Apuzzo on Fingerprinting

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Yesterday's Houston Chronicle seemed chock full of thought-provoking items as I read it on the first leg of my flight. One of them was this AP piece by Matt Apuzzo, which purports to be about the effectiveness of torture, but clearly is intended to leave the reader with the impression that it is ineffective as an intelligence-gathering technique, and should be scrapped.

In short: Slam someone up against the wall, keep him awake for days, lock him naked in a cell and slap his face enough, and he will probably say something. That doesn't necessarily make it true.
The confessions of torture victims aren't always true?!? Who says there aren't bloodhounds in the media anymore?

Later on, Matthew "Sherlock" Apuzzo notes that:
The British claimed that tough interrogation of Irish Republican Army suspects thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks, Rejali said, but evidence later proved the intelligence was often useless.
This follows shortly after an instance -- treated as if it were some freak exception -- of useful intelligence gathered by CIA waterboarding and leads to the article's conclusion (at least in yesterday's print edition of the Chronicle) that:
"The correct answer for a bureaucrat is always to torture, even if you know it doesn't work," Rejali said. "Nobody wants to be the guy who could have done something and then didn't do it."
Apuzzo follows Darius Rejali's lead -- Rejali is a "Reed College political scientist who studies torture" -- from this to the conclusion that torture "doesn't work" in a few short paragraphs, so that to read this article, one would think that intelligence gatherers are all sadistic idiots who take torture victims at their word, and that sometimes they'll hit he jackpot, but "often," not. But this is not the case. Anything gathered from a tortured prisoner must be weighed against other evidence.

Furthermore, slamming torturers as mindless bureaucrats is disingenuous. Just remember that detectives aren't always successful at lifting fingerprints at the scene of a crime (and that often, these won't be prints from the criminal), then replace "torture" with "fingerprint" in the above excerpt, and you'll see what I mean.

Hell, one could re-write this entire piece easily enough around the term "fingerprinting" to make that technique sound like it ought to be relegated to the same dustbin that palmistry has been and human sacrifice ought to be. Criminalists don't just lift the first fingerprint they can get and run with the assumption that they'll catch a crook. They integrate what it and other prints from the crime scene say with all the other evidence, even if that means simply recording them for future reference days, weeks, years, or even decades later. The same holds true for intelligence gatherers. Torture "works" in the same way that fingerprinting does, but usually with one difference.

That difference, of course, is that torture involves the forcible restraint and threat of another human being with harm, while fingerprinting may sometimes involve forcibly extracting the compliance of a criminal suspect with a request for his prints. In each case, our government, whose sole proper purpose -- is Barack Obama paying attention? -- is the protection of individual rights, must go out of its way to ensure that its use of force serves only that end. That is why a court order is required before the police can get someone's fingerprints, and that is why we are debating whether the government ought to torture prisoners of war at all.

And speaking of war, the Bush Administration muddied this debate in two ways: (1) by failing to declare war, and, more importantly, (2) by failing to note that its proper purpose is the protection of the rights of its citizens, which, in foreign policy terms means, protecting America's interests. We are at war -- remember? -- with an enemy that has no compunction about slaughtering us at least until we kowtow to Allah. We aren't torturing gratuitously and when (and whom) our government could employ torture would be well-defined were we officially at war.

But these are the kinds of concerns someone genuinely concerned with individual rights and proper government would voice, not someone for whom a major priority is to ban torture, and that's what makes this whole piece interesting. Apuzzo never goes right out and says, "Torture is always wrong, and the government of a civilized country should never employ it," or even, "We must be exceedingly careful about how our government uses torture during wartime." (And, incidentally, a piece about whether it is effective would have at least touched on how torture confessions are used as evidence.)

No. Like today's craven conservatives, who tout their conception of capitalism as practical (but think it evil), he avoids making a moral argument altogether and appeals to "practicality." Apuzzo thinks torture is wrong, but fears that it might be effective. He hopes to cash in on America's collective lobotomization by pragmatism and appeal to readers too concrete-bound to consider just what it would mean (or take) for torture to "work" (or for what purpose), and too long-convinced that morality has nothing to do with life to care about why he might be so opposed to our nation acting to protect itself.

On the flip side, he probably also senses that few will attempt to make a moral defense of torture anyway. For those of us who are paying attention and care, this is a big problem. If torture is assumed to be amoral at best, what of taking lives? A nation at war must sometimes do that, too.

Will the ineffectiveness of Bush's "'War' on Terror" next be taken as an argument against us even raising a hand the next time we are attacked? It is bad enough when no one will morally defend what is right and practical, but when the whole standard of practicality is set to some magical, Platonic ideal of "works at once, completely and independently of all other means, and every single time," our goose is cooked.

Definitions of terms like "war"; moral problems, like whether a nation ought to torture prisoners of war; and even keeping a full context regarding questions one is not intimately familiar with, are not just academic classroom exercises. They clearly have life-and-death implications, and are practical matters of the highest order, self-congratulatory pragmatists to the contrary be damned.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

The problem with torture is that once it becomes legitimate there is a tremendous danger of the government torturing innocent people.

The government can also use torture to extract confessions that aren't actually true but serve the government's interests.

This makes it very unlike fingerprinting.

Gus Van Horn said...

There is this danger, but that is why I brought up court orders for recovery of fingerprints from unwilling criminal suspects.

There should certainly be very strict laws governing the use of torture, but it should not be completely barred from use.

In addition, simply pointing out the potential for government abuse actually fails to make the point that torture differs from fingerprinting. Government officials have been known to plant, misuse, and misinterpret all kinds of evidence other than torture. That doesn't mean we should bar government officials from prosecuting crimes, does it?

Jaz said...

Anonymous' comment is similar to the flimsy arguments that could and are made against about any human activity -where there is always the potential of mischief by bad apples -the solution of such a mentality is bar the particular action to all irrespective of morality or context. But that is ridiculous.
The fact remains that if a criminal as an individual, group, organization or country chooses to destroy us -WE WILL RETORT BY THE USE OF FORCE - the gloves are then off. There is no need to then worry about the methods we may use to get important intelligence from our enemies regarding their future plans of terror.
President Obama according to me needs to be impeached on this single instance of divulging strategies to the enemy and making us (the most immoral of actions), making our intelligence agencies essentially defunct and fearing of any actions that will come under scrutiny by future administrations -thus leaving the country unprotected and insecure.

The President as Commander-in-chief has the fundamental principle to follow of protecting the country and those are precisely the orders he gives to all those under his command. The specific tactics employed by the various departments in charge of securing the country then fall under this general heirarchy. If the Obama administration, thus now is implying that innocent men were being tortured under the instructions of the President, he should come out and say so. Every one of the interrogators was finally working under the instructions of the Commander-in-chief. No, but the entire exercise of the Obama administration here is to gain petty political points with those in the public that are ignorant and/or evasive of what is at stake here. Republicans in this case need to call Obama's bluff and let him say that he is not really going as far as to say that US actions were evil and immoral in toto. Let's stop playing around the bush (wow -I didn't realize BUT that is a great pun there) and get to the heart of what is being implied by Obama et al.
How far can a new administration go in its attempts to discredit a previous administration -this man does not care about the security and interests of this country. One wonders what is it that he does care about?

Gus Van Horn said...

Yes. Obama's actions regarding our interrogation practices are setting very bad precedents. That said, Bush's unprincipled and sneaky approach to the whole matter helped set the table for just such action.

Jaz said...

I am lost here. Obviously I do not have the relevant infornation.
Could you possibly elaborate on your comment: "Bush's unprincipled and sneaky approach to the whole matter helped set the table for just such action."

Gus Van Horn said...

As Bush has failed to prosecute a proper war, so has he failed to stand up for our country's right to employ torture to collect information. Here's an example.

On the surface, this looks like Bush could simply be making a deal to get SOMETHING after a loss to Congress, but had Bush made a principled stand for such interrogation techniques all along, perhaps things would not have come to that.

Jaz said...

Thanks for the link to your previous post. That lead me to reading up on still other posts, as also comments from other readers and your responses.
The genesis of where this whole issue really started is now a lot clearer to me. Most of the conservative media coverage has of course been acting like it has just started under Obama -not a peep about McCain or Bush's culpablity in the matter.
Even though I had not been following this issue four years back, there is no excuse for me to have jumped in acting like I was born yesterday-my apologies. Thanks for the enlightenment. The trail of your posts on the issue are unyielding in moral principle and right on target - absolutely excellent, focussed analysis.
Thanks for taking the time to respond.

Roberto 'Tito' Sarrionandia said...

A very thought provoking post. Thanks for writing it.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Tito.

And Jaz, I have to admit that I hadn't thought about this for awhile, so I'm glad you asked your question. You reminded me of the earlier thin king I'd done on this. Thanks for the question and for the kind words.