Torture Is Just another Failed Government Program

Full-disclosure, even though I think torture is a failure as a routine program, I don’t know that it is sinful in all circumstances. (See more below.)

waterboarding illustration

The Senate’s torture report is out. Here is the interpretation pushed by the regime mouthpiece (I mean the New York Times, of course). Also note this NYT story about the internal fights inside the CIA over the torture.

I’ve heard noise that the report is an attack on the Bush Administration, but that is not so clear from what I read of the main story. Consider the lead paragraph:

A scathing report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday found that the Central Intelligence Agency routinely misled the White House and Congress about the information it obtained from the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, and that its methods were more brutal than the C.I.A. acknowledged either to Bush administration officials or to the public.

So just like only untrained, low-level soldiers went to jail for torture in Afghanistan (see the documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side) so now it is all the CIA’s fault and everyone in the Administration and in Congress is shocked, shocked!

I’m skeptical that the CIA was acting so autonomously. Of course, it would be completely credible to learn that elected officials insisted that the CIA get results and not reveal how they were obtained. It would be credible to learn of the same behavior of Obama regarding the NSA.

How much of this report is true and accurate? It is hard to say. The Republican members of the committee disagreed with it. Both parties could be accused of bias.

The most heart-wrenching thing, to my mind, is the report that people close to the torture begged to stop it, but were ordered to continue by people in authority who weren’t there.

The torture of prisoners at times was so extreme that some C.I.A. personnel tried to put a halt to the techniques, but were told by senior agency officials to continue the interrogation sessions.

The main debate seems to center on whether or not torture “worked.” I’m sure that Republicans will point to something that was discovered through torture—but it looks really likely at this point that the torture success stories were mostly inaccurate CIA propaganda.

For torture to “work” it needs to be an efficient way to provide accurate information. This sounds like a rather difficult task. How do you know the statements you elicited under torture are true? It seems just as likely that torture would produce false information. And if you induce sleeplessness to wear down resistance, how do you know that the resulting ravings are going to be connected to reality? The longer this process takes, the more likely it is that the suspect’s knowledge will be of no value.

Ever since seeing the movie “Dirty Harry” in my youth, I have believed there are circumstances that could justify torture. I can imagine situations (though I don’t know of any that have happened in real life) where, if I were on the jury, I would refuse to convict a torturer.

But that bare possibility is completely different than saying that a program of routine torture is a good idea—or even ethical. After all, in theory, the TSA’s nudie scanners might possibly stop a terrorist from taking life. In real life they are nothing but a humiliation and a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In real life, the TSA has never stopped any terrorist attack. In real life, many TSA personnel have been found guilty of illegal thefts, above and beyond their criminal peeping on innocent Americans.

I don’t see any reason to assume that CIA “interrogators” are going to be morally superior to TSA agents.

And any good that someone can prove resulted from this torture program has to be put in the balance with the costs that have resulted from it. Right now many neo-conservatives have suddenly discovered “blowback”—warning that the report is going to cause death and destruction overseas as retaliation. Well, if torture is such a threat to national security, maybe we would have saved more lives and more effectively preserved global peace by failing to implement a torture policy. To admit that reports of torture will cause blowback is to admit that we had a chance to be a model of restraint and civility in how we dealt with our prisoners, but that we decided to become known as an international torture regime instead. How has that been working out for us?

This brings me to the conservative lesson I think needs to be learned.

Ultimately, torture was just another Obamacare—a utopian dream that did far more damage than anything it helped. Unlike Obamacare, national security is a legitimate need that the state is supposed to provide. But that doesn’t mean that every program it develops to provide such a good is efficient. Government can fail and be counterproductive even when it is pursuing a legitimate function.

But with people in government, there is not just a desire to pursue a function. There is also the felt need to make people completely confident in your omni-competence and to be grateful for your work on their behalf.

Thus, whether it is Obamacare or national security, the state constantly wants to assure us that it has the magic power to make things right. In fact, the politicians themselves are desperate for such leverage and thus prone to believe the offers of intellectual frauds who claim to have the secret formula for enabling the state to make the world a safer place. They are ready to believe a Jonathan Gruber who claims to know how the government can provide better insurance, or some military consultant who assures them that “enhanced interrogation techniques” will produce a great advantage.

Government employees present themselves as the most rational of people, when they are in fact as easily scammed as anyone else.

We all end up being hurt.