The Weak Arguments Offered by Waterboarding Apologists

Over at The Corner, Andy McCarthy and Marc Thiessen are engaged in a tag-team effort to defend Bush Administration interrogation practices. Several of their arguments are severely flawed.

Mr. McCarthy writes:

Officers of the executive branch have a solemn obligation to protect the American people. It is their highest responsibility. They are not good Samaritans. If there is a serious threat of a mass-murder attack, they are obligated to take all reasonable steps to stop it — and what is reasonable depends on the circumstances and the exigency. It is immoral to assume that obligation and then fail to carry it out.

In fact, the highest responsibility of executive branch officers is “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That is the oath every president swears, and the obligation he assumes. Since Mr. McCarthy served as a highly esteemed federal prosecutor he must know as much, so what explains the factually incorrect language he uses? He should revisit the prudence of the Founders, who understood that charging the president with protecting the Constitution implies delineated limits on his power.

In contrast, imposing on the office an open-ended moral obligation “to protect the American people” affords an abusive executive all the justification he needs to claim powers that scarcely have limits.

Beyond this fundamental misunderstanding of the executive branch and its obligations, Mr. McCarthy persists in the simplistic assumption that if “harsh interrogation techniques” elicit useful information from some detainees on certain occasions, they’re proven to keep us safe. Nowhere does he attempt to measure the benefits the information affords against the costs using these controversial techniques impose. How much time is spent following up on false leads elicited under coercion? How many fewer people surrender into American custody? How many talented interrogators uncomfortable with these methods left the CIA? Are terrorist recruiters helped by using the specter of torture in American as a tool to enrage their audiences? How many countries are less cooperative with our War on Terrorism efforts? What is the cost of American citizens who deplore these techniques so passionately that they lose faith in their own country’s moral standing?

These unanswered questions and many others are never grappled with by advocates of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. It’s as if the War on Terrorism is a chess tournament and they’re arm wrestling coaches.

“Take their pawns!”

“Wait, let me think about whether that’s the right move here.”

“Take their pawns you pussy!”

It isn’t that Mr. McCarthy thought five steps ahead, did due diligence, and demonstrated that taking the pawn is the right move. You see, he’s seen pawns get captured before. They were swept right off the board. Some of them were even in positions where if they hadn’t have been taken, they could’ve attacked. Is that what you want? To lose pieces? Mr. McCarthy talks a lot about the War on Terrorism, but his interrogation analysis is almost wholly concerned with battle tactics. Questions about unintended consequences are dismissed out of hand, as if determining e.g. whether waterboarding helps radicalize Muslims is a question to be determined by generalized ideological arguments, rather than urgent empirical research.

Also see Jim Manzi’s characteristically excellent thoughts on this topic, written long before this particular dust-up.

Moving on to Mr. Thiessen, see the post where he writes:

In traditional war, when you capture an enemy soldier, once he is disarmed and taken off the battlefield he has been “rendered unable to cause harm.” But that is not true of senior terrorist leaders like KSM. They retain the power to kill many thousands by withholding information about planned attacks.

As E.D. Kain points out:

If a German soldier or intelligence officer in WWII had been captured that soldier may have possessed knowledge of planned German offensives. Getting that information may indeed have saved thousands of American or Allied lives. A captured SS officer may have had information regarding death camps or other atrocities which would have led to increased support for the war effort. Countless scenarios, whether ticking-time-bomb or not, could be conceived wherein during the course of traditional warfare intelligence garnered from captured soldiers would lead to saving the lives of many on our side.

Mr. Thiessen seldom writes a post without asserting that if everyone would only read his book, Courting Disaster, the strengths of his argument would be apparent. I am certainly amenable to reading books written by folks with whom I disagree, but time is limited. And every time I see an argument this weak — Mr. Thiessen obliviously asserting that captured soldiers in traditional wars can’t withhold information about planned attacks, whereas terrorists can — I think to myself, “No, his doesn’t seem to be a book length effort worth my time, no matter how many occasions he plugs it on The Corner.”

More devastating rebuttals of Mr. Thiessen are rounded up here.

Another post at The Corner by Mike Potemra ignited this conversation. He is substantially correct in his analysis.