In his May 6th Wall Street Journal essay, Mr. Mukasy, the former Attorney General, claims that the much of the information that led to the killing of bin Laden was the result of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Consider how the intelligence that led to bin Laden came to hand. It began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information—including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.
Moreover, these approaches were used discriminately.
The harsh techniques themselves were used selectively against only a small number of hard-core prisoners who successfully resisted other forms of interrogation, and then only with the explicit authorization of the director of the CIA. Of the thousands of unlawful combatants captured by the U.S., fewer than 100 were detained and questioned in the CIA program. Of those, fewer than one-third were subjected to any of these techniques.
Senator McCain disputed Mr. Mukasey claim in a May 11th Washington Post op/ed piece, writing that Mukasey’s account was “false”.
The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda. In fact, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator — none of which was true.
Yet, McCain ultimately concludes that the debate is not about the successfulness of torture. “[T]his is more than a utilitarian debate. This is a moral debate. It is about who we are.” I think this is they key point.
It is hard to be opposed to the death of bin Laden who orchestrated the killing of countless people and continued to pose a threat through al-Qaeda. I have no desire to let him continue his course of death and destruction. Yet, to employ techniques that compromise human dignity seems a threat to our very way of life, as both Christians and citizens of the United States.
This threat is not just that we are hypocrites failing to live up to our principles. Nor is my claim that torture will backfire making us and our troops less secure in the end. In fact, I am willing to conceding to Mr. Mukasy’s conclusion that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were successful and provided us with reliable information.
The threat seems to me that the use of torture presumes a worldview at odds with Christianity and the principles of our country. To borrow from the Gettysburg Address, the use of torture implies that a country “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” cannot long endure without violating those principles. It assumes nations will collapse if they respect human rights and adhere to principles of justice. It means a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” will ultimately perish from the earth. In other words, the use of torture, regardless of its usefulness, implies a belief that creation is ultimately ruled by violence and not the right and the good.
Jason, thanks for posting on this topic. I agree with your statement (and Sen. McCain’s) that this is a question about who we are, whether as Americans or Christians, and that enhanced interrogation/torture are at odds with the values of both. I want to offer a friendly challenge – why are you willing to concede the point to Mukasy that torture led to (or can lead to) reliable information, especially when it seems like all the examples point to the exact opposite conclusion?
The reason behind my asking you this question has to do with the connection between “principles” and “practical effectiveness” in Christian ethics. In other words, it is clear that torture is out of line with the principles of Christian ethics, but right principles should also lead to practically reasonable actions. Therefore, I would not concede Mukasy’s point, precisely because torture is neither principled nor practical – and both arguments matter from a moral and policy standpoint.
Like I said, I agree with your overall point, but am curious what you think about this?
Thanks for the question. It really forced me to clarify my thinking to myself!
I read Mukasy’s op/ed piece first and realized that part of my opposition to torture was the assumption that it was not effective. Mukasy’s argument forced me to rethink my position. Would I still oppose torture if it was useful, even extremely useful? What if we could gain vital information and it was used only when it was absolutely necessary and only on people who most likely had relevant information?
I concluded and tried to argue that Christian opposition to torture should be based on theological grounds not practical ones. Given a belief that God is love and torture is intrinsically evil (see John Paul II’ Veritatis Splendor, 80), it always and everywhere thwarts love and creates a world were violence is assumed to be the supreme power. It should be opposed even if it is extremely “effective”.
I agree with your point on the connection between our theological principles and their practical application but would make it stronger. It also seems to me that the practicalness of our principles depends upon our theological convictions. Jean Vanier’s and Mother Theresa’s work seem very impractical viewed as a kind of social program run by the state. Torture might be very effective in gathering information to organize military activities, but, as a method for fostering love and reconciliation, it is terribly impractical.
This is why I wanted to argue from theological grounds: they are and can be so determinative of our understanding of the world and its working. In conceding Mubak’s point, I was after the world view that saw the results of torture as effective.
Again, thanks for the question!
While torture is clearly contradictory to the life and dignity of the human person, it is just simply not true that it is never effective. It however cannot be argued that it is always the most effective means of obtaining intel from someone. Nor could it be said to always be a reliable method. But to say it is never effective is empirically false. Despite this, the principled argument against its use stands.
Thanks to both for weighing in with your responses to my question. I have yet to be convinced that it can be effective, but I agree with the theoretical possibility that if it were found to be effective, it would still contradict our basic human values (whatever background we may have, and especially as Christians).
I recently struck up a conversation with a gentleman at our church whose wife is a noted international rights lawyer and scholar. In the course of our conversation I came to find out that he had been an interrogator for the military (not sure which branch), and had testified before congress stating that earning a prisoner’s trust (no matter how bad of a dude they might be) is always the most effective means to retrieving valuable intelligence. So I remain influenced by his first-hand account. If anyone has any reliable data to the contrary, I’d appreciate being directed to references.