Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Debriefing Kiriakou: What if Torture Works?

The Brian Ross interview with former CIA interrogator John Kiriakou, who interrogated Abu Zubaydah, is disturbing in the extreme in that Kiriakou declares reperatedly, matter-of-factly, and with apparent certainty that Zubaydah yielded large amounts of actionable intelligence as a result of torture, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation. These claims completely contradict Ron Suskind's account, in which sources say that Zubaydah was a psychotic with limited knowledge of Al Qaeda operations who, upon being tortured,

began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

According to Kiriakou, waterboarding was "like flipping a switch" that made Zubaydah decide it was Allah's will (revealed in a dream) that he should talk -- and "the threat information that he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks." Kiriakou claims that Zubyadah subsequently served as a reliable reality check for other intelligence that came in. Kiriakou also portrays him as rational, knowledgeable, far from insane in any conventional sense, and a high-level al Qaeda operative-- a logistics chief, a financier, and a close associate of Bin Ladin.

Kiriaku also counters the claim that other interrogation techniques are more effective than torture. He claims that the key differentiator was speed; that building trust or willingness (which he dismisses as impossible with the religious fanatics of al Qaeda) or engaging in psychological warfare are time-consuming, whereas waterboarding was, again, 'like throwing a switch."

Is Kiriakou to be believed? Over time, will enough Kiriakous speak out to create a general acknowledgment that torture can produce actionable intelligence? If so, we opponents of torture lose a major comfort and must rely on a braver and more nuanced cost-benefit assessment. Such as: the harm that torture does to the society that authorizes it outweighs the harm -- the deaths and destruction -- that it may in some instances prevent. We have already seen that torture cannot be contained with the circumspection that Kiriakou portrays - where every step, every slap, is deliberated and authorized. Instead, we have dozens of people killed in custody, thousands detained (in Iraq) under brutal conditions, and all kinds of random and sadistic abuses, the knowledge of which has generated so much further hatred against us throughout the Muslim world. Nor can its target be limited to "known" terrorists - witness the mistaken renditions and the abuse leveled on Iraqis rounded up virtually at random. American citizenship is no shield -- ask Jose Padilla. In concert with the denial of due process and the President's assumed power to deem anyone an enemy combatant, there is nothing to prevent its being inflicted on an ever-widening circle of alleged 'enemies of the state.' That is the real danger.

Andrew Sullivan points out that "The Zubaydah torture does not fit the category laid out by Charles Krauthammer as the criterion for legalized torture. It was done not because we knew something and needed to nail it down. It was done because we knew nothing and needed to find out more. The attacks it allegedly foiled were not catastrophic and not on the mainland of the United States." Does this kind of cost-benefit analysis make sense - that is, is the 'ticking time bomb' argument relevant? Is it wrong to torture someone if you think that doing so might thwart unknown attacks saving hundreds or thousands of lives, but right to torture in an attempt to thwart an attack known to be pending that might take hundreds of thousands or millions of lives? I think the answer is that the '24' scenario is a false choice, highly unlikely to occur in its pure form. Sullivan is right that it's fatal for a society to greenlight torture in anticipation of that choice. That's Cheney's 1% solution -- a permanent state of emergency authorizing absolute executive power because of an eternal risk of catastrophe.


In fact, that risk has been there throughout the nuclear age, and the remote possibility of a terrible choice has always been part of the burden of the terrible responsibility of those charged with the security of millions of people. I imagine that every president has left a corner of his mind open to the possibility of an emergency that will force him to act outside the law. But to pre-authorize a crime in a vanishingly unlikely scenario is not a solution.

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