What this Doesn’t Say About Torture

From some sources:

Officials say CIA interrogators in secret overseas prisons developed the first strands of information that ultimately led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Current and former U.S. officials say that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, provided the nom de guerre of one of bin Laden’s most trusted aides. The CIA got similar information from Mohammed’s successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Both were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics inside CIA prisons in Poland and Romania.

It’s a far cry from this to the conclusion, “torture works.” Unknowns include what the same subjects would’ve said absent torture — more, less, or the same. The name of an aide, for example, is relatively low-value information, that only appears valuable sitting where we are today. Call this the classic case of the bad decision with a good result: torturers could not have known, ex ante, whether information from KSM was reliable, useful, or just another lie or red herring.

Twice in a thousand cases, it seems, we obtained, through torture, a small piece of a much, much larger puzzle, that ultimately led to the death of Al Qaeda’s leader more than half a decade later. Along the way, we tortured dozens of innocents, and dozens of guilty men, without anything good coming of it. It’s a rare mind that considers the issue resolved on those facts.

Update: nevermind?


  1. Actually Ames, I think its a rare mind that DOESN’T consider the issue resolved on those facts. Twice in 2000 tries is almost statistically insignificant, especially when you consider that expert interrogators can obtain such information without torture in most instances. Thus we need to emphatically say again that torture is both deeply morally abhorrent, and also against the highest laws of our land.

  2. Well, you know I agree with you on that. The closer was pitched to those who don’t agree with us.

  3. Steve · ·

    Torturing dozens of guilty men is a good in and of itself. Granted, it should be done only after conviction at a fair trial, not before or absent trial. But I don’t think it’s possible for “we tortured dozens of guilty men without anything good coming of it” to be a true statement.

    You’re absolutely right, though, that there’s no evidence to be gained here that torture as interrogation works or is a good thing.

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