More Torture Revelations

Thanks to the release of the torture memos, debates about torture have gotten quite interesting and urgent.  And to someone like me, who believes that the United States has crossed a bright line since September 11th, there is very disconcerting news: Admiral Blair, Obama’s director of national intelligence, believes that the use of torture produced significant information about Al Qaeda (based on an informative visit to the corner [!!]). It’s all the more noteworthy, as Blair had argued that torture was not just immoral but also ineffective during his confirmation hearing. That suggests that he has had an about face during two months of service, based on classified information that he has seen.

Now, Blair is one man, and we can’t know the basis of his judgment.  We are not obligated to take his opinion as gospel. We could find someone even more credible than Blair who’s full of crap.  Or someone could change Blair’s mind, or provide a knock down argument that torture doesn’t work.  Still, this should give us pause–Blair knows more than us, and he’s not part of the raving pro-torture crowd.

How much does this matter? Putting my cards on the table, I’m one of the people Megan McArdle is describing (but see Conor Friedersdorf demolishing the conclusion she draws based on that characterization).

Most people who make this argument do not, in fact, care whether torture works.  They would still be every bit as much against it if waterboarding worked perfectly.

That’s me.  I’ve never felt in my gut that there was any reason to torture people to try and get intelligence.  Maybe if I bought into the idea that this was WW3, and the United States faced an existential threat, I might be conflicted. As it is, I’m not.

Returning to a pair of purely analytical points, without trying to say whether or not torture is effective, I think McArdle makes a framing mistake in her opening:

the evidence for those arguments seems empirically shaky, especially since many people employing them insist on arguing that torture basically never works, rather than that it doesn’t work very often and therefore has a bad cost-benefit ratio.

This seems to just assume that they payoff of torture is non-negative, as if it might be zero, but we couldn’t end up worse off.  Even from a strictly intelligence gathering perspective, I think that’s wrong.  Torture will sometimes produce useful information, but interrogators would have to recognize it as such.  That means a potentially very complicated process of confirming or disconfirming the evidence provided.  If the process of confirmation is itself subject to noise or error, it’s no guarantee that we won’t end up trusting bad information produced by torture (can I assume that those interrogators and units that choose to torture are the ones most likely to trust the technique too much?)  Lastly, I think that even under the most extreme kangaroo-courts instituted during the War on Terror, I believe information derived from torture was excluded from trials.  So someone who wants to argue that torture works still has to face the real possibility that it’s just useless, instead of assuming that the question is how much it works.

And this is all before we touch Jim Manzi’s point that torture could be tactically wonderful,but strategically awful.  I’m less convinced by his historical examples–wasn’t World War II decided by military strength and industrial production? But today, the most important question is how many people want to join terrorist movements and how many countries are willing to cooperate with us, and surely those are two areas where torture can only hurt us.


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