Wednesday, November 30, 2005

# Posted 10:22 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

CAPT. CARTER IS STILL BLOGGING: Wrongly, I assumed that Phil wouldn't have any time to post now that he's back in the service. So you should definitely check out his long post on the Padilla case as well as his reflections on Veterans Day.

Phil's most recent post is an impassioned polemic against just-short-of-torture interrogation tactics. I agree with Phil's conclusion, but am not fully satisfied with his logic. In response to one law professor's ticking-time bomb scenario, Phil says:
Let's stipulate for the sake of argument that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has valuable intel locked in his head. And, let's also stipulate that the intel he has can save lives. As the leader of an insurgent cell (network?), I think this is a reasonable stipulation. So there's a reasonable argument to be made that we should interrogate him (using a variety of means) to learn what he knows, in order to support the war against terrorism.

However, the math should not stop there. Let me propose a simple equation: Zarqawi's intelligence value is roughly proportional to his PR value. He is a celebrity of sorts on the Arab street; a notorious figure whose name is known to millions. It is safe to assume that anything done to him will eventually become public. Any coercive or abusive treatment of him will simply enhance his stature as a martyr (which he would effectively be once captured), and play into his organization's propaganda. On balance, I think the costs of torturing Zarqawi (creating 1,001 additional Zarqawis) far outweigh the benefits of harvesting the intel he possesses.
I'm not sure that it makes sense to talk about an equation with intelligence value on one side and PR value on the other. If interrogators had good reason to believe that they could save the lives of American civilians by turning up the pressure on Zarqawi, it would be very hard to argue that those civilians' right to life is outweighed by the speculative PR value of leaving Zarqawi alone. That is the essence of the ticking time bomb scenario.

This brings us to the point of whether almost-torturing Zarqawi would amount to "creating 1,001 additional Zarqawis". Wouldn't that cost the lives of more Americans in the long run? I don't know. It is plausible to suggest that there is a relationship between prisoner abuse and terrorist recuritment.

Yet assertions about the behavior of terrorists recruits are always quite speculative. After all, September 11th happened long before the mistreatment of any prisoners in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Where a good argument against torture should begin is with how we treat the vast majority of terrorist prisoners who don't have information about imminent attacks. We shouldn't subject them to abuse because it is simply wrong and because it undermines our credibility as advocates of democracy and human rights.

None of the torture or almost-torture scandals we're concerned with today have to do with ticking time bombs. The real issue is the administration's commitment to writing loopholes into the law instead of leading the charge against prisoner abuse.

As Kevin points out, if there ever really were a ticking time bomb scenario, torture would be inevitable and almost no one would feel very bad about it. But that's not the issue.
(4) opinions -- Add your opinion

If there ever really were a ticking time bomb scenario, torture would be inevitable and almost no one would feel very bad about it.

Maybe. You're assuming an awful lot here, aren't you? You're assuming that we know with certainty that there is a ticking time bomb. Really, how likely is that?

Don't forget we had those famous FBI memos that people made way too much a fuss about, where some agents thought that a plan was imminent but investigations were stalled because of civil liberties concerns, among other things. (Also the wall between FBI and other intelligence organizations, and other laws.) Some agents thought that an attack was imminent, but we chose to follow the law rather than act on that intelligence. Why? Because we weren't sure.

Isn't this a much more likely scenario than the classic movie "we know there's a ticking time bomb but we don't know where?" We think that there may be a ticking time bomb or an imminent attack, but we don't know for sure, but we do know that if anyone knows if there is such an attack and if so, what it is, it's this guy. Couldn't we face that plenty of times, with guys like Zarqawi and others?

Intelligence is not 100%. What if, arbitrarily, we have good reason to believe on the basis of solid intelligence that there's a 50% (or 25%, or 10%) chance of an imminent attack, but we're not sure, but we have in our custody a guy who would know. Do you and Kevin believe that torture is "inevitable" then, and almost no one would feel very bad about it, and pardons would just happen, especially if that intelligence turns out to be wrong? I don't think so. Are people going to risk their careers on a 50%, 25%, 10% chance? I don't believe so either. Especially not considering how unforgiving the public apparently is on acting on incomplete information (especially when the best guess turns out to be wrong), and on how the public tends to support the government more when attacks happen and less when they don't.

I agree that there's no need for torture or near-torture with the vast majority of terrorist prisoners who wouldn't have information about imminent attacks. The vast majority of prisoners (in Guatanamo or elsewhere) aren't being tortured or near-tortured, though. There are some prisoners who are in a position where they would know about imminent attacks, if one was to occur, but we don't know if there is an imminent attack.
I think any argument against torture that has as its centerpiece Zarqawi in the interrogation room is going to fail to sway. But a PR objection? Did Phil consider the possibility that the media would not be invited to Zarqawi's torture sessions?

The much stronger argument is the one you make--most people who would be tortured don't have anything to give up. Some of them are going to be entirely innocent. Is it really worth it to save "just one life" as Glenn Reynolds argues, when so many of the tortured will have nothing to give up under duress except lies? And how many torture victims die?
Captain Carter concludes that when word leaks to the "Arab street" that the U.S. has tortured al-Zarqawi, 1001 new al-Zarqawis will be created in the subsequent rage.

As an American, Captain Carter makes the typically American mistake of thinking that everyone else in the world thinks just like Americans do.

In reality, American security interests would best be served by remembering bin Laden's "strong horse, weak horse" line of reasoning. Strength, respect, and fear matter much more to those we seek to deter and dissuade, rather than American-style "feelings."

The struggle against Islamic fanaticism will wind down only after we convince the potential Islamic recruits that their efforts will be meaningless, futile, and painful. This is not an argument for torture, only an argument against self-delusion.

good sense .. also i admire this comment for John Thacker
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