PolySciFi Blog

Saturday, January 15, 2005


Re: Waaaaay down the page

In this post, Matt 1) asks me a direct question on waterboarding, 2) claims that we've never gotten results from coercive interrogations, and 3) provides instances of what he believes are not quite torture. I'll respond to these in order.

1) First the question. Jody, do you consider waterboarding torture?

No, I do not. However, let's make certain everyone understands what waterboarding is and why I do not think it constitutes torture. This requires me to a) define waterboarding, b) provide my definition of torture, c) show how waterboarding does not satisfy my definition of torture.

a) Waterboarding, n, the process of simulating or threatening someone with drowning

That's my definition. But let's see how some in the media on the right (WSJ) and on the left (NYT) define it. Ultimately, my definition satisfies both definitions.

The Wall Street Journal says waterboarding "involves strapping a detainee down, wrapping his face in a wet towel and dripping water on it to produce the sensation of drowning."

The New York Times has a similar definition, "[a process] in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown." (that's actually a Common Dreams reproduction of the original NYT article)

Note that in both cases no ACTUAL drowning occurs. The prisoner, detainee, kid in the swimming pool (by my definition, waterboarding happened a lot to me growing up), is made to think that he might drown, but is not actually drowned.

b) torture - n - a physical act performed with the malicious intent of causing a long lasting injury or extreme (physical) pain

There's several subtleties in this definition that neccessitate further discussion.

First, nothing in the definition says anything about interrogation. When a kid tortures an animal, obviously he's not trying to get information out of the animal. (Mr Rabbit, you better tell me where you hid the carrots, or else!!) So obviously the process of extracting information is not central to the concept of torture.

Second, I am distinctly excluding threats of torture from the definition of torture. From a purely linguistic viewpoint, if threats of torture were themselves torture, why would we make the differentiation in our language? Second, I can't see how the threat of an action is even remotely comparable to the actual action. Anyone who honestly believes that the pen is mightier than the sword has never brought a pen to a sword fight.

Third, malicious intent is important. Accidentally lopping off someone's finger is not torture. Even if during interrogation. It's an accident. It's not torture. It may or may not be prosecutable (endangering circumstances and such).

Fourth, I am placing heavy emphasis on physical injuries. Sorry, psychological injuries just don't cut it with me. Besides messing with someone's mind is critical to an interrogation.

Fifth, extreme is unfortunately a vague word and what constitutes "extreme pain" varies from person to person. Because of that, I think there is a place for discussion as to what is and is not torture.

c) With those definitions in mind, I think it's rather clear why I do not consider waterboarding torture. No actual drowning occurs. Thus no long lasting damage occurs. No real pain is being caused by the simulation or threat of drowning.

Now if it crosses intentionally into drowning (death or brain damage are pretty long lasting damage), then we've got torture. Also, even in the pasted in article, the author agrees with me that waterboarding is not torture.
"techniques such as waterboarding, threats of live burial, and threats of rendition to nations that do torture. Those forms of highly coercive interrogation, going just up to the line of "torture" without going over"
2. Coercive interrogation does produce results
Specifically, I'm responding to the line, "But in the absence of any emperical evidence showing torture or coercive interrogations to produce good intel, I don't see any reason for it."

This myth that coercive interrogations do not produce good intel is quite dangerous because it logically leads to the conclusion that Matt (and Sullivan) have drawn - there's no need for coercive interrogation.

However, this premise is flawed as to believe that coervice interrogation does not or, rather more explicitly, cannot produce good intel is to ignore every day experience. The utility of coercion and the threat of coercion is the foundation of all law. Only the most committed anarchists don't believe in the efficacy of coercion in producing desired behavioral changes.

More to point, coercion and the threat of coercion are used thousands of times a day in eliciting information in the legal system. And I'm not even referring to the good cop-bad cop routine used in police stations across America. I'm referring to testimony in court or before Congress and perjury. Perjury is coercive technique. Either you tell the truth or you go to jail. Sometimes (shock) even to solitary confinement!!!! We're torturing witnesses daily!!!! At least if we apply the ICRC's definition of what's "tantamount to torture."

Ultimately, if you believe that perjury laws are effective tools in eliciting truthful testimony, then why wouldn't you believe that other properly applied coercion techniques would do the same?

But what the heck, I can be even more on point. The discussion started with waterboarding, and I can give results of good intelligence yielded from waterboarding.

Khalid Shaikh Muhammad was captured in Pakistan sometime in Spring 2003 and is widely reported to have been waterboarded. Like in the NYT. That's only the abstract of the article as it's an old piece. However, the money quote for my purposes is still there.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, thought to have helped plan 9/11 terror attacks, was strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown.
So KSM was waterboarded.

At the time a number of articles appeared describing the information that we got out of KSM. For instance, the BBC (that notorious right wing rag), headlined an article on KSM with "Al-Qaeda interrogation 'yields results.'" One such piece of info from this interrogation cited in the article led to a raising of security levels in the US...
Intelligence about his activities was partly behind a decision by the US Government to put the country on the second-highest level of alert last month, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said.
As a more specific result of coercive interrogation of KSM (and the actual bit of info that caused the alert to be raised), (link)
In the Sept. 11 commission's final report, Mr. Mohammed is said to have told his interrogators that he dispatched Mr. Hindi, under the name Issa al-Britani, to case potential economic targets in New York.

It is not clear whether Mr. Mohammed was talking about the same reconnaissance described in surveillance reports that the authorities found in Pakistan last month. But those surveillance operations are important because they were behind the Bush administration's decision, announced on Aug. 1, to elevate the threat level in the three parts of the United States.
Then from a paper in Pakistan,
According to Khabrain (November 1, 2004) 29-year old Dr Afia Siddiqi in Boston — with her husband then — got involved with Al Qaeda, creating funds for it through smuggling of diamonds. She often went to Liberia in this connection. On her return to Pakistan she told her father that she was going to meet her uncle but disappeared and has been missing for a year and a half. After some days someone came to her mother and asked her to keep her mouth shut. Al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Muhammad revealed details about her after his arrest.
While we may not never know beyond a metaphysical doubt what information came from coercive interrogation and what info came from KSM just being a nice talkative guy, I feel safe in assuming that whatever information we got out of him was from the coercive interrogation techniques. But then again, I don't believe in metaphysical certainty. At all. (Irony intended)

Bottom line. Coercive interrogation techniques do yield valuable intelligence. To believe otherwise is to ignore widely available and widely reported empirical evidence and to ignore common sense (perjury laws).

3. Why the instances cited are not torture
The instances cited (waterboarding, threats of burial, and threats of being sent somewhere where they really will be tortured) are not torture because they're just threats. Threats are not torture under my (and I believe most people's) definition of torture.

There's room for debate on the subject. And debate is needed. What is and is not extreme pain. How much of a temperature variation is too much? What techniques are appropriate for which circumstances?

However, I find the current call from some quarters for an end to all coercive interrogation techniques rather foolish (cough Sullivan cough). It denies us avenues for intel and as I mentioned yesterday, if that becomes our official policy on interrogation, then we'll have to stop taking prisoners.


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