Sunday, March 29, 2009

The case against torture, revisited

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Maha is right that we knew this already, but there is nonetheless some value in WaPo's report that the torture, by the U.S. (which has tortured, denials from Bush et al. notwithstanding), of one supposedly "high-value" al Qaeda figure turned out to produce nothing in the way of value:

When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates -- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

And that wasn't the end of the intelligence failure:

[W]ithin weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as "al-Qaeda's chief of operations," and other top officials called him a "trusted associate" of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.

Abu Zubaida was not even an official member of al-Qaeda, according to a portrait of the man that emerges from court documents and interviews with current and former intelligence, law enforcement and military sources. Rather, he was a "fixer" for radical Muslim ideologues, and he ended up working directly with al-Qaeda only after Sept. 11 -- and that was because the United States stood ready to invade Afghanistan.

In other words, the U.S. got it horribly wrong, misjudging the value of a key detainee, because it didn't even understand who he really was, and needlessly subjecting him to torture (not that there should ever be a "need" to torture).

Publius makes a good point: This is the "other" reason not to torture -- in addition to the moral one. "[A]nother reason not to torture is that it's usually impossible to know whether it's being applied to the appropriate parties. Taking the extreme step of torture requires a level of epistemic confidence we just can't obtain -- particularly in times of rage and trauma, which is often when torture is used."

Yes, we know this already, but the case against torture must continue to be made, again and again.

For while there are far too many who apparently can't be convinced of the moral argument against it -- and there is indeed such un-American barbarism all across America, with many torture enthusiasts on the right, from Cheney on down -- perhaps the "administrative" case, that is, the recognition of the impossibility of administering torturing "fairly" (as despicable as that even sounds), can win some over to the side of humanity and decency.

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