Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hube's answer: why torture is wrong even if it happens to be effective

Hube has asked this question in several variations:

When talking about bigwigs like KSM that have, as we've apparently been told, crucial info about an impending 9/11-like attack (or worse), it would be negligent to NOT take the measures that were utilized to gain that information.

Would it be "honorable" to not take this action -- and allow thousands of innocent American civilians to perish? So that we can "hold our heads high" and say, "We didn't treat KSM harshly!"

This is the utilitarian/ticking bomb theory: at what point does the importance of the information we're seeking justify whatever it is we have to do to get that information.

Jacob Hornberger answers:

My question is: Why limit torture to suspected terrorists? Why not expand it to suspected murderers, drug dealers, robbers, and kidnappers? After all, can’t those types of people commit just as heinous an act as terrorists?

Consider, for example, the drug dealers along the U.S.-Mexico border. They’re killing law-enforcement officers, judges, and other public officials. Suppose the U.S. military or Border Patrol takes a suspected drug dealer into custody. What would be wrong with torturing him into providing information about plans to kill government officials? Wouldn’t this information be just as valuable as information extracted from a suspected terrorist?

Couldn’t the same be true of suspected kidnappers? Wouldn’t the forcible extraction of information help save the life of a kidnap victim? What would be wrong with torturing the person into telling where the victim is being held?

There are, of course, solid and important reasons why it would be wrong, both legally and morally, for U.S. law-enforcement officers to torture criminal suspects in their custody.

For one thing, the U.S. Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land that controls the conduct of government officials, bars government agents from inflicting cruel and unusual punishments on people. It also protects a person from being forced to give information that might tend to incriminate him.

Secondly, in the United States the American people, through their elected representatives, have, by statute, made it a criminal offense, for law-enforcement officers to torture or abuse criminal suspects.

Third, as a moral matter, ever since the founding of our nation the American people have stood squarely in opposition to the power of government officials to torture people, no matter how heinous the crime and no matter how valuable the information that they might be able to disclose.

Finally, there is always the distinct possibility that a criminal suspect might be innocent or might not posses the information that the torturer is seeking.

This is, honestly, a conversation I never thought we'd be having in the United States. We didn't need torture to win World War Two, yet both the Germans and the Japanese employed torture on our prisoners-and the Third Reich and Imperial Japan represented a far greater threat than Islamo-terrorism.

What's changed?


Hube said...

One question you avoided at my original post, since you bring up the Japanese and Germans: Where were the prosecutions for war crimes of those involved in the directing of operations in WW II? After all, we dropped two a-bombs on [primarily] civilians, and firebombed Dresden (and Tokyo) w/conventional weapons.

What makes these actions "less heinous" than some isolated -- and controlled -- instances of torture against pure terrorists (unlike the Japanese and Germans)?

I agree -- the Axis represented a far greater threat. And our counter actions were far greater in scope. And a greater "war crime."

Can I say that I "thought we'd never see anything happen like what we did to Japan and Germany in WWII?"

You seem to be of the assumption that the actions against KSM are (were) regular occurrences and done willfully and blindly obediently. This is far from the case. In addition, would you really be surprised that a kidnapper might not have the shit kicked out of him (or something else) for the relevant information in secret?I am happy for you, Steve, that you feel morally confident that you can proudly proclaim you'd never rough up a sub-human scumbag even if you knew he had info that could save thousands of lives.

I wonder what the ending of "Fail Safe" would be if you played Henry Fonda's role, Steve?

Anonymous said...

What changed?
Our belief in God.


Steve Newton said...

There is a difference between what I might personally do (and take the consequences for) and what I would advocate as public policy.

The difference between now and WW2 was, unfortunately, the scope of my lost post on CoR; don't know if I have the energy to repeat it tonight, but will try an abbreviated version.

Dresden and the greater strategic bombing campaign were conducted in a different communications world than exists today. Neither FDR nor George Marshall attempted to control day-to-day operations in Europe or the Pacific because the communications infrastructure did not exist to allow that to happen. So the decisions were made by the commanders on the spot, based on actionable intelligence and general policy.

Historians have generally condemned Dresden, because they do not--after sifting through the documents--believe that either Bomber Command or the USAAF commanders really credited the intel on the transfer of parts of the 6th SS Panzer Army through the city, which would have made it a legitimate target. There is every reason to believe that they knew the 6th SS was already in Hungary, and made the decision based on their desire to see if fire-bombing would hasten the end of the war (and also through an intent of many officers in Bomber Command to take some revenge for the Blitz). But, here's the key point: there is no evidence that senior US officers or politicians either knew of this, or had access to the documents until decades after the war. So the answer with Dresden is that FDR, Marshall, and even Ike accepted what they were told about the justification for the bombing. There was, quite probably a cover-up in the USAAF, but it worked so well that none of the documents really came to light until the early 1970s. If you don't know a crime has been committed, can you prosecute.

The A-bomb was not functionally different than the fire-bombing of Tokyo which had been going on for months by August 1945. In fact, the February-March 1945 raids on Tokyo killed more people and did more damage than Hiroshima or Nagasaki. What made the A-bomb successful in breaking Japanese will to resist was the visceral idea that the US no longer had to risk 500 bombers, but could slip in one plane and destroy a city. Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were (a) troop garrison cities and (b) wartime industrial centers. Therefore both were legitimate military targets, just as Pearl Harbor was.

At Nuremburg we tried the Germans from the top down. The senior officers were convicted and executed not for specific tactical decisions, but for policies (invade Poland; kill all captured commandos; don't feed Soviet POWs). Only after the illegality of those orders had been determined in court could the prosecutors then move down to the individuals who actually executed the orders.

The problem with your assumption of actions against a pure terrorist is that you have gone through no due process to convict that individual; we didn't execute Keitel until after he had been convicted.

As for putting me into the situation of personally choosing whether or not to take such action and save bazillions of lives, there are two responses:

1) It's a false premise, largely, because we have no real evidence that such ever happened. That supposed planned attack on LA: how real, how imminent? Did the information from KSM represent pristine actionable intelligence (which so far no released document has suggested) or comfirmatory intelligence (which raises strong issues of how important it was). So the "ticking bomb" scenario has yet to be shown to have occurred.

2) If I were placed in that situation, God forbid, here's my answer: I'd possibly choose to break the law; but I should have to make that choice, and I should only be making that choice with the understanding that the situation was important enough for me to take the personal risk of breaking the law and all the consequences therefrom. That's not what happened here. They decided they were going to use torture as policy, then developed legal arguments to protect themselves so that they could waterboard safe in the knowledge that they were legally insulated.

That is a far cry from the cop who roughs up a kidnapper, well aware that even if he saves the little girl he may lose his career and end up behind bars.

There is nothing morally to distinguish the people who convinced themselves that breaking the Geneva Convention was acceptable at Gitmo and Bagram from the people who convinced themselves that breaking the Geneva Convention was acceptable at Dieppe, Malmedy, and Zhitomir.

Hube said...

I'm sorry Steve, but I remained unconvinced by your arguments and/or justifications regarding WW II.

And again, I am NOT arguing about abuses in Abu Ghraib or Bagram or wherever; I am referring to al Qaeda higher ups with definitive knowledge of plots and operations.

You keep saying there is no definitive evidence; unfortunately, there are many others -- more in the know than you -- that claim otherwise.

Hube said...

And FWIW, I too would be willing to face the consequences of my actions to the save the life/lives of others. Even as far as Blackie went in "Fail Safe," if need be.

Thus, if I were Rumsfeld, Cheney and even Bush, I'd be willing to go to Capitol Hill and make my case and be willing to accept the consequences. I think, however, that the ultimate result would be akin to what happened to Bill Clinton. All the polls I've seen show the public doesn't have much of a problem harshly treating al Qaeda higher ups to save lives, nor do they want to see an investigation into such.

downwithabsolutes said...


I'm loving your posts on this topic. While not nearly as well versed as many on this topic, I find myself in agreement with you. Torture may work, though I really don't think it does. My problem is I wish the Bush Administration just would have taken credit for doing it and stopped playing these semantical bullshit games with the American public. Sorry, but it is what it is: Torture. It's like the first step of AA: You just have to ADMIT what you're doing. Then the analysis can follow. My problem has never really been with torture. It was with the Bush Administrations CONTINUED lying and covering up of said torture. Let's call a spade a spade, so to speak.

I'm guessing the Bush administration realized the questionable morality of torture when they continued to lie and obfuscate about it. Which means that, I'm sure, deep down, they realized that torture is itself disgustingly immoral and dangerous.

I prefer the typical-activist response to this torture stuff: "When the US tortures, we show ourselves to be no better than the enemy we're fighting."

Hube said...

Another thing to add to this discussion: KSM and that other dude (whose name always escapes me) weren't waterboarded 180+ times. That is the total # of "pours" that they received during their "sessions," which are strictly counted.

Hube said...

Mike: Did FDR and Truman "deep down realize that firebombing and atomic bombing are itself disgustingly immoral and dangerous?"

downwithabsolutes said...


I'm against torture but can realize its benefits in real-world scenarios. The only thing I'm calling out is the Bush administration's LIES and obfuscations. If you're going to torture, OK. But don't lie and cover it up because you don't want scrutiny and criticism.

Frankly, relevant though they may be, I'm kind of tired of you pulling the Lincoln, FDR, Truman cards all the time (perhaps because it's convenient to my argument, which I'm certainly willing to concede). While history should indeed teach us many lessons, I'm really concerned about what MY country is doing now in MY NAME. It it MY opinion that torture may or may not actually work in this terror war. There are absolutists on both sides who swear that it ABSOLUTELY does work or that it ABSOLUTELY doesn't work. I can't take either side because, really, both sides are full of shit. If only I had the same crystal ball they used. So I simply err on the side of belief that says we BECOME our enemies when we employ such tactics in operations, be they covert or otherwise. And I KNOW that we are better than our enemies. Yes, big 'ole liberal, America-hating Mike Matthews says that WE ARE BETTER THAN OUR ENEMIES. But we cannot hold the moral high ground if we engage in their same torturous tactics.

All I've ever asked for, Hube, is accountability. Something the Bush administration shirked on multiple occasions. I'm hopeful that Obama's backpedaling this week on not investigating the torture claims will bring some resolution to this issue. I know you chided Obama for not following up on his campaign pledge to take torture seriously, using the "Change you can't believe in line" many times, but I think we may see some much-needed action in regards to this torture business.

Again, I can't say this enough. All I'm looking for here is accountability. The Bush administration was never held accountable. It's about time.

I'm tired of all the pundits who attack Obama one minute (Y'see, he's not really about change. He's following through with Bush policies!) and then attack him the next (Why is he being so divisive? Why is he going to investigate torture? Why is he aiding and abetting the enemy?) I'm thinking precisely of Bill O'Reilly, whose program I watched two nights this week and who was in absolute meltdown mode over the potential investigations of torture.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I think you covered this torture dilemma more skillfully and more comprehensively than any analysis I've seen, and with so few words. Great job!

For Hube's sake, I would add several observations. First, neither the military nor the FBI agreed with the concocted Bush Administration attempt to legally justify the "enhanced interrogation" torture methodologies, nor did they practice them. Only the CIA, contractors, and lower level army personnel practiced them. Secondly, there are numerous experts who have testified, including CIA experts, that torture is counterproductive, forcing the tortured to say anything. Thirdly, Cheney and others claim these enhanced procedures were effective, but we have not yet seen the proof of this assertion.

It is becoming apparent that BushCo were motivated to prove the al-Qaida - Saddam Hussein link during their build-up to attacking Iraq, since their WMD and mushroom cloud threats were questionable at best as justification for their planned preemptive strike. In other words, they were desperate, to the point of trying torture to make that link, which even that turned out to be unsuccessful.

Finally, I find it noteworthy that their torture policy began in the December 2002 timeframe, whereas it was not until the summer of 2003 that the memo of legal justification was issued. So during that time they were knowingly acting illegally.

We cannot tolerate this kind of behavior ever again, therefore we must have safeguards in place to prevent it.

Perry Hood

Hube said...

Frankly, relevant though they may be, I'm kind of tired of you pulling the Lincoln, FDR, Truman cards all the timeThat's quite a nice statement, Mike. As you concede, they happen to be quite relevant -- yet you're tired of them. Well, frankly, that's too freakin' bad. Guess what -- all those actions were done in "your name" too.

Did you somehow miss my 4:45? Or was that in the middle of your self-righteous last comment?

Anonymous said...

I like the way Arianna Huffington makes the moral point that Steve addressed so well:

"The way we respond to the revelations about the Bush administration's use of torture will define the kind of country we are. It is a test of our courage and our convictions. So far, the media are not getting high marks. They can't seem to shake their addiction to looking at every issue through the archaic prism of right vs. left. So we get Dan Balz saying that Obama's release of the torture memos "has stirred a major controversy on the right and left" and that those on the left "are demanding that [Obama] acknowledge their point of view." Since when is the need to adhere to the laws that govern us a left-wing "point of view"? Is Thou Shalt Not Kill a "point of view"? Isn't torture one of those things where there really is no legitimate other side?"Perry Hood

downwithabsolutes said...

Yes, those actions were done during a well-defined period of war. There is still much ambiguity re: the GWOT. The Bush administration wanted all the secrecy in the world to commit its acts and apparently you're willing to go along with the belief that they shouldn't be held accountable. Sorry, Hube, but this is simply where we have very basic, fundamental disagreements.

People are always bitching about a "lack of accountability" in the government. Then we try and get some investigation into this and people are screaming that this could compromise our national security. It's bull, Hube. We committed acts of TORTURE. I don't like the parsing of words that the Bush administration played on the country. All I'm asking for is ACCOUNTABILITY.

If we want to make torture a national policy, then let's put it to a vote in our Congress. Never mind that that would likely violate many of the international treaties, accords, and memberships we've got...but let's at least put it out there. Does the US want to become a nation that tortures alleged suspects? If the answer is yes, then this could be done. But my feeling is that people in this time really don't feel their country should be committing such acts in their name.

WWII is a different story, Hube. I would have dropped that damn bomb as well. The danger was CLEAR, PRESENT, and WELL-DEFINED. Our enemies today are not.

What I find most hilarious is that the military -- THE MILITARY -- came out against these tactics. So, I guess anyone who supports torture also HATES the military?!? (Note: That's an attempt at sarcasm much like the neo-cons and their admirers who said that lefties hated the military because they were against the war.)

Sorry you don't like my self-righteousness, Hube...but that's all you're getting before noon!! When the crust is fully peeled from my eyes, I may have more.

Hube said...

Hey Mike -- again -- did you MIS THIS:

Thus, if I were Rumsfeld, Cheney and even Bush, I'd be willing to go to Capitol Hill and make my case and be willing to accept the consequences.Nice reading, pal.

I dig your moral equivocation. Let's see -- OK to kill hundreds of thousands of CIVILIANS b/c the war is "well defined," yet not OK to rough up known terrorists to prevent further murders ... b/c, in your view, it's not "well defined."

SOME military people are against the tactics, Mike. Maybe even a majority. There was disagreement back in WW II, too. And they dropped all those firebombs and two a-bombs ... in our name.

Anonymous said...

Oh, the cartoon, Steve has it posted I just noticed. Sorry about that oversight!

Anonymous said...

PS: The oversight was on Mike's blog!

Anonymous said...

In addition to pragmatism, Hube's argument, there is both a legal and moral issue involved which Hube would just as soon we ignore, citing certain WWII actions as his justification.

This issue does boil down to accountability, as Mike says, which BushCo have also ignored by telling lies, like "We don't torture!" Why lie about it?

Moreover, they play on the meaning of the word "torture", trying to dismiss waterboarding as such, as Hube also refers to "roughing up" a few people in order to save lives.

Then we have the question of just how many lives were saved, if any. All we have to go on is Cheney, which is next to nothing, as he boldly attempts to salvage his legacy.

Finally, we have the bipartisan report of the Senate Armed Services Committee: "In my [Senator Carl Levin] judgment, the report represents a condemnation of both the Bush administration's interrogation policies and of senior administration officials who attempted to shift the blame for abuse - such as that seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan - to low ranking soldiers. Claims, such as that made by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that detainee abuses could be chalked up to the unauthorized acts of a "few bad apples," were simply false."This is very serious stuff!

Perry Hood