Sunday, December 14, 2014

Just a Little Bit of Torture?

Via Charles Pierce, I found Jonah Goldberg's unimpressive defense of the use of torture. Goldberg opens,
For a long time I resisted the word “torture” when discussing the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used against high-value captives in the War on Terror. I don’t think I can do that anymore.
Let's be blunt, here. There's only one reason somebody like Goldberg would shy away from the use of the word "torture" and it's because he's a coward. The facts were out there. The Senate report adds some shocking details, but if you weren't willing to call "torture" by its name until you learned that it may have involved hummus, you were either choosing not to look at the facts or you were scared of alienating your patrons and followers. In his new defense of torture, Goldberg makes clear that he believes the techniques we knew to be involved in "enhanced interrogation" were torture:
What some of these detainees went through pretty obviously amounted to torture. You can call it “psychological torture” or something to that effect, but such qualifiers don’t get you all that far.
So, then, he's a coward.

Goldberg immediately walks back from his concession of the obvious:
It’s true that torture is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. Everyone can agree that hot pokers, the rack, and the iron maiden qualify. But loud music, sleep deprivation, and even waterboarding? At first, maybe not. But over time, yes. Torture can be a lot like poison: The dosage matters.
To me, that paragraph seems internally inconsistent. The initial argument is that there can be sincere disagreement over whether certain practices constitute torture. But rather than advancing that argument, Goldberg switches to one of degree -- that certain techniques only become torture if they're applied in a repeated or prolonged manner. Goldberg's on the record here. If he has scruples, they're newly discovered:
Within this broad range, arguments over what is or is not torturous are to be had. The most debated technique is “waterboarding,” which terrifies its recipient into believing he is drowning. Apparently, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded until he gave us a bounty of information. Technically, the McCain amendment would ban such treatment.
Goldberg knew at that time that Mohammed was waterboarded repeatedly, yet he had no problem suggesting that waterboarding might not actually be torture and that it should not be prohibited. Goldberg also displayed an inability to comprehend the moral and legal issues behind torture:
But, as Charles Krauthammer notes in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, there’s reason to believe even McCain would endorse a “sliding scale” that would allow the Khalid Mohammeds to get roughed up under certain circumstances. In other words, McCain makes the sorts of distinctions mentioned above–he just doesn’t want them written into law. Indeed, under the “ticking time bomb” scenario, McCain believes the president should willfully break the law McCain has authored. That’s a pretty Kerryesque position: He’s for it, except when he’s against it. So much for absolutism.
Krauthammer proposed banning torture but with exceptions that would subsume the rule -- he would allow for torture in the "ticking time bomb" scenario, and for what he calls "slow fuse" suspects such as Mohammed. Even if you don't follow Krauthammer's definition of "ticking time bomb" so broadly as to include a situation where the enemy has captured a soldier, the difficulty of its implementation should be obvious: If you don't know what information a suspect has until after you torture him, you're going to end up torturing people who have no information, who may have been deliberately fed misinformation for you to elicit, and who you presuppose are going to lie to you. You, as a torturer, also don't know either if or when the lie becomes the truth.

You risk getting an avalanche of information that buries the truth. You risk getting several versions of the truth, with amendment or new "details" added at every turn simply to get the torture to stop. In a non-ticking time bomb scenario, such as a soldier's being held hostage, you may have the luxury of repeatedly returning to your suspects to torture them again and again, until they give you better information... assuming they have it. But in an actual ticking time bomb scenario, you won't know if you have the right person, you won't know if you're getting accurate information, and you may in fact end up chasing red herrings of your own creation rather than following valid leads.

It's not clear that Goldberg accepted, or even understood, Krauthammer's distinction between the "ticking time bomb" and the "slow fuse". Krauthammer endorsed torturing somebody like Mohammed on the assumption that he's going to have useful information that he won't otherwise provide to interrogators -- and because he doesn't believe that suspected terrorists are deserving of basic human rights or dignity. Krauthammer's exceptions are so broad that his proposed limited prohibition of torture would not prevent any torture. His conception of the "ticking time bomb" is so broad as to encompass pretty much any possible, future terrorist attack or the location of a captures soldier. It's difficult to believe that he would object to the use of torture to find arms stashes, or to find people higher on the food chain, all in the name of preventing imminent terrorist attacks -- because terrorists are always plotting the next attack. Any detainee is thus reasonably treated as a "ticking time bomb" -- and if, for some reason, you can't make that case, you can simply apply the subjective measure that you think the person is "high value" and can be tortured to obtain whatever information he holds.

Although it seems obvious, Goldberg was completely unable to grasp the distinction between the positions of people like McCain and Kerry, and the unprincipled arguments of somebody like Krauthammer. Kerry and McCain were prepared for the possibility that the mythic "ticking time bomb" might actually be found, with the President being called upon to authorize torture in violation of the law. A President who could not make the case would be subject to impeachment, and he and those following his orders could face criminal charges. Such an approach should all-but-eliminate the possibility of a Bush-Cheney torture regime, as their programs would be plainly unlawful. Krauthammer, on the other hand, would have been perfectly happy to give that regime the full blessings of the law.

Goldberg is upset with the idea that once something is identified as torture, it should be deemed off-limits:
One of the great problems with the word “torture” is that it tolerates no ambiguity. It is a taboo word, like racism or incest. Once you call something torture, the conversation is supposed to end. It’s a line no one may cross. As a result, if you think the enhanced interrogation techniques are necessary, or simply justified, you have to call them something else. Similarly, many sincere opponents of these techniques think that if they can simply call them “torture,” their work is done.
Pierce points out the stupidity of Goldberg's points of comparison:
This is a guy who has made a comfortable career out of the notion that liberal fascists use "racism" as a club to bludgeon conservatives into silence when those conservatives are only trying to have a discussion about values and the public schools. Is he implying here that people use the words "incest" and "torture" in the same way? Do liberals cry "incest" when conservatives are only trying to talk about the gene pool out of which have emerged their hot cousins?
But more than that, Goldberg again displays the same sort of cowardice that plagues not just his musings on torture, but most of his work. He just told us that he was tremulous of using the word "torture" to describe torture, yet he's now suggesting that all it takes to get us back to where we were a few years ago is a properly applied euphemism. There is no similarity between suggesting that torture should be illegal, and using a euphemism to describe acts you know to fall under the definition of torture in order to try to sidestep legal and moral issues. Beyond that, Goldberg knows that torture opponents are not simply articulating a definition and declaring their job to be done:
The problem is that the issue isn’t nearly so binary. Even John McCain — a vocal opponent of any kind of torture — has conceded that in some hypothetical nuclear ticking-time-bomb scenario, torture might be a necessary evil. His threshold might be very high, but the principle is there nonetheless.
As previously explained, McCain would have the torturer and those who authorized his acts face possible prosecution, defending his breach of a torture prohibition based upon a strong argument of necessity. McCain would have the torturer clearly demonstrate courage in his convictions, a concept that appears to be outside of Goldberg's comprehension.
And nearly everyone understands the point: When a greater evil is looming in the imminent future, the lesser evil becomes more tolerable. This is why opponents of the interrogation program are obsessed with claiming that it never worked, at all.
Here, again, Goldberg is unable to maintain internal consistency. He cannot simultaneously hold up John McCain as the iconic opponent of the torture program, while pretending that McCain is "obsessed with claiming that it never worked." While some do take the position that torture "never" works, most opponents of torture recognize that you may be able to gain useful information from torture -- but with much of that information subject to being elicited through rapport-based interrogation without the moral issues of torture, or the confounding problem of useful facts being buried in an avalanche of lies and misinformation pouring out of a suspect who will say anything to make the torture stop.

Goldberg also steps right past the obvious, that proponents of the torture program have a very long history of lying about the program and the intelligence they gathered. They lied about the scope of the program. They lied about its effectiveness. They lied about the utility of information they gathered. Knowing that their actions would shock the conscience of the nation, they systematically destroyed the evidence. You would not expect that level of deceit, exaggeration and cover-up from people who sincerely believed in their program.

Lt. Col. Douglas A. Pryer, U.S. Army, wrote an essay for Foreign Policy, entitled, I don’t believe a word of what torture advocates say—and neither should you.
Predictably, torture’s acolytes are already responding: The report was a Republican witch hunt led by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. Facts were selectively culled by partisan staffers in order to paint the program in the worst possible light. Other staffers could’ve selected different facts and reached completely opposite conclusions. Sure, there were problems with the program, but these techniques really did “work.” They saved lives. Someday, the truth will be revealed, and the men and women who performed this “hard, dirty work” for good ends will be lauded as the true heroes they are. In the mean time, trust us regarding this program’s success. WE KNOW.

Hogwash. I’ve never believed a word of what torture’s advocates say, and neither should you.
The author, who managed interrogation operations for the 1st Armored Division (1AD) in Baghdad from Jul-Nov 2003, asked that several of his prisoners be "re-interrogated" at Abu Ghraib,
Now, this is important: not once during this period did my Division receive any useful intelligence from Abu Ghraib. We received a few reports that Abu Ghraib interrogators seemed to think contained useful intelligence, but they contained nothing of substance that wasn’t contained in earlier reports. It was a mystery to me then why our interrogators in Baghdad produced actionable intelligence nearly every day but those at Abu Ghraib produced nothing of value—not little of value, NOTHING of value.
He opines,
But while trying to make sense of my own experiences, I’ve also read extensively on the subject, and all that I’ve read reinforces the same conclusion: torture is an immensely impractical intelligence-gathering tool. Professional interrogators who have become truly expert at employing rapport-based approaches decry torture’s effectiveness as an intelligence-gathering tool. Yes, you sometimes get the truth, but this truth is rarely substantial and is typically buried in what I’ve heard professional interrogators call “the longest list of lies in the world.”

Those who claim that torture has more chance of success than rapport-based approaches have limited (if any) direct experience with these approaches. They’re rarely real interrogators....

When the 9/11 attacks took place, nearly 3000 Americans lost their lives, and so many Americans lost their minds, U.S. Army interrogation doctrine (as expressed in the 1987 Intelligence Interrogation manual) had it right: “Experience indicates that . . . the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.” Unfortunately, this doctrine—which reflected the practical experience of generations of interrogators—was thrown away by arrogant amateurs who thought they knew more than the professionals.
He points out that there's more to the debate than "does it work",
The question of "does it work" aside, there are HUGE strategic drawbacks to torture, such as how it undermines the rule of law, corrupts those who use it, undercuts military training, cedes moral high ground to our nation’s enemies, creates distrust among allies, sows dissension at home, serves as a source of recruits and donations for our nation’s enemies, creates irreconcilable enemies, and makes the ultimate goal of any conflict—its peaceful resolution—increasingly difficult.

Quite simply, for a mature democracy in the information age, there may be no surer tool for prolonging conflicts and shaping defeat than employing torture.
By pretending that opponents of torture begin and end their argument with, "It's wrong", Goldberg conveniently avoids addressing any of the more difficult arguments against torture.

Goldberg then brings in the false analogy:
And this suggests why the talking point about drone strikes has such power. Killing is worse than torture. Life in prison might be called torture for some people, and yet we consider the death penalty a more severe punishment....

It’s odd: Even though killing is a graver moral act, there’s more flexibility to it. America killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people in World War II, but few would call that murder because such actions as the firebombing of Dresden were deemed necessary to win the war.

In other words, we have the moral vocabulary to talk about kinds of killing — from euthanasia and abortion to capital punishment, involuntary manslaughter and, of course, murder — but we don’t have a similar lexicon when it comes to kinds of torture.
It would be interesting to hear Jonah Goldberg's description of the military justification of the firebombing of Dresden, which I expect would be about as deep as his understanding of Mussolini's connection to fascism -- "Oops, I forgot Mussolini was a fascist".1

Goldberg is obviously no student of history, but if he were he might have learned that the allied commanders who ordered such acts as the firebombing of cities in Japan knew that their acts were legally dubious and knew that they would likely result in war crimes charges if the Allies lost the war. That is the very sort of accountability that John McCain wishes to bring to torture -- to have the person making the order do so in contemplation that his decision could result in his spending many years in prison (or, in the case of war crimes, the hangman's noose), something that also likely plays into the public acceptance of the necessity defense.

Also, in war the question is almost never going to be, "Should we fire a missile or should we conduct a precision raid to kill or extract an enemy leader or terrorist". While it may be true that, in hindsight, a terrorist might prefer to be tortured and imprisoned over being blown up by a drone, perhaps along with members of his family, that only becomes relevant if the putative target of a drone strike decides to turn himself over to U.S. forces.

Goldberg is essentially arguing that, having accepted that torture is wrong, we need a new euphemism for torture, or at least for the modest amount of torture that Goldberg would have us see as something other than torture. Actually, the issue of whether or not an act constitutes torture can be made reasonably clear, using a definition such as Lt. Col. Pryer's, "Today, I judge any tactic designed to inflict physical or mental pain severe enough to 'break' someone to be 'torture.'". Goldberg might want us to believe that offering a criminal suspect a cup of coffee during an interrogation is an insidious form of sleep deprivation, tantamount to making him stand without sleep and forcibly waking him every time he dozes off, but I suspect that most others can see the difference between an interrogation that goes on arguably past the point when a suspect should be allowed to sleep and intentional sleep deprivation.2

Moreover, in the former case the suspect can argue in court that the circumstances of the interrogation became unduly coercive -- and that is made easier if it's clear that interrogating officers were intentionally depriving the suspect of sleep in order to continue the interrogation of a suspect whose mental faculties were breaking down. There is no point to trying to use Goldberg's "little bit of torture" approach, as torture is only useful if the suspect breaks. Once you make the decision to torture, there's no level at which your actions do not constitute torture.

I don't want to overstate things here. Sometimes a suspect can be inspired to provide self-incriminating information based upon threats or statements that are coercive, but are not deemed to be torture. The federal government has a reputation for threatening to bring charges against a primary suspect's spouse, or possibly other family members, when pressuring a suspect to confess to a crime or to accept a plea bargain. Suspects detained for interrogation may be told that a co-defendant is making a confession that implicates them, and that if they don't confess they'll get a more severe penalty. I don't think that Pryer is referring to causing a suspect to break his silence, or break from a prior narrative, when he speaks of "mental pain severe enough to 'break' someone" -- but I would not be surprised if he argued that you would be much more likely to get reliable information from criminal suspects if you successfully use rapport-based techniques, particularly if he's familiar with false confession cases.

Goldberg then presents the argument, "Our torture is different, because our motives are pure,"
When John McCain was brutally tortured — far, far more severely than anything we’ve done to the 9/11 plotters — it was done to elicit false confessions and other statements for purposes of propaganda. When we tortured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, it was to get actionable intelligence on ongoing plots. It seems to me that’s an important moral distinction. If I torture a fiend to find out where he left a child to suffocate or starve in some dungeon, that’s a less evil act than torturing someone just to hear them renounce their god or country. Also, KSM was not some innocent subjected to torture to satisfy the grotesque desires of some sadists. He is an unlawful combatant responsible for murdering thousands of innocent Americans.

This may sound like nothing more than a rationalization. But that is to be expected when you try to reason through a morally fraught problem.
What it sounds like is both an oversimplification and a rationalization. While it is true that torture states use torture in order to obtain statements useful for propaganda purposes, as well as to generally intimidate the public, it is not true that they thus never use torture to gain intelligence about criminal, dissident, or terrorist activity, or to try to obtain useful intelligence from enemy soldiers. I suspect, also, that their torturers are every bit as good at rationalizing their conduct as is Goldberg when it comes to his insistence that when Americans torture they have only the purest of motives.

Here, again, Goldberg avoids addressing the actual positions of torture opponents. People like John McCain fully embrace the idea of American exceptionalism, and are going into this debate with the assumption that our motives in using torture will be pure. Unlike Goldberg, however, he has enough understanding of both history and the realities of torture to recognize that the use of torture should nonetheless be extremely rare, and that the legal framework for the use of torture should force decision-makers to consider both the need for torture and all reasonable alternatives before authorizing its use.


1. Goldberg's actual statement,
Mussolini was born a socialist, he died a socialist, he never abandoned his love of socialism, he was one of the most important socialist intellectuals in Europe and was one of the most important socialist activists in Italy, and the only reason he got dubbed a fascist and therefore a right-winger is because he supported World War I.
Goldberg's defense of his error is that he "misspoke", a claim that may be true but, if so, is akin to somebody professing to be an expert on the Middle East conflicts while forgetting, even momentarily, about Mohammed's connection to Islam. Actually, given that Mussolini railed against socialism, it would be a bit like such an "expert" arguing that Mohammed unsuccessfully tried to stop Islam.

2. One wonders what distinctions Goldberg would draw that would render the techniques of torture to be, in his view, non-torture. Is there actually a degree of waterboarding that could be deemed anything but torture? Would he defect rectal feeding -- "As long as you don't use any more hummus than you get in one of those airline snack packs" -- or would he concede that some techniques are always torture even if used only to a limited degree?

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