Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Torture’s Comeback

Don't rush to credit waterboarding for catching bin Laden.
The Torture Chronicle

The killing of Osama bin Laden should have provoked some healthy debate about our ongoing reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Was this manhunt worth the $3 trillion estimated by National Journal? Does our alliance structure guarantee the creation of more bin Laden-type threats? Has our military response to 9/11 hurt us and others more than it has helped?

Instead, the execution of bin Laden has launched a nostalgia craze for torture, whose great virtues, we are told, have been cruelly underappreciated. Torture, it is asserted, is what got us the intel that led to bin Laden, so killing him vindicates and redeems “enhanced interrogation.” And not only that: by limiting torture, Obama and his administration have made America much less safe, even if—and this part of the argument is mumbled quickly—they happen to be the ones who killed bin Laden. “Two Cheers for Enhanced Interrogation Techniques!” crows the Weekly Standard, urging the president to thank CIA interrogators who helped “rid the world of evil.” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a principled foe of non-Irish terrorists, was blunter still, laying it down that waterboarding prisoners in 2003 “directly led” to finding (and shooting) bin Laden in 2011.

“Funny. You would think that if the CIA’s interrogation of high-value detainees was all it took, the US government would have succeeded in locating bin Laden before 2006, which is when the CIA’s custody of so-called ‘high-value detainees’ ended,” says Jane Mayer of the New Yorker. But first, the facts.

According to the White House, bin Laden was traced to the Abbottabad compound through his courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whose nom de guerre was learned from interrogations of a handful of high-value prisoners at Guantanamo. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded an amazing 183 times; months after this had ceased, he denied in an interrogation that al-Kuwaiti was of any importance, and it was this denial that helped trigger interest in the courier.

In other words, a prisoner, several months after he was waterboarded, knowingly or not told an untruth to an interrogator. This anecdote is supposed to prove the indispensability of torture?

There are a few other prisoners who may have been tortured in black sites abroad who also talked (or were silent) about bin Laden’s courier, and this too is meant to be rock-solid proof of something. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey uttered a typical iteration of this line of reasoning in the Wall Street Journal. “Abu Faraj al-Libi,” he wrote, “was subjected to certain of these harsh techniques and disclosed further details about bin Laden’s couriers…”

This sentence may be wholly true, but Mukasey is playing disingenuous games with the “and” connecting the two predicates. Yes, al-Libi may have yielded useful intel after being tortured—but this could have been months later and may have come out during regular interrogation techniques without any rough stuff. Yet for Mukasey the sequence alone is good enough to imply causation. The Romans called this fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc: Y happened after X, so X must have caused Y. A legal education is supposed to immunize against this kind of irrational slovenliness, but here we have a former attorney general espousing magical thinking that would make any Yanomamo tribesman cough with embarrassment and nervously twirl his earlobe.

Exactly which tidbits of information were gleaned from torture is not clear and likely never will be. It cannot be claimed that torture never, ever yields good information: there are no studies evaluating torture against a control group of prisoners subject to ordinary interrogation—and God willing, there never will be. But so far the arguments crediting torture with finding Osama bin Laden have been conjectures based not on evidence but on blind faith tinged with bloodlust.

And torture comes at a cost. According to Matthew Alexander, a former senior military interrogator who conducted or supervised over 1,300 interrogations in Iraq, it was torture that “handed al Qaeda its No. 1 recruiting tool.” As Alexander recently wrote in Foreign Policy, “I have first-hand knowledge of this information because I oversaw many of these interrogations and was briefed on the aggregate results.” As for the ethics of shackling suspects in stress positions and the like, I will refrain from discussing it, not because it doesn’t matter but because our domestic torture lobby long ago transcended such crude concepts as everyday morality.

The “renewed debate” over torture tells us much about the intellectual landscape of America ten years after 9/11. We cannot fail to see the self-confident strength of what political scientist John Mueller labeled “the terrorism industry” in his excellent study Overblown: How Politicans and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. A small but powerful component of this industry is the torture lobby, whose hard core are CIA officials who used to work in counterterrorism. Their ongoing apologias for torture are understandable enough; these agents don’t want to be considered war criminals and would prefer to avoid indictment in the future. Again, without getting into humdrum matters like morality, military honor, or basic professional competence, their self-interest is entirely predictable.

What is surprising is that so many American intellectuals are still happy to recite the whole swatch-book of pastel synonyms for torture. This time around, the media and think-tankers reverently mouthed phrases like “harsh treatment,” “harsh techniques,”and my favorite slimy-trailed circumlocution, “interrogations conducted under permissive guidance.” (Thank you, Ben Wittes of Brookings.) In Time, scribbler Massimo Calabresi could barely bring himself to write “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and so refers to them as “EITs.” (In the Tom Stoppard segment of the recent revue “The Laws of War,” the EITs are called “PIZZA,” an elliptical acronym for “Persuasion and Interrogation Techniques, Approved.”) Amid this miasma of euphemism, that the New York Times called torture by its name in a May 4 editorial against the practice is a pleasant surprise, even if the paper’s reportage tiptoed around the T-word in its account of the reopened debate about waterboarding, 180-hour sleep deprivation, and slamming prisoners into walls.

Much of our mainstream media seems to have developed an appetite for pro-torture arguments. Consider the parable of three men and a column. The aforementioned Matthew Alexander is a former senior military interrogator of vast experience; he writes well and is against torture. Ali Soufan is a former FBI agent of vast experience; he writes well and is against torture. Marc Thiessen is a former George W. Bush speechwriter and Hill staffer with negligible military or intelligence experience; he published a book in defense of torture that is a flaming farrago of inaccuracy and misrepresentation. Guess which one of these men the Washington Post hired to write a weekly column? That’s right, and rare is the month when Thiessen doesn’t stumble upon some new incontrovertible “proof” of why waterboarding is a categorical imperative, without which the republic will perish.

The past ten years have seen rationalizations for torture make inroads among liberals. The frequent conduit here is the example of Israel, whose national-security experience tends to be taken as the counter-terrorism template in American law schools. (The counter-terrorist experiences of Britain, Italy, Colombia, and other nations are by contrast rarely discussed.) Alan Dershowitz’s hypothetical about the ticking time bomb is frequently thrown down as a trump card to justify torture authorized by judicial warrant—we know torture will happen, the reasoning goes, so why not try to control it? (Of course, we know that child prostitution is going to happen; do we want to patially legalize that too?) Never mind that in Israel the “limited” torture warrants quickly metastasized throughout the security apparatus and were inevitably used in cases of no immediate danger, and that the Israeli Supreme Court subsequently outlawed most—but by no means all—forms of torture in 1999. This is not the role model we need.

Sadly, our twisted national romance with torture predates 9/11. The War on Terror was preceded by the War on Crime and the War on Drugs, both of which have done great damage to the rule of law and created legal black holes right here at home. Torture and threats of torture may not be employed within the country as systematically as at various CIA black sites, but according to many defense lawyers they are common enough in our police precincts and occasionally erupt into public scandals; one example is the case of Jon Burge, a former Chicago police unit commander recently convicted on perjury charges relating to scores of instances of torture. It’s easy to think the virtuous torturer was first portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer on “24,” but this ignores the countless cop shows in which a more workaday lawman like Dennis Franz pounds a suspect until he confesses. Yet liberal commentators somehow managed to avert their gaze from these domestic horrors and instead portrayed Bagram, Gitmo, and Abu Ghraib as unique wartime aberrations, utterly alien to American values. That’s a serviceable enough talking point, but it isn’t quite true.

Many liberals have sighed and wrung their hands that the torture debate has to be reargued all over again—hadn’t we resolved it? No, we had not. The response to the bin Laden execution has revealed just how wedded much of America’s national-security establishment is to the theory and practice of torture. But there are some brave souls who would like to hold our own torturers to account for the damage they have done—to their victims and to what’s left of our national honor. Until these arguments are confronted, the allures of torture will be hyped and hyped some more, not only amid the rubble and carnage of 9/11 but even ten years later in the exultation of victory.

What has happened to us?

Chase Madar is a lawyer in New York.

The American Conservative needs the support of readers. Please subscribe or make a contribution today.