Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Aug 31, 2009 in Health, International, Politics, Science & Technology, Society, War | 16 comments

The Moral Question (Guest Voice)

The Moral Question

by Betsy Newmark

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, he poses the moral question of whether a person could or should kill one person if it would benefit humanity. Would you agree to the death of an unknown person in China if no one would know and the Chinaman’s wealth could be used to benefit you and your family. Raskolnikov goes beyond the death of a stranger in China to the murder of a crabby pawnbroker to get the money to help his impoverished mother and sister. The reader, while understanding his motivation, still recoils at his moral choice.

But killing for wealth is something that most of us would reject. However, that is a relatively easy moral question. A much tougher one was the question in front of the Bush administration with the capture of high level Al Qaeda operatives. Would you agree to what some perceive as torture in order to save the lives of innocents around the world? That is a much more difficult one and all of us are reacting with different answers. Some seek to define what was done not as torture, but something just short of torture. Limiting sleep and simulated drowning is markedly different from acts that leave a permanent, physical mark such as the torture that we’ve read about in other wars. But even if you endorse the broadest definition and classify sleep deprivation and waterboarding as torture, would you be willing to accept this if it saved lives? Throw in that the person undergoing it was one of the most evil in the world, a man responsible for conceiving and planning 9/11. Now would it be worth it?

Others come at it from a different direction and reject the proposition that the information that was given up as worth anything. They want to downplay its value or posit that the detainee would have given up that information if we’d just had world enough and time to wait until he gave it up on his own.

Thus we come to yesterday’s story in the Washington Post about what Khalid Sheik Mohammed gave up after undergoing the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

After enduring the CIA’s harshest interrogation methods and spending more than a year in the agency’s secret prisons, Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called “terrorist tutorials.”

In 2005 and 2006, the bearded, pudgy man who calls himself the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks discussed a wide variety of subjects, including Greek philosophy and al-Qaeda dogma. In one instance, he scolded a listener for poor note-taking and his inability to recall details of an earlier lecture.

Speaking in English, Mohammed “seemed to relish the opportunity, sometimes for hours on end, to discuss the inner workings of al-Qaeda and the group’s plans, ideology and operatives,” said one of two sources who described the sessions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because much information about detainee confinement remains classified. “He’d even use a chalkboard at times.”

These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its “preeminent source” on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.

“KSM, an accomplished resistor, provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate or incomplete,” according to newly unclassified portions of a 2004 report by the CIA’s then-inspector general released Monday by the Justice Department.

The debate over the effectiveness of subjecting detainees to psychological and physical pressure is in some ways irresolvable, because it is impossible to know whether less coercive methods would have achieved the same result. But for defenders of waterboarding, the evidence is clear: Mohammed cooperated, and to an extraordinary extent, only when his spirit was broken in the month after his capture March 1, 2003, as the inspector general’s report and other documents released this week indicate.

Over a few weeks, he was subjected to an escalating series of coercive methods, culminating in 7 1/2 days of sleep deprivation, while diapered and shackled, and 183 instances of waterboarding. After the month-long torment, he was never waterboarded again.

“What do you think changed KSM’s mind?” one former senior intelligence official said this week after being asked about the effect of waterboarding. “Of course it began with that.”

KSM is now claiming that he was playing the interrogators and gave up false information. The CIA is claiming that they used his information to forestall other attacks.

Mohammed described plans to strike targets in Saudi Arabia, East Asia and the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks, including using a network of Pakistanis “to target gas stations, railroad tracks, and the Brooklyn bridge in New York.” Cross-referencing material from different detainees, and leveraging information from one to extract more detail from another, the CIA and FBI went on to round up operatives both in the United States and abroad.

“Detainees in mid-2003 helped us build a list of 70 individuals — many of who we had never heard of before — that al-Qaeda deemed suitable for Western operations,” according to the CIA summary.

The CIA Inspector General who investigated the interrogations admits that we will never know the answer to the conterfactual that human rights advocates point to – what would he have given without the EITs? However, we didn’t have time for some scientific study to figure out what would break them short of enhanced techniques.

John L. Helgerson, the former CIA inspector general who investigated the agency’s detention and interrogation program, said his work did not put him in “a position to reach definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of particular interrogation methods.”

“Certain of the techniques seemed to have little effect, whereas waterboarding and sleep deprivation were the two most powerful techniques and elicited a lot of information,” he said in an interview. “But we didn’t have the time or resources to do a careful, systematic analysis of the use of particular techniques with particular individuals and independently confirm the quality of the information that came out.”

Ultimately, it all comes down to a moral question worthy of Dostoevsky. Fortunately, we don’t face such questions in our ordinary lives. But back in 2002 and 2003, members of our government, tasked with the responsibility of preventing the deaths of innocent Americans had to answer that question. They chose one answer and the evidence seems to bear them out that the result was information that prevented further attacks. You can debate the value of that evidence, but can you deny that there was the will on the part of Al Qaeda to kill many more Americans and that there haven’t been such attacks since 9/11? Do you think they just gave up?

Some experts even posit that the captured members of Al Qaeda had accepted a certain amount of treatment so that they could satisfy themselves that they’d resisted enough and could then give up that information.

One former U.S. official with detailed knowledge of how the interrogations were carried out said Mohammed, like several other detainees, seemed to have decided that it was okay to stop resisting after he had endured a certain amount of pressure.

“Once the harsher techniques were used on [detainees], they could be viewed as having done their duty to Islam or their cause, and their religious principles would ask no more of them,” said the former official, who requested anonymity because the events are still classified. “After that point, they became compliant. Obviously, there was also an interest in being able to later say, ‘I was tortured into cooperating.’ ”

It’s rather interesting that we’re now getting these anonymous leaks from the CIA defending the EITs. I bet that there are a lot of people working now at the CIA who are mightily ticked at seeing the Obama Justice Department go back on the decisions made by career Justice officials to decline to prosecute the CIA.

I’m supremely glad that I don’t have to tackle such difficult moral questions in my daily life. Dostoevsky’s choice of murdering the pawnbroker to help your family is an easy one in comparison. But people bearing the immense responsibility of our safety did have to answer that choice. In the end, I happen to believe that they came to the correct, yet difficult answer. Others disagree and feel that they crossed the line. But those critics aren’t dealing with their own counterfactual. What if we hadn’t used those techniques and what if many more people, or even one more innocent person, had been murdered by a plot that we could have forestalled? Would that have been the correct moral answer? Or would they have wished that they could go back in time and deprive KSM of a bit more sleep and simulated drowning a bit more if it would have saved those lives?

Betsy Newmark is a high school history and government teacher who blogs in her free time at Betsy’s Page. This Guest Voice is cross-posted from her blog.