Thursday, December 11, 2014

Friedman's 2009 piece on U.S. torture still correct (Stratfor)

Here's the practical part of George Friedman's 2009 op-ed on U.S. torture for intelligence gathering, and it's still on-target:

The problem with torture — as with other exceptional measures — is that it is useful, at best, in extraordinary situations. The problem with all such techniques in the hands of bureaucracies is that the extraordinary in due course becomes the routine, and torture as a desperate stopgap measure becomes a routine part of the intelligence interrogator's tool kit.

At a certain point, the emergency was over. U.S. intelligence had focused itself and had developed an increasingly coherent picture of al Qaeda, with the aid of allied Muslim intelligence agencies, and was able to start taking a toll on al Qaeda. The war had become routinized, and extraordinary measures were no longer essential. But the routinization of the extraordinary is the built-in danger of bureaucracy, and what began as a response to unprecedented dangers became part of the process. Bush had an opportunity to move beyond the emergency. He didn't.

If you know that an individual is loaded with information, torture can be a useful tool. But if you have so much intelligence that you already know enough to identify the individual is loaded with information, then you have come pretty close to winning the intelligence war. That's not when you use torture. That's when you simply point out to the prisoner that, "for you the war is over." You lay out all you already know and how much you know about him. That is as demoralizing as freezing in a cell — and helps your interrogators keep their balance.

And here's the philosophical part:

And this raises the moral question. The United States is a moral project: its Declaration of Independence and Constitution state that. The president takes an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic. The Constitution does not speak to the question of torture of non-citizens, but it implies an abhorrence of rights violations (at least for citizens). But the Declaration of Independence contains the phrase, "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind." This indicates that world opinion matters.

At the same time, the president is sworn to protect the Constitution. In practical terms, this means protecting the physical security of the United States "against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Protecting the principles of the declaration and the Constitution are meaningless without regime preservation and defending the nation.

Let me repeat something: The U.S. is a moral project on display for the whole world.  It's not just another country defending its people and borders. U.S. conservatives and liberals alike believe in "the American way," whatever they take that to mean. So if we allow harm to that moral project, we allow harm to the essence of who we are. We become something else. That's why myself and others have argued since 9/11 that if we allow the terrorists to change who we are, then they've already won. They've convinced us to abandon our moral project.

Now to Friedman's qualifier on that: "Protecting the principles of the declaration [of Independence] and the Constitution are meaningless without regime preservation and defending the nation."

But the U.S. regime has never been threatened; and the defense of the nation was never in question -- perhaps only the defense of a few thousand potential citizens of that nation. No threat that we know about has risen to the level of a gun to the head of America, or an existential threat.

Furthermore, it's clearly not worth taking every possible precaution possible against any imaginable threat. Those threats have to be real and of sufficient magnitude and likelihood. And the costs mustn't exceed the benefits.

To put it in everyday terms, as my conservative friends like to do, think about the safety of your home. If you're honest, you would probably admit there are several measures you could take to make your home safer against intruders, accidental injury, fires and natural disasters. But there are costs and trade-offs to all these measures; and at a certain point each one of us says, "I've done enough," knowing full well we could be safer if we were willing to spend more, endure more inconvenience, etc. And these are only the material costs and trade-offs -- not moral costs and trade-offs involved in torturing people!

I say this to ward off oft-heard arguments, mostly from conservative politicians and pundits, that the U.S. Government exists primarily to protect us from every military or terrorist threat, both real and imaginable. No, it doesn't. Because the costs of doing that wouldn't be worth it. Indeed, trying to do "everything possible" could even make life in the U.S. not worth living, and make abandoning our "moral project" seem like a more appealing option. That's the danger. 

By George Friedman
April 20, 2009 | Stratfor

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