This ABC News report contains much of relevance to the current torture debate. It needs to be borne in mind in reading what follows that ABC very probably would like to put the worst construction on what they've uncovered, but if their aim is to make the CIA's methods look morally indefensible they don't succeed. Here are excerpts of the article with commentary:
Nov. 18, 2005 - Harsh interrogation techniques authorized by top officials of the CIA have led to questionable confessions and the death of a detainee since the techniques were first authorized in mid-March 2002, ABC News has been told by former and current intelligence officers and supervisors.
They say they are revealing specific details of the techniques, and their impact on confessions, because the public needs to know the direction their agency has chosen. All gave their accounts on the condition that their names and identities not be revealed. Portions of their accounts are corroborated by public statements of former CIA officers and by reports recently published that cite a classified CIA Inspector General's report.
"They would not let you rest, day or night. Stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down. Don't sleep. Don't lie on the floor," one prisoner said through a translator. The detainees were also forced to listen to rap artist Eminem's "Slim Shady" album. The music was so foreign to them it made them frantic, sources said.
Okay. We can agree that forcing someone to listen to Eminem is unkind, but it scarcely rises to the level of torture. What about the other methods the CIA uses?
Note that these techniques have been used on only a dozen of the top al Qaeda detainees. They are not used indiscriminately, nor are they used by untrained personnel.
Of these, only the last three can be considered to cause extreme pain or suffering and how much suffering they cause is completely up to the detainee. This is an important point. Unlike abuse carried out as retribution, punishment or for the amusement of the abusers, the detainee has complete control over how much of this treatment he must endure.
According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.
"The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.
Maybe, but do they believe they're actually being drowned or do they only feel like they're being drowned? If the latter then it's not a mock execution. The prisoner doesn't have to think he's going to be killed in order to be unable to withstand the treatment.
The techniques are controversial among experienced intelligence agency and military interrogators. Many feel that a confession obtained this way is an unreliable tool. Two experienced officers have told ABC that there is little to be gained by these techniques that could not be more effectively gained by a methodical, careful, psychologically based interrogation.
Where's ABC's substantiation that "many" feel this is an unreliable tool? They cite the opinion of two officers who so believe. Very well, but how many others are convinced that the information gained from these dozen or so terrorists was reliable? Moreover, if other techniques are effective in extracting valuable information then why does the CIA go to the trouble and legal risk of employing less effective methods?
This raises an important question. Exactly what constitutes cruelty? Surely it's not just a matter of inflicting severe pain on someone. If it were, then surgeons in Civil War field hospitals would have been cruel. They were not so regarded, of course, because they were trying to accomplish a long term good. For an act to be cruel the actor must be motivated by a desire to hurt or degrade another simply to punish, amuse, exact retribution, or to vent his own frustrations. Any of these motivations would make the administration of pain cruel and thus evil, and any agent of the government who acts upon such motives should face punishment.
The motivation to save lives, however, is in a completely different moral category. If there is adequate reason to believe that the detainee is withholding information that could prevent the loss of life then inflicting severe pain or discomfort in order to elicit that information is not "cruel" as long as it is reasonably assured to work, and as long as there are no more effective or reliable methods available.
The cruelty of an act also depends on the amount of control possessed by the prisoner as we discussed above. A detainee who is powerless to stop the administration of pain is in a much different position than one who has complete control over how much he wishes to endure. If the pain is inflicted in order to obtain lifesaving intelligence from a terrorist who otherwise refuses to yield it, and the treatment stops when the terrorist gives up that intelligence, and the terrorist knows it will stop when he gives up that information, then the treatment is not intrinsically cruel.
I leave it to the professionals to determine the extent to which harsh methods are reliable. My only concern is to make the case that, if they are, they are not immoral, or at least not necessarily so. It would be helpful to know how effective conventional techniques have been in gaining significant information from top al Qaeda people. ABC doesn't tell us, but they do say that Kalid Mohammad was pleading to be able to divulge what he knew after only two and a half minutes. That seems pretty effective.
The use of the conjunction "however" in the above paragraph implies that what follows is somehow contrary to what precedes it, but the content of the "however" paragraph is completely irrelevant to the preceding paragraph. Is ABC just sloppy or is it trying to discredit the argument that there are advantages to the use of "harsh measures" without having to do the heavy lifting involved in actually refuting it?
According to CIA sources, Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi, after two weeks of enhanced interrogation, made statements that were designed to tell the interrogators what they wanted to hear. Sources say Al Libbi had been subjected to each of the progressively harsher techniques in turn and finally broke after being water boarded and then left to stand naked in his cold cell overnight where he was doused with cold water at regular intervals.
His statements became part of the basis for the Bush administration claims that Iraq trained al Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons. Sources tell ABC that it was later established that al Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.
"This is the problem with using the waterboard. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear," one source said.
However, sources said, al Libbi does not appear to have sought to intentionally misinform investigators, as at least one account has stated. The distinction in this murky world is nonetheless an important one. Al Libbi sought to please his investigators, not lead them down a false path, two sources with firsthand knowledge of the statements said.
This is an example of one of the weakest of the arguments in the torture debate. The fact that questionable information was acquired on one occasion is hardly reason to think the practice is generally unhelpful. Nor is it a reason, eo ipso, to refrain from harsh measures. After all, any interrogation technique is going to yield some unreliable information. What we need to know is the overall quality of the information gleaned from all detainees who were subjected to the treatment. Was it all unreliable? If not, the salient question becomes how reliable does it have to be in a given circumstance to warrant the use of harsh measures.
When properly used, the techniques appear to be closely monitored and are signed off on in writing on a case-by-case, technique-by-technique basis, according to highly placed current and former intelligence officers involved in the program. In this way, they say, enhanced interrogations have been authorized for about a dozen high value al Qaeda targets - Khalid Sheik Mohammed among them. According to the sources, all of these have confessed, none of them has died, and all of them remain incarcerated.
While some media accounts have described the locations where these detainees are located as a string of secret CIA prisons - a gulag, as it were - in fact, sources say, there are a very limited number of these locations in use at any time, and most often they consist of a secure building on an existing or former military base. In addition, they say, the prisoners usually are not scattered but travel together to these locations, so that information can be extracted from one and compared with others. Currently, it is believed that one or more former Soviet bloc air bases and military installations are the Eastern European location of the top suspects. Khalid Sheik Mohammed is among the suspects detained there, sources said.
The sources told ABC that the techniques, while progressively aggressive, are not deemed torture, and the debate among intelligence officers as to whether they are effective should not be underestimated. There are many who feel these techniques, properly supervised, are both valid and necessary, the sources said. While harsh, they say, they are not torture and are reserved only for the most important and most difficult prisoners.
ABC belatedly acknowledges here what they elided above - that although one or two officers think these measures are not effective, "many" others think they are. Although ABC expatiates on cases like al Libbi's where the results are questionable, they don't bother to give us specific examples of cases where the intelligence gained from these techniques has saved lives. Is that because there are no such cases, is it because the information is classified, or is it because they just don't want to tell us about such cases? They should at least tell us which of these possibilities explains their silence.
Two sources also told ABC that the techniques - authorized for use by only a handful of trained CIA officers - have been misapplied in at least one instance.
The sources said that in that case a young, untrained junior officer caused the death of one detainee at a mud fort dubbed the "salt pit" that is used as a prison. They say the death occurred when the prisoner was left to stand naked throughout the harsh Afghanistan night after being doused with cold water. He died, they say, of hypothermia.
According to the sources, a second CIA detainee died in Iraq and a third detainee died following harsh interrogation by Department of Defense personnel and contractors in Iraq. CIA sources said that in the DOD case, the interrogation was harsh, but did not involve the CIA.
Every effort should be made to prevent these sorts of incidents, of course, and if they occur through negligence or wantonness they should be met with discipline appropriate to the case just as any careless shooting of civilians by troops should be disciplined. But the fact that there have been a relatively few deaths (compared to the 82,000 people who've been detained since 2003) no more discredits the use of harsh interrogation than does the tragic deaths of a small number of civilians at checkpoints discredit the procedures followed by the military at these locations.
The ABC report is useful in describing exactly what sorts of interrogation practices are permitted by the CIA and what the limits of those are. Whether other agencies work under similar strictures and whether they are as closely monitored we can't say, but it seems that the images that the word torture usual connotes -- electric shocks, fingernail pulling, savage beatings, mutilations, etc. -- are not acceptable treatment for detainees in our custody. For that we can be grateful.