Magazine article The American Conservative

Torture's Comeback

Magazine article The American Conservative

Torture's Comeback

Article excerpt

Don't rush to credit waterboarding for catching bin Laden.

THE KILLING of Osama bin Laden should have provoked some healthy debate about our ongoing reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Was this manhunt worth thé $3 trillion estimated by National Journal"? Does our alliance structure guarantee the creation of more bin Laden-type threats? Has our military response to 9/11 hurt us and others more than it has helped?

Instead, the execution of bin Laden has launched a nostalgia craze for torture, whose great virtues, we are told, have been cruelly underappreciated. Torture, it is asserted, is what got us the intel that led to bin Laden, so killing him vindicates and redeems "enhanced interrogation." And not only that: by limiting torture, Obama and his administration have made America much less safe, even if - and this part of the argument is mumbled quickly - they happen to be the ones who killed bin Laden. "Two Cheers for Enhanced Interrogation Techniques!" crows the Weekly Standard, urging the president to thank CIA interrogators who helped "rid the world of evil." Rep. Peter King (R-N. Y), a principled foe of non-Irish terrorists, was blunter still, laying it down that waterboarding prisoners in 2003 "directly led" to finding (and shooting) bin Laden in 2011.

"Funny. You would think that if the CIA's interrogation of high-value detainees was all it took, the US government would have succeeded in locating bin Laden before 2006, which is when the CIAs custody of so-called 'high-value detainees' ended," says Jane Mayer of the New Yorker. But first, the facts.

According to the White House, bin Laden was traced to the Abbottabad compound through his courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiu, whose nom de guerre was learned from interrogations of a handful of high-value prisoners at Guantanamo. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded an amazing 183 times; months after this had ceased, he denied in an interrogation that al-Kuwaiti was of any importance, and it was this denial that helped trigger interest in the courier.

In other words, a prisoner, several months after he was waterboarded, knowingly or not told an untruth to an interrogator. This anecdote is supposed to prove the indispensability of torture?

There are a few other prisoners who may have been tortured in black sites abroad who also talked (or were silent) about bin Laden's courier, and this too is meant to be rock-solid proof of something. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey uttered a typical iteration of this line of reasoning in the Watt Street Journal. "Abu Faraj al-Libi," he wrote, "was subjected to certain of these harsh techniques and disclosed further details about bin Laden's couriers..."

This sentence may be wholly true, but Mukasey is playing disingenuous games with the "and" connecting the two predicates. Yes, al-Libi may have yielded useful intel after being tortured - but this could have been months later and may have come out during regular interrogation techniques without any rough stuff. Yet for Mukasey the sequence alone is good enough to imply causation. The Romans called this fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc: Y happened after X, so X must have caused Y. A legal education is supposed to immunize against this kind of irrational slovenliness, but here we have a former attorney general espousing magical thinking that would make any Yanomamo tribesman cough with embarrassment and nervously twirl his earlobe.

Exactly which tidbits of information were gleaned from torture is not clear and likely never will be. It cannot be claimed that torture never, ever yields good information: there are no studies evaluating torture against a control group of prisoners subject to ordinary interrogation - and God willing, there never will be. But so far the arguments crediting torture with finding Osama bin Laden have been conjectures based not on evidence but on blind faith tinged with bloodlust. …

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