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August 29, 2009

Post hoc ergo propter hoc: Torture edition

Washington Post reporters Peter Finn, Joby Warrick, and Julie Tate lend credence Dick Cheney's fallacious argument that because Khalid Sheik Mohammed began cooperating with U.S. authorities after he was tortured, torture made him cooperate.

The story is based the reminiscences of unnamed intelligence officers who observed Mohammed in 2005 and 2006. They say that he evolved from defiance to enthusiastic cooperation. But it's not clear whether any of these anonymous officials watched the metamorphosis from the beginning. The story seems to imply that they showed up 2 or 3 years after he started cooperating. In which case, why should we trust their hunches about what turned the prisoner?

And if they were around for the torture, how much stock should we put in anonymous anecdotes from people who might be facing criminal charges? Of course they're going to say that the program was dazzlingly effective. At this point, good PR is their best chance of staying free and employed.

The WaPo's sources claim to have observed Mohammed directly. Surely, only a handful of people would have been allowed access to the U.S.'s top terror detainee. Chances are, anyone who got that close has a vested interest in presenting the program in the most flattering light. For all we know, the WaPo interviewed Khalid Sheik Mohammed's torturers. If the reporters grappled with this potential conflict of interest, they don't let on. 

Cheney and his allies stress that KSM only started talking after he was waterboarded. The thing is, the CIA waterboarded him as soon as they got their hands on him--183 times during his first month of captivity.  We're supposed to believe that the hundred-and-eighty-third time was the charm? Good thing there was no ticking bomb. 

With no control group, we have no way of knowing whether KSM broke any faster than he would have with traditional rapport-based interrogation tactics. For all we know, torture actually prolonged the process. Torture can harden the victim's resolve to resist the torturer.

Note that torture defenders aren't even trying to argue that KSM gave up valuable information while he was actually being tortured. (He falsely confessed to all kinds of crazy stuff including the murder of Daniel Pearl.) You might think this is evidence against the efficacy of torture. But here's where the Cheney faction does a bit of logical jujitsu: They point to the fact that KSM started talking after he was waterboarded. So, the waterboarding must have softened him up. The more parsimonious hypothesis is that once U.S. stopped torturing the prisoner, the real work of interrogation could begin.

"When I was in Iraq, the few times I saw people use harsh methods [in Iraq in 2006], it was always counterproductive,” explained veteran interrogator Matthew Alexander, author of "How To Break a Terrorist, “the person just hunkered down, they were expecting us to do that, and they just shut up. And then I’d have to send somebody in, build back up rapport, reverse that process, and it would take us longer to get information.”

Interestingly, the anecdotes from the anonymous officials who observed KSM suggest that his captors got their best information by exploiting the his intellectual vanity, not by beating confessions out of him. KSM's captors shrewdly gave him a blackboard and let him "lecture" CIA agents about terrorism while they took notes. A lot of crazy claims have been made about the efficacy of torture, but no one's going to claim that waterboarding put KSM in the mood to deliver his "Advanced Topics in al Qaeda" talk. That gambit was the result of an astute interrogator who got to know the prisoner well enough to exploit his weaknesses. Torture only gets in the way of those kinds of discoveries.

[x-post at Obsidian Wings]

Update: Marcy Wheeler notes that after the CIA stopped torturing KSM, they went back to rapport-based interrogation. The WaPo doesn't mention that critical and widely reported fact, of course.


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I have had a beard since 1983. In that time, there has not been a nuclear war. My wearing a beard prevented nuclear war.

KSM's beard got longer in prison, ergo waterboarding is a miracle hair-growth treatment!

Re "He falsely confessed to all kinds of crazy stuff including the murder of Daniel Pearl."

Someone who gave false information after being tortured, probably in the hopes of avoiding more torture, is an example against torture.

But effectiveness of getting accurate information is only one of the many moral and legal issues.

Japanese who used waterboarding on American soldiers during WWII were convicted for torture. Those Japanese were trying to get information to prevent an attack on their country. Does that mean it was moral for them to torture Americans?

Intuitively, it makes sense to respond to torture supporters by pointing out that their excuse/justification of torture on pragmatic grounds isn't borne out, but if they believe that prisoners don't provide reliable information because they aren't being treated harshly *enough,* every failure of torture is a grounds for even more severe torture. So I'm skeptical that torture supporters will change their minds if, after the fact, it turns out that torture wasn't successful in any particular case. Hindsight is 20/20, the stakes were high, we thought it might work this time, etc. etc.

On the other hand, I think its worth underlining that torture supporters are only willing to take the risk that torture might not work because they secretly believe that torture is an appropriate punishment. If torture works, great, we found the bomb. If torture doesn't work, well, he had it coming anyway.

That's my descriptive analysis, at least. It's so alien, I don't know how to respond to it. I suppose I could point out that ticking bomb scenarios justify torturing innocent third parties to get bomb-planters to talk just as much as the justify torturing bomb-planters, but the only response I've gotten to that is "Oh, but we would never go after someone who hadn't already done something wrong."

I mean, what can you say to that?

Referring to << "Appendix C", 1st August 2002, Memo for John Rizzo
CIA-Counsel & Torture of supposed detainees-"Al-Kaida"[in Arabic language "Base" & as an organization only exists in Marocco] from Jay S. Bybee >> [Special Review CIA, released last Monday] I read on page 88 "This Review did not uncover any evidence that these plots were imminent". Jay S. Bybee pre-authorizes torture.
But Jay S. Bybee assumes at least some imminent plots without proof & evdence.
All training-camps in Afghanistan & Pakistan were construced either by the
U.S.-Secret Service or by the Pakistan-Secret Service. And Al-Kaida is a term
the Interrogators in this Special Review say about:"The Agency lacked adequate linguists or subject matter experts and had very little hard knowledge of what particular Al-Kaida leaders - who later became detainees - should know"[ loc.
cit. page 83]. Please draw Your own conclusion if the CIA tortures somebody why
he was at the wrong time at the wrong place.

When I worked on tuna boats the matter of beards and their consequences were taken very seriously. If the skipper had just shaved and we caught lots of fish, everyone had to shave. If the engineer had shaved his beard and we hit a long dry spell the captain would order him to stop shaving. I thought it was just superstitious nonsense, but then fishermen and vice presidents apparently see causal connections that escape us ordinary mortals.

We need both a presidential commission and Congressional hearings to crush the praises of torture with a stamp of authority. Trouble is, they would need grants of immunity to compel testimony, and they could not help generating a publicity the torture conspirators and their defenders would deem "prejudicial" -- which could interfere with criminal prosecutions of the conspiracy.

Kevin Drum noted 18 months ago that, before he was captured, KSM had confessed - bragged, actually - in great detail about his role in 9/11 to an Al Jazeera reporter, who published the account in the London Sunday Times.

It's completely false to say that KSM "started talking after he was tortured." He was talking freely, to anyone who would listen to him, before he was tortured - even before he was captured.

This is not a case of "post hoc ergo propter hoc," it's not a case of "correlation does not prove causation." It's a case of lying.

KSM was waterboarded 183 times during March 2003 - 6 times a day, 7 days a week. Why? Because the CIA needed to torture him to get what he knew about 9/11? No, he was willing to talk without torture. Or was it because Cheney wanted him to "confess" that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11?

That's the kind of information that torture is for - the false kind. And that's what they wanted from KSM - not true information, but false information to justify their trumped-up war.

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