Friday, 10 February 2012

Torturous Logic For Information From Torture

This is why I read Andrew Coyne. Not for those times when I agree with him, but for those moments when I don't.

Andrew valiantly tries to defend the notion that there could be times that we must act on information that could have been obtained through the use of torture. There have been variations of the "ticking time bomb" defense, but Andrew neatly skewers them with a logic I have been trying to express, but failing at so far (which is why Andrew writes for a living and I keep servers running for a living)

"The answer to the “ticking time bomb” defense is rather that you could not know such information with certainty — not before you’d actually tortured some poor soul. You might have the wrong guy. He might not talk. He might tell you a pack of lies. There might not be any ticking time bomb. It might have been stopped by other means. There are a hundred possibilities other than the one in which torture, and torture alone, yields the one indispensable piece of information without which the bomb would would, without a doubt, have gone off. To cross as bright a moral line as torture, you need a lot more than a hunch."

That last line is key. When a western liberal democracy justifies the use of torture, the agent is in the employ of that country and believes his captive holds the key to critical information that cannot wait for legal means. Hence, the "ticking time bomb" conundrum, the Jack Bauer super-agent mentality.

Canada apparently, is not such a country as we do not deploy agents in other countries. Our security services are entirely domestic (which brings to mind the question, "would our agents torture suspects within our borders?") and rely on information gathered by other agencies. So as a matter of practice our security system must rely on hearsay information. We don't gather it ourselves, we rely on other countries to do it for us. *pause for effect* If one were to call Canadians "a wussy bunch of hypocritical holier-than-thou cowards", I would be hard pressed to mount a defense. But, here we are, in a uniquely Canadian spot where our good intentions trap us in uniquely Canadian corners.

At this point I find this argument is somewhat surreal. We have to imagine a situation where a third party may have used torture to obtain information about a threat to their own country; instead finds a threat to our country, and passes that information along in a timely manner to Canadian officials. Because of the urgency of the matter, we cannot confirm how the information was obtained, but moreover we cannot confirm the accuracy of the information. Maybe it is just me, but I have a really hard time seeing past that point and accepting any merits of the argument supporting the use of that information. My skeptical nature insists that this particular set of circumstances happens about as often as I win the Lotto 6/49 jackpot (hint, it hasn't happened yet).

But this latest directive to use timely information still upsets my Cowardly Canadian Ideals. The world of covert intelligence is a very secretive world where rules and circumstances are often couched in many shades of grey. In such a world, it is possible that Canadian officials are more involved than we are led to believe. Consider the case of a Canadian official (embassy or consular staffer of some sort, RCMP officer on secondment, etc.) employed in one of many countries that does not share our sense of due process nor of rights of the accused. That official finds himself in a prison where abuse and torture are normal daily events. An agent of another country goes to question a prisoner of mutual interest to both our countries. The Canadian official excuses himself, and steps outside, so that he cannot be questioned about what happens during the questioning. If one is not present, one does not know if torture is used or if it was a compliant suspect that spilled his guts. Either is possible, but possibilities are not facts. The term is "plausible deniability." The agent comes out, meets with our official and discloses that there was "a plot to, say, blow up a plane over Montreal tomorrow."

According to the morals by which Canada holds itself to, this is a reprehensible way of obtaining information. But we do not "know" that torture was used. So now, our government says we can act on that information. I submit that closing ones eyes to avoid knowing about torture is more reprehensible than conducting the torture itself.

The trouble with the moral high ground is it is a very narrow peak on which to perch oneself. One tiny push and you're down in the gutter with everyone else. If we truly desire that moral high ground, then we had better go to extremes to ensure we deserve that perch. Otherwise we are even more immoral than the people we preach those morals to.

I find this scenario much more likely than the more innocent scenario that Andrew tried to describe. And that is why I cannot agree with my government and Vic Toews. I very much do not trust this government to maintain the moral high ground. It appears to me that they are weaseling, trying to create loopholes that allow for "plausible deniability." The more I think about it, the more I convince myself of that.

And it will take very strong concrete evidence to dissuade me from that. Maybe that's my failing, but honestly, when has a politician of any party not tried to weasel out of inconvenient truths? Do we really have cause to trust them with this?

Updater: Dr Dawg weighs in. If you haven''t read it yet. Go.


Ken Breadner said...

For me this is yet another instance wherein the Cons ignore reality in favour of their agenda, which in this case--however they couch it--boils down to 'let's hurt the brown guy'.
It's been shown time and time again that information extracted under torture is questionable if not outright useless. You puncture my nut sack and pry a few fingernails and I'll gleefully tell you whatever you want to hear. Loudly and with conviction. Never mind that, terrorists aren't stupid; anyone caught and tortured isn't likely to know the whole plot anyway. But this is inconvenient in the same way falling crime stats and climate change are inconvenient. There's an agenda at work here--everybody out of the pool!

opit said...

What Ken said : useless. That is the primary reason such 'testimony' is barred from court proceedings.
Some years ago when the 'ticking time bomb' fiction was first popularized and we were still in shock about the blatancy of torture in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, changes in military custody barring the experts from participating came to light. Novice jailers immediately exhibited the behaviour shown in the Milgram Experiment.
I happened on comment threads on Political Animal at Washington Monthly while Kevin Drum worked there. The lack of perspective could be disgusting. exMI on Blogspot was one of 2 commenters on my first post at Oldephartteintraining December 2005. His blog was a fount of information from the viewpoint of a military intelligence instructor on interrogation techniques....and on many points about Afghanistan that never seem to be covered in mainstream media.
Torture - produces whatever statements the victim fancies will stop the pain.
Canadians in Afghanistan are said to turn many more natives over for known abuse than other NATO forces.
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