May 21, 2022

To Torture or Not

Mark Kleiman says that General Petraeus’ recent denouncement of the use of torture demands that those “who accuse those who oppose torture of being foolishlly ‘soft,’ ignorant of the realities of asymmetric warfare, and indifferent to the risk of more terrorist attacks here, now need to say whether they want to apply their slander to Gen. Petraeus, or whether they’d rather take it back.”

Said Petraeus:

Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone “talk;” however, what the individual says may be of questionable value. In fact, our experience in applying the interrogation standards laid out in the Army Field Manual (2-22.3) on Human Intelligence Collector Operations that was published last year shows that the techniques in the manual work effectively and humanely in eliciting information from detainees.

I don’t think that Klieman’s analysis is a correct one. While Petraeus’ words may (or may not) constitute an order to those who fall under his command they are merely an opinion to other, more “asymetrical” personnel such as the CIA.

In that context the positions of those who disagree are still valid, while Mark’s use of the term “slander” is inaccurate in both practical and legal terms.

I’ve been pondering this subject at some length lately – it’s been a slow news week in many regards – and I’ve come to the conclusion that while torture is not a tool to be used lightly it is a necessary part of the overall national defense strategy.

As Petraeus notes, more humane methods of extracting information from the enemy. Given sufficient time it makes sense to use these techniques both to remain on the ethical high road and to preserve the subject for later interviews and possible conversion. Based on events in the war on terror to-date, there is little need to stray from the more civilized doctrine that is laid out in the AFM.

However, one can easily envision other circumstances in which time is at a minimum and the risk of not interrogating an enemy with all possible force is unacceptable.

Scenario: A Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapon has been deployed in New York City, credible evidence exists that it will be detonated in less than 2 hours, and an enemy combatant in custody is “known” to have the key to stopping the attack.

Question: How should the president proceed given an intelligence assessment rating the scenario as 80% likely?

There are those who would say that, even in the situation outlined above, torture is never an acceptable action. General Petraeus may be one such, though I doubt it. One doesn’t reach his position without an understanding of times and places where “less bad” options must be selected because nothing else makes sense.

Given an 80% probability that 5 million New Yorkers will be incinerated in a nuclear jihad in less than 2 hours, no responsible federal agent, supervisor, director, or president can allow himself the luxury of leaving the torture card in his hand, unplayed, while the clock ticks.

While distasteful and counter-productive if used indiscriminately, the torture of enemy combatants must be undertaken in certain circumstances. In the final analysis, It’s simply matter of mathematics:

5,000,000 * 0.8 > 1


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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