Friday, May 22, 2009

My Torture Memo

I once worked on a video about an elderly woman known for her civil rights activism. Her husband had been a town mayor and also an activist, but she said that his head was in it more than his heart. He was more of a pragmatist striving for even-handed governance and justice rather than a crusader for a moral cause.

I won't claim to be any kind of effective activist or pragmatist, but I do at least share with the woman's husband a desire to be pragmatic. So, with respect to torture, I'm less interested in the moral issues than the question of whether it gains us more usable information than non-tortuous techniques.

All I can do is stack up the case made by one camp against the case made by the other. There is the claim by Marc Thiessen, for instance, that the plot to attack the Library Tower in Los Angeles was foiled because of information gained through torture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But this article by Timothy Noah cites a fact sheet provided by the Bush White House in 2002 saying the Library Tower plot had been discovered and broken up, and this was before KSM's capture in March of 2003.

Thiessen and Dick Cheney (for example, in his speech yesterday) say the recently released torture memos only tell part of the story, that they don't tell of the useful information that was gained form torture. Maybe, in time, more information shedding light on this will be declassified. But until then, we are lacking specifics.

Meanwhile, there is this detailed account of how Zubaidah gave little information . . . until he was tortured, at which point he provided awealth of information that sent CIA agents scrambling all over the globe spending millions of dollars chasing false leads. And there is this account by Ali Soufan stating that much useful information was gained by traditional interrogations of Zubaidah, while the torture used later backfired in events that are still part of that still classified information Cheney is referring to. Soufan also cites a chronological problem with a torture-defenders' argument: that torture of Zubaidah lead to the capture of Jose Padilla. And yet, Padilla was captured before the torture was approved in August of 2002.

Can the torture defenders make arguments that are not so easily debunked?

Consider also, besides Zubaidah's, the false leads produced by torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. Torture of al-Libi yielded much valuable information about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. al-Libi's testimony was inserted into Colin Powell's fateful speech by al-Libby, and the U.S. saddled itself with a six-year-and-counting insurgency consisting of Iraqis who had not been our enemies before that invasion.

So, really, Dick Cheney? Torture has saved hundreds of thousands of lives?

To really determine whether torture works, we would need to see all information gained from torture and determine what percentage was helpful; and compare this to all the information gained from non-torturous techniques and the percentage of that which was helpful. I doubt we'll ever have access to all that information.

With the evidence we do have tilted toward showing torture does not work, why not then err on the side of morality and forbid torture?

5/24 Update: What is a Mancow anyway . . . a giant man-boob? Apparently so. Also, the results of Zubaidah's torture interrogations are more clear than I had thought. Here is Marcy Wheeler explaining what the 9/11 Commission reported of information gained by Zubaidah's torture. In summary, 10 pieces of not-very-useful information were learned from 83 sessions of waterboarding.

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