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The conversation: A return to the torture debate


The debate over torturing detainees for information is back, much to the dismay of Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, who writes:

[T]he only reason we are having this discussion at all is because we have tortured people. That's the problem with doing stupid things: You spend the rest of your life trying to convince yourself that maybe they weren't so stupid after all. Had we not water-boarded prisoners eight years ago, nobody would be making the argument that water-boarding "worked." The reason you don't order up torture in the first place is that once you do, it stays on the menu for years.

Shortly after President Obama's announcement that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed, defenders of "enhanced interrogation techniques" claimed victory. Here's a sampling:

"Wonder what President Obama thinks of waterboarding now?"

-- Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) via Time


"There has been a lot of debate in this country about our detention and interrogation policy, but this is probably one of the clearest examples of the extraordinary value of the information we have been able to gather from the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. If we did not have access to this information, Osama bin Laden would likely still be operating undetected today."

-- Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss via Time


"President George W. Bush, not his successor, constructed the interrogation and warrantless surveillance programs that produced this week's actionable intelligence."

--Former government lawyer John Yoo via the Atlantic


Subsequently, outspoken critics have taken to playing Whac-A-Mole this week. Here is what a few have written:

It's easy to understand why supporters of waterboarding would invoke the May 1 operation to defend its use. Even as they bask in the afterglow of snaring the world’s most despised fugitive, politicians have a hard time passing up a chance to say they told you so. Obama decried waterboarding, which violates international treaties and which the U.S. had previously prosecuted as torture, framing it as an emblem of how the Bush Administration trampled American values in its stampede to fight the war on terror. No wonder the architects and defenders of the Administration’s interrogation policies, such as John Yoo and Marc Thiessen, are rushing to rehabilitate public perceptions of the practice.

And yet, arguing that the strike on bin Laden was the "direct result" of Bush Administration interrogation policies is, at best, a stretch.

--Alex Altman, Time


To have a renewed public debate, or at least widespread reports of one, it's apparently enough that some connected people in and out of official Washington who were in favor of torture ten years ago are still in favor of it today and especially so in the wake of the biggest intelligence success in recent U.S. history. Never mind the intervening legal and political and diplomatic disaster that our torture policies wrought. There is nothing quite like a dramatic change in shipping news to bring the rats back to the ship, right? And, really, is anyone surprised that Liz Cheney and company would try to take full advantage of perhaps their last best chance to alter the way in which historians will view the Bush team's odious terror law policies?

--Andrew Cohen, the Atlantic


Even if it were true that some tidbit was blurted out by a prisoner while being tormented by C.I.A. interrogators, that does not remotely justify Mr. Bush’s decision to violate the law and any acceptable moral standard. […]

There are many arguments against torture. It is immoral and illegal and counterproductive. The Bush administration’s abuses — and ends justify the means arguments — did huge damage to this country’s standing and gave its enemies succor and comfort. If that isn’t enough, there is also the pragmatic argument that most experienced interrogators think that the same information, or better, can be obtained through legal and humane means.

--New York Times editorial, via Faith in Public Life


Going nowhere on Gitmo

Bin Laden is dead, now end the wars

Rethinking victory in Abbottabad in Osama bin Laden’s favor

A change of venue might have brought Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to U.S.

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Demonstrator Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is held down during a simulation of waterboarding outside the Justice Department in Washington on Nov. 5, 2007. Credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters


Comments () | Archives (17)

The comments to this entry are closed.


I think the sucessful raid based on intelligence procurred through uncomfortable interrogation techniques ended the debate. Waterboarding is an important last ditch technique to use in situations of national security.

Peter Angermeier

The answer's easier than we think. We are at war, people.

You're the CIA operative making the call to use these techniques in a situation where you KNOW you'll likely get information to save thousands of innocent lives, maybe even someone you know, or love.

And you either make the call, or take full responsibility for not making the call.

It would be foolish to broadcast to the world that we'll never use the enhanced techniques, even if we don't plan to. Just having them nearby gives us great leverage. Let's keep the bad guys guessing, shall we?

Mark L Holland

The problem is that none of the tortured information was involved in the killing of Bin Laden. The CIA has stated over and over again, that torture is not a reliable means of getting accurate or actionable intelligence. Bush was simply have flash backs to the Crusades and Dark Ages when he authorized such garbage.


There were only three terrorists water boarded. All were in CIA custody and not at Gitmo. It took Presidential approval to do this. Like it or not, it provided a clue, a single lead that lead to multiple other clues worked on for years, eventually leading to getting Bin Laden.

Terrorism is not over. If there is a plot uncovered regarding a nuke planted in a U.S. city, and that explosion can be avoided with so called "enhanced interrogation techniques" this President will no doubt authorize the use not only of water boarding, but of what ever else will work to stop a nuke going off. Anyone who believes otherwise is very naive. Terrorism is an ugly business. There are those who don't care about blowing themselves up along with thousands of innocents.


Balderdash! Torture gets what you want to hear, not what you need to hear. As Cheney/Rumsfeld claimed directly: it's excellent at getting the confessions you need for conviction (this by those most fervent about its use). If the strongest argument that can be made for torture is that a mere 10 years passed before finding a weakened, irrelevant murderer hiding in plain sight, that's not much support.


it is already established Torture does not provide credible information. period. The Chineese used torture, and they violate civil rights daily.

Do we want to be in the same company as China regarding human rights concerns?

We are still having thsi debate because some ignorant people believe credibhle information comnes from torture. Common sense tells us that nothig positive comes from something so negative. i have heard the argument what if it was your family and they wanted information. The CIA does not operate in American soil and it is illegal to torture American's on American soil, which is why we torture in foreign countries like Arabic countries that we claim to be superior to, and we act no more humane than.

The pot calling the kettle black! Torture is torture and now America is known for comitting the most henious acts of torture against humanity.

Max Plank

Torture? Here is a short description of how some German POW's were treated: "The statements which were admitted as evidence were obtained from men who had first been kept in solitary confinement for three, four, and, five months. They were confined between four walls, with no windows, and no opportunity of exercise. Two meals a day were shoved in to them through a slot in the door. They were not allowed to talk to anyone. They had no communication with their families or any minister or priest during that time. This solitary confinement proved sufficient in itself in some cases to persuade the Germans to sign prepared statements. These statements not only involved the signer, but often would involve other defendants. Our investigators would put a black hood over the accused's head and then punch him in the face with brass knuckles, kick him, and beat him with rubber hose. Many of the German defendants had teeth knocked out. Some had their jaws broken.".


The facts are as described in the full AP story, which apparently some commenters failed to read, and didn't bother to check out international news sources either.

According to all credible news sources, Khalid Sheik Mohammed did NOT reveal the courier's names under torture, rather "many months later under standard interrogation."

There is no need to torture anyone for information-- there are psychological techniques that do the job better. The CIA itself has said that our torture of prisoners was being used as a tool for terrorist recruitment.

At Nuremberg, the world decided that no matter what the rationale, torture was immoral and indefensible, and made it illegal.

Torture is against every single American principle of equality and justice for all. It is against every single religious principle of love and compassion even for your enemies.

The many unconstitutional things that have been done in the name of the "war on terror" and the fact that so many people agree with going against our constitution, suggest that we have lost our democracy to the terrorists already.

Mark L Holland

The information on the courier was obtained thru normal interigations, it was the lies told by others during torture saying that the courier was unimportant that lead to the investigation.

Torture did not uncover prevously unkown informations.

Mark L Holland

To Ms Bhaven

After reading you post in full all I can says is.: Yes


Enhanced interrogation techniques. Hot diggity-dog, who came up with that? I must confess it sounds so much better than 'torture'. Just the word itself, 'torture' conjures up the worst images . Now the term enhanced interrogation techniques, well it sounds so refined. It doesn't evoke the mind-numbing scenarios that the "T" word does. Like I always say,it doesn't matter if you spell it with four letters(s---) or ten(defecation)--it still stinks.


Gotta agree with you Mark, it does sometimes seem like we're going back to the Dark Ages.

Max Plank


No. We did far worse during WWII, i.e. Japanese internment, etc.

It is only unconstitutional if 5 black robes on the Supreme Court say that it is.

Mark L Holland

During WWII a German submariner was captured, he became a intelligence source for the Allies. When they were finished with him they transferred him to a POW camp for submariners. The problem was that some of the POW's were from the same crew that were captured when he was captured and knew that he had been acting as an informant.

He was killed, the commander of the POW camp began investigations into the death. The POW's were electrocuted, made to sit naked on Steam Heaters and were beaten, after several weeks of investigation most of the crew members that had served with the informant were taken and hung. I think it was 7 to 9 that were executed.

Yep the United States of America has never in it's 200+ year history committed one sin nor one act of evil, but has been attack by the demons of hell because we are so righteous in the eyes of the one and only true living God. Darn now I feel like throwing up.


When I was being raised , I was told the United States was a beacon of freedom to the world.

Turns out it was all a lie. There have been times in recent years that I've been ashamed to be an American.

We call ourselves a democracy. Where the will of the people is law. The reality is we fear our own government now, and something has gone horribly wrong with us as a nation.



I think we should re-visit the debate on FDR's extraordinary efforts to imprison without due process American citizens in WWII. Also, we should re-visit the debate on Truman incinerating innocent civilians through tortuous radiation in WWII. While we are at it, let's revisit the debate on killing thousands upon thousands of fetuses in America in the name of convenience and irresponsibility. Meanwhile, we obsess over water-boarding of enemy combatants and mass-murderers. What, 5 of them? Or was it even fewer? Can't remember. Oh well. Ho hum.

Anyways, congrats to Cowboy Obama and his dismissal of a country's sovereignty, dismissal of due process, and executing a bad guy in cold blood. Well done Cowboy Obama - the dude is a drone killer and baddest sheriff in town. No need for interrogations, no need for due process, no need for prisons. Brilliant.


We prosecuted the Japanese for the same thing, and we called it a crime at the time. If we become them, what is our point? Where is our moral high ground?

John McCain, who WAS tortured says it does not work. I will take him at his word.



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