THE BLOG
06/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cheney, the CIA and Torture: Asking the Wrong Questions

Former Vice President Cheney has masterfully shifted the debate about torture from the realm of law and ethics to that of pure efficacy. Liberal columnist Richard Cohen "has to wonder if what he is saying now is the truth -- i.e., torture works." The famously secretive Cheney is now clamoring for the release of CIA memos that he contends shows that torture led to disclosures that he is "absolutely convinced... saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives." And so the Washington press pack heads off in hot pursuit of the elusive memos from the CIA, which will no doubt surface eventually.

It would not be surprising that, "having taken the gloves off" seven years ago, the CIA would have a memo in its files claiming that what it was doing actually worked. Washington is famous for bureaucrats larding the file with memos to superiors lauding the effectiveness of pet projects. Would the famously obliging George Tenet really have sent a memo to the eager Vice President telling him that after waterboarding two detainees 266 times -- including waterboarding Abu Zubaydeh 83 times in one month alone -- that waterboarding was totally useless? Abu Zubaydeh's original interrogators maintain that all of the useful information obtained came through traditional rapport building measures and that the information flow stopped once waterboarding started. No doubt, there is a counter-bureaucratic narrative. Cheney wants to take what is a stark legal and moral issue and turn it into yet another Washington "some argue this; some argue that" controversy. It is a clever bureaucratic maneuver, but it fundamentally distracts from serious debate about torture.

Let us assume that sometimes torture sometimes is effective. Let us also ignore the question of whether it is more effective than other techniques. Virtually all of the empirical evidence shows that torture is usually ineffective and is almost invariably less effective than other methods of interrogation. Also, tortured confessions frequently generate massive amounts of false information, leading to endless and costly false leads, and in turn, to a round robin of further interrogations of those wrongly identified.

But it is wrong to engage in the discussion whether torture is effective policy. The absolute prohibition on torture is not based on a consensus that it never works. Rather, it is based on the sad realization that the impulse to torture is ever-present; that human beings who are frightened or zealous or full of rage -- as human beings invariably are -- will feel a powerful need to torture and a powerful justification for acting on that need. It is useful to recall the understandable fear and anger after September 11 not to justify or excuse torture, but to understand that it is precisely at the moment of most stress that the norm against torture must be powerfully affirmed.

From the thumbscrew to the rack to the boring insects to the electrode to the waterboard, amazing human ingenuity and energy have been devoted to inflicting pain. Torture remains a constant across time and across culture. Equally universal is the human ability to wrap sadism in an overarching moral narrative. Torturers never assert that they take satisfaction in domination; that imposing cruelty assuages their anger; or that inflicting pain satisfies righteous anger against guilty outsiders. Torture is always presented as a sad necessity to a greater good. To recognize the power and ubiquity of the urge to torture is not to say that the articulated threats are not real. But history shows that torture always seems to be the solution and a solution imposed with increasing cruelty and frequency as panic and frustration increases. Can it really be the case that when Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was waterboarded for the tenth, hundredth, or hundred eighty eighth time that the interrogators or Vice President Cheney honestly believed they would obtain a better result that time than all the times before? And when Secretary Rumsfeld established a protocol at GTMO where hundreds of people, now acknowledged to have nothing to do with terrorism and no actionable intelligence, were all subject to sleep deprivation, extremes of hot and cold, stress positions, and unmuzzled dogs, could he have truly believed that there were hundreds of people who knew about future September 11ths, all of whom needed to be tortured?

There is an absolute prohibition on torture not because the impulse is alien to human nature but because it is so deeply familiar. When torture does not work, the urge is to turn up the voltage and to widen the dragnet. We do not allow torture in the ticking time bomb scenario because when the would-be torturer looks out on the landscape, he sees it littered with ticking time bombs and people who might know something about them. We do not balance the costs and benefits to see if torture works because there will always be some argument that can be made that it works or it might work or people believed at the time that it would. By refocusing on whether torture worked, Vice President Cheney wants to deflect attention from the fact that civilized legal systems make torture criminal precisely because we are ever tempted that it might work.