Stuart Taylor has a typically thoughtful column on the issue of harsh questioning. Because Taylor’s columns have no permanent links, I’ll quote extensively:
“A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals,” President Obama said on April 16, “and that is why these methods of interrogation are already a thing of the past.”
But is it really a false choice? It’s certainly tempting to think so. The fashionable assumption that coercive interrogation (up to and including torture) never saved a single life makes it easy to resolve what otherwise would be an agonizing moral quandary.
The same assumption makes it even easier for congressional Democrats, human-rights activists, and George W. Bush-hating avengers to call for prosecuting and imprisoning the former president and his entire national security team, including their lawyers. . . .
But there is a body of evidence suggesting that brutal interrogation methods may indeed have saved lives, perhaps a great many lives — and that renouncing those methods may someday end up costing many, many more.
To be sure, the evidence in the public record is not conclusive. It comes mainly from Bush appointees and Central Intelligence Agency officials with records to defend and axes to grind. There is plenty of countervailing evidence coming from critics who have less access to the classified information that tells much of the story and have their own axes to grind. There are also plausible arguments for renouncing coercive interrogation even if it does save some lives.
But it would be an abdication for the president to proceed on the facile assumption that his no-coercion executive order is cost-free.
Those on the left have been pointing to an op-ed by Ali Soufan in the New York Times from Wednesday, in which Soufan says: “There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.” But as Tom Maguire points out, during the period of time that Zubaydah was questioned using “regular tactics,” he was “stripped, held in an icy room and jarred by earsplittingly loud music,” according to the New York Times.
Maguire concludes: “Harsher techniques were introduced in August, but the techniques before then were surely harsh.” In any event, the real debate about waterboarding centers around revelations in recent memos regarding details revealed by a different detainee, KSM, about a plot that would have killed thousands if executed: the Library Tower plot in Los Angeles (discussed in my post here). Soufan knows nothing about that, and KSM and Zubaydah are obviously different people who may have required different tactics.
Back to Taylor:
I see no reason at all to doubt the sincerity of Dennis Blair, Obama’s own national intelligence director, who said in an April 16 memo to his staff that “high value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding” of Al Qaeda.
Blair later qualified this by adding, “There is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means.” But a reasonable person might imagine that it would take more than sweet talk, mind games, and lollipops to get hardened terrorists to sing.
Blair argues that the style of interrogation we have pursued has hurt our standing in the world, to which Taylor responds:
He may be right (or wrong) about that. But even if he is right, does it make sense not only to ban the brutal Bush-Cheney brand of interrogation but also to lurch to the opposite extreme by ordering the CIA not to “threaten or coerce” any detainee in any way?
No yelling? No restricting a detainee to nutritious but unappetizing cold food until he talks? No threats of long-term incarceration, even though such are used routinely and quite legally by police all over America? Should people suspected of plotting mass death really be treated more punctiliously than people suspected of burglary?
The people who agree with the Obama approach don’t care about the evidence. They will lazily accept the premise that the timing of the KSM arrest doesn’t square with the breakup of the Library Tower plot, even though I have explained how it does. They simply have their own smug and self-righteous view about torture. That view may get us killed.