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Pure Onsense

A Tortured Defense

Scott Zuke

(1/2015) Last month the Senate Intelligence Committee released its long anticipated report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program and the use of torture against terrorism suspects between 2001 and 2009. The key takeaway—that the United States was responsible for engaging in the torture of numerous detainees held in secret CIA facilities on foreign soil—was already publicly acknowledged by President Obama back in August when he told a press conference ahead of the report’s release that "We tortured some folks."

The declassified executive summary of the massive report was expected to stir up public debate on the issue of torture by explaining in detail the techniques used, the second-guessing of the program’s methods by the very people carrying them out, and the CIA’s aggressive misrepresentation of its effectiveness to policy makers and the public. It was also controversial amongst Republicans, many of whom argued that it was politically motivated and could incite violent reprisals against American military personnel overseas.

Upon the report’s release, Bush administration officials including former Vice President Dick Cheney rushed to defend the program and strongly object to its description as torture. "Torture was what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11," he told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press. "There's no comparison between that and what we did with enhanced interrogation." When asked if he thought it was acceptable that 25% of the detainees subjected to these techniques turned out to be innocent, Cheney replied, "I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective…I'd do it again in a minute."

Polls conducted after the release of the report appear to show a majority of Americans share Cheney’s view. In a Pew poll, 51% of respondents said the CIA’s interrogation techniques were justified, versus only 29% who said they were not. Even more, 56%, said the techniques provided intelligence that prevented terror attacks, a key point that the Senate report strongly rejects.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll more directly addressed the issue of torture and found even starker results. Nearly half of respondents said the CIA’s techniques amounted to torture; 54% said they believed the CIA intentionally misled the White House, Congress, and the public about its activities; and 58% said that torture of terror suspects can often or sometimes be justified. The same slim majority believes that the CIA’s techniques provided information that could not be obtained any other way.

This is another point strongly contested by the Senate report, which argues that most of the actionable intelligence claimed to have been acquired through enhanced interrogation was actually collected earlier, through non-coercive means. The best results, the report says, consistently came from non-violent approaches, such as telling the detainees what the officials already knew and allowing them to elaborate on the details. Those who carried out torture reported that the experience seemed to "poison the well," turning previously cooperative detainees into permanently unwilling and unreliable sources.

Cheney and other supporters of the program have hidden behind the authorization for enhanced interrogation techniques granted by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, however the Senate report contends that "The CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of its program." A recurring theme throughout the report is the greath lengths to which the CIA went to prevent policy makers, the American public, and even the CIA itself from having an informed discussion of the legality and effectiveness of its program. Much of it was conducted under the immense stress of being demanded to produce results, and with only blind faith that the detainees held valuable information and that torture would compel them to share it.

Torture is abhorred almost universally when used only for punishment. It has to be justified as a coercive tool to gain vital information otherwise unavailable. But if it has been found to be an ineffective tool in that regard, and one that requires the intentional stretching of legal interpretations to justify, why is public opinion on torture so soft?

My best guess is the prevalence in American pop culture of the trope known as the "ticking bomb." It is an ethical dilemma that appeared regularly in various formulations in episodes of the television show 24: There is a ticking bomb that can only be located and disarmed with information held by an uncooperative terrorist in custody. Without it, thousands of innocent people will die. In knowing violation of the law, the hero tortures the suspect until he acquires the necessary information, and lives are saved.

Amongst moral philosophers, how we judge the hero’s actions has become known as the problem of dirty hands. The question goes, "Should political leaders violate the deepest constraints of morality in order to achieve great goods or avoid disasters for their communities?"

Interesting as it may be at the philosophical level, and as exhilarating as it can be when depicted in fiction, in reality the ticking bomb scenario almost never happens. When it does occur in fiction, it invariably overstates the effectiveness of the techniques employed (a story that shows torture failing to produce actionable intelligence would be reduced to a short morality play instead of advancing the plot of a larger action show: which do you think Hollywood is in the business of producing?). This storytelling technique has the unintended consequence of teaching viewers that torture is unsavory, but frequently necessary and justified by its results.

When seeing the poll results after the release of the torture report, it’s hard to shake the feeling that people have internalized fiction as reality, and have come to expect the most extraordinary of hypothetical situations to be a normal occurrence to be dealt with.

It’s worth noting that within several ethical systems, torture would be deemed unjustifiable even if it were proven to be effective. With the evidence at hand, however, we can simply conclude that it is not, and that it more often produces falsified intelligence, damages our reputation abroad, and undermines our political institutions. We should care more.

Read other article by Scott Zuke