Counterculture Con HQ

January 28, 2010

Torture, Waterboarding and Moral Purity

The Left is abuzz.  From the Huffington Post.


Well, it’s official now: John Kiriakou, the former CIA operative who affirmed claims that waterboarding quickly unloosed the tongues of hard-core terrorists, says he didn’t know what he was talking about.

Kiriakou, a 15-year veteran of the agency’s intelligence analysis and operations directorates, electrified the hand-wringing national debate over torture in December 2007 when he told ABC’s Brian Ross and Richard Esposito  in a much ballyhooed, exclusive interview that senior al Qaeda commando Abu Zubaydah cracked after only one application of the face cloth and water.

“What I told Brian Ross in late 2007 was wrong on a couple counts,” he writes. “I suggested that Abu Zubaydah had lasted only thirty or thirty-five seconds during his waterboarding before he begged his interrogators to stop; after that, I said he opened up and gave the agency actionable intelligence.”  But never mind, he says now.  “I wasn’t there when the interrogation took place; instead, I relied on what I’d heard and read inside the agency at the time.” In a word, it was hearsay, water-cooler talk.  “Now we know,” Kiriakou goes on, “that Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in a single month, raising questions about how much useful information he actually supplied.”


According to Kiriakou, waterboarding saved lives.  But his account is discredited because he lied about witnessing this fact personally, instead he relied on other CIA insiders.   Let’s assume that he’s only a secondary source, and that the information came to him from other primary sources who were actual witnesses.  Does that disprove his original premise that waterboarding produced reliable, actionable information and may have saved American lives?  I don’t believe it logically does.  Unless you believe he’s now lying about hearing it from CIA insider sources, just as he lied about being a direct witness.  Fair enough.  But one doesn’t necessarily follow from the other, and that too is a fair conclusion.  If he heard it from other primary sources, can we not reach the same conclusions about waterboarding than the ones we did when he was an alleged direct witness?  For why would his CIA insider sources have lied to him, a fellow insider?  There’s no reason at all why they should have.  Thus the “clarification” seized upon by the Huffington Post from Kiriakous’s book has no real bearing on the effectiveness of waterboarding, only upon Kiriakou’s veracity about how close he was to the events.

But let’s assume for argument’s sake that waterboarding doesn’t work.  Wouldn’t that explain why it has only been used on three terrorists, but is no longer being used?  I’m pretty sure the CIA is only using the interrogation techniques they believe are effective, and not waterboarding people just to get their rocks off.  But if it did in fact work, and did in fact save lives–as Kiriakou claims CIA insiders told him–and they’re no longer using that technique because of political pressure, isn’t that a greater scandal than the fact Kiriakou lied about being a first hand witness?

CCHQ does not celebrate torture, nor even waterboarding.  But it does revel in saving innocent American lives.  IF waterboarding doesn’t work, then it shouldn’t be used.  Period.  And we’re happy it was scrapped.  If, on the other hand, it did work as Kiriakou claims, then isn’t it a greater shame (than Kiriakou’s white lie) that American lives may in the future be lost because we aren’t allowed to use waterboarding on these terrorists, and in fact are giving them 5th amendment rights to remain silent?  Whether waterboarding works or not is a legitimate point of contention.  Whether waterboarding is torture is also a legitimate argument to have.  But at least for the former, I’d rather our intelligence services be the judge of that.  If they aren’t currently using the practice–and we have no reason to believe they are–then I hope it’s because they determined it simply doesn’t work, and not because they were forced to table it because of political pressure.

As for the latter–whether waterboarding is torture–I suspect the objection will be the following: waterboarding, whether it works or not, is torture.  And torture should never be used under any circumstance.  Fair enough.  In which case the issue of whether Kiriakous is a first-hand witness or not becomes moot.  It never mattered to you in the first place because you’ve already rejected waterboarding as a tactic no matter what the results.  Yet the only reason Kiriakous’s account is relevant as a story is because it spoke to the effectiveness of waterboarding; and if the effectiveness of waterboarding as a tactic is irrelevant to you–as somebody who opposes waterboarding no matter how impressive the results–then why are Huffpo’s recent revelations about Kiriakous’s account even relevant?

I don’t believe waterboarding descends to the level of torture.  If it did, we wouldn’t be using it on our own military; and in fact waterboarding our soldiers would probably have been subject to all sorts of lawsuits and congressional hearings long ago if indeed it were torture.  But it hasn’t because it simply does not rise to that level.  But whether waterboarding is torture or not is something we can agree to disagree about for now.  We have bigger fish to fry here.  I want to go even further with this.  The larger question I’d like to put to you, gentle readers, is whether there are situations that do condone torture.

I know what many of you are thinking.  Torture?  Never!  Because in your heart of hearts you are absolutely, positively certain that torture can never be condoned.  I applaud you for that.  It’s a good default position from which to start.  But are you really as set against it as you think you are?  Ask yourself one question:  if your child were kidnapped and held prisoner in a dungeon would you torture the serial killer who took him in order to get him back alive?  Remember, the clock is ticking and time is limited.  What are you going to do?  Let your child die?  Or are you going to do whatever it takes to save your child’s life.  Everything you believe about torture hinges on the answer to that question.  Those innocent American lives of which I speak–people you’ve never met–are as important to somebody else as your child is to you, and time is running out.  This is the ticking bomb scenario.  What do we do?  Are you willing to sacrifice the lives of those innocent Americans for the sake of your moral purity?  CCHQ believes some situations simply do not allow us the luxury of this kind of moral posturing.  That is false morality.  And I believe the debate surrounding waterboarding is neck deep in it.