The conversation: A return to the torture debate
[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?"
"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."
"President George W. Bush, not his successor, constructed the interrogation and warrantless surveillance programs that produced this week's actionable intelligence."
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.
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?
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.
--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