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Torture produced no useful intelligence

March 30, 2009

Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic, who has been a constant voice on the Bush administration’s use of torture, discusses a Washington Post article confirming that years of increasingly rigorous torture of suspected Al-Qaeda chief of Operations, Abu Zubaydah, produced no actual intelligence and, in fact, resulted in resources wasted by chasing down false leads.

Here’s the quote used by Sullivan,

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said. Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. . . . None of [their earlier claims] was accurate, the new evidence showed.

The morality, or lack thereof, involved in torture is an issue that will be debated at length in the years to come. But there is another consequence to torture that is highlighted by this article. As a criminal law professor of mine once said years ago, and I’m paraphrasing here: the problem with torture isn’t that it offends our sense of right and wrong, the problem with torture is that it doesn’t work. Please discuss.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. john permalink
    March 30, 2009 5:07 pm

    The “it doesn’t work” line is a cop out. “Work” or “not work” is practical ground, easy for logic and reason to operate on. Morals on the other hand are murkier and involve conviction and belief. Do laws against murder work? to a certain extent sure, but people still murder each other so not completely. Murder is against the law because there is a basic human conviction that it is wrong.

  2. March 30, 2009 6:03 pm

    By that logic, all of our policy choices–and the laws that result from them–would have to first pass a morality test to have any validity or enforceability. Utility and social order would always be secondary to that officially recognized and enforced moral order. I think that approach was tried, and not without some success, for a few thousand years. But the western legal system has evolved into an objective system, sometimes consonant with Judeo-Christian morals, but not necessarily. That evolution took place, in part, in an attempt to develop a body of rules that reflect the values of a religiously pluralistic society. By contrast, if morality is the basis of law, and we’re all entitled to our own morals, then we are each our own self contained legal system, answerable to no one else.

    Legal philosophy aside, the “it doesn’t work” line is just one part of the argument against torture. Of course the morality of torture should be an issue. But when torture, despite compromising our moral standing in the world, also produces shitty results, then there is even more reason to abandon it.

    • john permalink
      March 30, 2009 6:42 pm

      My point is “it doesn’t work” is poor ground to stand on when talking about things like torture and laws against murder. And it seemed from the paraphrased quote from your professor that he was avoiding tougher and more important determinations about torture by claiming “it doesn’t work.” Furthermore morals need not be religious, they can be secular and carefully considered. I would also disagree that we are all entitled to our own morals. Belief is something we need to come to grips with and not allow it to be the purview of hateful bigots. Until then I suppose soulless utilitarian arguments like your professor’s will unfortunately be the strongest ground we can stand on.

      • March 30, 2009 7:13 pm

        In a really interesting coincidence, I was going to title this post, “Soulless Utilitarian Arguments”, but I changed it at the last minute.


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