Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cost/Benefit Analysis on Torture

With the torture debate resurfacing after the killing of Osama bin Laden this week there has been a lot of hysterical talk on both sides of the issue. Some of the more thoughtful and least hysterical commentary on the question has come from Philip Zelikow, former executive director of the 9/11 Commission and Deputy Secretary of State under Condi Rice in W.'s second term (see his Foreign Policy blog as well as New York Times op-ed).

Zelikow says the benefit of harsh methods is that they can produce information faster under some circumstances. The costs include the poor signal-to-noise ratio in intel gleaned by extreme methods. You get a lot of phony information along with some that is valid. All must be checked out and there is inevitably time spent on wild goose chases which undercuts the "ticking time bomb" rationale so often cited by proponents of torture. Zelikow also points out the damage torture does to US soft power.

There is another variable in the intelligence equation: the help you lose because your friends start keeping their distance. When I worked at the State Department, some of America’s best European allies found it increasingly difficult to assist us in counterterrorism because they feared becoming complicit in a program their governments abhorred. This was not a hypothetical concern.

A thoughtful inquiry parsing the pros and cons is necessary — but it may not end up finding much, if any, net intelligence value from using extreme methods. It should also consider the future of the C.I.A.: over the long haul, it might be best for the agency if its reputation rested on outstanding professional standards and patient expertise.

UPDATE: Eugene Robinson weighs in on the question in The Washington Post.

I believe the odds are quite good that the CIA would have gotten onto al-Kuwaiti's trail somehow or other. But I can't be certain -- just as those who defend torture and coercive interrogation can't be sure that these odious methods made the daring and successful raid possible.

What I do know is that torture is a violation of U.S. and international law -- and a betrayal of everything this country stands for. The killing of bin Laden resulted from brilliant intelligence work, for which both the Bush and Obama administrations deserve our thanks and praise. There's plenty of credit to go around -- but not for torture. We should celebrate the victory of cherished American values, not their temporary abandonment.

--Ballard Burgher

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