The Torture Question

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The reports on ABC and in the Washington Post quoting, on the record, a former CIA interrogator of Abu Zubaida perfectly reflect why there is so much ambivalence in the land about extreme interrogation methods, what constitutes torture and whether torture administered by Americans should ever be permitted under any circumstances. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who says he spent weeks fruitlessly questioning Abu Zubaida in Pakistan in the spring of 2002, did not witness the al Qaeda operative being waterboarded that summer. But he says it was described to him in detail by fellow interrogators. He said it lasted 35 seconds, after which Abu Zubaida “broke down” and promised to tell his captors what they wanted to know.

So what is Kiriakou’s opinion of waterboarding, an interrogation technique considered torture by just about everyone who is not, or does not answer to, Dick Cheney? He told the Post that in the interrogation of Abu Zubaida, waterboarding worked, and by working may have prevented attacks and saved lives. Reading that, one imagines the vice president and others who defend such interrogation methods saying, “I told you so!” But Kiriakou’s opinion is more complicated than that. Now, he says, he is convinced waterboarding is torture, and “Americans are better than that.” The kicker of the Post story sustains the ambiguity:

“Maybe that’s inconsistent, but that’s how I feel,” [Kiriakou] said. “It was an ugly little episode that was perhaps necessary at that time. But we’ve moved beyond that.”

That’s the problem with principles — including the choice to torture or not torture. If they’re situational, they lose their meaning. It can’t have been okay to torture “at that time” but not okay now. But Kiriakou’s ambivalence is hardly unique.