Richard Cohen’s Torture Fantasyland

In his column today, Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen tells us that he is against torture, which itself is not remarkable. His real point is this:

Yet the debate over torture has been infected with silly arguments about utility: whether it works or not. Of course it works–sometimes or rarely, but if a proverbial bomb is ticking, that may just be the one time it works. I refer you to the 1995 interrogation by Philippine authorities of Abdul Hakim Murad, an al-Qaeda terrorist who served up extremely useful information about a plot to blow up airliners when he was told that he was about to be turned over to Israel’s Mossad. As George Orwell suggested in 1984, everyone has his own idea of torture.

If the threat of torture works–if it has worked at least once–then it follows that torture itself would work. Some in the intelligence field, including a former CIA director, say it does, and I assume they say this on the basis of evidence. They can’t all be fools or knaves. This is also the position of Dick Cheney, who can sometimes be both, but in this, at least, he has some support.

If something “sometimes or rarely” works, that’s hardly a testament to its effectiveness. As others with more first-hand knowledge of the use of torture than Richard Cohen have argued, torture doesn’t produce reliable information.

What Cohen seems to be saying the mere threat of torture cracked this one case. First of all, it would seem that Murad was, in fact, tortured. But whether it was torture or threat of torture was really what “worked” is not really the question; as Washington Post writer Lorraine Adams wrote in a review of an Alan Dershowitz book:

What solved the case, court records show, was that Murad was stupid enough to have started a fire from the explosives, which brought police. In the apartment, they found a computer that detailed the plot, which entailed using liquid explosives to simultaneously destroy 12 commercial planes carrying Americans. Police easily confiscated the explosives in the apartment; the computer supplied names and numbers for the plotters. All were arrested and convicted.

Alfred McCoy, author of A Question of Torture, reached a similar conclusion:

As the Washington Post has reported, Manila police got all their important information from Murad in the first few minutes when they seized his laptop with the entire bomb plot. All the supposed details gained from the 67 days of incessant beatings, spiced by techniques like cigarettes to the genitals, were, as one Filipino officer testified in a New York court, fabrications fed to Murad by Philippine police.

In other words, it would seem that Richard Cohen is using an example of torture not working to argue that torture might, in theory, work.

The more puzzling leap of faith, though, comes when Cohen writes that the “torture works” theory has defenders in high places: “Some in the intelligence field, including a former CIA director, say it does, and I assume they say this on the basis of evidence. They can’t all be fools or knaves.” Well, of course they can. There are “some” scientists who don’t believe in climate change. Does the fact that they have that opinion mean that they’re right?

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.