Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Practicality of Torture

Having discussed differing accounts of the torture of Abu Zubayda, the next question is, so what. Assuming the John Kiriakou is right that we got valuable information from Abu Zubayda by torture, does that prove that torture is necessary or justified in our fight against Al-Qaeda. My answer would still be no. Torture may, indeed, be the quickest and most convenient way to fight terrorism, but it is not an absolute necessity.

In considering the need for torture in fighting the War on Terror, I believe we should take the following into account:

(1) Most Al-Qaeda operatives captured (especially higher-ups) will be plotting terrorist attacks.

(2) Most of Al-Qaeda's terrorist plots never get off the drawing board. We do not know and, indeed, probably not even the CIA knows, how many of the plots Abu Zubayda gave up ever went beyond the "aspirational" stage.

(3) The ones that do get off the drawing board take months or even years, to come to fruition. The September 11 attacks appear to have moved from "aspirational" to "operational" in early 1999 and only came to fruition two and a half years later. Preparations for the 2000 attack on the USS Cole apparently began in late 1998. Admittedly, these were unusually large and complex terrorist plots. Smaller and simpler ones can mature more rapidly. But true urgency is rare.

(4) The more a plot matures, the more external evidence it creates. Kiriakou reports that Abu Zubaydah captured with a bomb being assembled and map of a school. If true, this is, indeed, an urgent threat. But the bomb and the map were more than ample evidence to thwart the plot. No assistance from Abu Zubayda was needed.

(5) High-ranking Al-Qaeda operatives when captured usually have an abundance of evidence, such as documents, laptops, and cell phones. Abu Zubayda himself is a classic example. His safehouses contained "documents, cell phones and computers" that contained "crucial information." Al-Zarqawi in Iraq is another example. He did not live long enough to be interrogated, but he told us volumes from beyond the grave through captured documents.

(6) This point is controversial, but there is some evidence that mature plots are especially vulnerable to disruption is one of the conspirators is captured. One piece of evidence is Bin Laden's tape stating that Zacarias Moussaoui was not part one of the September 11 conspiracy and that if he had been involved, Bin Laden would have cancelled the operation and withdrawn the operatives. Of course, Bin Laden might just have been lying to keep us from waterboarding captured terrorists. But the September 11 Commission reaches a similar conclusion. Moussaoui's superiors did not learn he had been arrested until after the attack (his arrest took place about a month before) and, if they had known, they might have cancelled the operation. The Millenium Bombing, the thwarted Al-Qaeda plot we know most about, is also revealing. When Ahmed Ressam was arrested with a bomb his co-conspirators scattered and fled.

Admittedly, there were differences between September 11 and the Millenium Plot. The Millenium Plot involved only one cell, operating mostly on its own with only minium guidance from above. September 11 was a highly compartmentalized, centralized, carefully coordinated operation. And, even more to the point, once Ressam's bomb was captured, it was impossible for his accomplices to proceed without it. September 11 involved no special equipment. But to the extent that mature plots are relatively easy to disrupt, the capture of a conspirator will actuall reduce the urgency of the threat and the need for fast information.

(7) Finally, non-coercive methods do work, albeit more slowly. Terrorists, when arrested, experience what often happens to cult members when they leave the hothouse atmosphere of their cult. When the cult's bizzare way of thinking is no longer reinforced everywhere they turn, their own judgment again begins to reassert itself. Ahmed Ressam experienced a serious blow to his world view when he received a fair trial. (He was convicted, but that was fair, after all. He was guilty). It undermined his belief that the United States was Great Satan. Leaving the terrorist hothouse and being treated fairly by his enemies was sufficient to persuade him to give information against Al-Qaeda. But it took 16 months. He was not able to give "time sensitive" information about ongoing operations (nor did he know of any other than his own bombing plot), but he offered valuable information about Al-Qaeda members and methods. Zacarias Moussaoui also received a major blow to his world view when, despite his best efforts, a jury refused to sentence him to death. Perhaps he, too, may end up informing against his terrorist colleagues without coercion.

Of course, Ressam and Moussaoui are only foot soldiers. They do not have as much information as Al-Qaeda leaders, who will be less likely to cooperate without torture. And no doubt many foot soldiers will refuse to talk unless tortured. But if even 20% of all captured foot soldiers were willing to give information against Al-Qaeda that would, after all, be a serious security breach.

I would therefore say that, given the slow pace at which Al-Qaeda terrorist plots proceed, given the increased probability of exposure or disruption the more a plot matures, given the large amounts of information captured with senior Al-Qaeda leaders, and given the willingness of at least some terrorists to talk without torture, that the use of torture is a matter of convenience and not necessity. Convenience is not sufficient to justify torture.

And my posts denying the need to torture high-level Al-Qaeda members are becoming redundant. I hope not to post on subject for a long time.

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