May 3, 2009, 9:49 am

I haven’t posted at all regarding the torture memos because I’ve been far too angry to write much more than expletives or “seriously?”  But here is something poorly reasoned from the chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit*: that we need to be able to torture because one day, we might catch Osama, he might tell us that he knows where all of the bombs are, and Obama won’t let us beat him up in order to save American lives….

A response,one that contains no ventings of spleens, after the jump.

The best response to the ticking time bomb scenario ever was penned by Jim Henley. It’s so interesting that the only thing standing between us and information in this scenarios is inflicting pain, and not, say, providing sexual perversion for the amusement of the terrorist who will then in his gratitude tell us all we need to know.  Why? Because imagining oneself as the gritty tough hero is fun.

So the best I can do is try for the second-best response.  I want to undermine the entire ticking time bomb scenario, because it strikes me as transparently bogus, yet often it is treated seriously even by its opponents.  But let’s think it through.  Too often, the ticking time bomb scenario looks like a movie script with the important bits blacked out by studio executives worried about spoilers.

INT. TERRORIST HEADQUARTER.  TERRORISTS work busily over explosives and fuses. We see, over ALI’S shoulder, a small writing desk with blueprints.  There is writing on the blueprint in Arabic.   At the top of the blueprint it says [REDACTED.]


Allahuakbar.  I am going for a latte.

EXT. TERRORIST HEADQUARTERS.  ALI heads down the street to a STARBUCKS.  HERO AGENT manfully captures ALI.   FBI AGENTS bust into TERRORIST HEADQUARTERS.  One TERRORIST LACKEY escapes, carrying the blueprints.

Thus, when we imagine the ticking time bomb scenario, we imagine we are the HERO AGENT.  The HERO AGENT wasn’t in the audience, and the HERO AGENT didn’t see the name over the shoulder.  But the HERO AGENT is controlled by the writers, and so he is automatically in the right epistemic position to know exactly what questions to ask.  Note, also, that the HERO AGENT is always interrogating TERRORISTS immediately after their capture, before their organization has figured out they have been compromised, and before their information is too old to be useful.  The head of the organization always has minute details about on-the-ground operations.**

The real world isn’t a movie script with bits blacked out.    Let’s look at the pre-9/11 memo given to President Bush. Note how vague the information is.  There are some names.  There is talk of attacking the U.S., and the World Trade Center  There is talk of using hijacked planes…. to use as leverage in securing the release of political prisoners.

HERO AGENT wouldn’t even be in a position to know that the real plan was to fly planes into buildings.  He’d be busy breaking fingers to figure out where the truck bomb in the WTC was going to be placed. *** The ticking time-bomb scenario doesn’t match anything like we’d see in real life.  One might as well wonder what CIA’s plans for interrogation are if little gray men from Reticulum show up in search of livers.   That should be the response to any time-bomb scenario. But what about the aliens! What will Obama do then?

One suspects that if these clowns wrote murder mysteries, they’d be solved by finding pieces of paper saying whodunit.

The main reason we shouldn’t torture is a moral one.  But a good secondary reason is that gathering intelligence isn’t about finding the piece of paper that says whodunit or whogonnadoit.****  It’s about sifting through lots of information, detecting patterns, and listening to as much as possible because this hasn’t been scripted, and there are many possible endings.*****   Gaining intelligence is not a case of getting answers to pre-determined questions any more than solving a crime means getting the witness to confess on the stand.   It’s figuring out what questions are relevant.

But he’s CIA, Dana.  You’re a frowsy academic.   Indeed!  A frowsy academic capable of reading… the Army Field Manual on Interrogation:

The objective of any interrogation is to obtain the maximun amount of usable information possible in the least amount of time. Each interrogation has a definite purpose: to obtain information to satisfy the assigned requirement which contributes to the successful accomplishment of the supported unit’s mission. The interrogator must keep this purpose firmly in mind as he obtains the information. The objective may be specific, establishing the exact location of a minefield, or it may be general, seeking order of battle (OB) information about a specific echelon of the enemy forces. In either case, the interrogator uses the objective as a basis for planning and conducting the interrogation. He should not concentrate on the objective to the extent that he overlooks or fails to recognize and exploit other valuable information extracted from the source. For example, during an interrogation, he learns of an unknown, highly destructive weapon. Although this information may not be in line with his specific objective, he develops this lead to obtain all possible information concerning this weapon. It is then obvious that the objective of an interrogation can be changed as necessary or desired.

All the pieces matter.  Because this isn’t a script.

* You know, were I the guy whose unit failed to capture a seventy-year-old, two meter tall man on kidney dialysis, I wouldn’t be mentioning that as proof of my skills in intelligence gathering.

** It’s movie logic again, the same one that says if you want to know the nuclear codes, kidnap the President.  The response to CIA clown’s scenario: bin Laden probably isn’t that great an asset because he’s not going to know the details.  And honestly.  Waterboarding on KSM starts after he has already been in custody for several months.  Is this clown seriously claiming that after the first 124 waterboardings hadn’t worked, that their best hope was another 59 waterboarding sessions?  Seriously?  No wonder this guy is angry.

*** To put it another way, Jack Bauer has enough information to prevent the attacks before he tortures anyone.   And if Jack is asking the wrong question, he’ll get useless information and spend the remaining ten minutes of the hour chasing down a bad lead.  Doot. Dit. Doot. Dit.

**** I can’t find the clip from the Wire where Kima’s new homicide colleagues play a practical joke on her by inserting “TIGER DONE IT” into the fist of a corpse at her first investigation.  But you get the idea.

***** Curiously, one of the better interrogation techniques (according to a military historian I know) is to let prisoners talk to each other.  The human mind is reasonably good at resisting direct questions, but much worse at resisting chit-chat when faced with a reasonably pleasant situation.  It’s not that the prisoners will slip and say “the bomb is in the federal building” but that they’ll ask where their compatriots are from, whether they know so-and-so, or whether they were at the city during the last American attack.  And the shrewd intelligence operative will listen, and learn that the organization is recruiting from X, and that so-and-so is dead, and that the latest attack plan was succeeding or failing….

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