The torture "debate": Torture is still immoral and ineffective. Bin Laden's death doesn't change that.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 4 2011 6:22 PM

Still Stupid, Still Wrong, Still Immoral

Why the death of Osama Bin Laden shouldn't change our views about torture—or of the people who approved it.

Elsewhere in Slate, Jack Shafer makes the case for releasing the Bin Laden photo, William Saletan explains why the  human-shield myth was a bad idea, Dave Weigel talks about how Osama's death  proved everyone right, John Dickerson looks at  Obama's poll numbers, Chris Beam explains the  mood in Pakistan, Heather Murphy compiles a slide show of the elite Navy SEALs, and Maura O'Connor looks at how  the war still continues in Afghanistan. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit  The Slatest. Slate's complete coverage is rounded up  here.

Illustration of an interrogation room.

Do we have to have another big national debate about torture? Really, do we have to? Headlines like this one, in the New York Times no less, inform us that the Osama Bin Laden raid has "revived" the arguments over the "value of torture." That's strange, because until now, the only people "reviving" the debate over the wonders of torture were the same people whose names are actually on the torture memos or who were in the room when torture methods were being approved. This does not constitute a "debate." A better term would be self-serving propaganda.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Still, the subject of illegally torturing people for information appears to be open for discussion yet again. So before I rehearse my argument, allow me to suggest that the only reason we are having this discussion at all is because we have tortured people. That's the problem with doing stupid things: You spend the rest of your life trying to convince yourself that maybe they weren't so stupid after all. Had we not water-boarded prisoners eight years ago, nobody would be making the argument that water-boarding "worked." The reason you don't order up torture in the first place is that once you do, it stays on the menu for years.

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Given that—as yet—nobody really knows for certain whether evidence extracted from prisoners through torture ultimately led to the capture and execution of Osama Bin Laden, a lot of the folks jabbering about torture are talking in similarly pointless rhetorical circles. What they are saying chiefly amounts to variations upon the same assertion: "We tortured people. Later, we caught Bin Laden. Ergo, torture works."

In fact, the most interesting torture debates of the past few days have actually come from people debating themselves on the truth behind this simple syllogism. See, for instance, Donald Rumsfeld of Tuesday morning debating Donald Rumsfeld of Tuesday night on whether torture led to the capture of Bin Laden.

Donald Rumsfeld of Tuesday morning: "The United States Department of Defense did not do waterboarding for interrogation purposes to anyone. It is true that some information that came from normal interrogation approaches at Guantanamo did lead to information that was beneficial in this instance. But it was not harsh treatment and it was not waterboarding."

Donald Rumsfeld of Tuesday nightbegged to differ, however: "I'm told there was some confusion today on some programs … suggesting that I indicated that no one who was waterboarded at Guantanamo provided any information on this. That's just not true. What I said was no one was waterboarded at Guantanamo by the U.S. military. … Three people were waterboarded by the CIA … and then later brought to Guantanamo. In fact, as you point out, the information that came from those individuals was critically important."

When asked whether torture led definitively to information about Bin Laden's whereabouts, everyone says pretty much the same thing: "After we tortured people, some other stuff happened. Later we learned some useful things." Then they insert their personal opinions about causation.

Here's Rep. Peter King's formulation of that approach: "[W]e obtained information several years ago, vital information about the courier for Obama [sic]. We obtained that information through waterboarding. And so for those who say that waterboarding doesn't work, to say that it should be stopped and never used again—we got vital information which directly led to us bin Laden." That isn't entirely inconsistent with the ever-changing AP account suggesting that many months after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was water-boarded, he may have divulged some useful information. One can certainly conclude from this—or not! That's the beauty and absurdity of this debate—that the initial water-boarding led to the eventual release of that information. It doesn't mean the water-boarding caused the information to be released. It may even have slowed the release of useful information.

Nor is any of that inconsistent with what Leon Panetta told Brian Williams Tuesday night, a statement that has been weirdly spun to suggest that Panetta linked the torture itself to the capture of Bin Laden. In fact what Panetta said was: "No, I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of these detainees. But I'm also saying that, you know, the debate about whether—whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always gonna be an open question."

Panetta seems merely to have admitted that some people were water-boarded. Again, notice the same formulation. "We tortured some people. We got some information later. Maybe there is a connection. We will never know." Is that an endorsement of the efficacy of torture? Insert your own personal policy preference here.

And here's the genius part: In support of personal policy preferences, facts are wholly optional. Lack of facts can also be highly probative. For example: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was water-boarded 183 times in 2003, lied about knowing Bin Laden's courier, as did Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was interrogated in 2005. They offered no useful information. Yet torture advocates now say that because both men denied knowing the courier—thus tipping off the CIA that he must be someone important—torture must work. Got it? Torture works when the prisoners disclose information, but it also works when they don't. It's win-win!

The fact that we have swamped a debate about the killing of Osama Bin Laden with a distraction over torture is another national embarrassment. Why aren't we debating the efficacy of any of the other intelligence-gathering or surveillance methods that also contributed to the success of the hunt for bin Laden? We are being conned yet again, and allowing ourselves to be conned again, by a handful of people who want to justify their own crimes. Remember all those debates about the need to be allowed to torture in "ticking time bomb" scenarios? We are now having a discussion about an alleged ticking time bomb that took eight years to blow—if it blew at all.

There is just one question about America and torture: whether we should do it. The answer to that, after hundreds of years of legal thinking and moral progress, not just in America but around the world, is no. It's bad for those asked to torture, and it's bad for our soldiers who will be tortured by others. A bunch of Bush officials secretly changed that answer for a time, based on misapprehensions of its efficacy, but for serious interrogators, ethical thinkers, and lawyers, the answer has always been no.

The folks who think otherwise are now using half-facts and unverifiable assertions to ask another question: Does torture work? Unsurprisingly, they claim that it does. That's nice. Let's ignore them. As former interrogator Matthew Alexander explains, even if it did work, we still wouldn't do it—because it's immoral and leads to all sorts of false claims and wasted time. The answer to question No. 1—should America torture?—has nothing to do with the bogus questions being raised today.

In short, if you are being led by a handful of torture apologists to "reconsider" the efficacy of torture, ask yourself whether you have yet heard even one credible account that water-boarding led us to Bin Laden. I haven't. At most, I have heard that it may have played some very small part in a vast tangle of intelligence and surveillance and patient detective work, all of which is unproven and—more important—impossible to disprove. A handful of cynics may want to relitigate the efficacy of torture based on facts not in evidence. The rest of us should continue to remind them that they have been answering the wrong question all along.