The one thing we know about torture is that it was never designed in the first place to get at the actual truth of anything; it was designed in the darkest days of human history to produce false confessions in order to annihilate political and religious dissidents. And that is how it always works: it gets confessions regardless of their accuracy.
Andrew Sullivan has been brilliant in relentless pursuit of the torture issue this week. The post quoted above continues with a hypothetical scenario:
On 9/11, [Vice President Dick] Cheney immediately thought of the worst possible scenario: What if this had been done with weapons of mass destruction? It has haunted him ever since — for good and even noble reasons.
This panic led him immediately to think of Saddam. But it also led him to realize that our intelligence was so crappy that we simply didn’t know what might be coming. That’s why the decision to use torture was the first — and most significant — decision this administration made. It is integral to the intelligence behind the war on terror. …
But torture gives false information. … It is perfectly conceivable that the torture regime — combined with panic and paranoia — created an imaginationland of untruth and half-truth that has guided US policy for this entire war.
Sullivan’s hypothesis makes one wonder how catastrophic the failure of the American intelligence agencies really was. Not merely a failure to prevent 9/11; but also, perhaps, a catalyst for the reprehensible torture policy; which then became the source of doubtful information that has led to a series of disastrous policy decisions.
Maybe, maybe, maybe — it’s a series of guesses. But sometimes verifiable facts are unavailable on crucial issues. In that case, the best you can do is to propose a hypothesis that accounts for those facts that are known. With that in mind, consider this:
On October 11, 2001, a month to the day after the terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W Bush faced an even more terrifying prospect. At that morning’s Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, informed the president that a CIA agent code-named Dragonfire had reported that Al Qaeda terrorists possessed a ten-kiloton nuclear bomb, evidently stolen from the Russian arsenal. According to Dragonfire, this nuclear weapon was now on American soil, in New York City.
Now one pictures a terrified President receiving terrifying briefings each morning. A President who makes decisions on a worst-case-scenario basis, when hindsight tells us that the worst-case-scenarios weren’t about to happen.
In my view, Sullivan’s guess about the Bush Administration’s motives is plausible. Regardless, Sullivan insists that it doesn’t excuse the ongoing errors and sins of the Administration:
It has equally become clear that the possibility for an attack on this scale has been over-estimated. And the right response to more information is to adjust accordingly. … It was possible to abandon the torture policy after it had been revealed to be counter-productive and illegal.
To continue in this vein — against the violence [sic: I assume Sullivan meant to write “against the evidence”] — and to repeat the hysteria with respect to Iran after the fiasco of Iraq is not, in my judgment, merited by the true nature of the threat we face. It is an idee fixe, perpetuated by a fundamentalist psyche unable to seek evidence outside itself and its own ideology.
To cap it off, I invite you to read the heart-wrenching account of one man’s desperate, false confession. You’ll find it here.