In Response To Lowry

by Andrew

Rich Lowry claims that those of us who oppose torture as illegal and immoral and a violation of America's treaty obligations, have always based our case on the idea that torture never works. Some may have, but this blog hasn't. It is perfectly possible for a tortured person to cough up truths. But the process is inherently less reliable than ethical, moral and legal interrogation which does not take a prisoner to the point at which he can resist the pain and suffering no longer. Torture's utilitarian problem is that lies are almost always mingled with truth, and there is no way often to distinguish the two. The "evidence" procured, moreover, can never be used in a criminal trial, and the capacity to manufacture evidence to retroactively justify the torture is enormous. If Lowry is unaware of the dangers of vesting a single, unaccountable executive branch with the power to torture, and to report its results without any independent verification, then he is not now and never has been a conservative. It is carte blanche for anything - and anything is what we saw across every theater of combat, by every branch of the armed forces, with exactly the same techniques under his beloved vice-president.

But here's the other weird thing from the scenario the pro-torture camp now wants us to believe. The line we're getting - and I presume (but don't know) that the official given an anonymous platform to defend his war crimes in the Washington Post is George Tenet - is that the terror suspects were hardcore religious fanatics who had been trained to resist normal, ethical Western interrogation. After months of aggressive/harsh/enhanced/intense/brutal/pick-your-euphemism techniques, they suddenly crumbled and told us everything - in fact, even held seminars to explain how al Qaeda worked. The argument, used by one-time human rights backer Cliff May, is that once the victims had been pummeled with interrogation techniques beyond their religiously zealous will to endure, they became pliant. Once they had been convinced that Allah could not ask any more of them in resisting, they received permission to tell all.

Here's my logical question with respect to this scenario. If the pain and suffering imposed on a fanatic like KSM was so great even he cracked, how could it not be torture? It surely must be at the far end of any torture technique to break such an individual - and, of course, waterboarding someone 183 times is about as extreme a torture method as ever devised by humankind. By Lowry's logic, how would such a hardened, trained, hardcore Jihadist get to such a point of surrender without being tortured? And yet May and Lowry want to argue both that walling, beating, hanging, shackling, freezing and waterboarding someone is not torture and that it was so severe that even a hardened Jihadist like KSM couldn't endure it. So which is it? Are these guys so pliant that mere "enhanced interrogation" miles away from torture brought them to confess all? Or are they the "worst of the worst" who would only give up information under torture?

Moreover, the information we are now getting that KSM became cooperative suggests to me that he was extremely susceptible to traditional, ethical interrogation techniques. Such cooperation requires a bond with interrogators that uses traditional and reliable methods to get actionable information. As Ali Soufan reported with Abu Zubaydah, traditional non-brutal non-tortuous interrogation often worked very well. And we know even from the leakedĀ  material that the plots uncovered were in primitive stages, were, in KSM's view, made impossible because of new security measures, and had no connection to WMDs. So there was no actual emergency. There was just a fear of an emergency in the psyche of Dick Cheney.