Sunday, August 30, 2009

The moral question

In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, he poses the moral question of whether a person could or should kill one person if it would benefit humanity. Would you agree to the death of an unknown person in China if no one would know and the Chinaman's wealth could be used to benefit you and your family. Raskolnikov goes beyond the death of a stranger in China to the murder of a crabby pawnbroker to get the money to help his impoverished mother and sister. The reader, while understanding his motivation, still recoils at his moral choice.

But killing for wealth is something that most of us would reject. However, that is a relatively easy moral question. A much tougher one was the question in front of the Bush administration with the capture of high level Al Qaeda operatives. Would you agree to what some perceive as torture in order to save the lives of innocents around the world? That is a much more difficult one and all of us are reacting with different answers. Some seek to define what was done not as torture, but something just short of torture. Limiting sleep and simulated drowning is markedly different from acts that leave a permanent, physical mark such as the torture that we've read about in other wars. But even if you endorse the broadest definition and classify sleep deprivation and waterboarding as torture, would you be willing to accept this if it saved lives? Throw in that the person undergoing it was one of the most evil in the world, a man responsible for conceiving and planning 9/11. Now would it be worth it?

Others come at it from a different direction and reject the proposition that the information that was given up as worth anything. They want to downplay its value or posit that the detainee would have given up that information if we'd just had world enough and time to wait until he gave it up on his own.

Thus we come to yesterday's story in the Washington Post about what Khalid Sheik Mohammed gave up after undergoing the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.
After enduring the CIA's harshest interrogation methods and spending more than a year in the agency's secret prisons, Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called "terrorist tutorials."

In 2005 and 2006, the bearded, pudgy man who calls himself the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks discussed a wide variety of subjects, including Greek philosophy and al-Qaeda dogma. In one instance, he scolded a listener for poor note-taking and his inability to recall details of an earlier lecture.

Speaking in English, Mohammed "seemed to relish the opportunity, sometimes for hours on end, to discuss the inner workings of al-Qaeda and the group's plans, ideology and operatives," said one of two sources who described the sessions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because much information about detainee confinement remains classified. "He'd even use a chalkboard at times."

These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its "preeminent source" on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.

"KSM, an accomplished resistor, provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate or incomplete," according to newly unclassified portions of a 2004 report by the CIA's then-inspector general released Monday by the Justice Department.

The debate over the effectiveness of subjecting detainees to psychological and physical pressure is in some ways irresolvable, because it is impossible to know whether less coercive methods would have achieved the same result. But for defenders of waterboarding, the evidence is clear: Mohammed cooperated, and to an extraordinary extent, only when his spirit was broken in the month after his capture March 1, 2003, as the inspector general's report and other documents released this week indicate.

Over a few weeks, he was subjected to an escalating series of coercive methods, culminating in 7 1/2 days of sleep deprivation, while diapered and shackled, and 183 instances of waterboarding. After the month-long torment, he was never waterboarded again.

"What do you think changed KSM's mind?" one former senior intelligence official said this week after being asked about the effect of waterboarding. "Of course it began with that."
KSM is now claiming that he was playing the interrogators and gave up false information. The CIA is claiming that they used his information to forestall other attacks.
Mohammed described plans to strike targets in Saudi Arabia, East Asia and the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks, including using a network of Pakistanis "to target gas stations, railroad tracks, and the Brooklyn bridge in New York." Cross-referencing material from different detainees, and leveraging information from one to extract more detail from another, the CIA and FBI went on to round up operatives both in the United States and abroad.

"Detainees in mid-2003 helped us build a list of 70 individuals -- many of who we had never heard of before -- that al-Qaeda deemed suitable for Western operations," according to the CIA summary.
The CIA Inspector General who investigated the interrogations admits that we will never know the answer to the conterfactual that human rights advocates point to - what would he have given without the EITs? However, we didn't have time for some scientific study to figure out what would break them short of enhanced techniques.
John L. Helgerson, the former CIA inspector general who investigated the agency's detention and interrogation program, said his work did not put him in "a position to reach definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of particular interrogation methods."

"Certain of the techniques seemed to have little effect, whereas waterboarding and sleep deprivation were the two most powerful techniques and elicited a lot of information," he said in an interview. "But we didn't have the time or resources to do a careful, systematic analysis of the use of particular techniques with particular individuals and independently confirm the quality of the information that came out."
Ultimately, it all comes down to a moral question worthy of Dostoevsky. Fortunately, we don't face such questions in our ordinary lives. But back in 2002 and 2003, members of our government, tasked with the responsibility of preventing the deaths of innocent Americans had to answer that question. They chose one answer and the evidence seems to bear them out that the result was information that prevented further attacks. You can debate the value of that evidence, but can you deny that there was the will on the part of Al Qaeda to kill many more Americans and that there haven't been such attacks since 9/11? Do you think they just gave up?

Some experts even posit that the captured members of Al Qaeda had accepted a certain amount of treatment so that they could satisfy themselves that they'd resisted enough and could then give up that information.
One former U.S. official with detailed knowledge of how the interrogations were carried out said Mohammed, like several other detainees, seemed to have decided that it was okay to stop resisting after he had endured a certain amount of pressure.

"Once the harsher techniques were used on [detainees], they could be viewed as having done their duty to Islam or their cause, and their religious principles would ask no more of them," said the former official, who requested anonymity because the events are still classified. "After that point, they became compliant. Obviously, there was also an interest in being able to later say, 'I was tortured into cooperating.' "
It's rather interesting that we're now getting these anonymous leaks from the CIA defending the EITs. I bet that there are a lot of people working now at the CIA who are mightily ticked at seeing the Obama Justice Department go back on the decisions made by career Justice officials to decline to prosecute the CIA.

I'm supremely glad that I don't have to tackle such difficult moral questions in my daily life. Dostoevsky's choice of murdering the pawnbroker to help your family is an easy one in comparison. But people bearing the immense responsibility of our safety did have to answer that choice. In the end, I happen to believe that they came to the correct, yet difficult answer. Others disagree and feel that they crossed the line. But those critics aren't dealing with their own counterfactual. What if we hadn't used those techniques and what if many more people, or even one more innocent person, had been murdered by a plot that we could have forestalled? Would that have been the correct moral answer? Or would they have wished that they could go back in time and deprive KSM of a bit more sleep and simulated drowning a bit more if it would have saved those lives?


Freeven said...

The question "Would you agree to what some perceive as torture in order to save the lives of innocents around the world?" is slightly misstated. If you *know* the action will prevent the loss of lives, the issue is much clearer. In the event, there was only the *potential* for saving lives.

That said, I'm comfortable with the techniques that were used on known murderers in exchange for the potential to save innocent lives, and I don't consider it a particularly close decision, which it might be if lasting physical or psychological damage resulted. I'm even willing to concede that these techniques amount to a form of torture, but as far as I'm concerned, the moral imperative falls soundly on the side of protecting innocents over the discomfort of the guilty.

Locomotive Breath said...

There have been some reporter/journalist types who have tried waterboarding so they could write about what it was like. Here's a way to tell torture from not torture. If someone is willing to try it just so they can write about it, it's not torture.

Brett King said...

It is interesting that many in the CIA tried to undermine the Bush administration by leaking information. Pretty crappy treatment for Bush who supported, respected and protected the CIA.

Now the CIA finds itself under attack by the Obama administration and the CIA is now leaking information that would support their work under Bush. Similar information to that which was used to bring Bush down when he was in office. I think some in the CIA are getting a new perspective on a liberal agenda now that the cannons are turned toward themselves.

steve said...

what difficult moral question? you have it backwards.

keeping our enemies from attacking us is something that needs to be done. if you can do so without violence, great. if not, so be it.

what is called 'torture' is but one tool to be used to help protect society, falling somewhere on the spectrum between sticking out your tongue and nuking the opposition. taking torture off the table makes no more sense than taking away our soldier's bullets.

David said...

During WWII, the British sometimes captured German agents, who were then given the following choice: "turn," or hang immediately. "Turning" meant that they would continue to transmit information to their German handlers...but it would now be information that had been provided by their British handlers.

Considerably harsher, I think we can agree, than anything the CIA is said to have done in the current situation.

Would anyone argue that this British operation should have been canceled at the possible price of, say, the failure of the D-Day landings? How about at the price of increased accuracy of German V-1 and V-2 attacks on London?

equitus said...

I find myself hoping to hear from TV or JB or BB. In my mind, I have some predictions of what they might say. My hope is that they'll surprise me, but that's seldom the case.

The ethics they profess are so hallow, so opportunistic. I expect them to express revulsion and damn us here for "loving torture". They'll claim that EIT are done with only vengeance in mind.

But of course, if it were done under a (D) administration, then you wouldn't hear a peep.

Surprise me, guys.

tfhr said...


That is the very reason you will not hear them or the powers guiding this latest witch hunt refer to "rendition" much, if at all.

I don't envy Leon Panetta's position right now. He is charged with guiding an agency dedicated to protecting the United States yet his own boss undermines him and the agency. As a White House Chief of Staff during the Clinton Administration, Panetta was also responsible for outsourcing interrogation to foreign countries.

This is going to get ugly.

mark said...

Obviously, people point to KSM as the face of justifiable torture. Who can argue that that scumbag deserved better treatment?
Harder to overlook are people like Maher Arar, who was innocent or terrorism but detained and tortured. We were assured that Gitmo held the most hardcore terrorists, yet we now know that a number were not involved in terrorism, and have been quietly released.
I realize that in the aftermath of 9/11, excesses were understandable, as they would be in a "24" type situation (in the highly unlikely event it were to occur). We should not, however, accept torture as a policy of fighting terrorism.
As I've said, there are many things we could do to save lives (and a lot of money) that we would reject as "un-American". Torture could be considered "un-American" as well.

tfhr said...


Don't let things like facts get in your way when you can gloss over them, as you do with Maher Arar. Why you would hold him up as a case for wrong-doing by the United States boggles because:

1. You know that Arar never set foot in Guantanamo.

2. You know that he was an associate of al Qaeda linked Abdullah Almalki but for some reason chose to obfuscate the relationship.

3. You know that Arar was deported, but for sake of the rendition argument, don't forget the established use of that practice by the Clinton administration.

4. Arar's status on the terror watch list has not changed during the Obama administration. Direct your questions to Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, who has gone on record to say that "...there has been a unanimity among all the people who have reviewed [Arar's case] that his status should not now be changed."

Is Napolitano "un-American"? Go back and read her statement again.

The Canadian government and it's law enforcement and intelligence agencies provided the United States with information that warranted his detainment when he landed in New York enroute from Tunisia. The Canadians themselves were unclear on Arar's legal status at the time having believed that he had moved permanently to Tunisia. Technically, Arar was and still is a Syrian citizen.

I would say that Canadian confusion is central to the outcome for Arar but he sealed his own fate when he lied and underplayed his association with Almalki, another Syrian born Canadian, who was also linked to Canada's terrorist Khadr family.

It isn't until you get to the Khadr name that you can find a link to Guantanamo. Omar Khadr was captured and sent to Guantanamo after he killed an American Special Forces medic with a hand grenade in Afghanistan.

Omar Khadr now enjoys better health care at Gitmo than Canadians back home, including Maher Arar.

Freeven said...

"As I've said, there are many things we could do to save lives (and a lot of money) that we would reject as "un-American". Torture could be considered "un-American" as well."

As could condemning thousands of innocent Americans to be murdered because we are unwilling to be tough on individuals who wish to destroy us.

Locomotive Breath said...

"yet we now know that a number were not involved in terrorism, and have been quietly released."

And a number of whom have been picked up a second time for doing what they were doing the first time.

KentP said...

There have been some reporter/journalist types who have tried waterboarding so they could write about what it was like. Here's a way to tell torture from not torture. If someone is willing to try it just so they can write about it, it's not torture.

Loco: So why didn't Dick Cheney volunteer to "prove" it wasn't torture by agreeing to have it done to him, when everyone was lambasting him about it?

Bintohead said...

excellent post Betsy.

Jaw Bone said...

A question for all you big-talking authoritarian torture supporters - if you're so sure it's legitimate, effective, moral etc, why aren't you clamoring for the police to use it?

Just curious. Why is it OK to torture foreigners (and also therefore, ok for foreigners to torture captured Americans) but not OK domestically?

What about right wing authoritarian domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh? Should he have been tortured? If not, why not?

equitus said...

JB has all the reasoning ability of a 5 year old. Easily ignorable, but I've got a few minutes to rebut.

why aren't you clamoring for the police to use it?

- The need for EIT is likely extremely rare. It's used only for extracting actionable and timely knowledge to save lives. Evidence gained in this manner is not allowable in a criminal trial.
- It was known that al Queda was planning numerous mass-casualty attacks. How many everyday domestic criminals can that be said of? Any? McVeigh, acting pretty with but 1 or 2 accomplices, doesn't fit the profile.
- The CIA's use of EIT was very regulated, with supervision and a crew of lawyers to and doctors to advise. No police force has the remotest ability to conduct EIT like this - even if EIT could be useful.
- No on is "clamoring" for it in any case. The nation faced special circumstances in 2002, requiring some tough decisions. JB's mis-characterizations are growing tiresome.

I'd ask JB to simply use his head, but we know that's futile.

Pat Patterson said...

Simple, because the rules of warfare are different than the rules of nations.

mark said...

Repubs do an excellent job of re-naming things when it suits their purpose. Death-tax and death-panels when they want to frighten people, strong or enhanced techniques when they want to justify torture. Waterboarding has been considered torture for decades. If you are okay with it (and other techniques) why not just say "I support the use of torture"? Instead, you try to couch it in less offensive terms. I suppose it's an indication that, despite the tough talk, there is a bit of shame in supporting it.

Pat Patterson said...

Obviously Congress disagrees with mark because they have not passed the War Crimes Act, introduced in 2007, yet. The US courts have said that the UN torture codicils are not binding on the US and considering that al Queda still take no US prisoners alive what harsh steps are taken seem to show that the US is indeed making an effort to not be as brutal as the other side.

And there still is that nasty little number of 70%+ Americans who do not consider waterboarding torture.

tfhr said...


You do know that we subject our own personnel to waterboarding in certain escape and evasion or survival courses, right?

tfhr said...


You're still upset by the "Death Tax"? If it were for the substance and not the name, I'd commend you.

Tell us why you think it is right for the government to confiscate the property or wealth of the deceased? Why is it wrong for families to build wealth?

Isn't it enough for a person to have paid taxes while they were alive?

I've heard it isn't possible to "take it with you" but when did it become the government's job to convince you of that before you die? Seems to me that you should be able to leave your hard earned rewards to your survivors or a beneficiary of your own choice.

As for "death panels", there is nothing more or less true about that concept than the term "public option", so enjoy the taste of your own medicine, as it were.

Jaw Bone said...

"Tell us why you think it is right for the government to confiscate the property or wealth of the deceased? Why is it wrong for families to build wealth?"

This is the most painless and easiest of ALL taxes to pay. The tax only becomes due after the owner cannot possibly use it.

All taxes are somewhat arbitrary. Taxing someone's estate after their death is the least painful on the owner of the money.

Since you are pretty close to indigent, and will never have to worry about leaving a multi-million dollar estate, tf, I commend you for your interest in the financial well-being of myself and other well-heeled people. I assure you, your support for my wealth will not be reciprocated. I'd even be willing to cut off your expensive lifetime free government health care. Let you eat cake!

Pat Patterson said...

No more Ford Foundation, no more Guttmacher Foundation, no more Open Society etc. That seems fair!

tfhr said...

Jaw Biddle,

But aren't you are generous with other people's money? In your small mind, the industrious efforts of human beings; the sweat; the risk taken; the long hours and endless struggle to make ends meet; these are subordinate to the whims, greed, and the intrusiveness of a government appetite for wealth it cannot generate on its own.

"All taxes are somewhat arbitrary"

That could be one of the stupidest things you've ever said here but then again there is so much to choose from. Are you sure you weren't referring to millionaire tax cheats like Tim Geithner and Charles Rangel and their habits of non-payment?

Don't you think you should get the taxes, back taxes, and penalties owed by living tax cheat criminals like Rangel before you go about shaking down the families of the recently deceased? Didn't you learn anything from the stream of tax cheats embarrassingly ejected from Obama's field of cabinet candidates?

You're also a complete ass hat if you actually believe military personnel get free medical benefits for life, but we've discussed your crippling inability to grasp simple concepts on many occasions no matter how painstakingly others attempt to explain them for you. Rather, I think you throw around garbage like that because you are intellectually stunted and incapable of engaging in a thoughtful debate. It's just the best you can do, besides dancing around with your fantasy sock puppet friends. It is terribly pathetic that you must create your own allies. The least you could do would be to allow one of your imaginary friends to occasionally stumble upon a coherent thought but in steadfastly avoiding that, you've shown us you have consistency, if nothing else.

The same flawed thought processes, arrogant snobbery, and petulant behavior from extremist liberals in leadership positions has generated the massive erosion of Barack Obama's approval ratings. People just don't trust the man enough to keep on giving him the benefit of the doubt. Americans have seen in this sham "health insurance reform, ver. du jour", a gambit that will tax them out of existence, an economy and society potentially wrecked for generations to come, and policy that will leave people with less medical care than they currently have available.

Keep up the good work - watching the left go down in flames is good fun.