The "Torture" report

Steve Chapman relies on the recently released CIA Inspector General report to make the case against the interrogation methods employed on high-level terrorist operatives.

Americans are practical people, which is why they tend to pay heed when Dick Cheney says the harsh methods used by the CIA on suspected terrorists were not merely efficacious but indispensable. The intelligence derived from these interrogations, he assures us, “saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks.”

Did they really? The report released Monday, done by the CIA’s inspector general back in 2004, didn’t support Cheney’s claim. It said “there is no doubt” that the detention and questioning of detainees “has been effective.”

But the report reached no judgment on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” saying, “The effectiveness of particular interrogation techniques in eliciting information that might not otherwise have been obtained cannot be so easily measured.”

The report does say that, but it goes on to say that in all three cases where waterboarding (the harshest of the methods employed) was used, the terrorists became cooperative only after the technique was used. The report states that we can’t definitively conclude that it was the waterboarding that made the difference. But it makes clear that the information provided up until that time was “known” or “historical,” while the information provided afterward was strategic and actionable, and that it saved many lives.

As Chapman says, Americans are practical people, so even if he sees no support in the report for Cheney’s claims, I suspect a lot of practical Americans would. And, in fact, huge sections of the released report were redacted, so we can only speculate as to what else was concluded about the efficacy of the techniques.

The report also makes clear that the interrogation of these detainees was well considered. The Department of Justice and several other agencies contributed to the drafting of the procedures. Both the White House and Congress were briefed. Doctors and psychologists were consulted, both in devising the methods and during the actual interrogations. Some deviations from approved procedures are noted in the report, but it appears there were few of these and that they were largely reported and addressed before the political dust storm hit.

All in all, the report paints a picture of competent professionals doing an extremely difficult job in a high stakes environment.

Chapman goes on to make emotional arguments about how cruel the methods were and how wrong it is to torture. Torture is a loaded word, but I will grant him that description. I’m sure it is torture to believe you are going to drown or be killed. But, as the report states, when the procedure ends, any physical or psychological damage ends with it. Given that the terrorist are actually killing people, I’m not especially bothered by this. I have no doubt that those murdered on 911 would much have preferred to have been waterboarded and still alive today.

Chapman then plays some word and number games:

More than 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody over the last eight years, and the CIA has been implicated in some of the deaths. Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey says dozens of prisoners were “murdered.”

A 100 deaths is a lot, but note that the CIA has only been “implicated” (which, according to my dictionary, could simply mean the suggestion of involvement) in “some” of them. I read nothing in the Inspector General’s report about allegations of “murder,” but if there is actual evidence of such, of course it should be investigated. Short of evidence, this talk is simply designed to appeal to emotion rather than rationality.

Finally, Chapman defers to Ronald Reagan’s having signed the 1998 Convention Against Torture. Conservatives, Chapman suggests, should agree with him because Ronald Reagan said so. I’m a huge Reagan fan, but this doesn’t constitute an argument. It’s a classic example of the “Appeal to Authority” fallacy that I learned about back in high school.

Chapman’s conjuring of Reagan does make me wonder where the Gipper would come down on this issue. It was a different time. We hadn’t had 3000 Americans murdered on our own soil by non-national terrorists, or watched in horror as our countrymen had their heads sawed off while they screamed in agony. Now that’s torture. And there’s my emotional appeal.

Update: The Wall Street Journal gets it right, I think:

Whoever advised people to be skeptical of what they read in the papers must have had in mind this week’s coverage of the documents about CIA interrogations. Now that we’ve had a chance to read the reports, it’s clear the real story isn’t the few cases of abuse played up by the media. The news is that the program was thoughtfully developed, carefully circumscribed, briefed to Congress, and yielded information crucial to disrupting al Qaeda.

In other words, it worked—at least until politics got in the way.

That’s the essential judgment offered by former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson in his 2004 report. Some mild criticism aside, the report says the CIA “invested immense time and effort to implement the [program] quickly, effectively, and within the law”; that the agency “generally provided good guidance and support”; and that agency personnel largely “followed guidance and procedures and documented their activities well.” So where’s the scandal?

The rest of the article is well worth reading, and alerts me to an error I made in my original post. Only two of the three terrorists I mentioned were waterboarded. The third was subjected to a less harsh “enhanced interrogation technique.”

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