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Tuesday, April 21, 2009



Many interrogation experts tell us torture does not work, is actually counter productive and that other interrogation methods work better. That is what I consider when thinking about "how to prevent the unthinkable from happening".

That we tortured with "more scruples" than others would have is a self-contradicting statement. It's a bit like using the term "more unique". Unique being absolute, there are no degrees of some, more or very. And applying torture, whether mild or intense, is a lack of scruples and thus there are no degrees of more or less scrupulous to be parsed. By using torture, we took ourselves to a level shared by the "enemies" you refer to--a level we once took pride in avoiding.

When George Bush said "we do not torture" he did not imply the word "much" was an understood modifier dropped from the end of his statement. His statement was supposed to be true because the absolute standard America has set for itself is that any degree of torture is unacceptable under all circumstances.

That said, I understand ideals count for little if we're lying dead in a pile of rubble. You thus question if it is important that torture may have achieved its desired effect and imply ends may have justified the means.

However, the question of whether or not torture worked is not all that must be asked. Even if reliable information is gained through torture, it still may not be the most effective method or the only method that might have worked. Not to be overly flip, but giving a detainee one Lays potato chip might be a better place to start interrogation than putting him in a box and dangling a caterpillar in front of his face.

Gene K

Torture is wrong. The end result does not justify the means of obtaining it. It demeans the practitioner as well as the body politic that endorses it. Why are we so willing to compromise our ideals? To seek justification? As my mother would say, "the path to hell is paved with good intentions".

Miranda Flint

Other experts tell us that torture does work. ABC New's Chief Investigative Officer Brian Ross admitted that torture worked and worked quickly on terrorists like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. You can see his comments here:


I also disagree with you on the issue of scruples. The very existence of the word "overscrupulous" indicates that there are different levels of scruples. It's definition is, "excessively scrupulous." The word is not at all like "unique," and I don't think it's fair to ignore hundreds of years of tradition, just to make an argument look better.

Furthermore, one can certainly have scruples about an action, while still deciding to do it. Consider the following:

I love animals, and, under normal circumstances, I would never harm one.
But Pit Bulls are dangerous. There was a case here recently, where a woman opened her garage door to find a pit bull inside. She was carrying her infant son when the dog leapt to attack. The pit was ultimately stopped by two workers who beat it with heavy tools. If they had not, the infant would probably have been killed, as several others have been when pit bulls have attacked them.

Hurting animals is a bad thing. And most people, I think, would have some scruples over harming someone's pet. But in this case, that bad thing was the right thing.

I think the situation with the terrorists is quite similar. Is torturing people a bad thing? Yes. And under normal circumstances, it's the wrong thing. But there are circumstances in which it is the right thing.

Finally, I think it is unrealistic to hope that a terrorist will suddenly give you intelligence because you gave him a potato chip. I think there's a lot more evidence to show that torture works. However, if you can find an article that proves that potato chips work, I'd love to see it!


It's interesting, Miranda, that the ABC report you cite claims KSM lasted for 2.5 minutes before "breaking". Why then another 182 water boardings as reported here: http://www.slate.com/id/2216601/ and elsewhere? And if the Slate report and others are accurate, what good would KSM's info on the Library Tower have been since the plot had been disrupted long before his capture? Further, if we were so scrupulous, why does the report describe water boarding as extremely harsh.

The point you seem to be missing is that I and others do not make the claim that torture never works. The point is, other interrogation methods are said to be more effective which begs the question, why use torture when it flies in the face of U.S. and international standards and law? Do we really want to be part of a race to the lowest common denominator for treatment of captives because that is the ultimate result of what was going on.

As to the potato chip reference, it was a metaphor for interrogation methods that encourage cooperation by rewarding desired behavior rather than employing torture as a first resort. It was supposed to illicit a chuckle as in the "bet you can't eat just one" Frito Lay slogan--so we give the captive the chip and promise more if he cooperates. Guess you didn't think it funny.

As to your pit bull example, that would mean one might use torture in a certain instance because of some extenuating circumstance that might, just might justify it. But one would not round up a group of pit bulls and beat all of them to death just because one attacked and the action was necessary then. Nor should one torture a group of suspected terrorists just because it seemed necessary in another instance.


By the way, I meant elicit, not illicit.

P. Chirry

The torture debate is very curious. Surely torturing a (quite likely uninnocent) person is hardly worse than killing an innocent civilian in wartime. Yet, you don't see too many claiming that bombing is absolutely wrong, because it's necessary for the greater good. You can go ahead claim that torture is counter-productive, but frankly, it's not your call. Every case is unique, torture might work very well in some cases, and the ones most qualified to make the call are people like the CIA operatives.

Miranda Flint

I think, A.I., the reason we miss that point is that it isn't the point you make
.You argued, not that there were better ways of garnering information from terrorists, but that torture did not work. So that is the point I argued with.

Nevertheless, it is nice that we can agree on one point - that torture does, sometimes work.

I am not privy to all of the details on water boarding, or the reasons those in charge had for using it. So I can only speculate as to why such techniques were used on more than one occasion. One is that different people know different things. Not every terrorist knows the details of every other terrorist's plot. We might, therefore, need information from more than one source.

Also, sometimes a questioner needs to be able to ask the right questions. It is possible, I think, for someone to be broken enough to make confessions for a short period of time, and then to regain composure. Sort of like when siblings try to make each other cry uncle. If questioners needed to ask more questions after a terrorist had already composed himself, it might be necessary for questioners to start over again.

But, again, all I can do is speculate. I do not think the fact that an action was repeated means that it did not work. Wouldn't we want to continue to use methods that work?

I understood that your potato chip reference was a joke. I just don't think negotiating with terrorists is any more practical. Neville Chamberlain tried your method. And it is because of that, Germany took over Netherlands, Belgium and France.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have often tried to talk their way through
their conflict. That hasn't worked well either. You asked, why, if waterboarding works so well, does it have to be repeated?

Well, I ask you - if talking things over and "rewarding" people for good behaviour works so well, why do we have to keep doing it? Why isn't the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over?

Finally, the people we are talking about torturing are known terrorists. They have already attacked others. A better comparison would be rounding up pit bulls who had already attacked victims.


The question, Miranda, is not whether torture works, but whether it is necessary and can justified. On a scale of barbaric to civilized, the use of torture most certainly characterizes a society as more the former than the latter. An isolated instance employed under extraordinary circumstances has little impact and may or may not be justified. But in our case, the use of torture appears to have been systematic and stunningly common.

We fancy ourselves world leaders and, I think, justifiably so. We purport that leading by example is important. Employing torture to the extent we reportedly have is hardly helpful in that effort--assuming we wish to lead the world to a more civilized state or at least maintain the level already attained.

Your characterization of interrogation techniques that do not employ torture as being negotiations seems way off-base, although somewhat understandable because I used the term reward. Using the potato chip metaphor more appropriately, the scenario isn't I'll give you another chip if you tell me such and such. The interaction is far more subtle with interrogators developing some level of rapport that leads a detainee to offer information willingly or unintentionally. The chip would merely be a tool for establishing that rapport.

Your leap to Neville Chamberlain is an even greater stretch. History characterizes his actions not as negotiations but as outright appeasement. In any case, his relationship with Hitler had virtually nothing in common with that between an interrogator and a detainee.

You opine that torture may need to be employed more than once to acquire additional information or to more fully "break" a detainee. As gruesome as that scenario is, you may be correct. But, 182 more times? That smacks of torture employed to get a detainee to say something his captors want said, not for gaining information. Which, if you think about it, does resemble siblings trying to get each other to cry uncle.

Taking that image a bit farther, Israel and the Palestinians have been trying to get each other to "cry uncle" for years in the sense of each side trying to get the other to succumb to its wishs. You complain that negotiations have not worked, but the same can be said of violent conflict between the two sides. Part of today's conflict is rooted in grudges born out of atrocities committed centuries ago.

Finally, you claim we only tortured terrorists. That folks like KSM were known terrorists is a given. But many of those who were tortured at Abu Graib, for example, were at most alleged terrorists. And if the Senate Armed Services report that came out yesterday is accurate, they were tortured at the behest of folks like Donald Rumsfeld, not simply by some renegade soldiers with a penchant for sadism as was claimed when the torture was revealed.

Some of those soldiers were court marshaled for their actions are still in prison. They arguably were jailed for following orders. What of those who gave the orders?

We have so-called black sites all over the world not to mention Guantanamo Bay. How many people were tortured in the name of America is unknown and may remain so. But the notion that all were terrorists just isn't so. To revive another metaphor, we rounded up pit bulls, alleged they were killers, and in some instances, tortured puppies.

Miranda Flint


I agree with you that it is important to consider the necessity and justification
of an action of this kind, before carrying it out. But I don't agree with your assumption that something is wrong, simply because it happens on more than one occasion.

Suppose you agree that, in one instance, torture is, in fact, justified. Then, a week later, another case pops up. The circumstances are virtually identical. Do you allow torture in the one case, because it is an isolated incident, but disallow it in the second, simply because it is the second?

Take our pit bull example. A pit bull attacks a child, so you kill it.
A second pit bull attacks a second child, but you let it go, because
this is the second incident.

If mild torture prevents American deaths, it is, I think, justified, whether
it happens once or, as you say, systematic. Of course it would be nice, I think, if we could befriend terrorists, and they would simply tell us what we wanted to know. That would be absolutely fantastic. But I'm not convinced that it is
realistic. How many times has this actually happened? And how many people have to die while we're waiting, hoping a terrorist will decide to make friends with us?

Let's say we've got a terrorist who has another 9/11 planned. We know that the plan is scheduled to be carried out a week from now - but we don't know where his men will strike. If we use your method, and it takes longer than a week for us to win over the terrorist with our potato chips and our high hopes, what will ultimately happen?

Finally, I agree that it is possible that we tortured non-terrorists, and it may be that we were unjust in some of those cases. I do not mean to argue that torture is justified in every case. But I think it certainly is in the case of KSM and others like him.


Wow, this is a great thread! My appreciation to Miranda and to A.I. Finals are coming up and I have been very busy, so I haven't weighed in like my interlocutors deserve. But I will make this point:

A.I. says: "That we tortured with "more scruples" than others would have is a self-contradicting statement." A contradiction can have no coherent meaning. Now imagine this situation: you are informed that you are going to be tortured for four days. You can't get out of it, but you do have this choice: you can be tortured by CIA agents acting under Bush Administration rules, or by Bath Party interrogators, acting under rules set when Saddam Hussein was still alive and in power. Now, what do you chose, A or B? That is the coherent meaning of "torturing with more scruples."

Like Miranda, I gather, I don't think torturing terrorists is necessarily wrong. But I think that torturing under Marquis of Queensberry rules is probably self-defeating. So we ought to give it up. Until, that is, something really serious happens. Then the world will change. The Left is determined not to recognize that possibility.


Interesting dialogue between two intelligent people exchanging ideas and probing each other's thinking. If only there was more of this and less of the mindless shouting that now passes for political opinion - ESPN comes to politics.

To the merits: isn't this where we always wind up when we perceive an existential threat to our existence? It's not just torture - the broader question is when we're allowed to cross legal or ethical boundaries in the face of a perceived disaster.

Let's look back. I lived through the McCarthy years. People were in terror that past relationships would trigger job loss, prosecution and ostracization. Before that, we had the Haymarket Massacre, the jailings of anarchists and the Red Scare. True, in neither case was there the kind of physical brutality that we've seen more recently, but that to me is not determinative. As Americans, we distinguish ourselves and our national mission by how we carry out the sometimes brutal business of dealing with a nasty world. It's imperative that we resist the temptation to abandon our moral bearings in a time of tremendous stress. Otherwise, we're just Serbia writ large.


Since much has been made of my contention there is no degree of scruples to apply regarding the use of torture, I will attempt to explain my meaning with the old joke ascribed to Winston Churchill:

At a dinner party one night, a drunk Churchill asked an attractive woman whether she would sleep with him for a million pounds. "Maybe," the woman said coyly. "Would you sleep with me for one pound?" Churchill then asked. "Of course not, what kind of woman do you think I am?" the woman responded indignantly. "Madam, we've already established what kind of woman you are," said Churchill, "now we're just negotiating the price."

So too, we might ask what kind of country we think we are. We have established ourselves as torturers. To what degree matters little if we have abandoned the scruples that for so long led us to do otherwise.


Treading where perhaps only fools dare, I will expand on my last post a bit. The fact that torture was conducted under "Marquis of Queensberry" rules is, in some ways, of greater concern than would be what reports initially implied--that being, we only tortured to gain crucial information after all else failed and/or when time was a critical factor and that rules of implementation were murky at best. Basically, I'm referring to the oft cited ticking bomb scenario.

That would have been a desperate act of self defense under extreme circumstances which is quite different from establishing rules for torture and applying it systematically on a wide scale. The latter amounts to premeditation and if one continues to ascribe to a standard that torture is criminal, then America committed premeditated crimes. It seems to me the only way out of that legal conundrum is calling what was done "enhanced interrogation techniques" or some such. But to paraphrase Shakespeare in a rather vulgar way, a turd by any other name would smell as rotten.

If I interpret your last lines correctly KB, you believe the left is naive in not recognizing that something "really serious" may happen and if or when it does, the "world will change". I take that to mean after a horrifying attack the world will recognize torture as a legitimate tool for the interrogation of terrorists thus vindicating recent acts endorsed by the right and showing the left as squeamish little wimps lacking the nerve to defend America. Did I overstate that?

Anyway, it seems to me something really serious already did happen and the world did change to the extent a nation that once prosecuted others for using torture now has employed it not just to known terrorists, but to alleged terrorists and likely to folks who were just suspected of knowing something. Perhaps the right is naive not to consider the consequences of giving others license to follow suit.

Miranda, I think you overstate the necessity of frequent implementation of torture. Yes, terrorism has emerged as a grave threat. But I sincerely doubt the imminent threats are as numerous as you imply.

You tout torture as an expedient means of gathering information. It may be in rare instances, but interrogation experts tell us it also is very unreliable and that other methods work better. This, coupled with the extent to which torture demeans those who employ it, should be a of greater concern to all who endorse its use.


And here is the opinion of someone with intement knowledge of what went on and what interrogation methods work: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/23/opinion/23soufan.html?_r=3&partner=rss&emc=rss

Anthony D. Renli


I want to thank you. You consistently have the most well thought out, intellectually honest right wing blogs in South Dakota. While I do disagree with any number of your conclusions and points of view, you are consistent, honest, and insightful. You have made me question some of my assumptions, and that is always a good thing.

You are right – arguing over whether or not waterboarding, walling, stress positions, or slapping of prisoners is torture is hollow at best. The real argument should be “Was it worth it” and “If necessary, should we do it again.”

I’m glad I’m not in a position to have to decide. My gut says no…but that is to a large extent Monday Morning Quarterbacking.



I don't think I made any reference to how frequently I thought torture was necessary. I only said that IF American lives were in danger and torture might save them, then that torture was justified. I am not privy to the details of most of the incidents, so it is hard for me to say which instances were clearly justified and which were not.

You began by making a few blanket statements. You claimed that torture did not work, was not necessary and was not justified. You did not, at first, mention any
exceptions. Rather, you seemed to be saying that torture was never justified.

My intention was to point out that it could be. As it turns out, I think we agree that torture can sometimes be necessary, but that it ought to be justifiable.

You make an interesting point. It is, indeed, important to keep your moral bearing. But who gets to decide which morals we uphold? Americans do not always share the same values. Some people see violence of any kind as immoral. They will not fight in wars. Yet, think of the wars we have fought and what they were for. The founders fought for freedom. Many soldiers in the civil war fought against slavery. Many who fought in the second World War fought to oppose Hitler and to protect America and its interests. Were those men all wrong? Can we fault them for not keeping their moral bearing? I can't.

Is it any more immoral to torture someone than it is to let someone like a Hitler kill innocent men, women and children? In reality sometimes morals clash. And in those cases, you've got to use reason to figure out which to uphold.


The civilized debate between Miranda and Al was excellent. As noted by others, it is so refreshing to read two intelligent people having such a discussion.

I do fear both are naive, however, believing we Americans are or should be so "scrupulous" or so "moral." I doubt either has been in the Army, or at war. I have been both, and trust me, scruples are checked at the door, or you die. We are at war, slow as most people seem to be at accepting the fact. Whining about "sinking to the enemy's level" is puerile - a great thing to discuss over a glass of wine when the fracking war is over, but the war is definitely not over yet. Get back to me on this in about 2020, after we nuke Pakistan.

When my granddaughter is safe, I'll worry about scruples and morals, and value meaningless debates about "Did we do the right thing?". Until then, exigencies rule.


Wow, this has been an impressive exchange. Thanks to Zoot and Anthony for the kind words, and to everyone else who has participated. And by all means keep the thread going.

AI: Yes, I believe the Left is naive in so far as it seems almost blissfully unconcerned with the possibility of a really horrific event and what it might mean. Look up those groups that protest American action against Iran, and see if any of them are even wondering what might happen when Iran goes nuclear. Or consider the long debate over the Iraq war. A reasonable person certainly may think the invasion was a mistake, but what would have happened if we hadn't invaded? At no point did the anti-war forces in Congress or elsewhere seem the slightest bit interested in that question. When the insurgents were at the height of their terror, what would have happened if we had yielded to the anti-war Left and just pulled out and left Iraq to Al Qaeda? What was the alternative to President Bush's surge policy? Senate Leader Harry Reid was asked that as the surge was being considered, and he replied that he didn't want to get into hypotheticals. He hadn't thought about it! He wasn't interested in thinking about it. To ascribe such an attitude to naivete is charity on my part.

Your arguments are thoughtful and informed, but you suggest at least a touch of that same naivete. You say, paraphrasing what you take to be my point, "after a horrifying attack the world will recognize torture as a legitimate tool for the interrogation of terrorists thus vindicating recent acts endorsed by the right and showing the left as squeamish little wimps lacking the nerve to defend America. Did I overstate that?"

You understated it, by a mile. My friend, if a ten pound bag of weapons grade anthrax opens upwind of Chicago on a breezy day, we won't "recognize torture as a legitimate tool for interrogation." We won't give a rat's ass for legitimacy. At that point we will like do anything in our power to restore security. Given our power, that will mean a very changed world. Human and civil rights, the rule of law at home and between nations, such things require a minimum level of security. If you want to keep them, you have to make sure that the unthinkable doesn't happen.

I think the enhanced interrogation techniques were probably a mistake, but that depends on what would have happened if we hadn't used them. Right now, we don't have enough information even to make a judgment call. But these practices were torture with training wheels. The worst things we might have done, judging from what we know now, would look like clemency to someone detained by Hussein, or Kim Jong Il, or one of the Assads. People who talk about us becoming like our enemies (I am not accusing you here) are ridiculously naive.



First of all, thank you for your service. Your assumption is right - at least the part concerning me. I have never been in the army and I have never been to war.
But having had several family members in the service, I have nothing but respect for America's military.

I think you are right that while America is on the battlefield, being terribly scrupulous is not an option. But if we have no morals, what exactly are we fighting for? Perhaps safety. But if America becomes nothing but a bunch of unscrupulous killers, will your granddaughter be safe here? Maybe not.

So, while I may take my position because of naivety, I still think it's a good idea to hold onto morals.


So Ken, since you’re back in the discussion, lets take stock:
Your last post argues the Left is naïve, does not worry about security and that supposed lack of concern about a nuclear Iran and opposition to the Iraq war and/or the surge support that contention.

Left being a relative term, I would argue most of us who opposed invading Iraq did so out of security concerns. We believed an invasion had the potential to suck us into a quagmire of Viet Nam proportions or worse thus detracting from counter terrorism efforts crucial to security. In this instance, I would argue the portion of the Left we represented were not so much naïve as we were cautions and pragmatic. Budget-priced shots though they may be, naïve might better be characterized by Dick Cheney’s assertion that we would be greeted as liberators or Donald Rumsfeld’s that the war would be over in a matter of weeks.

As to Iran, caution again may be a better characterization than lack of concern. A portion of the Left you often cite (the Left not being an ideological monolith) has an anti-Israel bent, as does a fringe on the Right. That does not mean the bulk of the Left does not worry about Iran’s nuclear ambitions or seek solutions to Israeli/Palestinian issues knowing full well the two are linked. They do advocate diplomacy over arms, but that is simply a policy dispute, not a lack of concern.

And Harry Reid’s comments on the surge, well, it’s often difficult to understand where he’s coming from. One thing is for certain, there are few on the left who tout him as a spokesman. To paraphrase Rumsfeld, sometimes you go to congress with the leaders you have.

You say another large-scale attack would lead us to abandon human and civil rights as well as the rule of law at home and between nations to restore security. Which is to say you regard any erosion of these institutions under the Bush Administration as necessary to maintaining security and thus justified in order to avoid greater loss. And again, you associate administration detractors with naiveté.

I agree another attack likely would or at least could be devastating in the terms you cite. The critical point in your argument though is the necessity of the Bush Administration actions. To achieve vindication, Bush policy makers must show traditional means were not viable.

No matter the degree, they did retreat from the no-torture standard codified in both U.S. and international law. As you say, we do not yet know all that transpired. Perhaps there is information that will vindicate administration actions and prove me naïve for questioning their conduct. But ends justifying such means are hard to prove and I think Bush Administration officials were at least equally naïve if they believed they could rewrite decades-old law without being held to account.

You believe the “enhanced interrogation techniques (torture) were ‘probably’ a mistake, but that depends on what would have happened if we hadn't used them.” I believe that codifying torture was a definite mistake, that mistakes have consequences and so we also must ask what negative things have happened or will happen because we did use it.

You note I do not talk of us becoming like our enemies. I actually go a step farther in that I question the advisability of even alluding to a comparison, as in implying there is some grace in our torture being less severe than that of some of the world’s most notorious tyrants. To use your term, I don’t give a rat’s ass what those guys did or would do as I contemplate suitable U.S. interrogation policy.

Which brings us to the probable impetus for this entire exchange, accountability. In your original post (it seems so long ago) you noted: “…President Obama is open to prosecuting the lawyers who advised the Bush Administration that the techniques were legal.” You went on to worry such action would cast a pall over the free offering of legal advice in the future.

There are questions as to whether “advice was freely offered” or whether these lawyers instead were charged with providing legal cover for policy decisions that already had been made. We must consider the so-called torture memos came from the Office of Legal Counsel, which, as part of the Justice Department, is supposed to be independent from Presidential/political influence. Many argue this was not the case during at least some of the Bush years and that, had the memos been properly reviewed, they would not have passed legal muster. Any impropriety was not so much in freely offering advice as in collusion. Thus, if Legal Counsels follow correct protocol, successful prosecution of alleged impropriety by Bush counsel would result in no greater danger of prosecution for future counsels.

Of course I cannot say with certainty that accusations of legal misconduct are legitimate. I do believe we should learn more through an investigation conducted by an entity that is as apolitical as can be created in Washington. Some will call this a partisan witch-hunt, but I see no political gain for Democrats from such an endeavor. It would be messy and ugly with both parties suffering many a sling and arrow. It also would re-establish the principle that no one, including a President, is above the law. And it would be genuinely American.



Your post is thoughtful and thought-provoking as always. Fortunately, I disagree. It is perfectly reasonable to believe that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, and that military action against Iran would be a mistake as well. It is not unreasonable to hope that diplomacy can work instead of arms. But if you are really thinking about the situation, you have to ask yourself: "what if diplomacy doesn't work?" So far as I can tell, the Left relentlessly avoids that question. This plays into the hands of the Saddams and Ayatollahs of the world.

I ask you: do you really believe that Barack Obama is going to work something out with the Iranians? Is that really going to happen? No. So what is the alternative? Let them get the bomb, or stop them from getting the bomb. Which of the two would be worse for us and the rest of the world? If there is a living Democrat who is honestly grappling with that question, he or she is off the grid.

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