A notably fatuous defense of the use of torture by the Bush administration’s CIA came unsurprisingly from ex-President Bush himself, before the Senate Intelligence Committee report came out:

We’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf…. These are patriots and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”

This is what I call an anti-factual argument from first premises. Facts don’t matter—we know that these people were patriots and that patriots are virtuous (first premises).  Any evidence that suggests a lack of virtue on their part is null and void. It doesn’t occur to W that his argument can be turned on its head: if inherently reprehensible behavior can be rationalized in the name of patriotism, then maybe the virtue of patriotism needs to be questioned.

Fox News provided an even cruder illustration of the argument from first premises. According to Fox commentator Andrea Tarantos,

The United States of America is awesome, we are awesome. But we’ve had this discussion. We’ve closed the book on it, and we’ve stopped doing it. And the reason they want to have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are. This administration wants to have this discussion to show us how we’re not awesome.

Once again, facts don’t matter: if they suggest that the United States is anything other than awesome, they must be ignored.

A more complicated and sophisticated defense of the CIA—really, the only possible defense—is the argument about effectiveness: Torture (usually described euphemistically by its defenders as “enhanced interrogation techniques”) is effective; it can save lives by obtaining actionable intelligence that prevents acts of terror. This is not an argument that can be dismissed out of hand.  If the torture of one individual demonstrably saves the lives of many more people (or even a few people) can we say confidently that that act of torture is immoral?

The gold standard for the effectiveness argument is the so-called ticking time bomb scenario (TTBS). If we somehow know that a major terrorist act somewhere is imminent, and we have a detainee who we know has knowledge of the terrorists’ plans, are we not obliged to use any means we can to pry that information out of him? But fans of the old series 24 may be disappointed to learn that the ticking time bomb scenario has no basis in actual American experience—it has never occurred in real life. Never. It’s just a hypothetical constructed to justify torture.

Given the unreality of the ticking time bomb scenario, smart torture defenders have to resort to less direct arguments about the possible or likely eventual utility of information obtained through torture. Though more plausible than the TTBS, such arguments are inevitably less compelling, since it is almost never possible to prove that information obtained through torture leads to the saving of lives. They amount to justifying a demonstrable present evil—torture–on the grounds of a speculative future good result. (I have pointed to a similar problem in efforts to justify drone attacks–see my post of 11/24/13.)

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report doesn’t address the inherent morality or immorality of torture, but it does focus heavily on the question of effectiveness. It concludes that the CIA’s use of torture was consistently unproductive of actionable intelligence that couldn’t be obtained in other ways. This finding should have surprised no one—numerous previous studies, including the CIA’s own, have shown that torture mostly doesn’t work.  The CIA nevertheless has pushed back on the committee’s findings, as have the committee’s Republican minority.

I have only read snippets of the committee report, and of the Republican responses. I will be interested in seeing this debate unfold. As powerful as the committee report is, I think the Republicans do score some debating points—they do seem to succeed in pointing to instances in which torture yielded some useful intelligence. I suspect that in some cases the Democrats, apparently reluctant to address issues of morality, may have overstated their case for torture’s ineffectiveness.   The broad problem with the Republicans’ arguments, though, is that they implicitly set a low bar for the moral acceptability of torture.   They seem to believe that the use of torture is morally unproblematic—that practically any useful information obtained through torture justifies the means employed to obtain it.   Sure, if you torture someone enough, he might tell you some truthful things (as well as some lies) that you don’t know.   Does that justify the torture? The Republicans’ eagerness to answer that question in the affirmative is evidence for Andrew Sullivan’s powerful argument that torture is “a monstrous, morally corrupting evil.” According to Sullivan, torture degrades and morally corrupts those who practice it. How much better are those who sing its praises?



  1. Nelson Farber December 13, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Tony, what specific instances were the Republicans successfully able to point to in support of their “torture works” argument? I know of one instance where the prisoner gave information before “enhanced interrogation,” and then was tortured anyway and may have reiterated his earlier statements.

    • tonygreco December 20, 2014 at 12:05 pm


      Sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier–for some reason, my notification of comments received doesn’t always work in a timely manner.

      One example: the Democrats’ report stated that Abu Zubaydah had yielded important information before being subjected to torture, but this seems to rest on something of a technicality. The Republicans point out that during the period the Dems say he wasn’t tortured he was indeed subject to several “enhanced interrogation” techniques including serious sleep deprivation and nudity. So, not yet the full “enhanced interrogation” regime, not yet water-boarding, but still pretty nasty.

  2. Mel Brender December 16, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    One of the most infuriating aspects of the ‘effectiveness’ argument is that it is actually irrelevant to the question of legality. Torture is unambiguously illegal under the US Criminal Code. No memo from any Justice Department functionary can waive that away. [It has been well pointed out that the memo by John Yoo saying that torture was legal has the same legal force as Richard Nixon’s claim that ‘if the President does it, it’s not illegal’].

    The response to the TTBS scenario is that if such an unlikely set of circumstances were to arise, and if a US official decided therefore to engage in torture, that official should be prosecuted, and could make their case in court in an effort to achieve Jury nullification.

    But Dick Cheney gave the game away when he blithely brushed aside the fact that some 25% of the torture victims turned out to be innocent, even in the eyes of the CIA itself. “It didn’t matter,” he said, “since we achieved our objective.”

    More recent revelations in the Times about how quickly the CIA interrogation program degenerated into a torture program seem to me to indicate that it simply fell into the hands of people who liked to torture. Two contractor ‘psychologists’ apparently made millions simply providing some sort of respectability cover for the sadists.

    And as far as I can tell, not a single individual, from among the enormous number who were complicit (from Bush to Cheney to Rumsfeld to Rice to Hayden to Yoo and on down through the hundreds (at least) who must have been involved, has stepped forward to say it was wrong.

    • tonygreco December 20, 2014 at 12:27 pm

      I agree completely.

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