Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tortured Debate

Tom Tomorrow:  The True Story
There are serious problems with the attempts by the torture apologists to take credit for finding Osama Bin Laden.  First, the claim that the ten-year search for bin Laden succeeded thanks to the Bush Administration's enhanced interrogation techniques is pretty thin.  As Amy Davidson puts it, "you would think that if the C.I.A.’s interrogation of high-value detainees was all it took, the U.S. government would have succeeded in locating bin Laden before 2006, which is when the C.I.A.’s custody of so-called “high-value detainees” ended."

In the New York Times, Scott Shane and Charlie Savage's detailed account concludes that torture "played a small role at most in identifying Bin Laden’s trusted courier and exposing his hideout."  Indeed, as Davidson notes, "One would think that if so-called 'enhanced interrogations' provided the magic silver bullet, and if the courier was a protégé of K.S.M.’s, then the C.I.A. might have wrapped this up back in 2003, while they were waterboarding the 9/11 mastermind a hundred and eighty-three times."

Which brings us to another problem.  As Dan Froomkin explains, it is "not just that the torture didn't work, but that it was actually counterproductive."  Far from vindicating "the apologists and practitioners of torture," it is far more likely, Froomkin points out, that "bin Laden could have been caught much earlier had those detainees been interrogated properly."  

What we do know about torture is that it is good at "eliciting false confessions."  This is not surprising given, as Froomkin previously wrote, "Bush-era torture techniques . . . were cold-bloodedly modeled after methods used by Chinese Communists to extract confessions from captured U.S. servicemen that they could then use for propaganda during the Korean War."

But whether torture "works" or not is ultimately beside the point.  Torture is immoral, illegal and violates fundamental human rights.  As Dahlia Lithwick says:
There is just one question about America and torture: whether we should do it. The answer to that, after hundreds of years of legal thinking and moral progress, not just in America but around the world, is no. It's bad for those asked to torture, and it's bad for our soldiers who will be tortured by others. A bunch of Bush officials secretly changed that answer for a time, based on misapprehensions of its efficacy, but for serious interrogators, ethical thinkers, and lawyers, the answer has always been no.
When President Obama took office he refused to allow his Justice Department to investigate, much less prosecute, those in the Bush Administration who authorized torture.  He maintained that since his Administration wouldn't condone torture we can simply move forward.  But we are not moving forward.  Without a true reckoning that confirms once and for all the immorality and illegality of torture, we remain stuck in a debate framed by self-serving Bush officials about its efficacy.  And, as Froomkin concludes, "the debate goes on."


Stephen said...

Of course you're right. And your argument brings to mind one of Jon Stewart's most memorable quotes: "If you don't stick to your values when they're being tested, they're not values, they're hobbies." Stewart was responding to a comment made by Bill O'Reilly that, "I didn't like the line in the speech about 'We don't have to compromise our values to protect ourselves.' I think sometimes we do."

Obama has indeed compromised our values. But given strong Republican antipathy toward him and suspicion that he was not a natural born citizen (until 10 days ago), can you imagine the ferocity of the blow back had he chosen to prosecute members of the previous administration, including its most marquee members, for war crimes. The country would simply not have permitted it. His ENTIRE presidency would have been a non-starter. Obama clearly understood that. So, alas, for Obama it's a hobby, but one which he takes very seriously.

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