Sunday, March 29, 2009

Abu Zubaida & the Necessity for the Torture Option

In the previous post, I took issue with the Washington Post's labeling of their story on Abu Zubaida. While skimming the blogosphere response, I noticed that the usual suspects, mostly on the left, have seized on the story as expected.  Naturally they accept the one-side of the report that supports their views and ignore the rest. Their reaction goes something like this [italics mine]. See, see, we told you. Not only is torture evil, immoral & illegal, but this story proves that it's also a waste of time and gets nothing but false leads. This is typical of the sort of surface thinking that passes for analysis among much of the left. Unfortunately, the very version of the story they accept demonstrates the flaws in their thinking.

For the purposes of argument I am going to stipulate that the unnamed critics of the administration in the Post's story are correct. According to their version of events, Abu Zubaida was a lower-level cog in the Al Qaeda machine instead of a major figure. Rather than being a prime source of intelligence, he instead knew very little, and what little he did know we learned during initial, non-coercive interrogations. The waterboarding and other coercive techniques produced nothing but false leads. And we disproved every supposed lead that he divulged under torture. This narrative is an excellent illustration of why torture is sometimes necessary and should remain an option in such cases. 

From the critics' own version we know the following things:

1. The government believed that Abu Zubaida was a high-level Al Qaeda leader.

2. Given #1, it was reasonably assumed that he had wide knowledge of Al Qaeda operations.

3. Initial non-coercive interrogations produced limited information.

4. Given #1 & 2, the government reasonably assumed that Abu Zubaida was concealing far more information than had been gained through interrogation.

Therefore the U.S. government faced the following scenario at the time. They had a major Al Qaeda figure in custody with information deemed critical to U.S. national security. Normal interrogation procedures had failed to produce that information. They then had two basic options:

1. Discard everything they believed about Abu Zubaida and accept that they just weren't going to get more out of him. And hope for the best.

2. Try coercion to make him talk and reveal the critical information they believed he possessed.

Which option makes more sense from a national security standpoint? Unlike those worried about the imaginary rights of terrorists, I prefer that the U.S. government err on the side of protecting the country. If a terrorist is mistakenly tortured for information he doesn't actually possess, oh well, that's just too bad. Torture in captivity should be one of the hazards of the terrorist occupation. Better to torture them and reveal false information, than fail to take action and allow an attack to go forward unimpeded.

Unlike what many seem to believe, intelligence operations do not usually involve clear, easily evaluated information. And sometimes people aren't what they seem. Chasing down leads, some or all of which might be dead ends, is a part of intelligence work, whether such information is gained through torture or otherwise. On issues of national security, assuming the worst about a terrorist captive and acting on that assumption is the prudent government position.

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