Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Monday, December 01, 2008

  Does it matter that torture "doesn't work"?

On Sunday The Washington Post published yet another commentary by a former interrogator arguing that torture doesn't "work". This one is by a pseudonymous Air Force veteran who led a team of interrogators in Iraq from March to August 2006. To his great credit, he describes the use of torture as repugnant and unAmerican. He refused to go over to the dark side and instead insisted that interrogations be conducted according to the Army Field Manual.

However his argument that torture should be rejected in part because it's "ineffective" – that is, it produces unreliable testimony and is counterproductive – ought to trouble more people than it appears to do. Sure, we all ought to be able to agree that torture produces a farrago of dysinformation (typically whatever the victim thinks the torturer wants to hear in order to stop the torment). But so what? Is it reasonable to measure torture by the yardstick of "effectiveness"? Would torture be more acceptable if it produced more reliable testimony?

Here's the gist of the pseudonymous Matthew Alexander's point:

I'm not some ivory-tower type; I served for 14 years in the U.S. Air Force, began my career as a Special Operations pilot flying helicopters, saw combat in Bosnia and Kosovo, became an Air Force counterintelligence agent, then volunteered to go to Iraq to work as a senior interrogator. What I saw in Iraq still rattles me -- both because it betrays our traditions and because it just doesn't work.


I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.

I've no doubt that he's right that prisoner abuse has inflamed passions against the US around the world. It's also true that torturers become blinded to what motivates their victims. And though he doesn't say so, practicing torture endangers our troops in the longer term by seemingly justifying the abuse of captured American forces. On their own, each of these are important to take note of.

Each of those things are true, but just as with the fact that torture produces unreliable testimony, they should not be used to make the case against the use of torture. Because the argument against torture really is quite simple.

It's illegal.

Adding anything further to that argument clouds an issue that desperately needs clarity. Indeed, the advocates for torture would want to debate it in terms of utility and expediency. That is the only grounds on which they could ever win such a debate. What's more, it's far from certain that with an average audience anybody can assume they'll win that debate. Notice how perilously close even this pseudonymous author comes to conceding that torture has its uses:

I know the counter-argument well -- that we need the rough stuff for the truly hard cases, such as battle-hardened core leaders of al-Qaeda, not just run-of-the-mill Iraqi insurgents. But that's not always true: We turned several hard cases, including some foreign fighters, by using our new techniques. A few of them never abandoned the jihadist cause but still gave up critical information. One actually told me, "I thought you would torture me, and when you didn't, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That's why I decided to cooperate."

The utility of torture is an issue best set aside until the day that somebody actually dares to come out in the light of day to try to change the laws against torture. Even George Bush couldn't bring himself to do that. May we never live to witness such shamelessness.

Meanwhile, let's not open the back door to justifying a torture regime by quibbling over torture's utility. Strictly speaking it's irrelevant.

crossposted at

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