Tortured Logic

Does the killing of Osama bin Laden vindicate the use of torture?


An old joke: "Why do elephants paint their toenails red?" I don't know. "So they can hide in the tomato patch." There are no elephants in the tomato patch. "See? It works."

That's the sort of logic deployed by defenders of the Bush administration's torture program. After being waterboarded, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed admitted knowing someone later found to be Osama bin Laden's courier. The CIA eventually located the man and followed him to the house where bin Laden was killed. Voila! The information from Mohammed vindicates these methods.

But it turns out that Mohammed also lied about the courier, saying he was a retired nobody. From this, CIA officials now claim, they knew the guy had to be a big deal. It was a crucial clue.

That's right: When tortured detainees provide truthful information, they prove torture works, and when they lie, they prove it works. If Mohammed had broken into a chorus of "Y.M.C.A.," that would have proved the same.

This bizarre reasoning is one of the many oddities about the defense of torture. Another is that the advocates never, ever refer to it as torture.

Mark Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote a column for The Washington Post defending what he called "enhanced interrogation techniques." Former Justice Department official John Yoo referred to them as "tough interrogations."

Let's be more specific. Mohammed underwent simulated drowning 183 times. Methods used on him and others, reports The New York Times, include "slamming prisoners into walls, shackling them in stress positions and keeping them awake as long as 180 hours." The CIA admitted making detainees stand for up to 40 hours and dousing naked captives with cold water in chilled cells.

If treatment like this were inflicted on captured American soldiers, no American would dispute that it was torture. But when we resort to it, the likes of Thiessen and Yoo can't bring themselves to use the honest term. Calling it "enhanced interrogation" is like calling the Alabama tornadoes "enhanced weather."

The evidence that vicious methods work is modest. Matthew Alexander, who wrote about his experience as a military interrogator in Iraq in his book Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious al Qaeda Terrorist, says that far from being helpful, brutality usually makes it harder to get information from a prisoner.

Alexander, an Air Force Reserve officer who conducted or supervised some 1,300 interrogations using traditional techniques, told me, "I was surprised that the people we thought would be the hardest were the easiest to interrogate."

He cites the case of a Muslim scholar, a high-level al-Qaida operative who was "as hard-core as you could find." Using a non-coercive approach, "in six hours I convinced him to cooperate."

How can it be that a violent, determined enemy of the United States could be persuaded to talk without extreme measures? "He's human, he's not a robot," says Alexander. By establishing a personal connection, interrogators can induce prisoners to open up. But if detainees are abused, he found, "they quit talking."

Sometimes, no doubt, torture can loosen a tongue. But once a high-value operative is brutalized, there is no way to know what he might have divulged under more patient, humane interrogation. If he spills secrets after being waterboarded, it "proves" that torture works. If he withholds information, it "proves" that nothing else would have sufficed.

But what if torture does sometimes work? Mere effectiveness is not enough to justify it. Yoo was once asked about the legality of "crushing the testicles of a person's child," and he did not rule it out.

Why should he? If torturing a terrorist failed, wouldn't we be justified in torturing his wife or his children to get the truth?

If waterboarding is OK, why not crushing testicles? Why not pulling out fingernails? Why not the most agonizing methods an evil mind could devise? The advocates of waterboarding are much more eager to declare what is allowed than what is forbidden—if anything.

In the end, they don't really care about imposing limits, and they don't really care if torture is effective or not. Torture, in the minds of its apologists, is not a means to a good result. It's a good result all by itself.