The real CIA scandal isn't (just) the torture, it's the lying to America

We did know. It’s not like this was actually secret. It had even emerged years go that torture didn’t work for intelligence gathering. All that’s new here are the details. The broader picture of kidnap, rape* and murder is only new to people who were purposefully, wilfully ignorant.

  • ‘Forced anal feedings’ is the euphemism used in the report. And the details there are alarming and shocking, but should not obscure the bigger picture that we knew sexual exploitation was US foreign policy.

Something even more troubling is that the GOP except for McCain seems to be supporting the CIA by either saying what the CIA did wasn’t torture or saying it doesn’t matter/that we shouldn’t bother thinking on it too long because it was long ago. Yet, they’re going to be in power next year. They don’t see what the US government did as wrong.

These people will be in power because 60 percent of the nation didn’t bother to vote during the midterm elections.

Of course it isn’t entirely partisan. Obama could of done more to bring those people to justice even if he doesn’t support torture, but as President he doesn’t want to risk undermining the presidency’s powers.

Stating that a comment has “stuck with me” does not constitute equating. The anecdote illustrates that many of us have already been exposed to, and involved in, the use of physical pain to extract information.

There are lies, and people get taken in by them all the time.
There are obvious lies. If you get taken in by them, you’re dumb.
And finally, there are Well-Known Old Evil Lies. If you allow yourself to be taken in by them, you are a bad person. It is the duty of every citizen who has a voice to know enough about those lies not to believe them.

The lie that “she was walking around scantily clad and therefore it was obvious that she wanted to be raped” is such a lie. Decent people don’t get taken in by such a lie. If you do get taken in by such a lie, then you are not an innocent victim of a liar.

“Scientific research has shown that their race is just inferior to ours” is another such lie.

And as a final example, “torture actually works for finding out the truth and is therefore justified in some cases”.

Really, these lies have been told before (another close brush with Godwin’s law…).
No one has a right to fall for them any more.

@JonathanR: let me split a hair or two there:

It’s perfectly possible that valid information has been gained from interrogations under torture. This does not mean that torture “works”.

If torture produces confessions in 90% of all guilty people and 75% of all innocent people, it’s perfectly useless as a means of determining guilt. But you can hold up each of the guilty people who confessed as an “example that torture works”.

The mathematics of “valid information” vs. “invalid information” vs. “semi-valid information” vs. “valid/invalid information that can’t be verified” is more complicated, but I’m sure the same kind of argument can be made there.


I appreciate the hair-splitting! What I’d really like to see is a more nuanced version of “torture doesn’t work”, as you’re describing, being presented to us as citizens of a nation that clearly engages in this practice. We have the senate committee declaring that it “doesn’t work”, the CIA declaring that it “does work”, and the president refusing to endorse either side (NYT has some good perspective on Obama’s neutral positioning on this). I think we’re savvy enough to process a more nuanced analysis than does/doesn’t work.

I’m also comfortable with the argument that, although torture may indeed be sometimes successful at extracting accurate information, overall, torture “doesn’t work”, because the value of the information extracted does not justify the means used to get it, the reputational damage that results from its use, or the increased aggression from our adversaries once our interrogation methods become public.

Okay, let’s split those hairs. I seem to agree with most of what you say on a superficial level, but reading between the lines there are several things that make my hair stand on end.

While I’m happy to split hairs with you in a philosophical debate in an internet forum, expecting that hair-splitting as part of the political debate is just wrong.
The Bush administration has engaged in a crime of horrendous proportions, the current administration claims to have stopped the crime but lets the perpetrators get away. The political question should be, who should be held accountable. Not, “was it maybe a good idea after all?” When a rapist gets his day in court, the question being discussed is not whether raping a woman was the most efficient way for him to get sex.

About Obama’s neutral positioning: that’s despicable.
Obama’s failure to bring the criminals to justice is not a “neutral position”, it’s aiding and abetting criminals. Imagine taking an equally “neutral” position towards Nazi crimes. (Hello, Godwin!)

That is definitely true. Your phrasing has dangerous implications, though - you say that as if there were possible results that would justify torture. So to be absolutely clear: no matter how valuable the information that is extracted is, it can not justify torture as a means to get it. That’s what the “inalienable human right” to be safe from torture means.

A side note on reputational damage: yes, that’s bad. As in seriously bad. There used to be a universal agreement among civilized nations that torture is evil. I (citizen of Austria, Europe) had been outraged at the invasion of Iraq, but the secret prisons, gitmo, rendition and torture stuff is the only time I was truly shocked by American policies.

In general, torture “doesn’t work”. Not “doesn’t work because [ethics] or [reputation] or [revenge]”, but “doesn’t work, period.” As in, you don’t get more useful information when you torture. You might get sometimes get more, by accident, and you might sometimes get less, also by accident.
Of course, some victims will give you useful information when tortured. Those will get enumerated as examples for the claim that “torture works”. First, many of those victims were going to give useful information anyway. And second, it is easy to label “useful information” after the fact. At the time when you actually need the information, it gets drowned out in the noise of falsified information that you also get from torture.

When you interrogate someone, with or without torture, you will get a mix of true information, false information, and obviously false information. True information can only be distinguished from (non-obviously) false information after the fact. If you have several conflicting pieces of information, and you don’t know which is true, you know nothing. If you mistake false information for true information, you know less than nothing.
A torture victim is more likely to give some information than someone who is not being tortured. A torture victim is more likely to make up false information. Not all of your victims will have true information. Information from victims who do not have true information will therefore be 100% false.

The claim “torture works” would mean that the average expected gain of “knowledge” from using torture instead civilized interrogation is greater than zero. And this is not the case. The false information will drown out any true information you might get.

To split the hairs a bit further:
Torture could work in specific situations. If you have a way of making sure that you interrogate only people who really know the answer to the exact question you are asking, and you have a reliable way of verifying answers so than false information can’t put you on a wrong trail for long, you might gain in knowledge.

The classic “ticking bomb” scenario is an example for this. You know with 100% certainty that the one person you are holding has hidden a bomb somewhere in the city. Maybe he’s confessed to that, without torture. You torture him until he reveals the location. If he tells you a wrong location, cops go there, find that there is no bomb, and you continue torturing. In the end, lives are saved.
However, the situation the CIA is facing is different: There might or might not be a bomb hidden in the city. In your holding cells, you have twenty people who might or might not have something to do with the bomb. You torture them, and whenever someone tells you a location, cops rush there… and probably don’t find a bomb (in 19 out of 20 cases). At some point, a bomb explodes. Lives could have been saved if cops had been listening for the ticking noise instead of chasing from one wrong location to another.

Torture. Does. Not. Work.
(And even if it did, civilized nations Do. Not. Torture.)

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The “True Scandal” is, in fact, multifaceted, but 2 of the most regrettably pathetic tragedies are:

  1. that we have, once again, had to be confronted by the true nature of our schizophrenic & conflicted national psyche

  2. being fully aware of repetitive behavioral patterns, we as a nation will knowingly reject any sincere, meaningful redress & remediation of our actions, making a repeat of this scenario almost a certainty

Because unthinking consumerist gratification is just so much easier than striving to attain a shared, mindful, purposeful, national integrity.


That specific ticking bomb scenario implies that there exists an audible ticking, and that resources are foolishly being diverted from signal intelligence (listening for the ticking) to interrogation.

Another one: your loved ones are kidnapped and threatened with certain death. You have captured one of the kidnappers red-handed, and he claims to know their location, but says he would only reveal it if he was tortured.

Of course this is nothing like what the CIA did. I don’t believe their position any more than I believe that the CIA knew - they knew all along! that torture doesn’t work at all, and the sole reason they tortured is that they’re a bunch of depraved sickos.

I think the president is being quiet, in part, because he knows that if he sides with the Senate committee, the CIA will start bringing up specific situations in which they can claim that torture did indeed work. Certainly there is some pro-torture narrative cherry-picking to be had among the other 5,000+ pages of the report that weren’t released.

Whether or not the false information gleaned from torture will “drown out” the true is what’s being debated. And I don’t see enough evidence for either side to so authoritatively declare that torture does or doesn’t work; I believe they’re lumping that in with the torture accusation to more effectively politicize it. I think the Senate committee is playing to the human desire to believe that the state ultimately has nothing to gain by exposing you to physical or psychological horrors, and that’s why I think it’s important that we’re participating in the “does/doesn’t work” debate.

For me the scandal is not only the torture, but Obama’s unwillingness to prosecute the torturers or even make the information available to the people or even to the Senate committee that’s supposed to be overseeing them, not that Feinstein ever wanted to do real oversight.

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I’m sure that if I took someone who believes that torture works, and tortured them enough, that they would admit that torture doesn’t work.


Not sure if I parsed this correctly, the punctuation seems ambiguous.
Well, I do assume that many of the war criminals thought that torture actually furthered their goals. There have also been people who believed that systematically eradicating a minority was the rational “final solution” to a real problem facing the German people. So yes, I’d say “depraved sicko” is an apt term. There isn’t much difference between “Torturing this person will give me important information” and “torturing this person will give me sexual pleasure”. People who institute a system of torture for either reason are rightfully referred to as “depraved sickos”.

He’s been quiet ever since he took office. That might be a prudent thing to do. It takes courage to allow yourself to be remembered by history as the guy who failed to bring America’s worst war criminals of over half a century to justice, when in fact you’ve been keeping quiet in order to make torture less likely in the future. Maybe he is that great a statesman. Or maybe he just doesn’t care enough.

The “audible ticking” was just intended as a general image for any other method of finding out where the bomb is.
Following up on information gained in an interrogation is usually expensive. Checking to see whether a bomb is there is easy. But if you get a name of an alleged terror mastermind, you might send a drone to eradicate him and his entire village, and you’ll still not be sure whether the information was correct.
Of course, real damage is only done when you “foolishly” divert resources from useful methods, but that is beside the point. Unless “civilized interrogation of the suspect” is one of those useful methods.

If someone tells me to my face that he wants to be tortured, I ask him what he’d like the safeword to be. :wink:
Apart from that, this scenario is hardly different from the classic “ticking bomb” scenario. All the variables are cranked to their extremes to somehow make the point that torture might be useful:

  • Likelihood that any particular prisoner actually has the information I’m after.
  • Ease of verifying any information I get
  • Collateral damage done by wrong information

Likelihood of knowledge: You imagined a torture victim that confesses and explicitly and credibly claims that torture is the only method to get him to talk. By contrast, the CIA picks up several suspects, and it is not known what information they possess.

Ease of verification: These abduction/ticking-bomb scenarios are as easy as they get. How do you know if you’ve been told the truth about some vague terror plot? “Al-Khwarizmi is plotting a bomb attack against the maths department of some American university at some point in the future; he hasn’t yet decided where or when” - how do you verify that? And the value of knowing about the organizational structure of some terror organisation comes from using it to predict or thwart that organisations acts, or to dismantle the organisation. It’s worthless when you first have to dismantle the organisation so that you can then say, after the fact, that “in this particular instance, torture yielded valid information”.

Collateral damage done by wrong information: Sending a few police cars to the wrong place is no big deal. If my loved ones get saved as a consequence, I’ll gladly pay for new locks on the doors they kicked in. If a few “dangerous-looking” people get shot because they didn’t put their hands up quickly enough, then that’s a problem. Rescue a hostage, shoot an innocent black teenager. Not good. In the “war on terror” context, you might want to send a drone to murder Mr. Al-Khwarizmi and his entire home village. Or you might decide that information gained under torture can’t be trusted, and therefore you didn’t really get any actionable information.

By saying that “[torture] doesn’t work”, I think the Senate committee has just restated a fact that has been well-known among civilized people for more than a century. Only they didn’t dare say it. They keep using the Nazi euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” (Verschärfte Vernehmung). But that’s a minor sin in comparison.

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Well, sometimes.

Also, have you seen how many times recently the police have raided the wrong house and people have ended up dead?


Yes, my next sentence, referring to “dangerous-looking” people getting shot, was intended as a reference to the problem of police killing innocent people who get in their way.

As for slightly-off and therefore terribly wrong bomb warnings, if a captured terrorist wants to deliberately plant some wrong information, you’ll get the same faulty information no matter whether you use torture or not. And even if there is some doubt left on whether torture can work for obtaining information, it has been known for centuries that torture is absolutely worthless at determining whether something is true or not. So this ends up being irrelevant after all.

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Thanks for the thoughtful response. I appreciate you risking a Godwin jab by a comparison with the torture methods that the Germans employed. It’s relevant and valid.

The Atlantic piece was interesting in its description of “Verschärfte Vernehmung” as torture methods that were intended to leave no marks that could be used to later implicate torturers in court. I remember reading something similar in The Gulag Archipelago, when Solzhenitsyn mentioned that eye gouges were discouraged, because they looked bad in court. What’s so incredibly outrageous in the CIA scandal is that they seemed to have even abandoned that standard, specifically in the circumstances surrounding the alleged eye-gougings of Omar Deghayes and Abu Zubaydah.

I remain convinced that there are extreme hypothetical situations, like the one I’ve described above, in which torture is justified, and will work. Of course there is no credible comparison between that hypothetical situation and what the CIA has done, and I know of no other event from history in which the use of state-sanctioned torture even approaches that example.

I also am still convinced that the “doesn’t work” argument combined with the “moral outrage” argument, even if they were flawless arguments, are not enough to disincentivize torture. There will always be people who are impervious to moral outrage; there have to be well-publicized punishments.

Obama’s silence may also be tied to his complicity. It’s difficult for me to believe that he curtailed all torture immediately upon hearing of its use, and that the blame for torture lies wholly upon his political rivals in the previous administration. The entire debacle is being framed as a distinct series of events that occurred in the past, but were completely eliminated. I’m more inclined to believe that, as I type this reply, someone in American custody is being tortured.

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Maybe they don’t want to name the torturers because those people are over here now, working in your local police departments and government. Ex-military gets preference for civil service and police jobs. Where else are those people going to go, after they’ve become torturers?

Wouldn’t ‘… the US chooses which of its citizens to execute based on race’ be more accurate?

That is an entirely different true statement.

The official executions in the US are official policy, the extrajudicial executions of individual citizens inside the country (“I felt threatened by him”) are actions of individual law enforcement officers.
My point was to call for that distinction between official policy and “bad apples” to be made, because otherwise, you could really say, “all countries use torture, so what if the US is among them”. Whereas the list of countries that use torture as an official policy is a very short list that the US really should not want to be on.

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