Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Post torture, ergo propter torture

Saw this one coming too, did you?

Years of intelligence gathering, including details gleaned from controversial interrogations of Al Qaeda members during the Bush administration, ultimately led the Navy SEALs who killed Usama bin Laden to his compound in Pakistan.

This, in its own strange little way, is a version of what the Hutchins Commission was calling for 60-plus years ago: not just events, but events in a context that gives them meaning. And the meaning here is clear. Torture saved America, Bush was right all along, and maybe you liberal cheeseballs will vote for a real leader instead of a community organizer next time!

Nevertheless, note some careful phrasing in the text:

... But it was four years later, in 2007, that terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay military prison started giving up information about the key courier.

Around this time, the use of enhanced interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, were* being denounced as torture by critics of the Bush administration. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney came under intense pressure for supporting rough treatment of prisoners. Critics claimed that any information given under duress simply couldn't be trusted.

It is an argument that Bush and Cheney strongly rejected then, and now.

"I would assume that the enhanced interrogation program that we put in place produced some of the results that led to bin Laden's ultimate capture," Cheney told Fox News on Monday, a hint of vindication in his voice.

He's welcome to his opinion, just as Fox is welcome to spread palm fronds in his path. That's one of the political communication things journalism is supposed to facilitate; indeed, from a Mill-type perspective, it's one of the reasons we need free speech in the first place. But it's also important to keep track of what's being claimed and what isn't. In this accounting, the information began to fall into place as torture tactics "were being denounced." It's a passive clause, sure, but that's not why it's faulty; it's faulty because the only correlation it presents is between denouncing and information.

On to the alleged counterclaim from the administration:

... "Some of it came from individuals who were in custody. Some of it came from human sources," counterterrorism adviser John Brennan told Fox News. "But there was no single bit of information that was instrumental."

Brennan acknowledged that "those in detention" provided key information, but stressed that it was obtained in a variety of different ways.

Again, information came from people "in custody" or "in detention" -- but no indication of which people in detention, or when, or in response to what. I'm reminded of a piece in the Times three years ago, about how a particular interrogator's success with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed "goes to the heart of the interrogation debate":

Did it suggest that traditional methods alone might have obtained the same information or more? Or did Mr. Mohammed talk so expansively because he feared more of the brutal treatment he had already endured?

I don't think we knew then (though it's worth noting that those conditions aren't mutually exclusive), and I don't think we know now. I suppose that's the useful point here for editors, if there is one. Your comments section is probably filled already with people demanding to hear you admit that you're a craven weasel and Bush was the Best. President. Evar.  You don't have to listen. The informal fallacies of logic haven't been repealed. Correlation still isn't cause.

* It were?



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

It's starting to look like the opposite is true: torture in fact failed, and solid intel did the trick.

Mind, the whole argument is "ends justify means", which is a Manichean world view of "if we do it it's Good" which is, let's put it mildly, a very warped view which leads to Us being just like Them in the end.

5:05 PM, May 03, 2011  

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