Petraeus Resurrects the 'Ticking Time Bomb' Scenario

It's never happened. It probably never will. So why is a general who has always opposed torture encouraging Congress to make an exception for it?

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Asked about "enhanced interrogation techniques," Gen. David Petraeus has always insisted that the U.S. should question detainees in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and the Army Field Manual. It's a position he reiterated even when asked about a "ticking time bomb" scenario.

That changed when Gen. Petraeus testified Thursday before the Senate intelligence committee, answering various questions as part of the confirmation process for the top job at the CIA.

The LA Times reported on the exchange:

In the vast majority of cases, Petraeus said, the "humane" questioning standards mandated by the U.S. Army Field Manual are sufficient to persuade detainees to talk. But though he did not use the word torture, Petraeus said "there should be discussion ... by policymakers and by Congress" about something "more than the normal techniques." Petraeus... described an example of a detainee who knows how to disarm a nuclear device set to explode under the Empire State Building.

Adds the Associated Press:

Petraeus said lawmakers should consider setting policies that would require authorization from the top, implying that the president would be consulted on whether to use enhanced interrogation techniques and lower-level officials would not be under pressure to make the decision in a "ticking time bomb" situation.

Are we meant to believe that a nuclear device under the Empire State Building and a captured terrorist able to defuse it wouldn't presently trigger a call to the President of the United States? "Petraeus hardly reversed course and endorsed torture," Spencer Ackerman writes. "But there are many Republicans in Congress who thought Obama made a big mistake by banning it. If Congress revisits the interrogation debate at Petraeus' behest, torture might very well return to U.S. interrogations."

That is certainly a more likely outcome than a ticking time bomb scenario with a nuclear weapon that doesn't go off because Congress insisted months or years prior that the president be consulted and given special permission to interrogate any recently captured Islamist bomb experts.

The counterargument is that you can never be too careful when American lives are at stake. In that spirit, perhaps we ought to start planning for what I'd like to dub the "rogue federal official" scenario. A high-ranking saboteur seems more likely than a ticking time bomb, a perpetrator in custody, the knowledge that he knows how to defuse it, and a countdown long enough to afford him the opportunity. So far, our elected representatives and their appointees haven't yet devised any "more than normal" interrogation techniques that would apply to their own colleagues.

Perhaps they've been dissuaded by the anthrax attacks, the American scenario that has most resembled a ticking time bomb. Someone was sending a deadly biological weapon to folks around the country. People were panicky. The FBI frantically followed every lead that they could. Soon enough, law enforcement decided that they had their man: a scientist formerly employed by the army. What if they would've used enhanced interrogation techniques to ensure more letters weren't en route to kill someone? Oh yes. In that scenario, they would've wound up torturing an innocent man.

Even so, the ticking time bomb scenario keeps coming up.

And Michael Kinsley remains right: "Morality does not require us to build a general policy on torture around a situation that is not merely unlikely in real life, but different in kind from the situations we are likely to face in real life. What we would do or should do if this situation actually arose is an interesting question for bull sessions in the dorm, but not a pressing issue for the nation."

Image credit: Reuters


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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