The Enduring ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ Torture Myth
In the wake of the public release of the Senate’s CIA torture report summary, conservatives and agency operatives have been in full apologist mode.
As the 480-page summary has revealed tortures that even CIA Director John Brennan calls “abhorrent,” right-wing politicians and pundits, as well as the torturers themselves, have made themselves look even more monstrous by attempting to excuse the inexcusable.
In case you haven’t had the time or stomach to peruse the report, it details horrific abuses inflicted on terrorism suspects — and dozens of innocent people — by the CIA in the dark days following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The most shocking parts describe homicide by exposure to extreme cold, rectal rape under the guise of ‘feeding,’ forced standing on broken legs and feet, near-drownings while waterboarding detainees, extreme sleep and sensory deprivation and other torments that go far over the red line of what is explicitly codified as torture under various domestic and international laws.
Other than Sen. John McCain — who was himself brutally tortured by his North Vietnamese captors and who pointed out that the United States hanged Japanese war criminals for waterboarding American POWs during World War II, Republicans have either been silent about, or have shamefully defended, the indefensible.
From soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell falsely arguing that torture led to Osama bin Laden’s capture, to Fox News host Andrea Tantaros’ sophomoric assertion that America can do no wrong because “America is awesome,” conservatives have gone on the record, forever on the wrong side of history, in a desperately flailing attempt to legitimize US torture.
But the torture apologists have repeatedly made one argument that can make even the most committed pacifist pause for reflection. It goes something like this, as expressed earlier this year by another Fox News blowhard, the irrationally irascible Sean Hannity: “If somebody were to kidnap your kids and you caught one of the kidnappers, would there be anything you’d do to stop to get information about where your kids are?”
I am not a parent, but I suspect that even the staunchest ‘enhanced interrogation’ foe would at least consider torturing as a last resort to save their child’s life. Or perhaps not even as a last resort, especially if you suspect there is an imminent threat to said child’s safety.
This is what’s commonly known as the “ticking time bomb” scenario. It’s been wildly popularized by movies and television thrillers like “24” and “Homeland.” The terrorist threats on those shows often develop along the same storyline: Bad Muslims plant a nuclear bomb somewhere in an American city and it’s going to detonate in a few hours unless our hero can find and defuse it. Millions of lives are on the line. The good guys get their hands on a suspect but he’s not talking as, tick-tock, time grows scarce. Suspect demands his rights and his lawyer. Good guys make tough choice, man up, clamp bad guy’s testicles to an AC-Delco truck battery and sizzle-sizzle, zap-zap — suspect reveals bomb location. Good guys save the day in the season finale and, see, torture works.
Programs like “24” and “Homeland” are undoubtedly a big part of the reason why a majority of Americans — and the overwhelming majority of conservative Americans — say that torture is justifiable. The trouble is, real-life “ticking time bomb” scenarios are largely the stuff of TV and movie myth.
Hypothetically, it could happen. But think about it: What are the chances that a suspected terrorist is captured who knows where the “ticking time bomb” actually is, that the FBI or CIA is also aware that there’s a bomb, that security agents know this man knows where it is (for why else would they want to torture him), and that there’s even enough time left to avert disaster?
Stuart Herrington, a retired Army colonel who served 30 years as an intelligence officer, knows a thing or two about gaining life-saving intel under pressure. “The so-called ticking time bomb scenario is a Hollywood construct that I never encountered in my 30-year career,” he scoffed in a 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed. “My teams and I collected mountains of excellent, verified information, despite the fact we never laid a hostile hand on a prisoner.”
Ever the consummate professional, Herrington firmly believes the interrogator is essentially a recruiter and that interrogation is an art that requires knowledge of the enemy and plenty of patience. He called brutality “the ultimate admission of incompetence” and offered this story to illustrate the rewards of a properly and humanely conducted interrogation:
“An Iraqi general, captured… during Operation Desert Storm, is initially frightened and defiant but eventually cooperates…Before repatriation, the general hands his captor his prayer beads and a scrap of paper bearing an address, saying with emotion: ‘Our Islamic custom requires that we show gratitude to those who bestow kindness and mercy… When Saddam is gone, please come to my home. You will be an honored guest and we will slaughter a lamb to welcome you.'”
In the absence of real-world “ticking time bomb” scenarios but very real terrorist threats, how does the smart interrogator glean life-saving intelligence from terror suspects? Let’s listen to an expert.
Jack Cloonan was a 25-year FBI veteran once assigned to bureau’s Osama bin Laden unit. In 1998 it captured an al-Qaeda member who was responsible for the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. This terrorist was certain that he would be tortured by his captors. But he wasn’t. The FBI protected him and his family and in return gained his full cooperation. Cloonan said the Bureau gleaned “a gold mine of information about al-Qaeda’s operations” from this source. He also said this was no unique case.
“Let me be clear on one crucial point: it is the terrorists whom we won over with humane methods…who continue to provide the most reliable intelligence we have in the fight against al-Qaeda,” Cloonan wrote inWashington Monthly. “And it is the testimony of terrorists we tortured after 9/11 who have provided the most unreliable information, such as stories about a close connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.”
Even former Bush-era defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that torture produces unreliable (at best) and false (at worst) information and that “it was not harsh treatment or waterboarding” but “normal interrogation approaches” which achieved the greatest intelligence gains in the war against terrorism.
Before I digress too much, let me conclude this piece by citing former FBI counterterrorism interrogator Dan Coleman, who extracted valuable intelligence about al-Qaeda operations and won convictions of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania by employing torture-free interrogation methods.
“There’s no value in it,” Coleman said of Bush’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ methods in a 2006 interview with The Progressive. “Brutality doesn’t work. We know that.”
“Besides,” added Coleman, “you lose your soul.”