One of the reasons why the torture debate has been has been difficult for me over the past few years is that is that so much of it has been argued in the theoretical realm. On one side, you have those who believe that techniques such as waterboarding are torture and should not be used under any circumstances, while on the other side you have people who may or may not say that waterboarding is torture, but either way don’t have a problem using such techniques to extract information from terror suspects to prevent future attacks. I fall somewhere in between in the sense that I’d prefer that we never used waterboarding, sleep deprivation, or other techniques that I do believe are torture, but if waterboarding a high-level terrorist such as KSM, who was the mastermind behind 9/11, could save thousands of innocent lives, I’m for it.
The question for me then becomes, does such a situation exist in real life, or is it just a cartoonish scenario that only plays out on ’24’? Do we get actionable intelligence from using such techniques, or will a detainee eventually say anything just to get his interrogator to stop, resulting in intelligence that isn’t credible? Since my judgment ultimately hinges on the practical aspects of the debate, it’s been difficult for me to form an opinion when I only have access to a small amount of the information that those in charge of our national security had when making the decisions they did.
However, mounting evidence now shows that these techniques were used much more widely over a much longer period than we were led to believe. If waterboarding needed to be used on KSM 183 times in a month – a far cry from the lone 90-second session previously reported – the technique wasn’t as instantly effective as it has been made out to be, and clearly it wasn’t being performed in a single use, last resort type of way.
Even putting the moral debate aside, in practical terms, the torture issue has been a public relations disaster for the U.S. It has also helped undermine support for the “War on Terror” by tarnishing it in many people’s minds as an unnecessarily dirty enterprise. While I don’t think that America should ever sacrifice its national security purely for PR reasons, perception is certainly worth taking into account, especially if it’s true that using these techniques doesn’t actually make us any safer.
Yesterday, Dick Cheney, called for the release of documents showing that the government obtained good information from the sessions. And in the Washington Post today, former Bush aide Marc Thiessen argues, citing the recently released memos, that the efforts yielded actionable intelligence that prevented terrorist attacks. Specifically, the intelligence helped stop an a potential attack on the Library Tower in Los Angeles (the tallest building on the West Coast).
At this point, since one part of the story is out there already, I agree that it’s necessary to release the rest. Then, instead of having a debate in which opponents of the interrogation policies accuse the other side of being callous, and proponents of using these techniques accuse the other side of being pansies, we can have an informed discussion about the practical impact of those policies on our national security.