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November 29, 2005

Refuting Objections To Coercive Interrogations

I don't say "torture," because it's not clear to me that any of the techniques used by the CIA or military intel guys are actually "torture." Waterboarding comes the closest, but it's still not torture. Or, at worst, it's a very low-level sort of torture perfectly justified for use against the bastards we're up against.

Let me deal with the objections constantly offered:


There's a risk you will torture the innocent along with the guilty. This is true, but there's a risk you will imprison an innocent man or even put him to death, and yet this risk alone does not make us reject the idea of criminal justice. Nor does the certainty that we will kill innocent civilians in just about any legitimate military action make us reject war in principle.

Further, the odds of torturing a truly innocent soul are fairly low under most conceivable regimes. True enough, if you simply began rounding people up off the street and torturing them you would have a very high risk of torturing innocents. But does anyone believe that is what's being done?

Seriously coercive techniques are restricted to known terrorists and to unknown persons caught red-handed in the commission of terrorist acts. I say that with some confidence despite not knowing what the policy is; it simply seems absurd to me that the American government would torture people they just had a "hunch" might be terrorists.

A Sufficiently Coerced Interogatee Will "Say Anything You Want Him To." This pretty much misses the entire point of gathering intelligence. Getting someone to "say anything you want him to" presupposes you already know what you "want" him to say and just want him to repeat those words -- you want, in other words, a confession.

That's what the North Vietnamese did when they sought confessions of "war crimes." But does anyone imagine that we're torturing people to simply hear them tell us stuff we already know for a fact? To what purpose? That kind of evidence, obtained under coercion, would never fly in any court, including a military one.

No-- we're seeking to have people tell us stuff we don't know, not simply say "Yes, yes" when we give them the answers we're looking for. We want to know: Who is also in your cell? Who commands it? How do you get your orders? Where do you meet? Who provides you with techical expertise? Who pays you? Those are questions to which we do not have the answers to, and the answers to those questions may save lives.

But mightn't an interrogatee simply lie in response to those questions? Of course. Let's deal with that next.

Terrorists Will Lie When Questioned, Or Mix Enough Fiction In With Fact To Make Their Statements Useless As Intelligence. And, um, so will any criminal being interrogated by the police. Criminals don't generally simply confess the details of their crime and give up their compatriots; they lie in ways big and small to suggest their innocence, or cast blame on others, or shield others from blame.

So, gee willickers, why do cops bother quizzing arrestees at all? People arrested and interrogated by cops lie after all! Surely there's no point in asking them questions, right?

Of course there is. Because cops know that at least 75% of what is being told to him is a flat-out lie, and the other 25% is only tangentially related to the truth. But by getting the suspect to commit to a story, and then running that story down and proving its falsehood, they get the suspect to offer a new iteration of his story, which, in many cases, ultimately approaches the actual truth.

The idea that trained interrogators are simply taking a terrorists' say-so as to details of the operation -- and then, I suppose, simply arresting or killing everyone in an identified "safe-house" without staking that supposed safe-house out to confirm it's a terrorist meeting-place -- constitutes the imputation of malicious, malignant stupidity to what are almost certainly men of above-average intelligence.

No, a terrorist is not going to give you the straight dope, the same as no criminal will. At least not at first. But just as police do, a military or CIA interrogator can guide an interrogatee towards a more plausible story-- something approaching the truth -- by confrontation with proof of their lies, plus knitting together the stray details they allow to slip out into a coherent narrative.

If they say that a certain address is a safe house, and yet it turns out to be a simple house inhabited by an elderly couple, you come back with the photos from the stake-out and prove to him you know he's lied. And then you ask the question again.

A criminal or terrorist doesn't have to tell you the truth to provide valuable intelligence. You can often divine the truth from his half-truths and even his outright lies.

Will such interrogations always be successful? Of course they won't be. But neither are most police interrogations useful. That doesn't mean we abandon conducting them because only 40% of them will result in useful information.

Terrorists Will Delay Offering Up Useful Intelligence Until It's Stale. That's what American soldiers are trained to do. But for a terrorist, it's not so easy to accomplish. Because there's an awful lot that a terrorist can tell you that doesn't easily go stale.

There's no point asking a captured US Serviceman who his superior officer is, or from whom he receives his orders. You can look that up easily enough on the internet. If you know his unit, you can figure out most of the chain of command with a day's worth of research.

Neither is their any point asking where he meets, where he sleeps, where he eats. The location of American military bases in foreign territory is not exactly a well-kept secret. See where the B-52's are landing? See where the truck convoys originate from? There's your base.

How do you communicate in the field? Well, um, the radio, the satellite phone. Not really a major mystery as regards a captured American POW.

But information like that as regards terrorists is hidden from us, and it is vitally important we have it. The only advantage terrorists have is their ability to hide. Were they out in the open like a lawful army, we'd kill them within a few hours. They hide. They sneak messages through couriers whose faces we don't know, and on internet accounts we haven't heard of. They meet in secret safe-houses.

Finding out any of that information from a terrorist will lead to further arrests and will result in less innocent human beings being maimed or murdered.

A soldier's orders go stale after a few days in most cases. Soldiers aren't briefed as regards plans coming months down the road.

But terrorists often are. They, too, try to withhold information until absolutely necessary to divulge. But a terrorist can't just put together five major car bombs in a day. If he's ordered to contruct those bombs, he's going to be working on it for a week. And capturing one of his confederates during that time may lead directly to the bombs.

Furthermore, terrorists are only in intermittant contact with each other. That's how you keep hidden from prying eyes and prying radio receivers -- you limit communications. But that means that it might be a week or even a month before a terror cell becomes generally aware that one of its members has been snatched, and that they had better change their patterns and locations posthaste if they don't want to see a brigade of Marines surrounding their home.

Finally:

Coercion Just Doesn't Work. The easiest one to take care of. It does work -- more often than not. Ask John McCain. Or ask a professional torturer, who found out the location of a quite-literal ticking time bomb by putting a plastic bag over a terrorist's head and filling it with gasoline.

Many of the techniques of tough interrogation aren't even torture or immediately coercive in the sense that the twisting of an arm is. They rely on weakeing the body, through poor diet, discomfort, and sleep deprivation, and thereby weakening the will.

Those techniques work for cultists attempting to bring new members into the cult. Give someone a meager number of calories for a time, deprive him of a full night of restful sleep for a couple of weeks, and you will have a zoned-out person on your hands, in a zombielike state between alertness and napping on his feet. Or deprive him of human contact for a few months and you will find you suddenly have someone who's willing to talk -- chit-chat at first, of course, but willing to speak to simply overcome the intense loneliness of months in a dark box.

None of these techniques are "moral" in and of themselves. They become moral, however, when weighed against the immorality of letting proveably innocent civilians be murdered in the street, and when the sheer monstrosity of these people is considered.

Given the choice between a schoolgirl having her legs blown off by a bomb placed in a schoolyard, or causing a monster some emotional distress and physical pain, I choose the latter.

And this is no hypothetical. Terrorists kill. That's what they do. They are plotting to kill innocent human beings at all times. And if left unmolested, if given enough time, it is a 100% certainty that they will kill or maim within a matter of months if not weeks.

There is a moral hazard in waterboarding a known terrorist. It's cruel and painful treatment, to be sure.

But there is a greater moral hazard in allowing him to remain silent as his confederates -- who he knows by name and face, and whom he could identify, if forced to -- blow up a schoolbus or police station.

The anti-"torture" brigade never lowers itself to explain why, if misery is to be suffered, it should not be bourne by those plotting mayhem and murder rather than their would-be victims. They simply avoid the question entirely by asserting, over and over, "Coercion/torture doesn't work anyhow."

It does, and it's both disingenuous and immoral to refuse to honestly answer such a vital question truthfully.

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posted by Ace at 04:00 PM

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