This month, I wrote a column outlining two exceptions to the no-torture rule: the ticking time bomb scenario and its less extreme variant in which a high-value terrorist refuses to divulge crucial information that could save innocent lives. The column elicited protest and opposition that were, shall we say, spirited.
And occasionally stupid. Dan Froomkin, writing for washingtonpost.com and echoing a common meme among my critics, asserted that “the ticking time bomb scenario only exists in two places: On TV and in the dark fantasies of power-crazed and morally deficient authoritarians.” (He later helpfully suggested that my moral deficiencies derived from “watching TV and fantasizing about being Jack Bauer.”)
On Oct. 9, 1994, Israeli Cpl. Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car. He was interrogated with methods so brutal that they violated Israel’s existing 1987 interrogation guidelines, which themselves were revoked in 1999 by the Israeli Supreme Court as unconscionably harsh. The Israeli prime minister who ordered this enhanced interrogation (as we now say) explained without apology: “If we’d been so careful to follow the  Landau Commission [guidelines], we would never have found out where Waxman was being held.”
Who was that prime minister? Yitzhak Rabin, Nobel Peace laureate. The fact that Waxman died in the rescue raid compounds the tragedy but changes nothing of Rabin’s moral calculus.
That moral calculus is important. Even John McCain says that in ticking time bomb scenarios you “do what you have to do.” The no-torture principle is not inviolable. One therefore has to think about what kind of transgressive interrogation might be permissible in the less pristine circumstance of the high-value terrorist who knows about less imminent attacks. (By the way, I’ve never seen five seconds of “24.”)
My column also pointed out the contemptible hypocrisy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is feigning outrage now about techniques that she knew about and did nothing to stop at the time.
My critics say: So what if Pelosi is a hypocrite? Her behavior doesn’t change the truth about torture.
But it does. The fact that Pelosi (and her intelligence aide) and then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss and dozens of other members of Congress knew about the enhanced interrogation and said nothing, and did nothing to cut off the funding, tells us something very important.
Our jurisprudence has the “reasonable man” standard. A jury is asked to consider what a reasonable person would do under certain urgent circumstances.
On the morality of waterboarding and other “torture,” Pelosi and other senior and expert members of Congress represented their colleagues, and indeed the entire American people, in rendering the reasonable person verdict. What did they do? They gave tacit approval. In fact, according to Goss, they offered encouragement. Given the circumstances, they clearly deemed the interrogations warranted.
Moreover, the circle of approval was wider than that. As Slate’s Jacob Weisberg points out, those favoring harsh interrogation at the time included Alan Dershowitz, Mark Bowden and Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter. In November 2001, Alter suggested we consider “transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies” (i.e., those that torture). And, as Weisberg notes, these were just the liberals.
So what happened? The reason Pelosi raised no objection to waterboarding at the time, the reason the American people (who by 2004 knew what was going on) strongly reelected the man who ordered these interrogations, is not because she and the rest of the American people suffered a years-long moral psychosis from which they have just now awoken. It is because at that time they were aware of the existing conditions — our blindness to al-Qaeda’s plans, the urgency of the threat, the magnitude of the suffering that might be caused by a second 9/11, the likelihood that the interrogation would extract intelligence that President Obama’s own director of national intelligence now tells us was indeed “high-value information” — and concluded that on balance it was a reasonable response to a terrible threat.
And they were right.
You can believe that Pelosi and the American public underwent a radical transformation from moral normality to complicity with war criminality back to normality. Or you can believe that their personalities and moral compasses have remained steady throughout the years, but changes in circumstances (threat, knowledge, imminence) alter the moral calculus attached to any interrogation technique.
You don’t need a psychiatrist to tell you which of these theories is utterly fantastical.
Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post
Torture? No. Except . . .
Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances. The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent’s life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy. Even John McCain, the most admirable and estimable torture opponent, says openly that in such circumstances, “You do what you have to do.” And then take the responsibility.
Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever. They are akin to conscientious objectors who will never fight in any war under any circumstances, and for whom we correctly show respect by exempting them from war duty. But we would never make one of them Centcom commander. Private principles are fine, but you don’t entrust such a person with the military decisions upon which hinges the safety of the nation. It is similarly imprudent to have a person who would abjure torture in all circumstances making national security decisions upon which depends the protection of 300 million countrymen.
The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. (One of the “torture memos” noted that the CIA had warned that terrorist “chatter” had reached pre-9/11 levels.) We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can’t know that until we have information. Catch-22.
Under those circumstances, you do what you have to do. And that includes waterboarding. (To call some of the other “enhanced interrogation” techniques — face slap, sleep interruption, a caterpillar in a small space — torture is to empty the word of any meaning.)
Did it work? The current evidence is fairly compelling. George Tenet said that the “enhanced interrogation” program alone yielded more information than everything gotten from “the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency put together.”
Michael Hayden, CIA director after waterboarding had been discontinued, writes (with former attorney general Michael Mukasey) that “as late as 2006 . . . fully half of the government’s knowledge about the structure and activities of al-Qaeda came from those interrogations.” Even Dennis Blair, Obama’s director of national intelligence, concurs that these interrogations yielded “high value information.” So much for the lazy, mindless assertion that torture never works.
Could we not, as the president repeatedly asserted in his Wednesday news conference, have obtained the information by less morally poisonous means? Perhaps if we’d spoken softly and sincerely to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, we could equally have obtained “high-value information.”
There are two problems with the “good cop” technique. KSM, the mastermind of 9/11 who knew more about more plots than anyone else, did not seem very inclined to respond to polite inquiries about future plans. The man who boasted of personally beheading Daniel Pearl with a butcher knife answered questions about plots with “soon you will know” — meaning, when you count the bodies in the morgue and find horribly disfigured burn victims in hospitals, you will know then what we are planning now.
The other problem is one of timing. The good cop routine can take weeks or months or years. We didn’t have that luxury in the aftermath of 9/11 when waterboarding, for example, was in use. We’d been caught totally blind. We knew there were more plots out there, and we knew almost nothing about them. We needed to find out fast. We found out a lot.
“We have people walking around in this country that are alive today because this process happened,” asserts Blair’s predecessor, Mike McConnell. Of course, the morality of torture hinges on whether at the time the information was important enough, the danger great enough and our blindness about the enemy’s plans severe enough to justify an exception to the moral injunction against torture.
Judging by Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress who were informed at the time, the answer seems to be yes. In December 2007, after a report in The Post that she had knowledge of these procedures and did not object, she admitted that she’d been “briefed on interrogation techniques the administration was considering using in the future.”
Today Pelosi protests “we were not — I repeat — were not told that waterboarding or any other of these other enhanced interrogation methods were used.” She imagines that this distinction between past and present, Clintonian in its parsing, is exonerating.
On the contrary. It is self-indicting. If you are told about torture that has already occurred, you might justify silence on the grounds that what’s done is done and you are simply being used in a post-facto exercise to cover the CIA’s rear end. The time to protest torture, if you really are as outraged as you now pretend to be, is when the CIA tells you what it is planning to do “in the future.”
But Pelosi did nothing. No protest. No move to cut off funding. No letter to the president or the CIA chief or anyone else saying “Don’t do it.”
On the contrary, notes Porter Goss, then chairman of the House intelligence committee: The members briefed on these techniques did not just refrain from objecting, “on a bipartisan basis, we asked if the CIA needed more support from Congress to carry out its mission against al-Qaeda.”
More support, mind you. Which makes the current spectacle of self-righteous condemnation not just cowardly but hollow. It is one thing to have disagreed at the time and said so. It is utterly contemptible, however, to have been silent then and to rise now “on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009″ (the words are Blair’s) to excoriate those who kept us safe these harrowing last eight years.
Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post
Charles Krauthammer, in his Washington Post opinion column this morning, tries to find loopholes for impermissible evil.
“Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances,” he writes.
“The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent’s life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy.”
Actually, no. The ticking time bomb scenario only exists in two places: On TV and in the dark fantasies of power-crazed and morally deficient authoritarians. In real life, things are never that certain. And trained interrogators say that even in the most extreme circumstances, traditional methods are the most effective.
Krauthammer continues: “Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever. They are akin to conscientious objectors who will never fight in any war under any circumstances, and for whom we correctly show respect by exempting them from war duty. But we would never make one of them Centcom commander.”
Actually, no. They are normal people who share the post-World War II international consensus that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Indeed, the idea of putting someone without a healthy respect for human rights at Centcom is abhorrent — unless of course you believe that human rights don’t matter.
Krauthamer: “The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great.”
This of course is a blatant post-facto attempt at rationalizing the (inevitable) misdiagnosis of the ticking time bomb scenario. Now all of a sudden the standards are lower. Krauthammer is advocating fishing expeditions — with a waterboard.
“Under those circumstances, you do what you have to do.”
Krauthammer’s core argument then is that the ends justify the means. He quotes two former CIA officials, both deeply invested in covering their asses, who unsurprisingly insist that torture worked. But none of the claims they or others in the complicit chain of command have made held up under even modest public scrutiny.
And he mocks the idea put forth by President Obama on Wednesday — and supported by people who actually have experience in interrogation, rather than in watching TV and fantasizing about being Jack Bauer — that traditional interrogation techniques are extremely effective.
For instance, he writes: “KSM, the mastermind of 9/11 who knew more about more plots than anyone else, did not seem very inclined to respond to polite inquiries about future plans. The man who boasted of personally beheading Daniel Pearl with a butcher knife answered questions about plots with ‘soon you will know’ — meaning, when you count the bodies in the morgue and find horribly disfigured burn victims in hospitals, you will know then what we are planning now.”
But as Scott Shane recently pointed out in the New York Times, with more than a little understatement: “Mr. Mohammed, captured on March 1, 2003, was waterboarded 183 times that month. That striking number, which would average out to six waterboardings a day, suggests that interrogators did not try a traditional, rapport-building approach for long before escalating to their most extreme tool.”
And almost nobody who knows anything about the Pearl case (see, for instance, Lawrence Wright and Peter Bergen) actually thinks KSM — who confessed to the killing after being tortured — had anything to do with it. Torture after all is really only good at one thing: eliciting false confessions. That we got plenty of from KSM.
But his “soon you will know” boast was all bluster — sort of like Saddam Hussein’s claim to have nuclear capability. (“Responding to bluster with war crimes” — there’s a great motto for an administration.) Nothing KSM said came close to thwarting any imminent attack. One hundred and eighty three waterboarding sessions later, the “bodies in the morgue” and the “horribly disfigured burn victims” were still only a fantasy of the torturers — and certain opinion columnists.
Krauthammer: “The other problem is one of timing. The good cop routine can take weeks or months or years. We didn’t have that luxury in the aftermath of 9/11 when waterboarding, for example, was in use.”
But his compacting of the timeline is shameless revisionism. Top officials of the Bush administration — and yes, I’m looking at you, Mr. Cheney — panicked. And they continued to panic after any excuse for panic was long over. Waterboarding was conducted over a period of several months, long after 9/11 — from August 2002 at least through March 2003. Other torture tactics were widely employed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo over a period of years. Legal memos defending various forms of torture were being commissioned by the White House until virtually the end of the Bush administration.
And in his final defense, Krauthammer argues that the lack of objections at the time from Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress who were briefed on interrogation policies is proof that “at the time the information was important enough, the danger great enough and our blindness about the enemy’s plans severe enough to justify an exception to the moral injunction against torture.”
Precisely what members of Congress were told and how they responded should absolutely be a part of any thorough official investigation into the abuses of the Bush years. The enablers must be exposed as surely as the complicit. And members of Congress who knew what was happening and remained silent must be held to public account for their moral cowardice.
But their failure to speak out does not change the fundamental moral equation.
If the United States is to live up to its core values, if it is to once again be a beacon of human rights to the world and a champion of human dignity, then when it comes to torture — to impermissible evil, as Krauthammer himself puts it — there can be no asterisks.
Dan Froomkin, Washington Post