I am not on what anyone would consider the leading edge of popular political opinion. That, I'm afraid, includes opinion about the torture of captured terrorists.
I greeted, with a sort of grim amusement, Senator Lindsey Graham's unusual defense of what was euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation."
Let’s have both sides of the story here. I mean, one of the reasons these techniques have survived for about 500 years is apparently they work.
In countless cinematic productions, we had once associated torture with totalitarian regimes, as Americans or captured allies were squeezed for information by actors with sinister accents. The cultural prohibition against torture is so pronounced, a sort of verbal hide-and-seek is required to escape it.
The definitions vary. If it doesn't cause organ failure, it isn't torture. If it doesn't actually kill, it isn't torture. CIA veteran, author, and noted apologist for such techniques, Jose Rodriguez, offers a novel approach. If the pain ends when cooperation is obtained, it isn't torture.
Detainees were given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive - with Washington’s approval - some of the enhanced techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded. (The Justice Department assured us in writing at the time that these techniques did not constitute torture.) When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped - forever.
Such is the murky surrender that language is forced into when it is subjected to torture.
But Lindsey Graham was not speaking about morality. He was talking about 500 years of effectiveness.
"Unless Senator Graham shows that those tortured in past centuries were actually witches," I wrote at the time, "history will show the real agents of Satan were those who ordered the torture."
Torture has worked. It has produced what it was mostly intended to produce: confessions: False confessions, true confessions, confessions. Just tell the subject what you want to hear, and you will indeed hear the desperate echo. The real message is a simple one: give me the words to say, but then make it stop.
That is why, in the inquisition Senator Graham referred to, those subjected to waterboarding, sleep deprivation, physical "discomfort" and other techniques of the time, desperate people confessed to crimes. I'll confess, I'll confess to anything. Just end this. People subjected to the practice welcomed death.
Those were more forthright times. Nobody knew that torture could be enhanced.
There is a practical problem with torture. The basic problem is that it works. It gives you a fire hose of information. The information ranges from untrue to unreliable.
Dictatorships most often have not relied on torture to get at truth. Confession has been the objective.
The movie Zero Dark Thirty depicts torture in a way that implies that it was the essential information technique that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, something that then CIA Director, now outgoing Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta disputes. Torture was used in the early days, but its role was not essential to the operation. "I think we could have gotten Bin Laden without that."
Part of the torture operation was conducted in other lands, places without the cultural inhibitions that require American operatives to use convoluted definitions. In the Bush administration, the routine practice of rendition, the returning of a suspect or criminal to the country with jurisdiction, became "Extraordinary Rendition." It became an enhanced program of transfer for torture.
The original meaning of rendition is somewhat restored now. The Obama administration gets some justifiable criticism for merely seeking "assurances" from other countries that torture will not be used. There is an argument for their position. At very least, it appears the subterfuge of rendition for the purpose of torture has been curbed. It is not easy to see how anything more than assurances can be demanded, when jurisdiction is firmly established.
It appears to some, which is to say me, that torture in the early Bush administration was used for a more traditional purpose. The administration was firmly convinced, educated through several generations in a long and dangerous struggle with the USSR, that a comic book villain in a distant cave could not have planned and executed the 9/11 attacks. There had to have been state sponsorship, and Iraq had to have been that sponsor.
Dick Cheney and others already knew in their heart-of-hearts that Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks. They did not need evidence to be convinced. They needed evidence to convince others. The torture of captured terrorists was not for the purpose of gathering intelligence. It was to manufacture intelligence.
And they succeeded.
Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan captured in Pakistan was sent to Egypt for Cheney type enhancement. And, oh man, he did talk. He told authorities all about the connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. In fact, Saddam had arranged for weapons of mass destruction and the training required to use them. The captured terrorist told everything.
He later recanted, but the administration's hard certainty was now confirmed. President Bush announced the link between Saddam and al Qaeda as he spoke in Cincinnati. Secretary of State Powell asserted the connection in his presentation to the United Nations. Condoleezza Rice warned of mushroom clouds over American cities if we failed to invade. Other officials carried the message forward.
It formed a major reason for invading Iraq.
The torture had worked. And the US objective for launching a second war, even at the cost of letting bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership get away, was clear. We were going after the real source.
And it was all false. It was a confession gotten by torture, costing thousands of American lives, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. The logic of torture had prevailed.
We invaded Iraq to hunt down Senator Graham's witches.
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Consider the following conditions:
1.) The prisoner knows the answer to a question
2.) It is possible to verify his answers without committing an excessive amount of resources
3.) The form of torture is sufficiently compelling
If condition 1 is not true, then torture cannot yield the truth. If condition 2 is not true, then the prisoner can continue to spout lies, knowing that his torturers will be unable to separate truth from fiction. If condition 3 is not true, then the prisoner can put up with his suffering indefinitely. But if all three conditions are true, then the prisoner will likely be compelled to provide the truth.
Whether or not torture is acceptable under these conditions depends on (1) whether or not we can know when the conditions are met and (2) moral considerations other than the unreliability of torture.
It is a good thing that the U.S. does not now nor ever has engaged in torturing enemies.
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