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Krauthammer's Asterisks

By Dan Froomkin
9:45 AM ET, 05/ 1/2009

Charles Krauthammer, in his Washington Post opinion column this morning, tries to find loopholes for impermissible evil.

"Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances," he writes.

"The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy."

Actually, no. The ticking time bomb scenario only exists in two places: On TV and in the dark fantasies of power-crazed and morally deficient authoritarians. In real life, things are never that certain. And trained interrogators say that even in the most extreme circumstances, traditional methods are the most effective.

Krauthammer continues: "Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever. They are akin to conscientious objectors who will never fight in any war under any circumstances, and for whom we correctly show respect by exempting them from war duty. But we would never make one of them Centcom commander."

Actually, no. They are normal people who share the post-World War II international consensus that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Indeed, the idea of putting someone without a healthy respect for human rights at Centcom is abhorrent -- unless of course you believe that human rights don't matter.

Krauthamer: "The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great."

This of course is a blatant post-facto attempt at rationalizing the (inevitable) misdiagnosis of the ticking time bomb scenario. Now all of a sudden the standards are lower. Krauthammer is advocating fishing expeditions -- with a waterboard.

"Under those circumstances, you do what you have to do."

Krauthammer's core argument then is that the ends justify the means. He quotes two former CIA officials, both deeply invested in covering their asses, who unsurprisingly insist that torture worked. But none of the claims they or others in the complicit chain of command have made held up under even modest public scrutiny.

And he mocks the idea put forth by President Obama on Wednesday -- and supported by people who actually have experience in interrogation, rather than in watching TV and fantasizing about being Jack Bauer -- that traditional interrogation techniques are extremely effective.

For instance, he writes: "KSM, the mastermind of 9/11 who knew more about more plots than anyone else, did not seem very inclined to respond to polite inquiries about future plans. The man who boasted of personally beheading Daniel Pearl with a butcher knife answered questions about plots with 'soon you will know' -- meaning, when you count the bodies in the morgue and find horribly disfigured burn victims in hospitals, you will know then what we are planning now."

But as Scott Shane recently pointed out in the New York Times, with more than a little understatement: "Mr. Mohammed, captured on March 1, 2003, was waterboarded 183 times that month. That striking number, which would average out to six waterboardings a day, suggests that interrogators did not try a traditional, rapport-building approach for long before escalating to their most extreme tool."

And almost nobody who knows anything about the Pearl case (see, for instance, Lawrence Wright and Peter Bergen) actually thinks KSM -- who confessed to the killing after being tortured -- had anything to do with it. Torture after all is really only good at one thing: eliciting false confessions. That we got plenty of from KSM.

But his "soon you will know" boast was all bluster -- sort of like Saddam Hussein's claim to have nuclear capability. ("Responding to bluster with war crimes" -- there's a great motto for an administration.) Nothing KSM said came close to thwarting any imminent attack. One hundred and eighty three waterboarding sessions later, the "bodies in the morgue" and the "horribly disfigured burn victims" were still only a fantasy of the torturers -- and certain opinion columnists.

Krauthammer: "The other problem is one of timing. The good cop routine can take weeks or months or years. We didn't have that luxury in the aftermath of 9/11 when waterboarding, for example, was in use."

But his compacting of the timeline is shameless revisionism. Top officials of the Bush administration -- and yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. Cheney -- panicked. And they continued to panic after any excuse for panic was long over. Waterboarding was conducted over a period of several months, long after 9/11 -- from August 2002 at least through March 2003. Other torture tactics were widely employed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo over a period of years. Legal memos defending various forms of torture were being commissioned by the White House until virtually the end of the Bush administration.

And in his final defense, Krauthammer argues that the lack of objections at the time from Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress who were briefed on interrogation policies is proof that "at the time the information was important enough, the danger great enough and our blindness about the enemy's plans severe enough to justify an exception to the moral injunction against torture."

Precisely what members of Congress were told and how they responded should absolutely be a part of any thorough official investigation into the abuses of the Bush years. The enablers must be exposed as surely as the complicit. And members of Congress who knew what was happening and remained silent must be held to public account for their moral cowardice.

But their failure to speak out does not change the fundamental moral equation.

If the United States is to live up to its core values, if it is to once again be a beacon of human rights to the world and a champion of human dignity, then when it comes to torture -- to impermissible evil, as Krauthammer himself puts it -- there can be no asterisks.

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