Paul Pillar

The Torture Issue Again

A big, politically potent event such as bagging bin Ladin is an invitation for some to try to resurrect old issues that should have been disposed of some time ago. The latest concerns the efficacy of “enhanced” interrogation techniques. House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-NY) has been most prominent among those—who are overwhelmingly Republican and/or associated with the previous administration—arguing that information gained through such techniques was critical in leading the manhunters to the compound in Abbottabad. The appropriate first reaction to such assertions is, “How in the world do you know that?” It is an appropriate question even to those with security clearances, given that we are talking about complex investigative tasks in which many different fragments of information of varying reliability are woven together to yield analytical hypotheses. It would be hard for anyone not directly involved in the investigation and analysis to make a well-founded judgment about any one fragment being critical. Given what has become public knowledge so far about the final successful phase of the hunt for bin Ladin, King's assertion appears to be untrue. And regardless of whether the picture the investigators pieced together relied at all on information obtained through coercive techniques, in the end it was a highly uncertain picture that required the president to make a gamble in ordering the operation.

Beyond the specifics of information gathered in the hunt for bin Ladin, the newly resurrected arguments about coercive interrogation ignore some more fundamental issues, one of which is how much bad information such techniques yield, along with any chance of yielding good information. The record is long and strong of coerced detainees saying what they think their interrogators want to hear, or anything else that will end the pain, however fraudulent may be what they say. We saw some of the results of this in bum dope that made its way into the Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War. To the extent that the statements of coerced detainees affected the hunt for bin Ladin, how many of those statements might have been similarly phony and extended the hunt by wasting time and investigative resources?

Another fundamental issue concerns timing and urgency. Given the well-documented experience of interrogators that patient, non-coercive techniques work at least as well as the waterboard, the pro-coercion argument has always centered around the ticking time bomb scenario—the idea that we might not have time for patience if we expect to head off an impending tragedy. But although the ticking time bomb scenario makes for interesting classroom discussions, it so far has never materialized in the real world. And the hunt for bin Ladin, lasting well over a decade, certainly was not a situation where such urgency was, or should have been, the determinant of which sorts of interrogation techniques to use.

There is one aspect of this week's bin Ladin story that does warrant renewed thought about the torture issue. The decentralization of jihadist terrorism that bin Ladin's demise both symbolizes and furthers means that now, more than ever, reducing the threat of terrorism directed against Americans is less a matter of coercing secrets out of members of any one group and more a matter of avoiding behavior that might stimulate would-be terrorists--even ones who do not now belong to any group--to do America harm. At a time when bin Ladin's message has been losing favor partly because of revulsion over his inhumane methods, it would be counterproductive to resort to methods that lessen the moral and humanitarian divide between us and the terrorists. 

I made similar observations three years ago in a compendium in the Washington Monthly in which three dozen of us presented our views on torture. Move back a bit from my piece in this alphabetically arranged set of contributions—past the offerings from William Perry and Nancy Pelosi—and you will find one from Leon Panetta, at that time still a private citizen in California. Here is how Panetta concluded his thoughts: 

Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don't. There is no middle ground. We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.