February 13, 2008

A Very Patterico Moment

Hatched by Dafydd

I want to set up a very realistic situation where I would certainly advocate we waterboard a suspect, and ask whether Patterico would do likewise. I suspect he will be on my side on this one, but I don't know for sure: His prosecutorial background gives him a very different perspective than I, a non-lawyer, can have. I'm especially curious because Patterico is adamant that waterboarding is torture; but he does not dogmatically insist that it should never, ever be used under any circumstances.

What I want to create here is not a cartoon situation -- if you don't waterboard this guy, the entire planet will blow up in thirty minutes! -- but rather a very real circumstance in which a CIA station chief in, say, Poland might find himself.

Naturally, everybody else is free to chime in, too. Maybe Patterico will be willing to put up a link, so his own readers can comment here. Or alternatively, they can read the scenario and comment at P's Ps.

Here we go...


You are a CIA station chief in an undisclosed, secret CIA prison in Poland (with Warsaw's consent). A prisoner is brought to your location, picked up by the Germans in Afghanistan and transferred to U.S. custody six days ago. We'll call him Mahmoud.

Mahmoud was not previously known to any intelligence agency before his capture (he was not the main target of the raid). He doesn't appear to be a big fish. But when he was grabbed, he had a laptop with him, and he was in the process of trying to erase the hard drive. Most of the information is irretrievably gone, a little bit remains; and within that remaining little bit, your techies manage to extract references to a huge attack planned for somewhere on the American mainland. From the timeframe discussed, it appears to be one to three months away. You don't know anything more than that.

You do not know for sure whether Mahmoud has more detailed information about the attack, but he evidently knew enough to try to erase the drive, even at risk of his own life. He has already been interrogated by the Marines and by CIA personnel where you are, but it's clear he has more information that he's holding back. The timeframe is tight enough that you must make a decision immediately, but not so tight that there would be no time to act on any information.

So what you know is this:

  1. A major attack is planned somewhere in the continental United States;
  2. Mahmoud may or may not be a major player, but he appears to know something significant about it;
  3. However, he might not know enough to allow authorities to thwart the attack. But on the other hand, he might;
  4. He would not talk under ordinary interrogation. You might be able to break him given time, but every week that passes makes it less likely his intelligence can be used to stop the attack.

We add one more point:

  1. You already have solid evidence that he participated in some attacks on American troops that resulted in fatalities. So if we want to try him later at a military tribunal, we don't need a confession to convict him; we already have ample forensic evidence.

You ask the DCI whether you can waterboard him; word comes from the White House via the DCI that you are authorized to waterboard Mahmoud, but you must use your own discretion whether you actually do it: You are the only one close enough to the scene to make that call. You get the impression that the president will stand behind you, whatever you decide... but of course, that only applies to this particular president. You don't know who will be president in 2009.

So the question is, do you order Mahmoud to be waterboarded? I have told you that I would say yes, waterboard him; I will also say that absent point 2 above, I would probably say no.

This is as realistic (and borderline) as I could make it without having more specific knowledge of any real-world situation similar to this. So, Patterico... what say you? (And everybody else, what say youse?)

I absolutely love asking intelligent people tough ethical questions that reside in the twilight zone between "decidedly yes" (Ayman Zawahiri) and "of course not!" (Cindy Sheehan). I enjoy watching how they think the situation through, to gain an insight into how others go about resolving such dichotomies between lives and souls.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, February 13, 2008, at the time of 11:35 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Chris Hunt

This is an easy call. I would order him waterboarded. The point is, of course, that these cases must be determined on an individual basis. Zero tolerance policies are notoriously short-sighted, because they are only designed to make decision making easier, and to cover the decision maker's ass.

We can deplore waterboarding, and we can say that we are against its use, and we can even deny using it, but once we take it off the table, we have denied ourselves an effective tool, and limited our options. When options are artificially limited, decision making becomes riskier, and more open to catastrophic success or failure.

The above hissed in response by: Chris Hunt [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 4:14 AM

The following hissed in response by: Patrick

Heck, this is easy - waterboard away! But then, I summarily dismiss that waterboarding is torture. Anything that, by definition, produces fear (even extreme fear that is visceral in nature and does not go away for a long time) but no physical deformity or dysfunction, is hardly torture. Cutting off limbs, burning, etc - is torture.

I almost drowned when I was about 8. Literally, going down for the third time. Scary as hell, and I remember every escalation of panic as if it just happened, 40-some years later. It produced a lasting psychological effect (boy, I don't want to go through that again). But I don't consider it torture.

The above hissed in response by: Patrick [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 4:22 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dan Kauffman

waterboarding is part of escape and evasion training

A total of 3 terrorists have been waterboarded

Eveyone who has gone through SERE training has also

The above hissed in response by: Dan Kauffman [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 7:44 AM

The following hissed in response by: hunter

That we are so weak and empty of resolve to even be discussing this issue is exactly why Jihadists are so confident of their ultimate victory.

The above hissed in response by: hunter [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 9:59 AM

The following hissed in response by: Geoman

In summary, it's Jack Bauer time!

Let's call terrorists really what they are - saboteurs. Saboteurs are a subcategory of spies. The accepted practice is for captured spies to be executed. Is water boarding somehow worse than execution?

Your only reasons not to water board is A) you personally think it is wrong, or B) you are afraid you might get in trouble, or C) you have some reason to think it might not work.

A) If you personally think water boarding is wrong, you are in the wrong job, jacko, since you are essential saying it is okay to hunt, capture, and kill terrorists, but not okay to water board?

B) You yourself should be willing to give up your life for your country, therefore getting in trouble should not be much of a barrier to doing what needs to be done.

C) Maybe an excuse, but the situation seemed to specify that water boarding might be successful in this case.

Those that oppose water boarding are pitiful narcissistic posers - they do so because it makes them feel good, and them feeling good is more important than your life or mine.

The classic moral question of similar flavor is if you could have taken a shot at Hitler in 1938, would you do it? If is okay to kill one evil person to save millions of innocents, how can you justify not torturing or discomforting one person to save hundreds?

My own opinion is that a thousand of these scumbags is not worth a lock of hair from my child's head, but perhaps that is just me.

The above hissed in response by: Geoman [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 10:08 AM

The following hissed in response by: Doc-obiwan

Well, I'd agree with the previous posters. Despite the effort to make this as an innocuous a terrorist as possible it still doesn't...er, wash.

I don't care what the wienies in Congress or anywhere else say. Waterboarding isn't torture. I've been waterboarded, years ago in training. It is definitely not on my list of experiences I ever want to repeat. But it is not torture.

Splinters under the nails? Torture.

Flaying alive? Torture.

Amateur dental work with pliers? Torture

Some of the practices of the first aboriginal inhabitants of this continent? Torture.

Waterboarding? Not torture.

Waterboarding is primarily psychological, preying on a basic fear, but is not physically painful or damaging, and leaves no physical effects.

Torture does.

The above hissed in response by: Doc-obiwan [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 10:26 AM

The following hissed in response by: thehix

I would waterboard under these circumstances.

Congress seems to consider it torture (although it allows our Armed Forces to use it on US Servicemen) and has not expressly made it against the law.

Of course, Congress expects our military / intelligence personnel to break the law if it is really needed to protect us. This is why these decisions need to be left to the executive branch.

The above hissed in response by: thehix [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 10:53 AM

The following hissed in response by: MTF

There are lots of good issues here. First one, of course, is, "Is waterboarding torture?", and, "if it is would you use it?" Another question is, "Can we trust the President to take the heat, if we decide to waterboard the guy?". And a final question, "Would you be able to sleep at night afterwards?".

In order:
1)Who knows? Does it really matter?
2)Yes. Under these circumstances, emphatically and with urgency.
4)Maybe not. But it would absolutely kill me not to have tried to save all the people who otherwise would die.

My preferred solution would be to stage a kidnapping of Mahmoud, and remove him with a very small group of strong-stomached others to a different location entirely. Afterwards, I'd "recapture" Mahmoud, who is of course undamaged but talking volubly, and tell Washington "we found him".

Given the ease with which the executive branch can be manipulated by agencies and people with private agendas, going through the charade might well mean I wouldn't have to count on the President or the executive branch to take the heat for me. So long as they're clueless there's little issue.

I have less compunction about all this than Patterico might have, because on September 7 and 9, 2001 I had dinner both nights with my friend and his wonderful family. They're still wonderful, but Bin Laden murdered him on the 11th, along with several other people from my town. I say this not because it makes me any more of a moral authority than anyone else, it obviously doesn't, but only because Mahmoud means nothing to me in comparison to my friend. I see waterboarding these evil men as an easy issue, even if I might pay afterwards in being diminished in the eyes of my fellow citizens, and even though I might possibly have trouble living with the aftereffects.

The above hissed in response by: MTF [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 11:49 AM

The following hissed in response by: boffo

I never understood why waterboarding, a process that involves no physical harm or risk of harm, is considered worse than shooting someone, dropping a bomb on his head, or throwing him in prison for the rest of his life.

The above hissed in response by: boffo [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 11:55 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


For the same reason that torture is typically considered worse than execution.

While I do not consider waterboarding torture, I can certainly think of actual tortures that I would be unwilling to mete out, even for people I would be perfectly happy to execute -- and on whom I would personally pull the lever or squeeze the trigger.

Bin Laden, for example. I wouldn't have a qualm about executing him by any ordinary means of execution (shooting, hanging, electrocuting, gassing, injecting). I wouldn't have any trouble sleeping later, after the initial excitement died down.

But I would not be willing to torture him (real torture, I mean) as punishment. I would be perfectly willing to waterboard him for information (did I but know how), but not for punishment.

Let me ask you this, Boffo: Would you have been willing to order Uday or Qusay to be tortured to death the way they themselves tortured innocent people to death? Or is there something inside you that would leap up your throat and say, "no, I am not like that?" Knowing you, I'm pretty sure the latter is true.

Well, people who see waterboarding as torture -- however wrong I think them -- probably have the same reaction (overreaction, I would say in this case) to waterboarding KSM. I can certainly understand why they would be repelled by the idea.

I think they're wrong but not incomprehensible.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 1:27 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dick E


Boy, that sure stirred up a butterflies' nest of controversy, didn't it?

Add me to the unanimous jury:

Waterboarding isn't really torture (no personal experience, just opinion).

You can prohibit waterboarding, outlaw it, condemn it, whatever -- but just don't REALLY take it out of the interrogator's quiver of arrows in the serious circumstnces where it is truly needed. (I might make the same argument for at least some techniques that truly are torture, but you didn't ask that.)

The above hissed in response by: Dick E [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 1:52 PM

The following hissed in response by: Fritz

Like the rest, for me it is a no brainer. My instant answer is, waterboard away for a couple of reasons. First, I'm not convinced that waterboarding is truly torture. Second, I could never live with myself if I allowed harm to come to my fellow citizens simply because I had the need to feel morally superior. And make no mistake about it, it is my belief that almost all of our congress critters have voted to make waterboarding illegal simply because it makes them look good. I would be willing to bet that they all hope and expect that rule to be broken when necessary. No, they will likely never admit to that, but then they haven't shown much willingness to admit to many things, such as earmarks simply being their form of paying off political bribes.

In the end each person will have to weigh his conscience and decide what he thinks appropriate. To me Dafydd's #2 is what convinces me to waterboard. As he stated it I would have no problem deciding in favor of waterboarding, but it wouldn't take much information the other way for me to say no. Like I said, it is a matter of conscience. And like Dafydd I would never advocate or permit torture as a means of revenge. I would further state that if the timeline appeared longer I would not initiate waterboarding until I had exhausted other means. To me waterboarding is right on the edge of torture and should only be used in rare instances, but in those instances I would have no problems sleeping at night after having authorized it or doing it.

The above hissed in response by: Fritz [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 2:58 PM

The following hissed in response by: ira

First, waterboard away.

Second, fear is in the eyes of the beholder. What might terrify one person might be entertainment to another. For example, roller coasters. Some people love them. Others are afraid of them, and still others fear them to the point of being terrified.

A previous commenter mentioned he had almost drowned as a child. Would it be torture to put him in a pool, and keep him away from the edge. He might be terrified, but is that terror?

The above hissed in response by: ira [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 6:33 PM

The following hissed in response by: Navyvet

But I would not be willing to torture him (real torture, I mean) as punishment.

Aye, and there's the rub.

For Osama, I fear, would have no compunction at all at inflicting torture -- real torture -- on you!

Or me, for that matter.

This point provides stark contrast between our worldview and that of the terrorists. While we engage in continuous hand-wringing and breast-beating over our moral positions, Osama and his crew concentrate on inflicting the most damage possible, via torture or any other means at their disposal.

The thought that our waterboarding a "detainee" for information lowers our "moral standing" in the world is absurd. When we start hacking off heads with a dull knife and posting the video on the internet, I'll be concerned. Until then, make sure the water bill is paid on time.

The above hissed in response by: Navyvet [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 7:27 PM

The following hissed in response by: Tip

Having had my wife waterboard me a few times
I can pretty much assure you that it's really
uncomfortable. I can last maybe 20 seconds.

Do I have bad dreams, hallucinate, physical
disability or ANY bad aftereffects??
Nope. Sleep like a baby.

AND... I'm ready to spill my guts because
I don't want it to happen again.

Am I going to tell the truth? Maybe, maybe
not but unless we are ready to assume that
our interrogators are just plain stupid,
they will check and cross check my statements
against others and known facts and then if
I"m not a truth teller...

"Would you like another round of waterboarding
Toes??" So, they are going to get the truth
out of me after a very short while.

Such nonsense that we actually debate the
efficiency of waterboarding and if it's

In my opinion, not even close.

Torture would be this by Al Qaeda.
A captured Iraq on our side in Anbar
had his eyes gouged out, most of his
bones broken by being beaten with boards
and holes drilled in his knees, ribs,
and various other places until he died
after about 3 days.

The above hissed in response by: Tip [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 7:32 PM

The following hissed in response by: Patterico

Yeah, this doesn't seem very hard to me. I'd do it -- if I were convinced that it was the most effective way to get information.

But I'd like to see what the liberals on my site would say. I'll link it.

The above hissed in response by: Patterico [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 8:55 PM

The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

My response is in two parts, first removing the emotional/political angle introduced by the specific act "waterboarding". If the following conditions seem to be the case:

1) I think that only I, here, and now have the best chance to get the information
2) That the information only available here and now from him would save a life. (One is enough.)
3) I had a professional (or was one myself) that knew how to effectively interrogate the guy

Then yes. By all means... short of the illegal. Morality in this instance is defined by those above my station.

Re-introducing waterboarding: I have no idea what this really entails. It does not bother me at all that it may be unpleasant... effective advanced interrogation techniques ARE unpleasant; if nothing else, being caught and interrogated ALONE

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 11:11 PM

The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

would be unpleasant, and my concern for the comfort of the actor, male or female, would be minor in the face of defending my own people. IF it works, or I think it has the BEST chance of success, I would engage in the procedure.

The place for deliberation on an issue of the Morality of Procedure "X" is in the Legislative or even the Judicial branches, not in the field. In the field the only thing within the rules given you is whether it is actually going to be effective.

Sorry about needing two posts; arm's in a sling and I accidentally hit the wrong key. :shrug:

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 14, 2008 11:15 PM

The following hissed in response by: k2aggie07

I was pretty sure Machiavelli answered this question a long time ago.

Or was it in the movie Serenity? Sometimes for good to prosper men must do evil things.

War is an inherent evil, as is killing or intentionally harming another human being. But it is often a necessary evil -- as is government.

I truly believe that violence, all violence, is nothing more and nothing less than a tool. Thus, as with any action, it must be evaluated not by the action itself but by its effects and consequences.

My only concern with advanced physical pain as a means of interrogation is the reliability / veracity of the information provided under duress.

In summary, I'm not totally utilitarian...but I do believe we need men and women with cast iron stomachs to do mean, painful things to other people so mean, painful things aren't done to U.S. citizens.

The above hissed in response by: k2aggie07 [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 15, 2008 5:46 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dick E


In summary, I'm not totally utilitarian...but I do believe we need men and women with cast iron stomachs to do mean, painful things to other people so mean, painful things aren't done to U.S. citizens.

Sound kinda like the definition of war, too, doesn't it?

The above hissed in response by: Dick E [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 15, 2008 8:23 AM

The following hissed in response by: Geoman

Let us define torture as it should be - an activity is torture when its purpose is solely to punish. I would argue that waterboarding (or other methods) someone in prison can be considered torture simply because there is no other purpose than punishment.

When it comes to interrogation to protect innocent lives, the bar is raised. Waterboarding someone to obtain information on an on-going crime is clearly not torture.

Therefore, whether something is torture or not does not depend on methods, but entirely on circumstance.

The above hissed in response by: Geoman [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 15, 2008 9:21 AM

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