April 26, 2009

Torture: A Continuing Series

I continue to be confused by the right-wing assertions in this scandal. They've claimed everything from "the techniques we used were not torture" (wrong) to "the Democrats can't/shouldn't change the laws to criminalize acts of the previous administration" (wrong again: nobody anywhere is arguing to change the laws).

Today brings more. One of the themes around today is the "torture was necessary; we were scared of what Al Qaeda might do" idea, as exemplified by a story in today's Washington Post:

Six years after [Khalid Sheik] Mohammed was captured, the scrutiny of the agency's approach seems unfair to some intelligence veterans, who argue that the interrogation program cannot be separated from the atmosphere of the day, when further attacks seemed imminent. At the time, there was little or no dissent, including from congressional Democrats who were briefed on the program, according to former intelligence officials.

The article notes that Mohammed was captured in March 2003, and was (I'll try to use polite language here) subject to enhanced techniques quickly after he was in US custody. Translation: he was tortured very quickly, without any other (non-enhanced) techniques tried first.

I don't want to get into the efficacy argument (did torture work?). That's another day. I want to address the "we were justified in doing this because of the climate of fear that Al Qaeda might attack again at any day" argument that is seen in the paragraph above. I've seen this around in several places, and it seems to be complete bullshit, as far as I can tell. For several very good reasons, this doesn't seem to hold water.

First, if Bush and his administration were so frightened of another attack by Al Qaeda (in March of 2003), why were they on the verge of invading Iraq? How was the invasion of another (unrelated) country supposed to limit the ability of Al Qaeda to attack us? Preparations for the invasion of Iraq required the US military to withdraw resources (troops, special forces, UAVs/drones, etc.) from Afghanistan and stage them in Kuwait; this clearly resulted in less pressure on the remnants of Al Qaeda then we could have mounted, if we wanted to. In short, if the Bush administration was genuinely fearful of further terrorist attacks, then they were deliberately taking actions that made those attacks more likely (assuming Al Qaeda was capable of further attacks). So, the argument that torture was necessary because another attack could be coming any day isn't consistent with other policies the administration was following (drawing down Afghanistan; building up forces for Iraq).

Second, the WaPo article discusses Mohammed's interrogation in March of 2003, some 18 months after 9/11. How long does a "climate of fear" last? The most significant attacks post-9/11 (Spain, England) were still in the future (and were likely the actions of groups sympathetic to Al Qaeda, not Al Qaeda themselves). The 2002 Bali bombings were the actions of another fundamentalist Islamic group, not Al Qaeda. In other words, what fear did we have of additional attacks? Al Qaeda had been silent since 9/11, mostly because they were busy hiding in caves as US and NATO troops tried to dig them out of Tora Bora in Afghanistan. We had clearly done damage to their network, and the ability of Al Qaeda to plan, manage and execute terrorist attacks was likely at its lowest probability ever at this time. So, the argument that "we were scared" seems false on the facts.

Could it have been the Bush administration individually that was scared? That, also, seems unlikely. The individuals involved in planning US government policy at this point were some of the best protected people on the planet. I'll grant you that the buildings they worked in (White House, Pentagon, Washington DC in general) might have been on Al Qaeda's list of targets (then again, maybe not: terrorism is about doing the unexpected to create terror), but these targets, post 9/11, were very well guarded. The odds of another (successful) attack on these government buildings were lower than ever, so the "fear factor" of policy-makers (individually) should also have been lower. So the argument that they were scared of attacks on either themselves or the general populace is ridiculous.

Third, and finally, I'm concerned about the implicit retreat into irrationally (or non-rationality) that the WaPo paragraph (and article) makes into a validating argument. The article implies that fear allows policy-makers a justification for hasty or ill-conceived actions. My previous paragraphs tried to argue that the essential argument (fear) is a lie; there really wasn't any climate of fear. However, even granting a climate of fear, why should we accept that policy-makers should be allowed to justify actions because of it? Don't we hire politicians (and the people they appoint) to act (rationally) in our best interests? Why is it a justification of a policy to be able to say that the policy-makers were stressed and not thinking rationally? If these people are liable to fall to pieces in times of stress, why are they in their jobs? Shouldn't we demand more of the people who make policies for us (representative government)? The argument the defenders of the policy seem to be making is that scared people are allowed to make irrational decisions; I don't accept that. Call me crazy, but we should hold our policy-makers to higher standards.

(As a third-and-a-half, or fourth, point, doesn't it seem like the "we were scared, so that justifies our decisions" argument admits that the decision to torture was sub-optimal? I mean, arguing that "we were scared" is an excuse. You use excuses to explain away decisions that were wrong, or at least not the best. I mean, you don't justify the best decisions by saying, "oh, well, I was just scared." You justify sub-optimal decisions with excuses. So, aren't the apologists admitting that torture wasn't a good choice by trying to justify the decision with an excuse like "we were scared?")

The torture debate is complex, in the sense that the apologists are offering lots of excuses and arguments to justify their actions. I haven't found one that I like yet, and I don't expect to. But the "fear justifies our actions" excuse falls particularly flat.

Posted by baltar at April 26, 2009 08:43 AM | TrackBack | Posted to International Affairs | Iraq | Politics

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