Will McCain Hamstring Our Forces?

Friday, November 11, 2005

There is apparently a move afoot by Senator John McCain to specify "Uniform standards for the interrogation of persons under the detention of the Department of Defense". Those who wish might be interested in putting in their $0.02 at the Belmont Club, which is hosting an open thread on this issue.

One commenter there says the following:

This law is a trade-off. We give up some operational advantages b/c the enemy knows exactly what we will and won't do. In return our military should have a much clearer set of rules to follow.

But this law like so many is still way too vague. It should list some sample activities that are permitted and are not. Is sleep deprivation torture? I read this law and I am not sure. Is repeated playing of the latest winner of the Eurovision song contest torture? It should be considered torture but under this law you can't tell.
I think the first paragraph of this comment summarizes the rationale (or rationalization) behind this law and that the second raises some good objections to it.

On the other hand, Mark Steyn reminds us that we're -- um -- fighting a -- ah -- you know -- er -- war thingie.
[W]hat's pathetic about all Western countries, including the United States, including France, including Canada, and a lot of other countries, is that they make these sort of high school sophist arguments about terrorism, as if it's some sort of theoretical debate. It's not. We're dealing with a very difficult situation here. And if you accord to terrorists all the rights of somebody who gets arrested for holding up a liquor store in Des Moines, you are going to lose to the terrorists, because when you accord them the full rights of somebody who is a criminal, you make it impossible to prosecute this as a war, which is what it is.
I would clarify what Steyn says by pointing out that dismissing arguments as such is the wrong approach. The problem with the kinds of arguments Steyn attacks is that they are divorced from reality. Torturing other human beings and indeed taking their very lives are not intrinsically wrong. They are wrong when done for any other purpose than for self-defense or, by extension, by a government of a free country protecting the lives and rights of its citizens, as ours should be doing in a time of war. It is not a question of according rights to anyone. It is a question of whether the rights of the citizens a government should protect will be protected or not by means of torture.

While I am not sure the philosopher cited in this column builds his argument from the ground up the way I have only briefly indicated, his example is an excellent one.
In 1982, the philosopher Michael Levin published an article challenging the popular view that the U.S. must never engage in torture. "Someday soon," he concluded, "a terrorist will threaten tens of thousands of lives, and torture will be the only way to save them."

Suppose a nuclear bomb is primed to detonate somewhere in Manhattan, Levin wrote, and we've captured a terrorist who knows where the bomb is. But he won't talk. By forbidding torture, you inflict death on many thousands of innocents and endless suffering on the families of those who died at a terrorist's whim -- and who might have lived had government done its ugly duty.
Bush has threatened -- for once -- to veto this bill if it is passed.

If he uses his veto power only once in his entire tenure, this would be the time to use it.

-- CAV


Today: In a related story, there are rumors out to the effect that Senator McCain recently leaked information about CIA "black sites" used to house terrorist suspects abroad.
The CIA has requested a a formal Justice Department inquiry into the source of the classified information to the press. The House and Senate were going to hold joint hearings into the source of the leak in a unified show about national security. Now the Senate has backed off since the source of the leak has been traced to a meeting of Republican leaders.
McCain is already on my short list of despised government officials for his sponsorship of McCain-Feingold. A leak like this, in the context of this torture bill, would be pandering of the lowest order and, in this time of war, beyond the pale.


Vigilis said...

Gus, Bush will not allow contemporary nuances of bi-partisan effetes to bar any, legitimate humint strategy. If he promised a veto, he will deliver his veto. This is precisely why GWB was re-elected, and his "read my lips" dad was not.

Gideon said...

I certainly agree that torture is sometimes necessary but sometimes I wonder why we keep having to pretend we're not really torturing (such as the recent categorical declaration by Bush that "We do not torture.")

I am reminded of a debate (you have to scroll down for the Dershowitz part, though I think the entire episode was devoted to discussing torture) a few years ago between Alan Keyes and Alan Dershowitz on the now-defunct Alan Keyes Show on MSNBC. Both agreed that torture is sometimes necessary but Keyes argued that torture is never "right" but sometimes "necessary" and therefore ought to be left directly to the President's decision, whereas Dershowitz was arguing for bringing the judiciary into the picture with something like a warrant and thus make it a "lawful" decision.

I'm still not entirely sure about this but I think I'm starting to lean toward the Dershowitz view, at least in the sense of making it official in some way. If unlike Keyes, we think torture in the case of terrorists with potentially life-saving information is both right and necessary then we should be open and proud of our activities.

Gus Van Horn said...


I hope you're right on that, but what really bugs me is the lopsided margin (90-9 in the Senate) of passage, which would be enough to override a veto (in the Senate, at least).


Thanks for the links.

Like you, I can see a need to have some kind of legal framework pertaining to torture, while also also see the need for our nation to be able to use that method of collecting intelligence.

Your point on us "pretend[ing] we're not really torturing" is an interesting one and smacks of our nation's cold war era insistence that our big difference from the Soviet bloc was supposedly that we were religious. It's as if torture is inherently evil and that to differ from the enemy, we must abstain from it. Both fallcies are symptomatic of a failure to understand the real difference between our nation and its enemies, namely that our nation respects individual rights.

Many in Russia were and are religious (and communism a secular derivative of Christian altruism) and many in America are not religious at all. In this war, both sides have killed combatants and civilians alike. What's the difference? We are acting in self-defense. Any deaths we cause in this war and any torturing we have to do are a direct result of the fact that we are being threatened. Crucially, the blame for all deaths and suffering in this war lies with the terrorists.

If the moral difference between two sides in a war (when there is a good side) is that one side initiated force, this difference applies to torture just as much to killing. The good side can perform such acts in the interest of self-defense.


Anonymous said...


While I don't agree with the "all torture is evil" argument, I find myself not agreeing with yours, too.

1. The type of scenario so often mentioned, of the terrorist who knows the location of the nuke, is at most a very marginal case: most of the captives at Gitmo or any of the secret prison locations are not going to have that kind of information.

Most of those current prisoners are not going to have important up-to-date info. Sure, we could pull a few toenails from a new prisoner, find out that al-Zarqawi was in a given city 10 days ago; but al-Zarqawi has likely moved since then. We might find out what ingredients are being used to make bombs for the suicide bombers -- but we can find out that information in other ways. Etc.

2. Torture isn't 100% reliable. Besides which, those who have no problem blowing their bodies to bits for Allah probably aren't going to be terribly troubled by torture. One is instant, one can seem to last forever; but to get out of the prolonged torture, the informant can give info that isn't reliable.

The proponents of torture tend to overlook these little problems (#1 as well as #2) and assume the view that torture is like the fountain of youth or the cure for cancer, when it isn't.

3. Bush's insistence that we do not torture ought to be taken as a sign of support for the McCain amendments. I know, I know: Bush is a liar; but why treat his insistence as if it is an obvious lie? Such duplicity also calls into question Bush's insistence that we're in Iraq to help the Iraqi people, that we really really do believe in human rights and democracy, and that we're not just trying to secure future oil supplies for America.

4. The commenter you paraphrase has it wrong. In the first case, torture isn't much of an operational advantage (for reasons #1 & #2 above); in the second, the enemy's knowing that we won't torture isn't going to turn a crazed suicide bomber into...well, into a crazed suicide bomber. They are going to do what they are going to do, either way. Broad use of torture, in the hopes of getting the one piece of information from the right person at the right time, will, on the other hand, give our enemies (and their supporters) the "America is Satan" meme to play out on the world stage.

Now, these objections aside, I think that some of the so-called definitions of "torture" are really out of whack. Those who believe that sleep deprivation is torture are living in a fantasy land, completely ignorant of all the forms of real torture that have been practiced throughout the ages. I don't trust such people to evaluate much in the way of intelligence that is gathered (or not gathered). I wonder if Cheney's and Rumsfeld's insistence that torture be allowed is more a result of their view that the namby-pamby definitions of torture will lead to saunas and massages for the terrorists we hold prisoner...Clarity is necessary, in this process, to prevent going to either illogical extreme vis-a-vis persuasion methods.

Gus Van Horn said...


Your point that the nuke example is a marginal one is well taken and, in fact I am surprised no one called me on something I thought of about half an hour after i posted this, namely that most of these scenarios are implausible anyway. Perhaps calling me on this woud be the wrong word: there are still plausible scenarios for this to occur.

There are conceivably less dire scenarios than nukes which are time-sensitive. If nothing else has worked, why arbitrarily rule out torture?

Your point on the unreliability of torture is well-taken (except that I wonder whther ANY method of inteligence gathering is "100% reliable") and, if true, I think actually explains why it would not be broadly used. Good intel gathering employs lots of corroboration. Simply torturing a prisoner can often lead him to lie just to get the torture session to end, for example. If this is common and what you say is true, the effort expended would cause most interrogators to seek other more fruitful methods of intelligence gathering. Torture would be a last resort anyway.

(Side note: On this point: "I know, I know: Bush is a liar; but why treat his insistence as if it is an obvious lie?" I have lots of problems with Bush and with his prosecution of the war, but I can't let this leftist canard pass as if I agree with it, at least not in the sense that many use it: that Bush misled our nation into war. I don't know if that's what you meant, but the comment strikes me as gratuitous. Besides: Bush has in fact threatened to veto the bill. Given the wacked-out definitions of torture, he could really believe we "don't torture" anyone, but simply wants all options to remain on the table.)

On the "America is Satan meme", this is the last consideration regardless of whether one regards torture as having any use as an intel gathering technique we should be worried about. We were being accused of much less on September 11, 2001. Certain quarters will regard us as Satan no matter what and reasonable people will know why we do what we do.


Anonymous said...

On the Bush thing, two points.

First, I imagine that all politicians lie sometimes. Most people do it too. It's the effort of trying to define "is" to one's own advantage that bothers me: duplicity can be used by 4GW opponents; they can play us. Bush's nuances vis-a-vis what we are doing, have never done, will never do, yet must be allowed to do...well, that's a lot like Clinton's testimony about Monica. It's also fodder for the terrorists who depend on the media to weaken our stance.

Second, trying to decide if GWB is duplicitous on purpose or is simply a dolt is pointless, if the effects are the same.

Y'know, reading your response inspired another thought. I'd much rather all real torture be illegal and the President and his men break the law when a marginal case occurs. I.e., if they have reason to believe that a new capture knows where the nuke is or where a virus has been released, they could torture the f'ker to the extreme as far as I'm concerned and explain it later. What, they'd be afraid of the political outcome? Ah, but if they're more afraid of that than 100,000 Americans dying, they have no business running the country. The test for justification of the method would be the actual consequences of choosing to do it or not to do it.

Gus Van Horn said...


You say, "I'd much rather all real torture be illegal and the President and his men break the law when a marginal case occurs."

I wouldn't. It is the job, after all, of the executive branch, to enforce laws. Worse still, with such a precedent, you end up putting the decisions as to what cases "merit" breaking the law into the hands of the President. Some, we have seen in the case of Terri Schiavo, have a really warped notion of what constitutes a good reason for the chief executive to become a law unto himself. We don't want our entire legal system to be at the mercy of one man.

I promise you this: We do not want to go there. We need a proper legal framework for using torture and for our President to enforce it.

-- Gus

Anonymous said...

Ah, Gus, I knew you'd latch onto that. You are right, of course -- except, I don't mean we should be writing blank checks for the President, whether through legal means or merely by turning our gaze. Any president who broke the law on torture would of course be punished for it, even if he saved 100,000 American lives. That would be the deal. But, in such a situation, I would expect the next president to pardon him. The bad cases -- those who broke the law willy-nilly for no good reason -- would not be pardoned. (Not pardoned by the next president, or by popular opinion, or by history.) So it wouldn't be the dreadful totalitarian case you fear.

If the details could be worked out in a clear, legal framework, that would be best of all. But considering the political climate and the widely varying definitions of torture and other persuasion methods allowed or disallowed, I doubt that such an efficacious framework will be adopted.

Gus Van Horn said...


But if, "considering the political climate and the widely varying definitions of torture and other persuasion methods allowed or disallowed, I doubt that such an efficacious framework will be adopted", how would we know what is illegal in the first place?

(And that's ignoring my earlier propblem with your idea, which remains....)