Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: Blogging, Ethics, Government, History, Middle East, Politics, Torture — Rick Moran @ 10:51 am

There are few of us who haven’t made up their minds about whether torture is immoral, illegal, or both/neither. But wherever you come down on this issue, good arguments and thoughtful writing should never be ignored or dismissed out of hand simply because you disagree with it. In fact, I find that reading opposing viewpoints - when they are argued rationally and with a minimum of bombast - help clarify my own thinking and sometimes, even alter my position on an issue.

Not this time. But Commentary’s Peter Wehner has a great piece that tries to set some moral parameters for torture that are well argued and well written. Such clear thinking - even though I believe him wrong - should be commended given all the crap that has been sloughed off as “commentary” on both sides of this issue.

I can appreciate Wehner’s struggle to understand the moral universe he inhabits and seek exceptions and clarifications to the idea of using torture. The problem as I see it is he has adopted the “ticking bomb” scenario that has been thoroughly debunked by people much more knowledgeable than I about terrorism. And there is a troubling detachment on Peter’s part that disconnects what many of us consider the absolute moral wrong of torture as he seeks wiggle room in a kind of moral relativism that I don’t think he would ordinarily embrace.

Wehner’s attempts to “define down” what is torture and what isn’t misses the point that what was done was illegal. Can a moral good (or morally neutral) action be found in breaking the law? It can if, as Wehner attempts to do, you twist the ends/means argument into a pretzel. He also brings up the straw man argument about some of our military going through the SERE program (that I dealt with here) as well as the fact that others have endured it so, he reasons, it can’t be all that bad.

Finally, Wehner employs the argument that because torture “worked,” this should be taken into account when judging the morality of its use during the Bush administration.

To begin, allow me to quote extensively from a Daniel Larison post as he responds to a piece by Jim Manzi who asks, “[W]hy is the belief that the torture of captured combatants is wrong compatible with anything other than some form of pacifism? I mean this an actual question, not as a passive-aggressive assertion.”

Larison swallows hard and lets him have it:

One of the things that has kept me from saying much over the last week or so is my sheer amazement that there are people who seriously pose such questions and expect to be answered with something other than expressions of bafflement and moral horror. Something else that has kept me from writing much on this recently is the profoundly dispiriting realization (really, it is just a reminder) that it is torture and aggressive war that today’s mainstream right will go to the wall to defend, while any and every other view can be negotiated, debated, compromised or abandoned. I have started doubting whether people who are openly pro-torture or engaged in the sophistry of Manzi’s post are part of the same moral universe as I am, and I have wondered whether there is even a point in contesting such torture apologia as if they were reasonable arguments deserving of real consideration. Such fundamental assumptions at the core of our civilization should not have to be re-stated or justified anew, and the fact that they have to be is evidence of how deeply corrupted our political life has become, but if such basic norms are not reinforced it seems clear that they will be leeched away over time.


mplicit in Manzi’s entire post is the rejection of any distinction between combatant and non-combatant, which tells me that he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t accept the concept of limited war. For him, unless one is a pacifist, one must endorse total war. In such a view, there would be nothing immoral about the summary execution or cruel and inhumane treatment of POWs, since the latter would have been targeted for death while they were still combatants. After all, if torturing such prisoners is not immoral, as Manzi seems to say it is not, what could possibly be wrong with killing them? That is where one must ultimately end up once the distinctions between combatant and non-combatant are erased or blurred, and it is the barbaric conclusion one will eventually reach if one does not start from the assumption that war itself is a sometimes-necessary evil and that it is morally justifiable only under specific circumstances and within certain limits. One of those limits is that captured combatants are to be treated humanely, and when we go down the road towards easing those restrictions we taint not only the institutions responsible for national security with crimes but we also abandon any real claim to moral integrity.

Larison’s argument might be viewed as the absolutist view of torture. I might disagree with the extent he worries about the corrupting nature of torture but there is no dismissing the line in the sand he has drawn - a line I accept for practical, rational, and moral reasons as well.

Wehner? Not so much:

Critics of enhanced interrogation techniques have taken to saying that Americans don’t torture, period – meaning in this instance that we do not engage in coercive interrogation techniques ranging from sleep deprivation to prolonged loud noise and/or bright lights to waterboarding. Anyone who holds the opposite view is a moral cretin and guilty of “arrant inhumanity.” Or so the argument goes.

Methinks Peter listens too much to liberal bomb throwers and besides, this is a gross oversimplification and something of a straw man. But to continue:

But this posture begins to come apart under examination. For one thing, the issue of “torture” itself needs to be put in a moral context and on a moral continuum. Waterboarding is a very nasty technique for sure – but it is considerably different (particularly in the manner administered by the CIA) than, say, mutilation with electric drills, rape, splitting knees, or forcing a terrorist to watch his children suffer and die in order to try to elicit information from him.

The question Peter leaves unanswered is whether it is legal or illegal? How can you make a moral judgment about torture — and defining down what is torture is irrelevant to whether it meets the definition under the law — without taking into consideration the moral imperative to obey the law? Wehner is pouring quicksand and doesn’t realize the ground is shifting beneath his feet.

I certainly wouldn’t want to undergo waterboarding – but while a very harsh technique, it is one that was applied in part because it would do far less damage to a person than other techniques. It is also surely relevant that waterboarding was not used randomly and promiscuously, but rather on three known terrorists. And of the thousands of unlawful combatants captured by the U.S., fewer than 100 were detained and questioned in the CIA program, according to Michael Hayden, President Bush’s last CIA director, and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey – and of those, fewer than one-third were subjected to any of the techniques discussed in the memos on enhanced interrogation.

“Far less damage” as opposed to electrodes and thumbscrews but again, it avoids what Wehner apparently doesn’t want to face; the fact that the civilized world has proscribed the practice in words of unmistakable clarity — unless you are seeking a moral “out” and wish to begin to parse pain and suffering.

US law, the Geneva Accords, and the UN Convention Against Torture all use language that clearly makes the physical and psychological pain of waterboarding a form of torture. The fact that our servicemen are not being held as prisoners and therefore not subject to the law’s protections as well as being volunteers who fully realize the nature of the exercise makes Wehner’s use of the SERE argument nothing more than a strawman set up to excuse torture.

Wehner’s thesis really goes off the rails when he tries to imply that moral relativeness, when evaluating torture, should be employed to blur the ends/means distinction. He dubiously invokes Senator Charles Schumer’s thoughts during a Congressional hearing on torture back in 2004 where the New York lawmaker invokes the “ticking bomb” scenario as one exception to torture. Here’s Schumer:

Take the hypothetical: if we knew that there was a nuclear bomb hidden in an American city and we believe that some kind of torture, fairly severe maybe, would give us a chance of finding that bomb before it went off, my guess is most Americans and most Senators, maybe all, would do what you have to do. So it’s easy to sit back in the armchair and say that torture can never be used. But when you’re in the fox hole, it’s a very different deal.

Wehner eagerly embraces the hypothetical and runs with it:

Apropos of Schumer’s comments, critics of enhanced interrogation techniques need to wrestle with a set of questions they like to avoid: if you knew using waterboarding against a known terrorist may well elicit information that would stop a massive attack on an American city, would you still insist it never be used? Do you oppose the use of waterboarding if it would save a thousand innocent lives? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? What exactly is the point, if any, at which you believe waterboarding might be justified? I simply don’t accept that those who answer “never” are taking a morally superior stand to those who answer “sometimes, in extremely rare circumstances and in very limited cases.”

First, it is an absolute impossibility to know that “using waterboarding against a known terrorist may well elicit information” that could prevent an attack. That is sophistry on a stick. We might also “know” that pulling his fingernails out might get him to talk if waterboarding doesn’t work. And we wouldn’t know, for instance, whether this particular terrorist had been specifically trained to resist waterboarding or other forms of torture - at least long enough to fail in our efforts to stop a “ticking bomb” attack.

The whole ticking bomb scenario needs to be dumped by torture defenders. It does their argument no good to posit a hypothetical that is more the product of fantasy than possibility.

A good debunking of the ticking bomb myth can be found in an article published in Public Affairs Quarterly last year by Jamie Mayerfield, associate professor of political science at the University of Washington:

Among the many unrealistic elements of the ticking bomb hypothetical, I give
particular attention to the exaggerated degree of certainty attributed to our belief in the prisoner’s guilt. In the scenario we are fully certain that the individual in our custody has launched an attack on civilians and is now withholding the information needed to save the civilians’ lives. Such certainty is unrealistic. Any realistic approximation of the ticking bomb scenario creates too high a risk that an innocent person will be tortured.

The made-to-order features of the ticking bomb scenario blind us to torture’s
reality. In the real world, torture “yields poor information, sweeps up many innocents, degrades organizational capabilities, and destroys interrogators.”7 Consider the problem of false information, which not only causes delays, swallows man hours, and leads down blind alleys, but can also encourage disastrous choices.

Below I discuss how the Bush administration used false information extracted
under torture to help justify the Iraq war. In this case, torture did not save lives, but helped bring about a great many deaths. Torture also inflames enemies, alienates friends, and scares away informants. And it spreads.

These dangers, purged from the ticking bomb hypothetical, are inseparable from actual torture. Yet public attention is consumed by the hypothetical. Obsession with the better-than-best case scenario warps our thinking about torture. We overlook torture’s dangers and exaggerate its effectiveness. By now, the ticking bomb narrative has acquired its own momentum, but fear and anger do much to keep it aloft.

Mayerfield’s point is well taken; because the ticking bomb scenario has not only permeated our culture through fictional variations found in TV, novels, and films, but also because it has been eagerly embraced by many torture apologists, it has become a rote defense even though there has never in history been a situation that remotely resembles it. Mayerfield, like Larison above, may exaggerate the dangers of torture to America’s soul but that doesn’t obviate his point that justifying torture in one, limited case can open the door to its use in other scenarios as well.

So the answer to Peter’s question regarding whether torture condemners would use waterboarding if it could save “a thousand innocent lives? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand?” is irrelevant because its impossible to answer a hypothetical that doesn’t exist except on TV and in film.

And Mayerfield’s point about torture being hugely unreliable is spot on as well. I don’t buy the flat statement that torture doesn’t work, or never works. It wouldn’t have been in use for thousands of years unless it did. The problem with it is its unreliability as a means to accurate information. Those thousands of lives Peter wishes to save by waterboarding a terrorist wouldn’t be worth spit if the bomber lied under torture about everything.

The fact that we simply couldn’t be sure means but would have to act as if the terrorist was telling the truth. Suppose while the authorities were off on a wild goose chase the bomb went off and killed those thousands of innocents? That nice moral house of cards torture defenders have built up would collapse in a heap. Is bad information better than no information at all — or good information that might have been extracted using interrogation techniques other than torture?

Wehner answers this argument by trying to make the case that the good information we extracted via torture saved lives and therefore, the ends justifies the means because saving so many innocents is an absolute moral good in and of itself. It is a strange argument considering Peter’s moral waffling earlier in his piece.

On the substantive level, there is the question of the efficacy of enhanced interrogation techniques. There is an intense debate surrounding this matter, but we can certainly say that respected members of the intelligence world insist that innocent Americans are today alive because we employed a set of coercive interrogation techniques. According to Hayden and Mukasey, “As late as 2006, fully half of the government’s knowledge about the structure and activities of Al Qaeda came from those interrogations.” Former CIA Director George Tenet said, “I know that this program has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots. I know this program alone is worth more than [what] the FBI, the [CIA], and the National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us.” And former National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell has said, “We have people walking around in this country that are alive today because this process happened.”

I will ignore the dubious employment of authority by Peter of people who may go on trial for crimes related to what they are defending and only point out what Peter himself admits later:

It seems unlikely that asking a jihadist his surname, first name and rank, date of birth, army, regimental, personal or serial number, or failing this, equivalent information – which is what the Geneva Conventions say ought to apply to prisoners of war but not, historically, to unlawful enemy combatants – would elicit as much information as coercive interrogation techniques. Dennis Blair, Obama’s national intelligence director, admitted to his staff that “high value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding” of al Qaeda. (Once Blair’s memo was revealed, he added this caveat: “There is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means.”

Why does Wehner concoct this strawman of “name, rank, and serial number?” Professional interrogators are masters of putting psychological pressure on a subject without coercive or “enhanced” interrogation techniques. It is a gross simplification to make it appear that the “either/or” options open to an interrogator would be polite banter about al-Qaeda or waterboarding.

But the key here is Blair’s statement that there was “no way of knowing” whether the exact same information could have been obtained through legal interrogation methods. The reason is because they weren’t tried or, more likely, the interrogation regime that involves non-torture wasn’t given much of a chance to work. (See this Heather McDonald piece in City Journal from 2004 where she details the initial, successful efforts of army interrogators who used psychological pressures on prisoners, walking up to the line but never crossing it.)

Thus, the interrogators who used torture became victims of their own success, leaping for the opportunity to employ torture as a short cut when such methods were unnecessary or, at the very least, non-coercive interrogations were given short shrift.

Finally, Wehner tries to excuse and justify torture because we’re at war and moral choices are hard:

There are of course serious-minded critics of enhanced interrogation techniques. But to pretend, as some critics do, that the morality of this issue is self-evident and that waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques are obviously unacceptable and something for which our nation should be ashamed is, in my judgment, not only wrong but irresponsible. When a nation is engaged in war, you hope to find in government sober people who are able to weigh competing moral goods and who take seriously their obligation to protect our nation. They may not get everything right at the time – hardly anyone does in the heat of the moment – but they should not have to face a lynch mob years after the fact (especially those in the lynch mob who blessed the activities at the time they were being used). The American public, one hopes, can see through all this. And as Nancy Pelosi might well discover, playing a role in inciting a mob can come at a cost.

“Competing moral goods?” That’s a new one when discussing torture. But here is where Peter and I agree - at least I am moving toward his position that the law is not a concrete edifice with only form and substance. What of justice? What of mitigating circumstances? Unlike the revenge seekers and out and out Bush haters, I grant the administration the benefit of their good intentions in a very difficult and morally ambiguous universe. I think they made the wrong choices - horribly wrong - but recognize that some allowance must be made when the awesome responsibilities under which those men and women were working is thrown into the mix.

It doesn’t excuse their actions. It won’t “lessen their time in purgatory” as we used to half-jokingly use as a catch-all for arguments about ethics and morals with our Viatorian teachers back in the day.

But perhaps, it should keep them out of the dock. And out of jail.


  1. Excellent piece, Rick.

    Comment by Chuck Tucson — 4/28/2009 @ 11:15 am

  2. One would have to decide first of all if, in fact, waterboarding or sleep deprivation or making someone uncomfortable can really be classified as torture. I have no doubt that a hangnail would be considered by some liberals - as a violent affront to their persons. But I come from sterner stuff and would consider that hangnail to just be the cost of my relentless pursuit of chewing my cuticles off my fingers!

    I wish that the liberals who are making such a big freaking deal about so-called torture, and I don’t agree that waterboarding can rightly be considered as such, are also completely cool with the idea of murdering an infant in its mother’s womb because she finds her pregnancy inconvenient! Granted that’s moral relativism but it’s used endlessly by the Left so I’m taking my shot!

    Comment by Gayle Miller — 4/28/2009 @ 1:26 pm

  3. The intellectually honest issue is as follows: even if torture “works,” and from what has been leaked it apparently may have, is it justified? My gut and heart say “no,” but I’m not responsible for millions of lives. So I don’t have to listen to my head as much.

    I know one thing for certain. If the question is posed this starkly, there will never be a straightforward show trial in Congress. There probably couldn’t have been given the opposition had access to the same information as the proponents, but to look into the camera and honestly tell the American people that principle has to win out over lives is absolute political suicide.

    This was a can of worms the Obama Administration wisely (at least initially) tried not to open.

    Comment by jackson1234 — 4/28/2009 @ 1:52 pm

  4. Here’s a question; would force feeding pork (organic and bite-sized of course)to a devout Islamic battlefield combatant or known master mind of a “man made catastrophe” be considering torture?

    Comment by Brad — 4/28/2009 @ 1:58 pm

  5. Hey Gayle: It’s an embryo and then a fetus inside the mother’s womb. It’s an infant when it’s born, which kind of means it’s outside the mother’s womb. Words do have meanings.

    Comment by Richard Bruce Cheney — 4/28/2009 @ 2:13 pm

  6. Brad,
    Does the pork come with hoisin sauce?

    Comment by bsjones — 4/28/2009 @ 2:28 pm

  7. Rick,

    A very good article. You make us think and consider our point of view and where exactly we stand on the subject.

    Professional interrogators are masters of putting psychological pressure on a subject without coercive or “enhanced” interrogation techniques.

    If things continue in the same vein I would not be too surprised if psychological pressure is considered “torture” as well. Some pressure must be applied to the prisoner to acquire the information and it is likely considered by some to be torture. The simple act of confinement is intolerable to some and therefore they would consider it torture.

    This is a gray area with no clear definitions of torture/not torture. I truly do not know what the answer is for our country. I know what I would do if my family or I were in jeopardy and I would accept the consequences for those choices.

    I really have enjoyed your articles on this issue. Thanks again Rick.

    Comment by Anonymous — 4/28/2009 @ 2:39 pm

  8. Gayle,

    a conservative tries waterboarding and tells his thoughts:

    So, is it torture? I’ll put it this way. If I had the choice of being waterboarded by a third party or having my fingers smashed one at a time by a sledgehammer, I’d take the fingers, no question. It’s horrible, terrible, inhuman torture. I can hardly imagine worse. I’d prefer permanent damage and disability to experiencing it again. I’d give up anything, say anything, do anything.The Spanish Inquisition knew this. It was one of their favorite methods. It’s torture. No question. Terrible terrible torture. To experience it and understand it and then do it to another human being is to leave the realm of sanity and humanity forever. No question in my mind.


    Comment by Chuck Tucson — 4/28/2009 @ 2:40 pm

  9. Gayle Miller,
    It sounds like you believe that torture is real, immoral, and illegal, but that the “techniques” that we hear about in the MSM are something else much less troublesome than torture.

    My concern over this argument is that governments lie, omit, and misdirect routinely as a matter of policy, especially when illegal conduct is involved. If these “techniques” are the ones being admitted to and acknowledged publicly, the possibility exists that other things were done that are still being concealed. Maybe I am cynical, but in my mind this possibility seems likely.

    I support an independent investigation for this reason. As I have commented elsewhere, it is likely that criminals on both sides of the isle would be caught up in an investigation’s net. As far as I am concerned this is all to the good.

    Comment by bsjones — 4/28/2009 @ 2:41 pm

  10. Seven points:

    1) Torture does work, and it works very well;
    2) Torture works faster than standard interrogation methods;
    3) Moral and legal strictures against torture are absolutely necessary for our society, which is well pointed out in the post;
    4) These strictures do not, and can not, eliminate acts of torture in our society completely, because there are amoral and immoral men here, even if only temporally blinded from the strictures, and they know that torture works.
    5) Obviously, when these amoral/immoral men are caught after committing torture they should face justice.
    6) Government and military men giving orders or acting under orders to commit torture are guilty of violating the law. But, so long as the rules and definitions of torture have been till now somewhat vague and highly debatable, it is not appropriate to convict these men of the specific act of waterboarding or enhanced methods in the past.

    7) Let us hope that no TTB situation ever does arrive to plague those in charge with a moral dilemma. But, if one does arrive, I hope someone has the guts to do what is necessary.

    Comment by mannning — 4/28/2009 @ 3:46 pm

  11. @Gayle:

    “the idea of murdering an infant in its mother’s womb because she finds her pregnancy inconvenient”

    That’s not moral relativism — that’s definitional relativism.

    Is a pregnancy an innocent babe or a cellular growth? No doubt at 9 months you’ve got a human being, but at .00001 seconds before conception you have nothing. Somewhere between the two points “human” happens, and while everybody has an opinion and a faith as to when that moment is, beyond faith and opinion there’s no answer.

    “It perhaps is not generally appreciated that the restrictive criminal abortion laws in effect in a majority of States today are of relatively recent vintage. Those laws, generally proscribing abortion or its attempt at any time during pregnancy except when necessary to preserve the pregnant woman’s life, are not of ancient or even of common-law origin. Instead, they derive from statutory changes effected, for the most part, in the latter half of the 19th century. . . .
    It is thus apparent that at common law, at the time of the adoption of our Constitution, and throughout the major portion of the 19th century, abortion was viewed with less disfavor than under most American statutes currently in effect. Phrasing it another way, a woman enjoyed a substantially broader right to terminate a pregnancy than she does in most States today. At least with respect to the early stage of pregnancy, and very possibly without such a limitation, the opportunity to make this choice was present in this country well into the 19th century. Even later, the law continued for some time to treat less punitively an abortion procured in early pregnancy.. . .
    The Constitution does not define “person” in so many words. . . . (examples of “person” used in the Constitution) . . . But in nearly all these instances, the use of the word is such that it has application only postnatally. None indicates, with any assurance, that it has any possible pre-natal application. . .
    It should be sufficient to note briefly the wide divergence of thinking on this most sensitive and difficult question. There has always been strong support for the view that life does not begin until live birth. . .
    Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”
    Blackmun, J., Roe v. Wade

    “Even today, when society’s views on abortion are changing, the very existence of the debate is evidence that the “right” to an abortion is not so universally accepted as the appellant would have us believe.”
    Rehnquist, J., dissenting

    If you frame the question the way you did, then of course everbody will answer “murdering innocent babies is bad”. There are many commenters in these torture discussion threads that enthuiastically support waterboarding prisoners, but I bet if I asked them “do you support sadistically torturing innocents?” they would answer “no” (God, I hope they would answer “no). Does that mean they’re opposed to the “enhanced interrogations”? Not necessarily — they may disagree that its sadistic, that its torture, that the victims are innocents, or any combination of the three.

    There are 3 essential aspects to faith and belief in regards to debate. They can’t be proven, they can’t be disproven, and they can’t be used to “prove” anything. If I think animals have a soul (I don’t), then killing animals to eat is a sin. Am I wrong? Until that Soul-Detector 3000 comes in the mail, not so that anyone can prove. Am I right? Same problem. Can I “prove” McDonalds is a sin factory? Not unless you accept without proof the underlying belief . . . at which point the question becomes moot.

    p.s.: I don’t disagree with your position and beliefs — this issue is the most philosophically challenging one for me. Personally, I don’t think a zygote is a person. If it was, does that make a woman who has sex and then doesn’t take steps to insure the egg attaches to the uterine wall guilty of negligent homicide? But by not drawing a bright line at conception, I’m stuck with “rolling the dice” on the issue. If an abortion happens before the magic moment . . . nothing. If an abortion happens after the magic moment . . . 1st degree murder.
    Personally, I’m opposed to abortion for the same reason I’m opposed to the death penalty — if the fundamental underlying “guesses” turn out to be wrong (the prisoner is innocent and the fetus is a human), you’ve committed the ultimate crime. I like to play poker, but the first and most valuble lesson I learned gambling from a very wise man was “never gamble with something you’re not willing to lose”. The “life begins at conception” position is the safest, and if the gamble is murder I can absolutely respect erring on the side of caution — its the smart play.

    Comment by busboy33 — 4/28/2009 @ 4:04 pm

  12. @manning:

    in regards to points 1 and 2 — is that based on any source?

    Comment by busboy33 — 4/28/2009 @ 4:07 pm

  13. Yes, busboy, but you won’t find it in any field manual or operations manual of the government for obvious reasons.
    No Western government would document such statements.

    So you can take it as hearsay if you like, but all I will say is that I fully believe them to be true.

    Comment by mannning — 4/28/2009 @ 4:16 pm

  14. It all comes down to who feels the pain.

    How many Americans have to die to satisfy your delicate sensibilities?

    Comment by Locomotive Breath — 4/28/2009 @ 4:38 pm

  15. I usually don’t tell war stories, but here is one for you to consider when you talk about torture and what is torture.

    Back in the day, I had the oppertunity to observe torture first hand. A VC had been captured and was being asked questions by an officer in the South Vietnamese Army. Questions and cigarettes and water and food were given, more questions, more non-answers, finally a stick (big stick) was applied, then electricity to places unmentionable, then amputations were begun, and as expected…finally the man talked. The information was taken, given to us and other Viets and we proceeded to transport to a small hillside about 10,000 meters away and found what we were looking for.

    Which you don’t need to know.

    Now I had real problems watching all of this, or actually being there at all, but the stakes were high enough that we didn’t interfere.

    Now, I have no trouble identifying all of that as torture. I do have problems with identifying some of the more current methods our CIA allegedly has used as torture. They seem more to me as being inconveniences and scare tactics. But that is just me I guess.

    But don’t forget I do have a frame of reference to judge by, whereas 99.9 percent of the people alive today in the U.S. have none.

    Papa Ray
    West Texas

    Comment by Papa Ray — 4/28/2009 @ 5:27 pm

  16. And when it was all done, you marched down Pennsylvania Ave. in a victory parade. Found what you were looking for, right Papa Ray?

    Comment by Richard Bruce Cheney — 4/28/2009 @ 7:59 pm

  17. The whole ticking bomb scenario needs to be dumped by torture defenders. It does their argument no good to posit a hypothetical that is more the product of fantasy than possibility.

    Rick, I wish you would address some of the facts that we already know - for e.g. Al Zubadayah did not disclose the actual location of KSM until they water boarded him - there are times when this method can get information - admittedly not always, and most definitely not with some one who is innocent and does not know the information.

    Similarly the plans made to attack L.A. in 2001 were stopped - this is not exactly a “TTB” scenario - there were plans that were made to attack L.A. and these were pre-empted by the CIA who took the gloves off.



    So, let’s review here- this is not a scenario where there was something about to go off in an hour or a couple of hours - with the clock ticking.

    Instead, this was a scenario in which there were people in place who were ready to carry out attacks later on - the second wave as someone coined it.

    It is very easy to sit on the moral high horse here - the tremendous pressure under which these guys were operating to prevent further attacks post 9/11 is almost an afterthought.

    If Barack Obama would come out and say that future terror suspects or terrorists would be treated with GEneva Convention protections NO MATTER WHAT, it would be good. At the very least, the US would have made a decision. Reasonable people can agree or disagree. But all this moral preening is just mere show if it is not accompanied by an absolute ban on torture policy.

    Some thing tells me that people in this country would not back that absolute standard. After watching the way people were frightened by the White House photo -op fiasco, I just cannot imagine how.

    Comment by Nagarajan Sivakumar — 4/28/2009 @ 9:12 pm

  18. Full disclosure - I used to be one of those who was deeply troubled by the way the Bush Govt handled the issue of interrogating suspects.

    I think we can all agree that the Bush Admn DID abuse this technique and use it more often than what we would like. This does lead us to a slippery slope, where we could very easily use these techniques as the very first option instead of using them as the last resort.

    With all that being said, we still dont have an effective framework, legal or military to deal with these thorny issues.

    I think the military and intel agencies performed well post 9/11 did take a lot of risks and do the dirty job to keep the country safe.

    Oh btw, is rendition also completely banned now ?

    Comment by Nagarajan Sivakumar — 4/28/2009 @ 9:18 pm

  19. I wonder how liberals who are aghast at the prospects of a murderous terrorist scumwad being waterboarded have no such scruples about setting aside living, breathing suvivors of late term abortions to die alone without any assistance whatsover. Our dear President voted for that and has expressed being fine with the results. Of course you liberals also feel great compassion for the likes of an convicted heinous murderers such as Mumia. I guess you are of the same unquestionable moral certitude as Dukakis was with the possibility of his own wife being raped and going like on the assailant. Yes, let’s empty the prisons since we know they are racist and society forces people to commit crimes and Guantanamo only breeds more terrorists. The US is pure evil and all those nations we’ve helped over the years are far superior in their laws and reforming of criminals.

    Yes, talk “torture” while intelligence about future terrorist attacks dries up because 9/11 was a one off thing and blown all out of proportion by the evil VWRC. Waterboarding bad, but god forbid people can watch video of Americans leaping to their deaths on 9/11. Liberals sicken me.

    Comment by aoibhneas — 4/28/2009 @ 9:32 pm

  20. Watervoarding is VERY uncomfortabel and has a certain influence over the waterboardee. The difference between this and most forms of torture is that it is not invasive, nor does it maim, nor disfigure, nor kill.

    John McCain is a prime example of how inhumane torture methods permanently affect the physiology. Waterboarding is very humane compared to almost any other method.

    To save thousands, or perhaps millions of American lives, it is fully justifiable.

    Comment by Jack P — 4/28/2009 @ 11:41 pm

  21. @Jack:

    “Waterboarding is very humane compared to almost any other method.”

    I’ll concede that to be true. How does it change the nature of the situation?
    Let me ask it this way: Lets assume I do something horrible to two people. The first I feed feet first into a woodchipper slowly up to the mid-thigh. I’m going to assume its a pretty painful experience, and after (assuming I magically keep him from bleeding out) he’s got no legs. The second person I chop off their pinkies. Still pretty painful (again, an assumption), and they’re down two digits.
    Personally, I think the first guy got it worse. I would expect that the woodchipper hurt more, and losing two legs seems more crippling than losing two pinkies. Is chopping pinkies “better” than the woodchipper? I suppose so.
    But does that make it acceptable?

    “To save thousands, or perhaps millions of American lives, it is fully justifiable.”

    I agree. So does the law. If circumstances require it, sometimes evil has to be done to avoid an even greater evil.
    But what if it doesn’t save lives? Would you think it is still acceptable then?
    I’m not being flippant (or at least I’m not trying to be flippant) — to me, its the central issue in the issue.
    If it turns out after all the information comes out that we didn’t end any plots, didn’t difuse any bombs, didn’t get any essential benefit from waterboarding, would you support it then?

    Comment by busboy33 — 4/29/2009 @ 12:55 am

  22. [...] Submitted By: The Glittering Eye - Right Wing Nut House - The Moral Parameters of Torture [...]

    Pingback by Watcher of Weasels » Tortured meanings — 4/29/2009 @ 3:39 am

  23. Three Al Qaeda operatives were waterboarded in 2003 and intelligence gathered that likely stopped repeat 9/11 attacks which would have killed thousands. We dropped two nuclear bombs on defenseless Japanese civilians in August 1945 to avoid invading Japan and causing millions of Japanese and American military deaths. Some have said we should have used alternative means to end WWII. As the son of a Naval officer who would have participated in the invasion, I say, poppycock.

    Comment by Dan Smith — 4/29/2009 @ 11:47 am

  24. @Dan Smith:

    “. . . and intelligence gathered that likely stopped repeat 9/11 attacks which would have killed thousands.”

    Really? I’d feel alot better about torture if I knew it saved lives. Can I ask where you get your information?

    Comment by busboy33 — 4/29/2009 @ 12:02 pm

  25. Rick,

    I am glad that I was not one of the OLC attorneys tasked with justifying enhanced interrogation techniques. I believe that you are correct in your assertion that under US law, the Geneva Convention, etc., that waterboarding would be considered to be torture. But, by the same token, releasing the OLC briefs on the matter, and threatening prosecution of those responsible for those briefs, is childishly irresponsible in a number of ways. First, by telling the world what lengths we will no longer go to in our interrogations, future enemy combatants will have a much easier time preparing for said interrogations. Secondly, the release of these memos, in my opinion, will have a chilling effect on government attorneys in their preparation of legal opinions. How can any government attorney be comfortable in the knowledge that an opinion that he or she is asked for may be used aainst him or her by a future administration with an ax to grind?

    Finally, and this is somewhat off-topic, but how many of you found it immensely satisfying to watch Jack Bauer dress down Jaenene Garafolo’s character for her liberal whining over the use of the CTU servers? Kiefer Sutherland lived the dream for many of us.

    Comment by tccesq — 4/29/2009 @ 12:57 pm

  26. Let’s see now, shredding some anonymous talibani (or whoever happens to be in vicinity) in a sovereign nation (Pakistan) with a drone-firedHellfire missle from operated from a computer console halfway around the world is hunky-dory, but pouring water on their head isn’t.

    Comment by Spaceman — 4/29/2009 @ 7:04 pm

  27. Time to waterboard!
    By Steve Breen
    April 29, 2009

    “As far as I’m concerned there were 2,974 really good “reasons” on 9/11…

    “I was ‘tortured’ by the U.S. military…”


    Comment by Don C. — 4/30/2009 @ 4:39 am

  28. @Nagarajan Sivakumar #17:

    From the L.A. Times article you cited:

    “Exhibit A in the case for torture: Defenders of the practice say the waterboarding of Al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced information that allowed the U.S government to thwart a planned attack on Los Angeles in 2002.”

    This would be a great argument for the use of torture (even setting aside that the FBI called the plot “laughable” [L.A. Times September 8, 2005]). It does have a small problem, though — KSM was captured in March 2003. Even assuming torture is effective and justifiable, it can’t (as far as I know) help with traveling back thru time, although I do admit that if it can actually be used for time travel we should do it for that reason alone.

    The two links don’t have any hard witnesses, just lots of “trust me”s. Even the Bybee Memo just says that the CIA told him it was great information . . . and the few facts that it claims that can be independently verified (like the Liberty Tower plot) have failed to stand up to scrutiny.

    Whereas the people that have spoken out directly on the topic have (as far as I know) universally denied how effective torture was:
    “It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.
    We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.”

    IF torture did disrupt a legit plot, then fine. I’ve said before . . . I can’t wait to see what Cheney is trying to declassify. I honestly hope it does provide some justification. Self defense is an absolutely acceptable rationale.


    Until I see something tangible, all I’ve seen are “most likely”, “I heard”, “probably”, and so forth. All of the commenters above know that torture “most likely” was worth it. I don’t question their beliefs or their morality, but believing something doesn’t make it so.
    I know Dick Cheney assures me that he’s got solid proof . . . but last I heard, he also had solid proof Saddam and Al-Q were working together, so maybe “solid proof” means something different to me than it does to him.
    The Administration assured me that the Miami 7 were a deadly sleeper cell . . . until the facts came out and they turned out to be just a bunch of goofballs. They told me Padilla was going to blow up an apartment building with a gas leak. Then it was a dirty bomb. Then it was just going thru terrorist training camps:
    “[Judge] Cooke sentenced Padilla to less than the minimum usually according in such cases ‘because she was never fully convinced that the government had a strong case that directly linked Padilla to terror conspiracy as opposed to mere terror training,’ CBS News legal chief analyst Andrew Cohen says.”
    I know the CIA claims (indirectly) that they got essential, unique actionable intelligence that saved lives and stopped attacks over 5 years ago . . . but they won’t say what it was (because maybe the terrorists haven’t notices that their operatives have all disappeared years ago?), then they fed the videotapes into a shredder (remember the tapes? We ain’t got no stinkin’ tapes! Well, there might possibly be one. Two tops. Let me check and get back with y’all on that. Oh, looks like there were 93 tapes. Who knew? Oh, and we destroyed them all, that inarguable proof of how justified we were. Oops. Now you’ll just have to take our word. What’s that? You want us to give our word? Uhhh . . . no comment. But this friend of a friend of an acquaintence will tell you it’s totally true. We’re the CIA — would we lie to you?).

    I’ve got witnesses saying torture, in these cases, got us nothing — no thousands of lives saved. I’ve got alleged “proof” of terrorist plots thwarted that consistently don’t pan out. I’ve got inaccurate claims again, and again, and again. As a citizen, what am I supposed to think?

    “It is very easy to sit on the moral high horse here - the tremendous pressure under which these guys were operating to prevent further attacks post 9/11 is almost an afterthought.”
    No question. I’ll never forget 9-11. But being afraid of another attack (I don’t say that to demean their honor — everybody was panicked) is not the same thing as “most likely saved thousands of lives”.

    “I think we can all agree that the Bush Admn DID abuse this technique and use it more often than what we would like. This does lead us to a slippery slope, where we could very easily use these techniques as the very first option instead of using them as the last resort.” (comment #18)
    The law and society recognize this, as this issue is thousands of years old. How do you keep a people from sliding down that slippery slope? Accountability. If it needs to be done, then justify it. If you don’t, then abuse is almost a given.
    I have (in another life) represented many people charged with committing a crime in self defense (Southwestern Ohioans in my town loved to get drunk and fight). Some were truly justified, and some were just trying to avoid responsibility for doing something wrong. The ones that were in the right had no problem saying “this is what I did, and this is why I did it.” The ones I really had to earn my pay for, consistently, did the same three things. They always avoided admitting they ever did what they were charged with, they would denigrate the “victim” to imply that they totally deserved it, and they would offer multiple reasons why what the were charged with (and supposedly didn’t do) COULD have been justified in certain circumstances . . . without ever trying to establish that those circumstances actually applied.
    This is a slippery slope — one of the most dangerous. And it looks like we’re already halfway down it. If there is a justifiable excuse, it needs to come out.

    Comment by busboy33 — 4/30/2009 @ 8:08 am

  29. busboy raises a good point. If torture does not yield good information, then what is the point of it?

    1. This boils dowm to how one selects the prisoner to be subjected to hard interrogation. It is obvious that few line soldiers possess much in the way of actionable intelligence. So, the first objective is to establish the stature of the prisoner in the ranks of the enemy.

    2. For the current brand of terrorists, this is not an easy task, since they wear no uniforms, have no insignia, and their buddies will usually not give their leaders away. It thus takes time to ferret out who the bossman is from a group of captives. It may be necessary to use some limited hard methods simply to get to the bossman.

    3. Once the bossman in identified, there is still the problem that even he may have very limited knowledge of the grander scheme of terrorist operations. What this leads to is a very careful development of the command structure of the terrorists over time and through many interrogations, and identification of those who must possess significant intelligence. In this, the low level bossman may be able to help a bit.

    4. Slowly and painfully the command structure is defined, with or without hard interrogations, and the main leaders are targeted for capture.

    5. It is when a “superboss” is captured that interrogations become prolonged and serious, since the probability of finding actionable intelligence is highest with such a person. Here is where hard interrogation methods may well be employed more fully.

    6. Since much of the important information such a major leader possesses is extremely time sensitive, it is necessary to find out all he knows about imminant operations quickly, before the enemy reacts to his capture and changes things to minimize the impact on their operations.

    7. The interrogations may succeed or fail to produce good intelligence, for quite a large variety of reasons. When they succeed, it can be spectacular; when they fail, it can be one of the most frustrating situations imaginable for all concerned. This is true regardless of the methods used.

    8. The one thing that seems to be true is that the interrogators will find out over a long period of time most of the life history of the captive, where he has been during his lifetime, what he has been trained to do, and the names of just about everyone he knows. Whether any of this information leads to real actionable intelligence is problematical. Some bits of information may turn out to be useful when correlated with other sources.

    9. The answer, then, is: despite high expectations, especially of saving lives, and despite a careful identification of the probable knowledge of the captive, we do not know going in what the result of any form of interrogation may be, and the possible failure to garner anything of importance is always present.

    Yet, it is reported that significant intelligence has been forthcoming from our captives at Gitmo. I imagine that the detailed facts about this will not emerge for some considerable time.

    Comment by mannning — 4/30/2009 @ 12:21 pm

  30. @ manning:
    If there is such as thing as the appropriate procedure for torture, that is it. That’s what the government should do.
    I suppose it comes down to faith in the government. The Legislative branch SHOULD set spending by carefully and objectively assessing the pros and cons of all spending and income generating proposals. After open, through and objective debate on each merit, the representatives of the citizens should set the most frugal budget that practicality should allow. They SHOULD do it this way . . . but I don’t think that there’s anybody here that thinks they actually DO it that way. Heck, most of them admit they don’t even read the stuff they “debate”.

    “The answer, then, is: despite high expectations, especially of saving lives, and despite a careful identification of the probable knowledge of the captive, we do not know going in what the result of any form of interrogation may be, and the possible failure to garner anything of importance is always present.”

    Given the odds of torture potentially failing to yield worthwile results, and given the odds that it will be abused and inporperly implemened, how can we as a people give it the benefit of the doubt? Why are we assuming it was all for the greater good rather than assuming it was wrong?
    I’ve got no problem with brutal, bloodthirsty murders being locked away in Gitmo for life. We SHOULD make “a careful identification of the probable [culpability] of the captive” . . . but we’ve released hundreds of people because we didn’t. They had one guy released when the tribunal finally (after years of detainment) finally laid out the basis for the “careful assessment” of his guilt — the killing of a subject in the Mideast. As soon as he found out what the accusations was, his advocate literally used a cell phone to call the “victim”, who was alive and well.

    One of the bedrock principles of America (and I always assumed of Conservatism itself) was that we don’t trust the government do do what they should. Checks and balances are totally unnecessary if the players are doing what they should. But they don’t.

    Accepting all of those procedures you proposed as absolutely, irrefutabily true, let me add one final caveat:

    10. unless each and every one of these 9 rules is strictly adhered to, the system is guaranteed to not work properly.

    It MIGHT be worth it to torture a prisoner. It could yield life-saving results. I could gab this guy walking down the street, torture them, and it might yield life-saving results . . . I might find out that he’s a serial killer. But I shouldn’t precisely because I haven’t followed those 9 steps. I don’t have objectively justifiable information sufficient to cross that line, despite the potential benefit of doing so. “I thought it was the right thing to do” will not save me if I’m wrong, and “I was afraid he was going to hurt me” might be understandable but its not going to absolve what heppened.

    Comment by busboy33 — 4/30/2009 @ 7:36 pm

  31. Hello Rick. I find that on issue of politics and conservatism, you are an invaluable resource. But I just cannot disagree with you any more strongly on this issue. Indeed, your essay above has driven me to write two posts in response, one defining what I see as the applicable moral parameters, a second responding to your arguments in this post. They are too long to post here, but if you care to read them:


    Hope all is well.


    Comment by GW — 4/30/2009 @ 9:58 pm

  32. A good addition, busboy. Your rule says “do the job by the book, or it will blow up in your face.” I like that rule! Prudence is a virtue that most conservatives value, along with justice, temperance, and fortitude, of course.

    Comment by mannning — 4/30/2009 @ 10:14 pm

  33. Rick, regarding the “ticking time bomb theory,” you might want to consider this article from the NY Times.


    Comment by GW — 4/30/2009 @ 10:23 pm

  34. I have a child and I would rather see my child burned to death in excruciating pain rather than see a murdering puke slammed against a wall that was designed to give under pressure. Because of my high moral values, I would be comfortable with my wife having to jump from an 80 story high window to escape the afformentioned excruciating death rather than have the perpetrator of the next mass murder causing these horrendous and unnecessary deaths swallow water until he cannot breath…than, of course allowed to breath again.

    This is the position of moral superiority of John Liebowitz in his discussion with Cliff May (http://tinyurl.com/cx8vum)
    and also Mr. Moran and those of you who agree with them. And really that is just fine with me, as long as it is your child and your wife and you. When it comes to my family, up yours (if you know what I mean). Is there a bridge too far, a method too morbid? Absolutely, but only because those methods are not necessary.

    Mr. Obama could very easily have taken your same high moral position and given orders, which would have to have been obeyed, stopping any coersive interrogations without releasing the details of our ‘previously used’ techniques to our enemies. He chose instead to give our enemies a huge advantage without allowing the American people the ability to make an informed decision based on all of the facts. He only released half of the “memos”. What is in the other half? Five or six intimately involved high ranking and publicly known officials of Clinton, Bush, and Obama’s administration have stated that only after we coersed these psychopaths were we able to glean information that saved future horrendous deaths of innocents. Those innocents could be your or my child or wife.

    The POTUS swears to protect all Americans. That is what Bush did. I only pray that Obama has a card or two left in his pocket, because it looks to me like he laid our entire hand on the table. If he expects to play poker successfully with the Islamofascists who are fervently looking to cause us as much misery as Allah empowers them to achieve with a poker hand on the table while theirs is close to their vest, we could all be in very serious trouble indeed. Furthermore, by exposing these mild, but apparently effective techniques, Obama may very well have forced his successor to go much further with much more cruelty in the future.

    Comment by cdor — 5/1/2009 @ 8:03 am

  35. I first posted comment #34 at Wolf Howling. He has excellent and, perhaps, less emotional expositions on this subject. I suggest a click on his above links.

    Comment by cdor — 5/1/2009 @ 9:26 am

  36. [...] is a criticism of an article by former council member Right Wing Nuthouse, whose author Rick Moran also has a winning non-council entry on the same subject; waterboarding as [...]

    Pingback by Watcher of Weasels » So Many Tortured Firsts - Waterboarding Our Way To Policy — 5/1/2009 @ 10:56 am

  37. cdor,
    Silly rabbit,
    The world works nothing like you imagine it does.

    Comment by bsjones — 5/1/2009 @ 11:44 pm

  38. between 1000AD and 1300 Ad the Assassins operated a system of terror and assassination against the Leaders of their enemies.A secret Society which was able to infiltrate any organisation with dedicated religious fanatics who had been promised the same 70 Virgins in Paradise as havethe Jihadists of today.
    The Old Man of the Mountain,as their founder and his successor were referred to,was always successful in their murderous policies until the Mongols arrived on the scene and massacred them and all their followers.
    Till then the Kings of the Earth had bowed down,had paid what blackmail the Old Man demanded,had given up all their legitimate claims and submitted to his will.
    Yet as a rule,the Old Man chiefly assassinated Sultan’s,Kings,Viziers & Military Leaders while today the Jihadists and their supporters have openly declared Eternal War against all Infidels in accordance with the plain words of their Holy book which demands Genocide or Submission to Islam as the deserved Fate of all Infidels.
    Many have already bowed the knee,many have been massacred,many have converted to Islam,whole countries,such as Spain have caved within days of a single attack and the greater part of the Western Media has been terrorised into an effective collaboration therewith.
    Most astonishing perhaps is the patent alliance between the Extreme Left and the Jihadists,which together with the complaisant Media have encouraged the infiltration of jihadist advocates throughout the Institutions of the West, particularly in Academia.
    We are told that we must n infuriate the Jihadists by referring adversely to their apocalyptic threats and their mjurderous designs,that we are guilty of Hate Crime if we criticise their bestial crimes or any aspect of their conduct.
    The appalling tortures they inflict with sadistic and triumphant joy must be ignored while hypocritical “Liberals” and even such redoubtable essayists as Rick Moran fulminate aginst those who differ on any point concerning the definition of torture and claim that the Waterboarding of 3 Master Terrorists known to have plotted the
    destruction of their entire civilisation including the entire popu;lation of their own nationis the unspeakable crime that must NEVER be countenance.
    Come off it Roberta!

    Comment by James Adair — 5/4/2009 @ 4:50 pm

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