A Taxonomy of Torture Defenses

Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a summary of its report on the CIA's use of torture during George W. Bush's administration (this is a 480-page version; the full report runs 6,000 pages), and though previous reporting has revealed much of what the report will contain, there are new details to mull over. And of course, the renewed debate has brought back all the torture advocates from the Bush administration, who will vigorously, even angrily make their case that nothing improper or immoral happened during those dark times.

As I argued yesterday, one of the things the torture advocates fear is that this debate will move from the realm of controversy to the realm of consensus, leaving them forever defined by history as the villains of this period. Today we no longer argue about whether Jim Crow or McCarthyism was right or wrong, though at the time they had their passionate defenders. Eventually, the Bush torture program will move to that same ground of consensus. But in the meantime, the torture advocates hope to forestall history's judgment for as long as they can. Matt Duss explained it well this morning:



How are they going about it? Here's a brief taxonomy of their arguments:

Torture isn't really torture. One of the first things the Bush administration did when they instituted the torture program was to give it a new name: "enhanced interrogation techniques." For a few years now I've been asking what the torture advocates' definition of torture is, if something like stress positions—which are designed to produce excruciating pain—doesn't qualify. I've never heard an answer. When they get asked why the torture techniques the government used weren't actually torture, they just repeat that it wasn't torture.

Torture is legal. This is particularly important to the CIA: they say that because the Bush White House and the Bush Justice Department gave them the go-ahead, they didn't do anything wrong. There are questions about whether the CIA went beyond what was approved by the administration, but in a very narrow sense, the agents who carried out the torture are probably correct: if they got a memo from the White House telling them that torture is legal, they couldn't be expected to know any better. On this one specific question, the fact that those memos were some of the most logically absurd and morally demented documents ever produced by the United States government is on the people who produced them, not on those who were actually carrying out the torture. The latter already know they've escaped prosecution, even if they can't escape their own consciences.

Torture is OK if the people you torture are bad people. This is an argument that is made more implicitly than explicitly, but it's actually central to the whatever support the torture advocates have for their position. They'll say over and over that we were only torturing "the worst of the worst," vile terrorists who would kill us all if they could. Of course, every regime through history that employed torture believed that the people it was torturing had it coming. When we judge them, we don't spend time inquiring into the moral character of the victims, because it's irrelevant to how we judge the perpetrators.

Torture is OK if everybody's afraid. This is also something you'll hear in the torture advocates' narrative: It was right after 9/11! Three thousand Americans had just died! It's the contemporary version of the argument for torture (and all the other radical security measures the administration was undertaking) at the time: this is a new kind of war, with a new kind of enemy. Therefore, we can't be bound by things like the Geneva Convention, because these terrorists obviously have super-powers that make them an "existential threat," one more powerful than the Nazis or the Soviets ever were.

Torture works. This is the big one, the argument that the ends justify the means, and the one that torture advocates will always include in their case. Many people who have thoughtfully considered the question conclude that even if torture works it is still never acceptable under any circumstances, but even if you aren't willing to go that far, we have to be very specific about what we mean by "works." The torture advocates would like us to believe that we live in a world of eternally ticking time bombs, and every prisoner who was waterboarded, sleep deprived, or subjected to other forms of torture was going to tell us the location of that bomb if we could just dial up their suffering a bit more.

But the truth is that there are almost no ticking time bombs outside of Hollywood movies and TV shows. Intelligence gathering is a process that takes place over weeks, months, and years. It's critical to understand that prior to 9/11 the CIA had virtually no experience in interrogation, and they had no idea what would be effective and what wouldn't. But they were being told by the White House that they needed to be "tough," and torture is tough. The people who actually had experience in interrogation tried to tell the CIA that it wouldn't be effective, but they were shut out because their methods weren't tough enough.

The torture advocates now say that if you can draw any connection, no matter how distant and tenuous, between something that a prisoner said under torture and a positive intelligence outcome, then that proves that torture "works" and the whole program was worthwhile. You'll note that they don't mention how many blind alleys they ended up pursuing (because people being tortured will say anything to stop the torture, whether it's true or not).

There are no cases in which al-Qaeda had a nuclear weapon about to destroy New York, and the tortured prisoner gave up its location just in time. There was no second 9/11 attack stopped by torture. The most the torture advocates can claim is that a prisoner being tortured at one point told us the nom de guerre of a guy, and a couple of years later we ended up catching that guy, and he led us to another guy, who was acquainted with this different guy, and partly because of that we caught this guy who was a "high-level" terrorist. They can't argue that the scraps of true information gleaned from torture were actually hugely significant, so they claim that if we got anything from it, then it's justified.

None of these arguments are in the least bit persuasive. The people who created, executed, and defend the torture program don't want history to declare them the villains of this story. But that's what they are. And one day—even if it takes some time—there will be a consensus on that.


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