Monday, March 30, 2009

Empty Soda Machines Give No Soda

There's a soda machine that appears to be filled with soda, and you are thirsty -- very thirsty. You grab some change from your pocket and put it in the coin slot. Out comes a soda and you drink it. But you are still very thirsty. You put in more money, but this time nothing comes out. You put in the last of your money -- still no soda. You are sure this machine isn't out of soda, and you must have some more. In desperation you pick up a crowbar and pry it open, only to find that the machine is empty. There just isn't any more soda. Does this mean that ripping open soda machines to get soda doesn't work?

Since the Washington Post printed its misleading story about Abu Zubaidah, many, particularly on the left, have uncritically accepted the opinion of one group of unnamed sources as if it were gospel truth. That's nothing surprising. But they've also generalized from this one incident, claiming that the Abu Zubaidah case somehow proves that torture doesn't work -- even though we know for a fact that it can and has worked. I don't expect much reasoning ability from people who don't believe torture can work, since they evidently live in their own little fantasy worlds, but it would be nice if they'd apply even a minimum of elementary logic to their arguments. The Post story, if true, clearly indicates that Abu Zubaidah did not have the information the U.S. thought he had.

If someone does not have information, nothing will get it out of them. I know this is probably difficult for some to grasp, but attempting to extract information from someone who doesn't have it won't work, no matter what method you use. A failure in that case does not invalidate the method. 

6 comments:

  1. > even though we know for a fact that it can and has worked.

    hmm....

    > If someone does not have information, nothing will get it out of them. I know this is probably difficult for some to grasp, but attempting to extract information from someone who doesn't have it won't work, no matter what method you use.

    So what will happen if I ask for citations supporting your fact? They're notably absent from this post.

    I looked through your recent entries here under the label torture. There are examples of torture or threats of torture working in domestic situations. It never seems to involve something that would be of national security interest.

    I get that if you break into someone's house unexpectedly and threaten to break off his fingers one by one you can get him to tell you the combo to a safe, or a PIN number, or a computer password.

    What I don't get is how you expect to crack militant Islamists who believe they'll be rewarded in paradise for not betraying their buddies nor fouling a plan to destroy a high-enough value target. Do you really know for a fact that torture works in the situations you advocate it for? If so some examples would be useful.

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  2. "What I don't get is how you expect to crack militant Islamists who believe they'll be rewarded in paradise for not betraying their buddies nor fouling a plan to destroy a high-enough value target. Do you really know for a fact that torture works in the situations you advocate it for? If so some examples would be useful."

    There are plenty of similar situations that involve specific information that can be verified independently. Just a few obvious examples... Where is your arms cache? Where did you plant the bomb? What is the password for this laptop? Where are the bodies buried? Even more speculative information can be confirmed by independent means. Torture might be the most effective way to get information, or it might be the least effective. It depends on the situation.

    "I looked through your recent entries here under the label torture. There are examples of torture or threats of torture working in domestic situations. It never seems to involve something that would be of national security interest."

    There have been numerous examples throughout history where people have given up the names of their associates under torture. Just off the top of my head: the Cadoudal plot against Napoleon (information gained thru torture was confirmed by ordinary police work), the Guy Fawkes plot (he gave correct information although the authorities already knew it from other means). The July 1944 plot against Hitler (torture implicated many innocent people, but also some who were guilty). The Algerian War. Torture helped produce intelligence that broke the insurgency in Algiers. At least one specific bomb plot is known to have been stopped due to torture-extracted information.

    Even Darius Rejali, author of "Torture & Democracy," who is strongly anti-torture, estimates that torture works approximately 14% of the time to extract intelligence. That doesn't sound too good, but this is from a heavily biased researcher. Even he doesn't deny that torture can work.

    The bottom line is that torture is just an interrogation method. Whether or not it works depends on the interrogator, the interrogatee, the overall situation, and the information in question. There is simply no logical reason to believe that torture cannot work. Yes, it has all sorts of weaknesses and counterproductive effects. But good information doesn't turn bad because it's extracted under torture. And torture doesn't have to stand alone. Some information can be verified independently.

    As to your point about hardened militants. Some people will be more vulnerable to torture than others. Some may likely die or be driven insane before you get anything out of them. But just because someone is willing to die for a cause, doesn't necessarily mean they can stand being tortured for it. Fear & pain are extremely powerful motivating forces. We know this for a fact.

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  3. The Post story, if true, clearly indicates that Abu Zubaidah did not have the information the U.S. thought he had.

    If someone does not have information, nothing will get it out of them. I know this is probably difficult for some to grasp ...


    I'm willing to stipulate the WaPo might have this story wrong from the word go. They are far too in love with "off the record" sources that can't be independently validated, in this story and in far too many more. So, for grins, let's agree to agree on that and assume for the sake of discussion the WaPo story is true.

    He didn't have any information worth extracting, so under torture he gave information not worth extracting -- false information. He sent CIA assets scurrying far and wide chasing false, dead-end leads.

    Torture produces *statements.* If the torturers are asking for it, torture will produce tap-dances and songs. The statements extracted by torture will be whatever the tortured party believes will most expediently make the torture stop. That's not intelligence gathering worthy of the name, even if it were legal.

    It's not legal, no matter how efficacious you or anyone else thinks it. It's not legal even when people in US uniforms do it. And it doesn't work, as the case under discussion shows. These two things should matter, even if you're somehow unswayed by the morals of it.

    Murder, rape, genocide, drowning old people, and crucifying toddlers can -- in theory -- be efficacious, for crying out loud. They can be used to get from point A to point B. That doesn't make them right nor legal.

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  4. "Torture produces *statements.* If the torturers are asking for it, torture will produce tap-dances and songs. The statements extracted by torture will be whatever the tortured party believes will most expediently make the torture stop."

    The risk of getting false leads is one of torture's biggest weaknesses. But it can also produce useful information -- obviously not if the person has none to give. But false leads can also occur from other interrogation methods. Any information gained through interrogation methods has to be evaluated. I'm not sure why this basic premise escapes people. Just because someone says something under torture, doesn't mean you automatically believe it. And some information is easily verified.

    For example, if you capture a terrorist who has a detonator on him, and you torture him asking: "where is your arms cache"? And he says, "123 main street." You can go to 123 Main St. and see for yourself if there is in fact an arms cache there.

    If you then ask, "who is your controller?" If he gives you a name, you can use ordinary police methods to investigate and determine whether the person he named has incriminating evidence that would support our captive's assertion.

    "It's not legal, no matter how efficacious you or anyone else thinks it. It's not legal even when people in US uniforms do it"

    I don't care. I'm not arguing about its legality.

    "And it doesn't work, as the case under discussion shows."

    Of course it can work. And as I pointed out, this particularly case demonstrates nothing either way. That was kind of the point of this post.

    "Murder, rape, genocide, drowning old people, and crucifying toddlers can"

    None of which is in any way equivalent to torturing a known terrorist. Torturing a terrorist has nothing to do with harming the innocent.

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  5. You say: "Known terrorist." There's the rub. Evidently you have a method for assessing the known terrorists from the wrongly accused terrorists. Under our legal system, due process does this. It's imperfect, but no one has come up with anything better. Person X's say-so is NOT better. Person X's say-so is what due process evolved to replace.

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  6. "You say: "Known terrorist." There's the rub. Evidently you have a method for assessing the known terrorists from the wrongly accused terrorists."

    When I say "known terrorist," I mean someone we have positively identified, with no reasonable doubt, as a terrorist -- either because we know for a fact that they have participated in terrorist activities, or because they themselves are on record identifying as a member of a terrorist organization. Do we know that Osama Bin Laden is a terrorist? How about Ayman Al Zawahiri? There are certain individuals that are known terrorists.

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