The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Friday, September 15, 2006


Many on the left and a few on the right argue that using coercive measures (a.k.a. "torture") to obtain information from terrorists crosses a moral line. Many others on the right argue that the potential to save many lives with the information acquired outweighs the moral qualms each of us might have. Although both sides argue in absolutes, I'm not sure things are quite that simple.

In a detailed article, “The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb”, in The Progressive, Alfred McCoy argues against the use of all coersive measures to obtain information from a captured terrorist. He begins by noting that Jack Bauer (of “24” fame) isn’t for real and his methods (including mild torture) work only in the make-believe land of TV. Thanks for the heads-up, Mr. McCoy. And here I thought “24” was a real-life documentary.

His more serious and detailed argument begins with the following:
With torture now a key weapon [as argued by President Bush] in the war on terror, the time has come to interrogate the logic of the ticking time bomb with a six-point critique. For this scenario embodies our deepest fears and makes most of us quietly—unwittingly—complicit in the Bush Administration’s recourse to torture.

Number one: In the real world, the probability that a terrorist might be captured after concealing a ticking nuclear bomb in Times Square and that his captors would somehow recognize his significance is phenomenally slender.

I think McCoy is taking the ticking time bomb metaphor a bit too literally. Coersive measures are not necessarily time sensitive. Information obtained by wearing a subject down and making him uncomfortable can lead to knowledge that would allow us to foil a plot (possibly months away) that could result in a “ticking nuclear bomb in Times Square.”

It's also important to note that words matter. The word "torture" conjures images of electodes attached to sensitive body parts -- things that are still done in some parts of the world, and are, in the main, reprehensible. Coersive measures to acquire information rely on psychological stress -- unpleasant -- but not life threatening or physically painful. There is a difference.

In response to this argument McCoy recalls a recent case:
Take the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, who sat in a Minneapolis cell in the weeks before 9/11 under desultory investigation as a possible “suicide hijacker” because the FBI did not have precise foreknowledge of Al Qaeda’s plot or his possible role. In pressing for a search warrant before 9/11, the bureau’s Minneapolis field supervisor even warned Washington he was “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center.” But FBI headquarters in Washington replied there was no evidence Moussaoui was a terrorist—providing us with yet another reminder of how difficult it is to grasp the significance of even such stunningly accurate insight or intelligence in the absence of foreknowledge.

Precisely. That's why we need multiple information sources – some attained using benign methods and a few using coercive methods, if required. It is the intersection of these information vectors that leads to our ability to “grasp the significance” of what we learn. McCoy would take away an important option for acquiring intelligence, reducing our abilities to develop multiple information vectors and the insight they might yield.

McCoy next argues against the efficacy of “torture:”
Number two: This scenario still rests on the critical, utterly unexamined assumption that torture can get useful intelligence quickly from this or any hardened terrorist.

McCoy argues that information acquired through coercive measures cannot be trusted. I’m not an expert, just an observer. I find it interesting that much of the actionable intelligence in the WoT comes from terrorists imprisoned in Middle Eastern countries (e.g., Pakistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt). Their detainees often provide us with useful intelligence – quickly and with some degree of reliability. Yet, those terrorist detainees held within the USA tend to be much less forthcoming. I wonder why that is?

But McCoy counters:
After fifty years of fighting enemies, communist and terrorist, with torture, we now have sufficient evidence to conclude that torture of the few yields little useful information. As the ancient Roman jurist Ulpian noted 1,800 years ago, when tortured the strong will resist and the weak will say anything to end the pain.

A glib response, but I am unaware of any controlled studies that prove McCoy’s point. Furthermore, no one is suggesting that “pain” alone is the key. Stress, sleep deprivation, disorientation, uncertainty and many other psychological motivators may cause even the “strong” to crack. How can McCoy be so sure that these methods don’t work, and why is he willing forego them, even when no true pain is involved? Even if there is only a 10 percent chance of success, the effort might be worth it if thousands of deaths are avoided.

Number three: Once we agree to torture the one terrorist with his hypothetical ticking bomb, then we admit a possibility, even an imperative, for torturing hundreds who might have ticking bombs or thousands who just might have some knowledge about those bombs. “You can’t know whether a person knows where the bomb is,” explains Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole, “or even if they’re telling the truth. Because of this, you end up going down a slippery slope and sanctioning torture in general.”

Ah ... the old slippery slope meme. Using McCoy’s logic, we could also argue that providing even one Moslem graduate student with a Visa to study in the USA will lead to a "slippery slope" on which hundreds and then thousands of Visas will be provided to jihadi sympathizers and ultimately, dozens of Islamofascist terrorists will be in our midst. I wonder if McCoy would conjure the image of a "slippery slope" in this case and ban Visas for Moslem students entirely. I suspect he wouldn't.

Frankly, a slippery slope is avoided the same way in both instances, by relying on internal guidelines and the honor of those who exercise them. It's not uncommon for some on the Left to assume that members of the military and intelligence community have little intelligence and even less honor. They are wrong.
Number four: Useful intelligence perhaps, but at what cost? The price of torture is unacceptably high because it disgraces and then undermines the country that countenances it. For the French in Algeria, for the Americans in Vietnam, and now for the Americans in Iraq, the costs have been astronomical and have outweighed any gains gathered by torture.

…In short, the intelligence gains are soon overwhelmed by political costs as friends and enemies recoil in revulsion at such calculated savagery.

There is, undoubtedly, some truth to this and we have to be sensitive to it. But when the threat is real and the stakes are very high, we must use every means at our disposal. Does this necessarily result in “savagery.” I think not, in fact, psychological coersion is probably more effective and unquestionably less “savage.”
Number five: These dismal conclusions lead to a last, uncomfortable question: If torture produces limited gains at such high political cost, why does any rational American leader condone interrogation practices “tantamount to torture”?

One answer to this question seems to lie with a prescient CIA Cold War observation about Soviet leaders in times of stress. “When feelings of insecurity develop within those holding power,” reads an agency analysis of Kremlin leadership applicable to the post-9/11 White House, “they become increasingly suspicious and put great pressures upon the secret police to obtain arrests and confessions. At such times, police officials are inclined to condone anything which produces a speedy ‘confession,’ and brutality may become widespread.” In sum, the powerful often turn to torture in times of crisis, not because it works but because it salves their fears and insecurities with the psychic balm of empowerment.

Just as people who oppose the aggressive military action against Islamofascists dismiss known threats in times of stress, hoping that by ignoring them or appeasing their perpetrators, the threat will somehow dissipate. Further, I suspect that people who argue against coersion measures for information acquisition revel in a self-defined moral high ground, ignoring the potential consequences of their objection in order to feed their own sense of moral superiority. There are psychological motivators on both sides of this issue, so please, Mr. McCoy, spare us the psychobabble, and I promise I’ll do the same.
Number six: The use of torture to stop ticking bombs leads ultimately to a cruel choice—either legalize this brutality, à la Dershowitz and Bush, or accept that the logical corollary to state-sanctioned torture is state-sponsored murder, à la Vietnam.

Again, McCoy conjures images of murder, but exactly who is advocating “murder” – psychological coersion – yes; the possibility of limited and controlled pain, maybe, but murder – who has seriously advocated this?

There is, I might add, an image of "murder" that is relevant. That’s the mass murder of hundreds or thousands of US citizens, or the death of hundreds or thousands in a European city, or the slaughter of hundreds or thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq or some other middle eastern country. Are you willing to forgo every means available to avoid these murders? Apparently, Mr. McCoy and those who agree with him are willing to take the risk. I’m not.