Baugh 05.04.11 at 3:56 pm

Someone needs to start asking conservative pundits how they’d feel about Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff being tortured for information about their dealings, or Dick Cheney being tortured for refusing to comply with Congressional subpoenas, or George Will tortured for information about the Reagan/Carter debate briefing book theft, or Rush Limbaugh being tortured for information about his network of supporters and unseen masterminds directing him to undermine the president’s world standing at moments of crisis. They don’t care about folks outside their circle; only personal considerations matter.

35

Tim Wilkinson 05.04.11 at 4:06 pm

ajay @25: the 2001 attacks did not use weaponised anthrax.

Depends. If you go by first responses from experts with no obvious axe to grind, you will probably conclude that it was weaponised.

If you rely on unsubstantiated claims from unqualified officials and consultants, and on spurious retractions from scientists who have been summoned to the White House to discuss the matter, then you will probably conclude that it was not.

36

ajay 05.04.11 at 4:13 pm

33: thank you for that; I was going by the FBI’s final report on the case from 2008, and the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council report from earlier this year. Incidentally, I think you may have posted the wrong link; it doesn’t actually mention the anthrax case at all.

37

Doug K 05.04.11 at 4:19 pm

the torturing in Algiers wasn’t effective.
From which,
“Torture not only failed to repress the yearnings for independence among Algerians; it increased popular support for the FLN, contributing to the transformation of a small vanguard into a revolutionary party with mass support, and rendering impossible the emergence of the interlocuteur valable with which the French government claimed to be seeking a dialogue. Indeed. France’s tactics helped the FLN to win over Algerian moderates like Ferhat Abbas, who became the president of the FLN ‘s government-in-exile. If torture inspires widespread condemnation in France today, as it did not during the war, it is partly because one can no longer defend it as an unfortunate necessity. France’s defeat made a mockery of that argument. ”
The drawing of parallels is left as an exercise for the reader.

Anyone in the intelligence community will tell you this: torture is about revenge, not about intelligence. It has never worked anywhere it’s been tried. Never. Anywhere. Really, this isn’t difficult. Desperately rooting in the historical middens for examples to prove it does, usually brings up either Algiers or Israel; neither of which example demonstrates quite what torture’s proponents think it does.

38

Phil 05.04.11 at 4:32 pm

A guy whose name I forget made the point that there are in practice two kinds of torture: the kind that aims to extract information and the kind that aims to degrade & destroy the person being tortured. Let’s say that we rule out the latter: this is something that We Never Do. The question then is, if we’ve identified a case in which informational torture might be justifiable, can we be sure that it is informational torture: can we be sure that the suspect has the information we’re after anyway, and that the torturer will stop the moment that all the information has been surrendered? Because if not, ‘we’ are actually committed ourselves to carrying out the kind of purposeless, destructive torture ‘we’ have just said We Never Do.

It’s a pound of flesh problem, essentially, with a side order of “look at yourself” – in other words, given that purposeless and brutally destructive torture is carried out by regimes X and Y, and given that our advocates of strictly-limited clinically-controlled informational torture are just fine with it being outsourced to X and Y, how likely is it that they’re lying toads?

39

Tom Bowler 05.04.11 at 4:49 pm

In an interview with Brian Williams Leon Panetta confirmed it: Waterboarding got them the first bits of information that ultimately led to Bin Laden.

“WILLIAMS: Turned around the other way, are you denying that waterboarding was in part among the tactics used to extract the intelligence that led to this successful mission?

PANETTA: No, I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of these detainees. But I’m also saying that, you know, the debate about whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always going to be an open question.”

By speculating that they might have gotten “the same information through other approaches” CIA Director Leon Panetta has admitted precisely how they did get it. Waterboarding gave them their first leads.

Of course, now that Bush is gone it’s probably OK to downgrade the status of waterboarding from torture to duress.

40

ajay 05.04.11 at 4:56 pm

it increased popular support for the FLN, contributing to the transformation of a small vanguard into a revolutionary party with mass support

Just reading “A Savage War of Peace”…What’s interesting about the FLN is how far it got without having mass support. You don’t really need mass support if you’ve got a well-organised cadre of ruthless murderers. All you need is mass acquiescence, and you’ll get it. (There was mass support for Algerian self-rule; that’s different.)

41

Phil 05.04.11 at 5:32 pm

You don’t really need mass support if you’ve got a well-organised cadre of ruthless murderers. All you need is mass acquiescence, and you’ll get it.

Not necessarily – see ETA. I think mass support for the cause championed by the ruthless murderers is a separate variable.

42

JM 05.04.11 at 6:59 pm

it seems likely that they were in fact misled, deluded by the ancient belief that evidence extracted under torture is the most reliable kind

Ahem:

During September a series of brainstorming meetings were held at Guantánamo to discuss new techniques. Some of the meetings were led by Beaver. “I kept minutes. I got everyone together. I invited. I facilitated,” she told me. The sessions included representatives of the D.I.A. and the C.I.A. Ideas came from all over. Some derived from personal training experiences, including a military program known as sere (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape), designed to help soldiers persevere in the event of capture. Had sere been, in effect, reverse-engineered to provide some of the 18 techniques? Both Dunlavey and Beaver told me that sere provided inspiration, contradicting the administration’s denials that it had. Indeed, several Guantánamo personnel, including a psychologist and a psychiatrist, traveled to Fort Bragg, sere’s home, for a briefing.

Ideas arose from other sources. The first year of Fox TV’s dramatic series 24 came to a conclusion in spring 2002, and the second year of the series began that fall. An inescapable message of the program is that torture works. “We saw it on cable,” Beaver recalled. “People had already seen the first series. It was hugely popular.” Jack Bauer had many friends at Guantánamo, Beaver added. “He gave people lots of ideas.”

The brainstorming meetings inspired animated discussion. “Who has the glassy eyes?,” Beaver asked herself as she surveyed the men around the room, 30 or more of them. She was invariably the only woman present—as she saw it, keeping control of the boys. The younger men would get particularly agitated, excited even. “You could almost see their dicks getting hard as they got new ideas,” Beaver recalled, a wan smile flickering on her face. “And I said to myself, You know what? I don’t have a dick to get hard—I can stay detached.”

43

Tim Worstall 05.04.11 at 7:05 pm

“Someone needs to start asking conservative pundits how they’d feel about Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff being tortured for information about their dealings,”

Quite. Or asking anyone this: so, the government, or these employees of the government, or these plausibly deniable such, think you know something about something or other.

So Mr Worstall, are you happy to be tortured so that they can ascertain that you don’t?

Am I buggery. I want my constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment and I want them right damn now. I want due process, the whole damn thing, lawyers, courtrooms a jury and all the rest.

And that I want, indeed demand, such things for myself means that I want and demand them for everyone else.

Another way of putting the same point: the Common Law has indeed advanced over the centuries. Let’s not rewind that advancement, eh?

44

Tim Wilkinson 05.04.11 at 7:30 pm

36 – I’d class the FBI dossier taking the latter approach, and the NRC’s exec summary heavily tilted in that direction. The NRC full text is a bit less selective, but laden with decorously muted criticisms of the FBI for failing to resolve crucial questions or to supply info to the committee.

You hardly need renowned conspiracy theorist Glenn Greenwald to point out that when one side is in exclusive possession of all documents and can pick and choose which ones to release in full or in part in order to make their case, while leaving out the parts that undercut the picture they want to paint – which is exactly what the FBI is doing here — then it is very easy to make things look however you want.

The question underlying that of weaponisation was of course whether the stuff came from a weapons (or other government) lab, and, again IIRC, it’s hard to read the evidence so as to permit the conclusion that it didn’t.

45

Oliver 05.04.11 at 8:18 pm

And, in fact, there is an example going on right now of one side – Libya – using cluster munitions and mines, and the other side – NATO – still sticking to its commitments not to do so.

NATO’s problem isn’t firepower. It is targeting. In fact NATO forces are effectively not fired upon.
You might notice that no NATO power is ready to give up its ultimate unconventional option.

46

phosphorious 05.04.11 at 10:42 pm

I find this whole “torture is wrong and anyway it doesn’t work” argument unsettling. Why not stick with “torture is wrong”?

I sympathize with this viewpoint to an extent, but part of the annoying thin about Bush in particular and conservatives in general is that they always claim to act from “principle.” Bush, we recall, claimed that invading Iraq was “the right thing to do” and he would simply ignore the naysayers and the consequences.

Which means that we need to take every opportunity to bring these people that consequences matter. Yes, yes, torture is wrong, morally speaking, but the fact that it <i.doesn't work is always worth pointing out.

47

Barry 05.04.11 at 10:43 pm

Andrew: “Remember that the interrogation program was designed by people who trained the US military in methods of resisting harsh interrogation. ”

IIRC, those methods of ‘harsh interrrogation’ were designed to produce confessions; information was a by-product.

People should really read the chapter on torture in ‘The Gulag Archipelago’.

48

Consumatopia 05.05.11 at 12:21 am

If torture was truly, clearly very effective, it would be a standard unavoidable part of warfare. The argument against torture is that doesn’t do much, is still bad, and that it has a devious, revenge-like attraction that makes people believe in its effectiveness even in the lack of evidence.

Torture is different from other terrible things done in warfare in that it can also be applied to domestic opponents. So it makes sense for citizens to insist their government avoid it even when dealing with foreign enemies that employ it.

This is one of those annoying arguments where there are so many reasons why it’s a terrible idea that the good guys spend more time arguing with each other over which argument is best than they do arguing with the other side.

Fill in the blank: the government should never torture because …
-it’s categorically evil
-it has a nasty tendency to spread from our military and intelligence agencies to our police (e.g. Chicago)
-the government could use it as a threat to silence dissidents or whistle blowers
-knowing that our government tortures will repel decent, competent people from working for the government
-knowing that our government tortures might discourage potential informants–either because they aren’t absolutely certain the people they inform on deserve torture, or because they’re afraid that they will be tortured to make sure they don’t know anything else. (If there truly is a problem with Muslims not cooperating with the FBI, as Rep. Peter King wants to argue, this could be why.)
-knowing that our government tortures, especially in culturally directed ways, plays directly into the propaganda of our enemies
-once I’ve been tortured, I certainly won’t trust the government to respect the terms of any deal that might be proposed
-torture encourages detainees to produce misinformation, which can be worse than no information at all. Remember: we aren’t judging individuals instances of torture, we’re judging whether a policy of torture is a good idea–we have to judge all of our torture in the aggregate, and see whether the times when we used torture to confirm correct hunches we already had (like the claimed he-must-be-lying-so-we-know-we’re-right in finding OBL’s courier) outweigh all the times when misinformation led us to make costly errors.

The apologists for torture spend a lot of time arguing that the first reason isn’t good enough, and then cite one or two cases where torture, according to the torturers, “worked”, and think they’ve won the argument. It’s ridiculous–it’s not a position they reached by reason, it’s a position they reached because they want to inflict pain on people they hate.

49

Consumatopia 05.05.11 at 12:23 am

strike-throughs in my previous post unintentional

50

Andrew 05.05.11 at 2:00 am

Barry @47: Not really. The training is provided to personnel who have a greater probability of being captured and who possess information that an enemy might torture to obtain. I can’t disagree with your reading recommendation though.

I think Henri gets it partly right at 33, though there is also the possibility that the severe disorientation resulting from sleep-deprivation and water-boardings would degrade a person’s ability to maintain coherent deceptions, mask his emotional reactions, and so forth. Sometimes an incoherent detainee’s second attempt to minimize the importance of a name can function as a strong indication that the name is important.

51

John Quiggin 05.05.11 at 2:05 am

Shorter Andrew: Witches either float, which proves they are witches, or sink, which proves they were deserving of death.

52

Consumatopia 05.05.11 at 2:55 am

I think Henri gets it partly right at 33, though there is also the possibility that the severe disorientation resulting from sleep-deprivation and water-boardings would degrade a person’s ability to maintain coherent deceptions, mask his emotional reactions, and so forth.

Oddly enough, neither of these fit the contested claims regarding KSM–that he talked under ordinary interrogation because he was “softened” by his earlier rounds of waterboarding.

In any event, we’re all missing the point. To prove “torture works”, it’s not enough to show that torture sometimes led to useful information. You have to show that a policy embracing torture leaves us safer than we would be without it–or at least, that it leaves investigators better informed than they would be if they never tortured. Even putting aside the unknowable number of times when would-be informants decided they didn’t trust us because of our reputation for mistreatment of innocents, you still have to consider all the times that misinformation from detainees succeeded in misleading us.

The logic used by the defenders of torture (that one instance of torture “working” proves that it’s a useful policy, as if my horoscope being correct once proves that astrology generates useful predictions) doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in their ability to sort truth from falsehood. If there were ever a situation that called for torture, I sure wouldn’t trust anyone who supports the policy to be sufficiently competent or trustworthy enough to carry it out.

Honestly, though, I’m kind of surprised that there aren’t better stories of torture working.

53

Stephen Lathrop 05.05.11 at 3:30 am

Maybe you could get all the benefits you want by just hiring an actor and pretending to torture him. He tells you this. He tells you that. He’s basing some of it on whatever he happens to know, which isn’t much, and the rest he’s just making up. Then you start running down the leads, processing the information, checking everything out. In the process, you discover stuff that you can actually trust, rely upon and use.

If that seems silly, note that it’s more or less what happens with real torture. Nobody believes that torture subjects tell you the truth and you just go out and plan operations with it. Whatever they say gets checked out, and mostly discarded or bypassed. Only a little bit is found to be reliable, found by independent research, note, and only that gets used.

What you’ve really got is a research program looking for topics to explore. Torturing people is one way to generate topics. It would be interesting to see someone try to prove that works better than other stuff you could do, including actors.

54

ajay 05.05.11 at 8:54 am

Maybe you could get all the benefits you want by just hiring an actor and pretending to torture him. He tells you this. He tells you that. He’s basing some of it on whatever he happens to know, which isn’t much, and the rest he’s just making up. Then you start running down the leads, processing the information, checking everything out. In the process, you discover stuff that you can actually trust, rely upon and use.

Prior art:
An Oracle for NP
http://imago.hitherby.com/?p=668

Tim: the issues of “did the FBI get the right man” and “did the anthrax come from a government lab” are different from “was it weaponised”. It wasn’t weaponised.

55

Tim Wilkinson 05.05.11 at 12:26 pm

ajay: thanks for that. The Greenwald link was one I happened to remember which made the general point about selective release of information. (And rather than ‘government lab’, I should have said ‘government programme’ – and that was being cautious – I don’t know if one can come up with some reason for silicone-riddled and extremely pure strains of anthrax to be developed for other purposes.)

I agree that after all this tidying up time, the issue is left in a state in which it is not possible to say with high confidence that the stuff was weaponised. My point is that your categorical claim that it wasn’t is not borne out – and is cast into doubt – by the NRC study, despite the committee presumably being unwilling to go out of its way to criticise the FBI, and more importantly the report’s ambit being heavily circumscribed. (The brief was basically: going only on the information we have supplied, can you deduce the existence of errors in the specific scientific testing techniques used?)

Look at p77, bottom half about the NY sample. (It’s unusually resistant to my quick methods of OCRing such stuff, or I would paste the text.)

Just as a general background, the idea that the stuff could have come from a domestic weapons lab is obviously going to have been an unacceptable one to the FBI – and ‘read-ahead’ to the conclusion that it was is likely to have been enough to deflect courses of investigation, conclude that samples are unrepresentative and should be replaced, etc., if only by an innocent though improper process of cognitive bias.

56

ajay 05.05.11 at 1:20 pm

55: The link you cite says, to summarise, “we can’t rule out the possibility that one of the samples might have had some silicon compound added in a failed attempt to weaponise it”. Note: failed attempt. There is also a lot of scientific uncertainty surrounding questions like “does anthrax naturally incorporate silicon in its spore coating”, “how much”, and “under what circumstances”.

As for your assertion that “the idea that the stuff could have come from a domestic weapons lab is obviously going to have been an unacceptable one to the FBI ” – you do realise, right, that the FBI concluded publicly that the stuff had been made from a strain which originated at USAMRIID?

Nor was the committee particularly shy of criticising the FBI. The NRC report is rich with criticisms.

But I can’t see this argument convincing you, and I don’t want to derail, so I’m finished here.

57

Tim Wilkinson 05.05.11 at 2:36 pm

Agree about derailing (also time-cost/informational-benefit). I don’t suppose you will be convinced either, but here are responses – in outline only, in an attempt to taper off without capitulating:

para 1: the ‘failed’ business – AFAICT the c’tee (at least one of the hands on the glass) can only have derived that from the section on particle size (pp64-5), which is undermined by missing info, has an immediately-discarded caveat at top p65, and btw doesn’t mention the NY sample(!).
para 2: not recognised as a weapons lab
para 3: but criticism is buried and very understated – point was that much, much more should be expected in any putative gloves-off adversarial treatment given full disclosure.

In general, the number of complaints about failure to provide info – not publishing unfavourable (or by read-ahead, implausible) results? – undermines the whole thing really (‘devastating critique’ objection not appropriate here even if applicable given the forensic context).

(Sorry, didn’t do too well on the mutual bowing out front.)

58

Tim Wilkinson 05.05.11 at 2:41 pm

(Again ‘weapons lab’ better put as ‘weapons programme’ – I keep forgetting the ‘lone nut made it unofficially in an official lab’ scenario, for some reason.)

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novakant 05.05.11 at 8:37 pm

Torture is terrible, killing is worse. While I’m generally glad that so much attention is paid to the evils of torture, it seems to me that killing is too often simply accepted as part of “war”, which is a terrible state of affairs when you think about it in ethical terms. The reason is probably that the dead are dead and cannot tell horrifying stories anymore, thus making it easier for us to reduce them to mere numbers.

60

Broggly 05.09.11 at 9:34 pm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owI7DOeO_yg

“I think it’s important to know if it would help.”
“Of course it wouldn’t help, the computer says it wouldn’t help so we’re not doing it.”
“That’s why we’re doing it? That’s the only reason why we’re not doing it? Here I am blue sky thinking among friends and it turns out that it’s only cold hearted pragmatism keeping you from pumping gas into Liddle!”

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