CommunityFDL Main Blog

Caveat Lector: In Quasi-Sorta-Defense of the Washington Post’s Torture Piece Actually, Just, No

One consequence of moving to a new apartment before your internet is installed: you miss big Washington Post pieces about torture that blow up your iPhone with holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-they-printed-this emails. So I’ve read it now and ask, as Martin Lawrence once used as a catchphrase: What the problem is?

I’m going to borrow a point from Glenn and flip it. As he notes, the thesis of the piece — torture worked, basically — is really undermined by its caveats. For instance, this is the most problematic paragraph, and it’s the lede:

The debate over the effectiveness of subjecting detainees to psychological and physical pressure is in some ways irresolvable, because it is impossible to know whether less coercive methods would have achieved the same result. But for defenders of waterboarding, the evidence is clear: Mohammed cooperated, and to an extraordinary extent, only when his spirit was broken in the month after his capture March 1, 2003, as the inspector general’s report and other documents released this week indicate.

I mean, the documents — well, you can read them yourself. As I started writing on Monday, they simply do not provide "clear" evidence that torture worked, except in the busy minds of its advocates. Even the torture advocates quoted in the piece can’t bring themselves to go that far. What turned Khalid Shaikh Mohammed into a motormouth? Why, "of course it began with" waterboarding, a former senior intelligence official tells the paper. Not even an unequivocal defense from this guy?

And then as I read further, I see that the hinge points of the story just kick the thesis out from under it. Grafs 9 and 10 quote KSM’s boast to the International Committee of the Red Cross that he just made stuff up to make the torment stop and to throw the CIA on wild goose chases. To take a digression, this is a point that I don’t feel either the piece or anyone who uses a term like "break" in interrogations has ever grappled with. Reading KSM’s ICRC statement, it’s fairly clear that he views the whole years-long interrogations process a stamina-filled contest of wills. To think in terms of "well, we took Technique X and that changed the whole game" puts the interrogators at a disadvantage as a result. It’s declaring victory on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln.

Anyway, then we come to the big in-his-own-words quote from John Helgerson, the ex-inspector general, and that’s where the caveating really goes nuts:

"Certain of the techniques seemed to have little effect, whereas waterboarding and sleep deprivation were the two most powerful techniques and elicited a lot of information," he said in an interview. "But we didn’t have the time or resources to do a careful, systematic analysis of the use of particular techniques with particular individuals and independently confirm the quality of the information that came out."

So: we don’t know — to be as neutral and true-to-the-report as I can — if the torture worked. We do know it reaped a quantity of information. We don’t know if it reaped quality information. This is a very weak thing to hang a defense of torture on. We’ve known it for years.

The rest of the piece is about the true-lies KSM gave to his interrogators for years afterwards, which can be analogized to a resistance technique. If that ever comes out in court — don’t hold your breath — that would be a great object for study. How did KSM calibrate his resistance to interrogation? Don’t tell the interrogators too much to jeopardize al-Qaeda, but tell them too much nonsense and it means you get jammed up again... I don’t know, I’m just speculating.

Anyway, I’ve tried to talk myself into viewing the piece as OK owing to all the caveats in it, but at a certain point when you’ve attracted all those caveats, you really owe it to your readers to revise your framework. I suppose the best that can be said for the piece is that if this is the best that torture proponents have, then that’s pretty great from the perspective of torture opponents. (I can’t criticize the reliance on anonymous sources, since I use them all the time.) And that’s how the media is going to play it, right? Marc?

The burden of argument rests on us — we need to persuade people that the act of torture in a democratic society is always wrong, that the ticking time bomb scenario is rarely — if ever — the situation interrogators face, and that even if torture works in a few cases, it is not worth the moral (and tangible) costs to our country. If there’s evidence that torture worked in certain cases — or if it wasn’t counter-productive — even if the evidence isn’t complete or is fragmentary, it’s not going to advance the anti-torture cause to ignore it.

Sigh. Here I thought the burden was on the ones who wanted to skirt the law and the traditional conceptions of civilized behavior, but what do I know. As for ignoring the evidence: it’s right in front of us! You don’t have to rely on anyone’s word for what the evidence is. Just read the reports and see the straightforward inability of the torture proponents to present even the case that torture worked. But if the burden of proof is on the opponents of torture — well, now you see how Cheney can outwit the media. Not all of us, though.

Previous post

In Quasi-Sorta-Defense of the Washington Post's Torture Piece Actually, Just: No.

Next post

Gay Marriage In Vermont And An Invitation To Brian Brown Of NOM

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman