The Ticking Bomb And Torture

Kevin Drum writes:

Tyler Cowen on the news that the intelligence that eventually led to the raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout may have been the result of torturing detainees at Guantanamo [. . .] This is one of the reasons that I think it's important not to put too much emphasis on practical arguments against torture. After all, if the reason you oppose torture is because torture doesn't work, then you'd better be prepared to change your mind if it turns out that torture does work. I'm not willing to do that.

Kevin is wrong. The practical argument is applicable as well as the legal and moral arguments. But first things first, Cowen simply is sort of making this up. The Haaretz column he is relying on says:

The initial lead which led to his assassination came out of interrogations of Guantanamo inmates – interrogations which often used torture, a fact that has been condemned by human rights groups. One of these interrogations, of top al-Qaida operative who was close to Khaled Shiekh Muhammad, was helpful in identifying some of bin Laden's closest aides. U.S. intelligence caught up to them and put them under surveillance. Other HUMINT sources of those part of circles close and far to him and who knew of his hideout were exposed as well. The main principle guiding intelligence officials was "follow the money." The first tips as to his hideout arrived over six months ago, after intelligence officers were able to track couriers in charge of the money transfers bin Laden orchestrated to his Pakistan hideout in order to sustain his wives as well as himself.

(Emphasis supplied.) Rather than confirming that torture had anything to do with this operation, this Haaretz article seems to confirm the opposite to me. The first tip as to this hideout arrived six months ago and was due to "following the money." How this connects to a "torture" success is not at all clear to me.

The NYTimes article Cowen relies on states:

Detainees at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had given the courier’s pseudonym to American interrogators and said that the man was a protégé of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

American intelligence officials said Sunday night that they finally learned the courier’s real name four years ago, but that it took another two years for them to learn the general region where he operated.

Still, it was not until August that they tracked him to the compound in Abbottabad, a medium-sized city about an hour’s drive north of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.

Again, no mention of torture.

Now for the next point - what was the common argument for when torture would be acceptable? The Jack Bauer ticking time bomb scenario. Even if torture was a part of this operation, and as I say, there is no evidence that there was torture involved, the ticking bomb would have blown up 6 years ago.

I suppose, to take Drum's approach, I can't argue about the inefficacy of torture here, but I will nonetheless - if torture is acceptable to gain a sliver of information that MAY, given 6 years of hard conventional intelligence work down the line, be of value, then why have any rules at all on anything? After all, anything MIGHT work at some point in the future, including massacre of civilians.

Torture is a crime. Against humanity. Against the laws of war. Against international law. And against US law.

It also does not work.

All of these are valid arguments against torture. Drum is wrong to suggest the lack of efficacy is not a legitimate argument against torture.

Speaking for me only

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    No, BTD. In this, (5.00 / 6) (#1)
    by Peter G on Mon May 02, 2011 at 01:03:03 PM EST
    you are most definitely not "speaking for [yourself] only."

    There is a loaded (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by KeysDan on Mon May 02, 2011 at 01:33:52 PM EST
    statement in there, wherein the nickname lead came from interrogation or interrogation that deployed torture, or from  interrogation at Gitmo,  that, you know, has interrogated using torture (aka, enhanced interrogation).  Just slippery enough to give credit where credit may not be due, but fits the torture efficacy agenda nicely--including allowing Bush and Cheney to travel without having to flee through the hotel's kitchen exit one step ahead of a Spanish judge.

    There doesn't seem to be (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by lilburro on Mon May 02, 2011 at 01:57:49 PM EST
    any consistent information at the moment on how they got the courier's psuedonym.  And obviously for the operation to work it required a lot of painstaking analysis on the part of military and intelligence operatives.  The kind of work that Bushco was loathe to do re: Iraq.  For example.

    Interestingly enough, in the LA Times article, an apparently current US official says:

    Crucial information about the trusted courier who owned the compound came years ago from CIA interrogations of 9-11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohamed, the official said. This is significant, because the Al Qaeda mastermind was subject to waterboarding and other brutal interrogation methods.

    "We were able to get pieces of information from detainees," the official said. "That took years and these guys don't give it up all willingly."

    So was info from KSM?  Or from detainees in general?  "It took years"?  Guess that's not ticking time bomb material either huh.

    I would be very pleased if Obama addressed this subject directly.  I don't know what the chances of that are though.

    Sounds like a ton of horsesh*t (5.00 / 3) (#8)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:11:57 PM EST
    is being spread around and they don't have their stories straight yet.

    Yep (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by lilburro on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:25:18 PM EST
    and it is typical of "former officials" especially to spread that horsesh*t around.

    staying ahead of the wave.. (none / 0) (#17)
    by leoncarre on Mon May 02, 2011 at 03:26:18 PM EST
    How are you to stay ahead of the wave of disinformation?

    Since I use Google News my information is based on hits (algorithm) rather than facts.

    Bush is vindicated.  Guantanamo is/was worth it.  Torture/waterboarding can be effective. The ends justify the means.

    Seems to me the Only way to stay ahead of the wave of disinformation is to repeat the truth and the facts more often than is repeated lies and distortion.

    In effect to make truth the currency.


    The version I read said the (none / 0) (#23)
    by MKS on Mon May 02, 2011 at 07:24:02 PM EST
    ...KSM lead came during conventional questioning years after he was waterboarded.....

    There is no connection between the torture and any useful information.


    Can you point me to that article (none / 0) (#25)
    by shoephone on Mon May 02, 2011 at 07:57:50 PM EST
    with a link? I want to read it.

    TPM quoting (none / 0) (#27)
    by MKS on Tue May 03, 2011 at 09:58:10 AM EST
    an AP update.  Here:

    But then the AP updated the story yet again, adding this crucial detail.

    Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.

    Thanks (none / 0) (#29)
    by shoephone on Tue May 03, 2011 at 12:55:09 PM EST
    I agree with Kevin Drum's overall point (none / 0) (#4)
    by Demi Moaned on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:01:34 PM EST
    ... which is that I don't think you can take it as a given that torture does not work.

    Could say the same thing (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:02:47 PM EST
    about thermonuclear war.

    You say wha'? (none / 0) (#6)
    by Demi Moaned on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:07:39 PM EST
    I don't follow your meaning at all.

    It's not a given (none / 0) (#7)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:11:03 PM EST
    that thermonuclear war will not work. I mean, do you have proof it does not work?

    I have much more proof that torture does not work.

    Why rule out thermonuclear war?

    In the War on Terror I mean.

    My point, in case you missed it, is that your statement, like Drum's, is useless and pointless, not to say idiotic.


    No, the point is that torture ... (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by Demi Moaned on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:20:02 PM EST
    is utterly objectionable on humanitarian grounds. The efficacy argument is a weak and unnecessary second string.

    I think torture is likely to give erratic and unpredictable results. But I don't regard this as conclusively demonstrated. And I do not ground my objection to torture on this opinion.


    It is a strong and effective argument (none / 0) (#13)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:25:43 PM EST
    that works to persuade some.

    To reject its use because in some potential unknowable scenario it might work is simply foolish.

    Perhaps being a lawyer makes me loathe to reject any strong argument in my favor.


    I see where you're coming from (none / 0) (#15)
    by Demi Moaned on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:51:00 PM EST
    ... and I agree that it is a valid tool of persuasion.

    I think there can be a difference between the arguments you will use to persuade others and the reasons for your own position.


    The argument works for many (none / 0) (#24)
    by MKS on Mon May 02, 2011 at 07:25:22 PM EST
    No need to throw it away at present....

    And, I don't think there will ever be good evidence that torture works better than conventional questioning.


    I've said it before (none / 0) (#9)
    by Warren Terrer on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:14:32 PM EST
    I'll say it again: Kevin Drum is an intellectual light weight.

    And you were wrong before (none / 0) (#16)
    by gyrfalcon on Mon May 02, 2011 at 03:26:09 PM EST
    and you're wrong now.

    Really? How so? (5.00 / 1) (#20)
    by Anne on Mon May 02, 2011 at 03:58:02 PM EST
    Kevin's certainly not in Booman territory, but he's no heavy hitter, either; he misses on a lot of things, generally in a recognizably Villager-y kind of way.

    In my mind, the most practical argument isn't one that depends on torture working or not working, it's the one where torture is just wrong.

    And I think, unless I am not reading his entire post correctly, Kevin is making the same argument: don't rely on "torture doesn't work" because if it does, you have no argument against it anymore.  And even if it does work, that doesn't matter if your starting premise is that it's wrong.

    Do you think Kevin's making a different argument?  If so, what is that argument?


    Exactly the argument I was trying to make (none / 0) (#26)
    by Demi Moaned on Mon May 02, 2011 at 09:30:21 PM EST
    ...above. Very well put.

    I used to read him (none / 0) (#21)
    by sj on Mon May 02, 2011 at 04:01:50 PM EST
    when he was Calpundit.  Atrios would toss him a link from time to time.  To me, he always seemed a little too willing to swallow -- and regurgitate -- conventional wisdom.  I don't see where that's changed.

    I did like his cat blogging, though.  Does he still do that?


    You always say it best, BTD (none / 0) (#10)
    by Swiggs on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:16:53 PM EST
    I wish you could teach Glenn Greenwald a thing or two about NOT sounding so shrill and scolding.  He is really, really over the top today.

    Please clutch your pearls (5.00 / 1) (#22)
    by MO Blue on Mon May 02, 2011 at 04:02:42 PM EST
    Heaven forbid anyone should sound shrill when objecting to torture. Shrillness and scolding are a sin against gawd and all of his angels. Torture OTH is something that over 50% of Americans find acceptable.

    IMO I would prefer all Americans were over the top today and everyday in opposing torture. But unfortunately YMMV.


    Riiiiiiiiiiight (none / 0) (#28)
    by Swiggs on Tue May 03, 2011 at 12:31:52 PM EST
    Because condescending lecturing always changes hearts & minds, doesn't it?

    Riiiiiiiiiiight (5.00 / 1) (#30)
    by MO Blue on Tue May 03, 2011 at 03:29:06 PM EST
    Resorting to claims that someone is shrill and scolding doesn't do much to convince others that you have any real point to make on an issue. It only highlights that you have to use labels like shrill and scolding to discount what the other person has said.  

    That Glen Greenwald (none / 0) (#14)
    by Warren Terrer on Mon May 02, 2011 at 02:38:44 PM EST
    is such a party pooper.

    Oh? (none / 0) (#19)
    by sj on Mon May 02, 2011 at 03:56:00 PM EST
    Do you think Glenn is in a spider hole of denial?

    We're going to hear (none / 0) (#18)
    by cal1942 on Mon May 02, 2011 at 03:27:34 PM EST
    a lot of just plain bullsh!t in the coming days.

    Last night, on one of the networks, a guest 'analyst' was asked to "describe" the raid.  The 'analyst' proceeded to tell a story picked straight out of his a$$.  He didn't even hesitate or precede his remarks with any disclaimer.

    Many years from now the full story may emerge. But for now, the right will try to salvage something from the uncomfortable fact that their crowd wasn't in the White House when bin Laden was eliminated, that someone they called a Socialist was in the White House when bin Laden was brought down.