Please explain to me how we are having this godawful stupid debate.
[P]sychologists and other specialists, commissioned by the Intelligence Science Board, make the case that more than five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has yet to create an elite corps of interrogators trained to glean secrets from terrorism suspects.
While billions are spent each year to upgrade satellites and other high-tech spy machinery, the experts say, interrogation methods — possibly the most important source of information on groups like Al Qaeda — are a hodgepodge that date from the 1950s, or are modeled on old Soviet practices.
Future generations can argue whether 9/11 made a subset of Americans so loopy that they lost the moral compass altogether, or the terror attacks just offered a golden chance to let those ugly impulses hang out in the open. Consistent with my conservation of craziness principle I will side with the idea that every country has levelheaded folks and complete fruitcakes, the unique culture and political structure of each nation determining which group generally occupies leadership positions. This line of reasoning always leads back to Bob Altmeyer’s work, so go read a few chapters if you haven’t done so already.
My Conservation of Craziness principle looks especially good when you consider how deeply we have fallen down the rabbit hole in such a short span of time. Our topmost leaders don’t mind cribbing interrogation policy from not one but both bugbears of the twentieth century. No GOP challenger can win today without supporting explicit torture of American captives with no binding limitations regarding who, when or how. At the most recent GOP debate the torture-stoked audience* only quieted down when John McCain suggested that torturing prisoners is wrong. To put it frankly, an entire class of America did not spontaneously go insane some time in the last six or seven years. The sick mentality exposed by this torture debate has percolated beneath the surface for as long as any country has existed. America was a great nation not because we lacked howling torture boosters but because people like that felt ashamed to express themselves in public.
But then some folks have proven immune to the deontological angle of the torture debate. Who cares if torture is morally wrong, they argue, or how deeply it degrades us as a nation as long as “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a phrase coined by the gestapo) gets results? It might make us safer. And don’t forget about those apocryphal ticking bombs! It’s a fair question that deserves an answer.
[I]n meetings with intelligence officials and in a 325-page initial report completed in December, the researchers have pressed a more practical critique: there is little evidence, they say, that harsh methods produce the best intelligence.
The idea that torture has little value for gathering intel should surprise exactly nobody. The Soviets honestly didn’t care that much about gathering reliable intelligence – they had enough informers on most city blocks for that. The techniques that they developed and we copied only existed break down prisoners until they confess to whatever bogus crime the state felt like charging them with that day. Needless to say prisoners in American custody have done exactly the same thing, and as a result we have wasted countless time and money chasing leads that proved meaningless.
So in the absence of either a deontological or a utilitarian justification, why exactly are we having this debata? Military and civilian interrogation experts almost universally opposed the rule. Military JAG officers had to be ordered out of detention centers to keep their objections from gumming the works. The only thing I can conclude is that some people, sadly in the most elevated positions of American government, just have some visceral attraction to the idea of torture. In that sense prisoner abuse is not that different from abstinence-only sex ed or tax cuts for the rich. It doesn’t matter whether it works or serves America’s interests, they just like it.
(*) Giuliani’s comment (“anything my interrogators can think of”) was chilling on its face, but especially so in light of Abner Louima. Giuliani knows full well what unrestrained officers can think of.