“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Friday, December 28, 2007

Waterboarding - Terrifying but not Torture

The Point | In defense of waterboarding,
The Philadelphia Enquirer

By Mark Bowden
No one should be prosecuted for waterboarding Abu Zubaydah.

Several investigations are under way to find out who ordered the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes, apparently an effort to cover up evidence of torture. Leaving aside for a moment the wisdom of destroying the tapes, I'd like to take a look at what was allegedly done to Zubaydah, and why.

When captured in Pakistan in 2002, Zubaydah was one of the world's most notorious terrorists. The 31-year-old Saudi had compiled in his young life 37 different aliases and was under a sentence of death in Jordan for a failed plot to blow up two hotels jammed with American and Israeli tourists. The evidence was not hearsay: Zubaydah was overheard on the phone planning the attacks, which were then thwarted. He was a key planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, was thought to be field commander of the attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors on the USS Cole, and was involved in planning a score of other terror attacks, successful and unsuccessful. He was considered to be a primary recruiter and manager of al-Qaeda training camps.

He was, in short, a highly successful, fully engaged, career mass murderer. Think back to those pictures of workers crouched in windows high up in the burning World Trade Center towers, choosing whether to jump to their death or be burned alive. This was in part Abu Zubaydah's handiwork.

At the time of his capture in 2002, just six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, there was strong reason to believe Zubaydah knew virtually the entire organizational structure and agenda of al-Qaeda around the world. He was supervising ongoing plots to kill hundreds if not thousands of people. He was, for obvious reasons, disinclined to share this knowledge. Subjected briefly to waterboarding - less than a minute, according to published reports - he became cooperative and provided information that, according to the government, resulted in preventing planned attacks and capturing other key al-Qaeda leaders.

In the six years that have passed since the Manhattan towers collapsed, we have gained (partly through the interrogation of men like Zubaydah) a much clearer understanding of al-Qaeda and the threat it poses. While the chance of further murderous attacks is always with us, it is fair to say few of us feel the same measure of alarm we did then. The diminishment of this threat is at least in part due to the heroic efforts of the CIA, the military, and allies around the world in targeting terrorist cells.

In the process, the menace of Zubaydah himself has deflated. Today, he is just another little man in a orange jumpsuit at Guantánamo. Our national concern has shifted from stopping him to figuring out what to do with him.

And to second-guessing what was done to him. Waterboarding is a process by which a detainee is strapped down and forced to ingest and inhale water until he experiences the terror of drowning. It is not torture in the traditional sense of inflicting pain; it inflicts fear, intense, visceral fear, without doing physical harm. It is a method calculated to straddle the definitions of coercion and torture, and as such merely proves that both methods inhabit the same slippery continuum. There is a difference between gouging out a man's eyes and keeping him awake, and waterboarding falls somewhere in between.

In the unlikely event that Zubaydah knew nothing of value and that every bit of information he divulged was false, it was still reasonable to assume in 2002 that this was not the case. If his interrogators were able to stop one terror attack by waterboarding him, even if they violated international agreements and our national conscience, it was justified. All nations have laws against killing, but all recognize self-defense as a legitimate excuse. I think the waterboarding in this case is directly analogous, except that Zubaydah himself, although he richly deserves it, was neither killed nor permanently harmed.

I can understand why someone at the CIA ordered the videotapes destroyed. It was both to protect those who did it (more from their own government, I suspect, than from terrorist reprisals) and to prevent the images from ever becoming public. We have seen the disastrous, self-defeating consequences of such pictures, which untethered from context assume a damaging life of their own. Whoever made the call now runs the risk of being prosecuted for obstruction of justice, a risk I am sure was evaluated before making the choice.

Here's where the issue gets confusing. No information gained by coercive methods ought to be admissible, ever, in a trial or tribunal. Torture can be used to twist (the word torture literally means "to twist") testimony in any desired direction. The goal of any criminal proceeding is justice, and torture produces only the kind perfected during the Inquisition.

The goal of an intelligence operation in wartime, on the other hand, is to elicit accurate, timely information to thwart attacks. In this setting, interrogation is a process, one in which a prisoner is rewarded for the truth, and punished for lying. It is designed to save lives and ensure the success of a military operation. Coercive methods are rarely necessary. Most often, prisoners can be induced to cooperate by being nice to them. There are many other interrogation methods proven to be useful that do not require so much as raising one's voice. But there will always be hard cases like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, another mastermind of Sept. 11. With prisoners like these, defiant and dangerous, the only right question to ask is, What works?

What does work? Opponents of torture argue that it never works, that it always produces false information. If that were so, then this would be a simple issue, and the whole logic of incentive
disincentive is false, which defies common sense. In one of the cases I have cited previously, a German police captain was able to crack the defiance of a kidnapper who had buried a child alive simply by threatening torture (the police chief was fired, a price any moral individual would gladly pay). The chief acted on the only moral justification for starting down this road, which is to prevent something worse from happening. If published reports can be believed, this is precisely what happened with Zubaydah.

People can be coerced into revealing important, truthful information. The German kidnapper did, Zubaydah did, and prisoners have throughout recorded time. What works varies for every individual, but in most cases, what works is fear, fear of imprisonment, fear of discomfort, fear of pain, fear of bad things happening to you, fear of bad things happening to those close to you. Some years ago in Israel, in the course of investigating this subject exhaustively, I interviewed Michael Koubi, a master interrogator who has questioned literally thousands of prisoners in a long career with Shin Bet. He said that the prisoner who resisted noncoercive methods was rare, but in those hard cases, fear usually produced results. Fear works better than pain.

It is an ugly business, and it is rightly banned. The interrogators who waterboarded Zubaydah were breaking the law. They knew they were risking their careers and freedom. But if the result of the act itself was a healthy terrorist with a bad memory vs. a terror attack that might kill hundreds or even thousands of people, it is a good outcome. The decision to punish those responsible for producing it is an executive one. Prosecutors and judges are permitted to weigh the circumstances and consider intent.

Which is why I say that waterboarding Zubaydah may have been illegal, but it wasn't wrong.

Mark Bowden is a former staff writer at The Inquirer and is now national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly.

Waterboarding obviously is terrifying and it certainly seems to be an effective tool but is it torture? No!


  1. "The interrogators who waterboarded Zubaydah were breaking the law."

    Aaaaaaaargh! They had special, operation-specific dispensation, somewhat paradoxically after it was determined by General Counsel that waterboarding does not constitute torture; that dispensation has rendered them immune to any subsequent prosecution, though not to exposure (hence the destruction of the tapes under the applicable authority). AFAIK.

  2. Whether waterboarding is torture all depends on one's definition of torture. Even if there is a legal definition generally accepted, somebody has to decide if the action fits the definition, which usually means a jury.

  3. There's an unavoidable element of subjectivity, bob. No doubt about it.

    Congress is seeking to ban waterboarding specifically, a truly juvenile act. It's not like coercive interrogation hangs on this one method.

  4. We are ruled by fools whose ambitions went beyond being on school boards. They are seduced into thinking they are both wise and necessary, by overly grand buildings, regal pomposity and rituality. As a body they are more likely dangerous and foolish, than thoughtful and wise.

  5. Well wouldn't you know it. As you know, I am in favor of building some nuke energy plants, and have been following the proceedings of the proposed plant in south Idaho with a great deal of interest. I heard on the radio tonight there is some doctor so and so that is wanting to put the issue up to a vote of the people on some sort of referendum, and has hired legal council to help him out. I am trying to figure the odds on such a vote, and I just don't know. Hopefully, the good ol' Idaho legislature will someow nix the doctor's idea. They are generally pro anything that gets up off its ass. I do know govnor Butch is for the idea of building the plant.