The “Other” Reason Not To Torture

THE “OTHER” REASON NOT TO TORTURE…. The Bush administration was fond of citing Abu Zubaida as evidence of the great success of its “interrogation” policy. Bush himself claimed that Zubaida was al Qaeda’s “chief of operations,” and that he was a fount of valuable information. Zubaida also has the dubious honor of being the first detainee waterboarded.

In 2006, Ron Suskind reported in his book that none of the administration’s claims about Zubaida were true. Based on his interviews with intelligence officials, Suskind wrote that Zubaida was not only mentally ill, but also had little knowledge of al Qaeda’s actual operations. He was apparently more like a travel agent — and his stories sent the CIA and FBI down many an unnecessary goose chase. When Bush learned all this, he kept misleading the public anyway.

Today, the Post corroborates Suskind’s account that Zubaida was essentially worthless — and that we waterboarded him for nothing:

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. . . . None of [their earlier claims] was accurate, the new evidence showed.

Although you should read the whole thing, the article provides a good example of the “administrative” case against torture. The moral argument is obviously clear – and it’s one I believe in. Torture is wrong. Period. Full stop.

But there are other reasons to oppose torture. Even assuming you’re morally ok with torturing (maybe because you like 24), you still have to show that it’s possible to administer fairly.

In other words, another reason not to torture is that it’s usually impossible to know whether it’s being applied to the appropriate parties. Taking the extreme step of torture requires a level of epistemic confidence we just can’t obtain — particularly in times of rage and trauma, which is often when torture is used.

And this isn’t an abstract policy debate. Unfortunately, we’ve seen torture in action and can make some empirical observations about its use. As it turns out, and just as anyone could have predicted, torture was applied too broadly to innocent people while we were blinded by our post-9/11 anger and thirst for revenge.

Zubaida is a high-profile example of exactly why the rule of law matters. Law isn’t about helping bad people. It’s about putting the procedural obstacles in place to make sure we don’t lash out at the wrong people in fits of rage. It’s the whole “Odysseus tied to the mast” point.

The Bush administration abandoned law — and the results were inevitable, and tragic.