What does public dishonesty signify? It could signify hypocrisy, misdirection, or a need to conceal truth in order to escape blame. At last propaganda, image making, and garden variety lying become so habitual that perpetrators cannot distinguish what is real from what they want to be real. When you cannot make rational judgments any more about the essential nature or justifiability of your actions, you may begin to talk about things you have done in ways that arouse people’s skepticism. We have had these skeptical reactions so many times now, we hardely recognize them. When lying becomes that habitual, you know you have an unhealthy relationship.
You do not even need independent evidence to see that government’s statements about its own actions do not square up. Its claims about its own activities are so inconsistent and laced with dishonesty that you wonder why they trouble themselves with this stuff. 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, then its precursors.
Assassination or self-defense?
First, let’s consider official statements about the killing. Everything about the mission indicates it was a planned assassination. Given bin Laden’s location deep inside Pakistan, any other plan increased the likelihood of failure. To reduce that likelihood, you send in a team of assassins, not a team of sheriffs who plan to bring their quarry in for questioning. 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 does not 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 presidential 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 cannot 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.
Here is a puzzle about the assassination that I want to present without an excess of insinuation. Why did the White House reveal who carried out the killing? Could this revelation have been an inexplicable blunder, a misplaced desire to give credit to a secret hit team? If so, government must be just as bad at truth-telling as it is at lying. When the White House praised members of SEAL Team Six in public, members of the team knew immediately that they had become targets. At 02:38 on August 6, 2011, the Taliban brought down the team’s Chinook helicopter just three months and four days after Osama bin Laden died on May 2. All thirty-eight people in the helicopter died.
What is the purpose of so-called harsh interrogation methods?
The second point concerns information that let SEAL Team Six locate bin Laden. Apologists for the CIA claimed that its interrogation methods enabled the United States government to find their target. Critics would say these claims amount to more dishonesty about torture, not legitimate interrogation methods. To develop this point, let’s review the public discussion that followed bin Laden’s death.
The White House’s jubilant announcement – “We got him!” – set the tone for discussion that followed. Not only did we kill the guy, we did it with intelligence gained from enhanced interrogation techniques. Put that on your sleeve and wear it, you coddlers and bleeding hearts. Even celebration becomes a finger-pointing, I-told-you-so moment in our current political culture. When you can score points, do it.
Well, let’s consider the question of time here. Apologists brag that torture is effective. You can use it to extract actionable intelligence from a prisoner. 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. Because these methods give you accurate, valuable, and timely data, you can 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 might say that we merely required some time to find the right person, the key individual who had the right information. You’re saying then that we torture every candidate truth-teller, until we get lucky, and find the right person? By that reasoning, you would round up every person who might know where bin Laden resides, and torture each one until you get the information you need.
Does that sound extreme? 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?
While shilling for torture, the braggarts and apologists brought forward some intriguing story about how enhanced interrogation led us to a courier, who in turn led us to bin Laden. If the public relations people want to make such a momentous argument – that torture is justifiable because it yields the results you want – we need a story with a little more fundamental credibility. Government intelligence agencies are habitually secretive about their sources. For a mission this critical, it would never release reliable information about its intelligence gathering techniques. Or was this operation a special case, where you can reveal anything you like, including the identities of the assassins?
Unless the intelligence agencies decided to break every standard procedure they have about how they handle secret information, no one can say how the mission’s planners gained their knowledge of bin Laden’s location. Statements on that subject must be self-serving: convenient, unreliable PR that supports a position government adopted well before it undertook any daring operations. If the CIA wants to torture people in secret, no post-torture public relations campaign on the agency’s behalf will redeem it.
Triumphalist swagger aside, you cannot justify torture under any circumstances. Even when these immoral, illegal techniques force a prisoner to reveal information, you cannot know until much later whether the information is accurate or useful. To ask an Old Testament question related to Sodom and Gomorrah, what proportion of information obtained via torture would have to be accurate and useful to justify the methods? One hundred percent? We know from much experience that no interrogation method yields information of that quality. How about seventy-five percent or fifty percent? That would mean one-quarter to one-half of the people you torture provide information that is useless.
Who but an entirely amoral person would even begin calculations like that? It reminds one of Robert McNamara’s kill ratios, where he conducted nuclear warfare simulations to estimate the number of enemy combatants we have to kill to justify the innocent civilians who also die in strategic bombing raids or ballistic missile attacks. In warfare, and all enterprises that depend on cruelty, amorality amounts to immorality.
Professional interrogators recognize that torture is primitive and ineffective. You cannot tell whether the information it yields is true, or even relevant to your question. No professional interrogator will tell you that torture yields reliable information. Torture is used instead for revenge, intimidation and control. It lives in another realm, one of cruelty and brazen immorality.
People who practice this kind of cruelty are not concerned with the truth. They care about intimidation and deterrence. When Ku Klux Klan members hang a black man from a tree limb, they know what they are doing. They want retribution for a crime they have pinned on their victim, but more than that, they want a demonstration of their own power. Guilt or innocence does not actually matter that much. Hanging a person in public serves the purpose of intimidation and control quite well, whether the victim actually committed a crime or not.
Torture is like lynching, except the CIA and its affiliates do not hang their prisoners in public. They use secret military bases and prison camps. They pretend that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, compliance positions, beating, and other techniques borrowed from masters of cruelty all over the world serve a legitimate, intelligence gathering purpose. Except for solitary confinement and beating, we do not routinely use these techniques within the United States, 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, even as they told themselves lies about their lawless administration of vigilante punishment so they could live with themselves. They executed their prisoners publicly and remorselessly to keep the people they feared impotent. Today government practices its astonishing crimes 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 government set in our name 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 lies accompany a public execution of this type, you know how deeply dishonesty runs. No one, apparently, can escape its effects.