Rumsfeld vs. Panetta on The Value of Torture in Finding Bin Laden


Former Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tells Newsmax:

"The United States Department of Defense did not do waterboarding for interrogation purposes to anyone. It is true that some information that came from normal interrogation approaches at Guantanamo did lead to information that was beneficial in this instance. But it was not harsh treatment and it was not waterboarding."

He adds:

"No one was waterboarded at Guantanamo Bay. That's a myth that's been perpetrated around the country by critics."

Eh, not sure how much the location of U.S.-administered or -approved torture matters and that sort of detail makes me think that Rummy is already justifying various levels of deception in the playgrounds of his mind. Read more here

And then there's current CIA director Leon Panetta, who told NBC News:

"We had multiple series of sources that provided information with regards to this situation… clearly some of it came from detainees [and] they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of those detainees," he told NBC anchor Brian Williams.

When asked by Williams if water-boarding was part of the "enhanced interrogation techniques," Panetta simply said "that's correct."

Read more at The Daily Caller. And watch Panetta here, where he immediately follows up with the qualifier that it's "an open question" whether un-"enhanced interrogation" techniques might have yielded the same info.

Without getting into the question of whether torture is justified, there's the more basic question of whether it occurred in this instance. You've got to assume that Panetta is the better source in this situation given that he's currently part of the nation's security and foreign policy team and hence more likely to have inside information. By the same token, the confusion emanating from the White House and its furious rewriting of the details surrounding Bin Laden's death is hardly confidence-building on that or any other front.

One thing seems fully clear: However the info was gotten, this wasn't a ticking-time-bomb scenario that was regularly and ritualistically invoked to promote torture in the early days of the Global War on Terror. Apart from intelligence gathering going back years, the operation on the Pakistani compound where Bin Laden was holed up started last August by all accounts. He wasn't about to slip away into the mists of the night, thus necessitating an immediate interrogation of an unwilling target.

The debate over torture in this case and as a larger matter is important. Mark Bowden's 2003 Atlantic story "The Dark Art of Interrogation" is an essential starting point. Bowden concludes,

As long as it remains illegal to torture, the interrogator who employs coercion must accept the risk. He must be prepared to stand up in court, if necessary, and defend his actions. Interrogators will still use coercion because in some cases they will deem it worth the consequences. This does not mean they will necessarily be punished. In any nation the decision to prosecute a crime is an executive one. A prosecutor, a grand jury, or a judge must decide to press charges, and the chances that an interrogator in a genuine ticking-bomb case would be prosecuted, much less convicted, is very small….

The Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter. Candor and consistency are not always public virtues. Torture is a crime against humanity, but coercion is an issue that is rightly handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy; it should be banned but also quietly practiced. Those who protest coercive methods will exaggerate their horrors, which is good: it generates a useful climate of fear. It is wise of the President to reiterate U.S. support for international agreements banning torture, and it is wise for American interrogators to employ whatever coercive methods work. It is also smart not to discuss the matter with anyone.

If interrogators step over the line from coercion to outright torture, they should be held personally responsible. But no interrogator is ever going to be prosecuted for keeping Khalid Sheikh Mohammed awake, cold, alone, and uncomfortable. Nor should he be.

I don't agree with Bowden's closing argument but I do think he perfectly captures the unabashed ambivalence that many Americans, especially those well-informed and in positions of actual power, feel about torture and its use in certain situations. That's why the issues he raises (and the material he synthesizes in his award-winning story, which catalogues in detail the limited amount of good information that actually comes from brutalizing captives) are important to discuss. That his article was written in 2003, however, should give pause to torture enthusiasts who assumed that its widespread use and wink-wink-nudge-nudge tolerance would speed along the finale ultimo in the war on terror.

As those of us who were appalled by George W. Bush's foreign policy and are equally troubled by Barack Obama's can tell you, foreign policy and all its attendant concerns—including torture, the waging of war, and executive power—are where philosophical consistency and principle go to die. Arguably more appalling is the speed with which the supporters of each flip sides on important questions. They don't even need to be pushed very hard, much less tortured. Too many partisans are quick to switch sides on supposedly uncrossable barricades simply because it's their bastard dialing up the juice, or applying the stimulus (however defined). Long after the question of whether torture lead to the killing of Bin Laden (may his worst nightmare be his eternal damnation), we'll be dealing with the ugliness of that glimpse into the human soul.