Dept. of Muddled Arguments

I see (via TPM) that the Obama administration is objecting to the release of information about the harsh interrogation techniques (read: torture) used by the CIA.
The CIA argued yesterday that Bush-era documents detailing the videotaped interrogations of detainees should not be released, citing national security concerns, reports the Washington Post.

The videotapes, which depicted harsh interrogation tactics, were famously destroyed in 2005. As part of a wide-ranging lawsuit, the ACLU is seeking the release of CIA emails discussing the tapes, handwritten notes taken after reviewing the tapes, and a photograph of one high-value detainee, Abu Zubaydah, among other items relating to the tapes.

Their arguments for fighting release seem muddled.
CIA director Leon Panetta argued in a statement that releasing the material "could be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security by informing our enemies of what we knew about them, and when, and in some instances, how we obtained the intelligence we possessed."

Panetta wrote that the "disclosure of explicit details of specific interrogations" would give al-Qaeda "propaganda it could use to recruit and raise funds." He called it "ready-made ammunition."

I read an argument that bears consideration in there, buried under some garbage. If the release of this information could legitimately compromise national security by "informing our enemies of what we knew about them, and when," then I can understand the basis for holding it back. However, if that is the case, then we must at least listen to what Dick Cheney has been saying lately (and Lord help me, my fingers are giving up acrid smoke while I write this) about the CIA's interrogations producing valuable intelligence. National security hawks can argue that the Obama administration is essentially validating these statements by protecting the information obtained. I would counter that torture is immoral and counter to the principles that undergird American society, even if effective, but there are those who disagree who will find their arguments strengthened by the Obama administration's stance.

However, I am not sure I believe that the content of the intelligence learned could not be redacted while still making available the information about how it was obtained. Which brings us to the garbage.

The argument that the information would be "ready-made" ammunition falls flat for a variety of reasons. First of all, if we behave outrageously, we must expect that people will respond with outrage. If that outrage takes the form of violence, we must protect ourselves, but that doesn't mean that we have legitimate cause to suppress evidence of our own wrong-doing.

Second, I think this is the wrong perspective. Right now, the torture of prisoners in the so-called "Global War on Terror" is an accepted fact worldwide, euphemisms like "enhanced" or "harsh" interrogations notwithstanding. Everyone knows it happened. We don't know how it happened, exactly, and propogandists can thus make it as big and repulsive as they wish. By releasing the information, we allow the evil we have done to become, in effect, right-sized. It may cause embarrassment and difficulty on foreign policy and national security fronts, but it will be out in the open, and won't take on larger dimensions in the darkness of our collective imaginations.

Finally, America needs to have its self-image as a uniquely good country debunked a bit. Yes, I actually believe that America is a good country on balance. But the belief that God's relationship with America is unique, and makes us uniquely virtuous, is for the birds, no matter what certain politicians may say. Being reminded of our own fallibility as a society will hopefully prevent some of the more ill effects of national hubris in the future.


  1. If we behave outrageously, we must expect that people will respond with outrage.

    In the context of "ready-made ammo", 'people' would refer to supporters and potential recruit of AQ. The problem with your analysis is that supporters and potential recruits of AQ don't think it is outrageous to slit throats, behead journalists, rape female captives, or murder gays. Apparently they do get hot under the keffiyeh when waterboarded or forced to be near caterpillars. Honestly, if I were taken prisoner by AQ, I would be thanking the Random Forces of Nature if all I had to undergo were posing nude with caterpillars while being waterboarded (the alternative of beheading is far more damaging to one's health than waterboarding).

    However, I do agree that we should not suppress evidence of our own wrongdoing, absent extremely compelling arguments to the contrary for extremely important ends.

    On the other hand, the conclusions that waterboarding is always out of bounds is not one that is universally accepted. Just as the current Speaker of the House. She'll tell you.

  2. 1) Your comment about supporters and potential recruits of AQ presupposes that such people would be otherwise disinclined to slit throats, etc, etc, but would be tipped over the edge by a detailed report of American torture of detainees. I don't buy that.

    2) Yes, the way they treat captives if often much, much worse than the way we treat ours. (Though the case of Manadel al-Jamadi proves that is not always the case.) That is hardly an argument for our of bad behavior.

    3) Yeah, yeah. Nancy Pelosi knew, and that makes her complicit. (Barney Frank's recent interview with "GQ" speaks to this, to some degree.) Whatever. But don't think our government gets a pass on waterboarding, one way or the other. If we prosecuted the Japanese for doing it to our troops in WWII, I think we're on thin ice trying to justify it ourselves.

  3. Are you really sure you meant what you wrote in 1)?

    And it is true that two wrongs don't make a right (but three lefts do).

    Finally, the outrageous thing about Speaker Pelosi is not that she is a cowardly hypocrite, but that she persists in smearing the CIA and previous administration using lies so transparent birds are smacking into them.

  4. Uh, yeah. Yeah, I do mean what I said in #1. The people who are going to slit American throats are inclined to do so due to a number of nebulous factors. I don't really believe that Terrorist X would have minded his own business, but for the release of this information.