Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Challenge to the Pro-Torture View

An FBI supervisory agent, Ali Soufan, joins the torture debate, explaining among other things that the claim that key information was obtained through the torture of Abu Zubaydah "don't add up."
One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use... There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.
The first part of that claim is verifiable - if Zubaydah was simply repeating what he had previously stated without the application of torture. The second part is no more verifiably than the claims of the pro-torture crowd that information was obtained that could not have been "gained from regular tactics" - once you choose to torture or not torture, it's not possible to be certain where the other path would have led.
In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified.
It's no surprise either that torture can backfire (and here I assume we're speaking of bad intelligence, not injury or death), or that those responsible for the bad outcomes would use classification as a shield.

This is troublesome:
One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation.
This consequence reflects an unfortunate short-sightedness that could in fact have cost us a lot more actionable intelligence than we could reasonably have expected to gain through torture. Absent a compelling case that torture would improve the amount or accuracy of information obtained as compared to traditional interrogation, something that is so far lacking, it seems that it would have been a wiser course to refrain from torture and avoid this schism.

The author asserts that it's a good thing that the torture memos were released, and that we should accept that the CIA agents involved in the torture intended to protect the country and had no alternative to applying torture (short of quitting their jobs). For this reason, while advocating taking steps to "ensure that the mistakes behind the use of these techniques are never repeated", he opposes prosecuting agents who committed acts of torture.

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