Someone asked me a question in response to the release of the CIA IG report. Pointing to the revelation on page 43 that an interrogator told Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, "We’re going to kill your children," my interlocutor wanted to know: Well, isn’t that better than pulling out his fingernails? There was a time — actually, March 2003, when the threat was most likely made — when I agreed.
That month, a couple days after KSM’s arrest, I wrote the most shameful thing I’ve ever published. It was supposed to be a piece for TNR’s website about why we didn’t need to torture KSM in order to get valuable intelligence. Instead, I bought into an untenable distinction between "torture" and "torture-lite" and it led me to sadistic places that I just didn’t think through. Toward the end of the column — which had absolutely no discussion, as I recall, of what was legal — I wrote the repugnant line that we didn’t have to torture Khalid Shaikh Mohammed because we could just tell him that we’d harm his children if he didn’t tell us what we wanted to know. Counterintuitive, right? I was caught up in triumphalism at the time and didn’t realize how depraved that sentiment was. Not that that makes it any better.
My friend Julian Sanchez has a typically precise account of what’s so morally obscene about this:
I guess what especially turns my stomach here is that the idea wasn’t just to inflict mental anguish on a presumably odious man in order to extract information. It was to inflict that pain by exploiting, as a weakness, whatever flicker of nobility or love remained in an otherwise wretched soul. It was a method of torture that would have been effective only because and to the extent there was something human left in him.
I was hoping to link to my 2003 piece — indeed, to read it for the first time in years, so the shame can soak in — as I’ve heard that TNR’s long-gone web archive is back online, but it appears there are still some problems with finding it. In any case, when I can get it, I’ll update this post.
I don’t just bring this up on pains of intellectual dishonesty. I bring it up because it speaks to my reluctance to criticize CIA interrogators for what they did. There was an entire structure of both policy and public discourse that supported those decisions. That’s what ought to be criticized. Including, shamefully, myself. I try to learn from my mistakes, and this was my biggest. Without offering any excuse, in retrospect I was caught up in revenge fantasies for 9/11 and rationalized them as intelligence work. Not again.