What does dishonesty signify? Hypocrisy? A desire to conceal the truth? What if propaganda and image making become so habitual that you can’t distinguish what’s real from what you want to be real? Suppose you can’t make rational judgments any more about the justifiability of your actions? Then you might begin to talk about things you’ve done in ways that make people think, “That doesn’t sound right.”
That’s what happens when your actions and statements about your actions don’t square up. The example I have in mind here is the Osama bin Laden hit. Dishonesty about his killing is evident on two levels: statements about the act itself, and statements about how the act was possible. Let’s address the act itself first, then preparations that made the act possible.
First, let’s consider official statements about the killing. Everything about the U. S. mission indicates that it was planned as an assassination. Given bin Laden’s location deep inside Pakistan, no intelligent person would have planned it as anything else. Yet the government’s statements afterwards pretended that bin Laden was shot because he tried to resist, he reached for his weapon, he or his guards did something or other that made the Seal team plug him twice in the head.
That just doesn’t sound right. You went in there to take him prisoner, but you shot him twice in the head because he reached for a weapon? Why did spokesmen at the White House prevaricate about such a significant event? The mission’s successful outcome, after all, warranted a president speech from the White House. What kept you from simply telling people what happened, consistent with the Seal team’s obvious intent?
Turns out the answer to that question is simple enough. States don’t assassinate people. It violates domestic law to do it in your own country; it violates international law to do it in someone else’s country. So even though you obviously assassinated someone – and in case anyone missed the point, you dumped the body in the ocean – you can’t call it an assassination. You pretend the hit was not a hit. You pretend the Seals shot him in self defense, even though no one believes that, and few in the United States care much one way or another. The president said that we got him: justice was done.
The second point concerns intelligence that made the mission to kill bin Laden possible. It points to dishonesty about acts of torture that are both illegal and immoral. To develop this point, let’s consider the public discussion that followed bin Laden’s death.
The jubilation that followed the White House’s announcement set the tone for the discussion that followed. Not only did we kill the guy – toot your horn, folks – we did it with intelligence gained from enhanced interrogation techniques. Put that on your sleeve and wear it, you bleeding hearts. Even celebration becomes an I told you so moment in our current political culture.
Well, let’s raise a question of time here. You’ve bragged that torture is the fastest way to gain actionable intelligence from a prisoner, correct? If you want to gain information about a target’s current location, information you can use before the target moves, you use so-called enhanced techniques to extract information from someone who would not otherwise give it. That way you can actually use the information in your current plans.
So how was it that we used torture on our prisoners regularly to extract information, and it took us almost ten years to find Osama bin Laden? Is that what you call actionable intelligence? The braggarts can say that we just required some time to find the right person, who had the right information. You’re saying then that we torture everyone we capture until we get lucky and find the right person? By that reasoning, you would round up every Pakistani you can lay your hands on and torture each one until you get the information you need.
Does that sound extreme? Well we can narrow the field quite a lot if we focus on Pakistani intelligence officers with a need to know clearance for bin Laden’s whereabouts. They could lead us to the man. If we round them up and strap them to a waterboard, we could probably find bin Laden in under ten years. That’s a little risky, though, because what happens if you torture an intelligence officer who doesn’t have the information you need?
The braggarts brought forward some fishy story about how enhanced interrogation led us to a courier, who in turn led us to bin Laden. Please, if you’re going to make such a momentous argument – that torture is justifiable as long as it gets the results you want – let’s have higher quality evidence. The U. S. government is habitually secretive about its intelligence sources. For a mission this critical, it would never release solid information about its intelligence gathering techniques. No person can make a reliable statement about how the mission’s planners gained their knowledge of bin Laden’s location. Statements on that subject must be hearsay: convenient, unreliable rumors that support a position you had well before you considered any evidence.
Evidence aside, you can’t justify torture under any circumstances. Even when enhanced techniques force a prisoner to talk, you can’t know until much later whether the information was accurate or useful. What proportion of information so obtained would have to be accurate and useful to justify the techniques? One hundred percent? We know from much experience that no interrogation method yields information of that quality. How about fifty percent or seventy-five percent? Who but an entirely amoral person would even begin calculations like that? It reminds one of Robert McNamara’s kill ratios: how many enemy combatants do you have to kill to justify the innocent civilians who also die in a strategic bombing raid?
The fact is, torture is used for revenge, intimidation and control. It is not an effective way to obtain useful intelligence. No professional interrogator will tell you that torture yields reliable information. When a lynch mob hangs a black man from a tree limb, it knows what it is doing. It wants retribution if it believes the man raped a white woman or murdered a white man. Guilt or innocence doesn’t actually matter that much, though. The hanging serves the purpose of intimidation and control quite well whether or not the victim actually committed a crime.
Torture is like lynching, except that the CIA and the military don’t hang their prisoners in public. They use secret military bases to conduct their execrable acts. They pretend that waterboarding, beating, and other interrogation techniques serve a legitimate, intelligence gathering purpose. Except for special cases like Bradley Manning, Rodney King and other prisoners whose names we don’t know, we don’t routinely use enhanced techniques on United States citizens, yet. Post-9/11 torture differs from lynching in the thick layer of dishonesty we lay over the practice. Lynchers knew why they hanged people, and executed their prisoners openly to accomplish their aims. Government practices its interrogation techniques in secret, and relies on braggarts’ dishonesty to legitimate what they do.
When Navy Seals shot bin Laden twice in the head on May 2, 2011, they accomplished a task we set ourselves shortly after September 11, 2001. That’s the most you can say about the operation. Claims about self defense and enhanced interrogation reflect government’s habitual dishonesty about its own acts. When dishonesty covers an accomplishment so signal, you know how deeply it runs.