Michael Hayden gave an interview to Studies in Intelligence claiming that waterboarding really does produce good intelligence. It’s not exactly an admission against interest, even if President Bush stopped the CIA from waterboarding two years before Hayden himself became CIA director. The agency’s own declassified accounts of its descent into torture in 2004 and 2005 declined to make a case that waterboarding or other tortures were a decisive factor in yielding usable intelligence.

But why not take Hayden at his word for a moment. Even if torture in some sense “works,” it’s still illegal, immoral and not worth the price. I don’t subscribe to the premise that we have to destroy civilization in order to save it. You can too easily make the claim that we ought to waterboard killers in order to prevent future crimes. And then violent criminals. And then so on down the slippery slope. There’s no robust case to be made that there’s something unique about the resistant capabilities of terrorists. Anyway, Hayden says he wants torture opponents to say, “‘Even though it may have worked, I still don’t want you doing it.’… I can live with that tradeoff. I can live with the person who makes that tradeoff. Either way. That’s an honorable position.” OK, if that’s how you want it: gladly.

My pal Uncle Jimbo — congratulations on the launch of Big Peace, by the way — has a problem with that:

That is the moral choice that many on the left will say they are perfectly content to make, and which I consider moral cowardice. If you have KSM in custody and he tells you (as he did) that there are upcoming plots to kill us, and when you ask what, when and where, and he says you will have to wait and see, well I believe you have an imperative to act. I believe that failure to do whatever is necessary to gain that information from him, is moral cowardice, and that your own desire to remain morally pure does not outweigh the call to save innocents.

I doubt that either of us is able to convince the other, but two points. (For the sake of the argument, let’s grant Jimbo’s ticking-bomb premise.) First, as a matter of logic, before Jimbo’s imperative can kick in, you’d have to first show that only torture could be able to elicit the information required, something that has never been proven, only asserted. As a practical matter, the move to torture elides the question of torture yielding unreliable information, diverting counterterrorist resources during the “ticking bomb” scenario while the clock tick tick ticks away.

Second, why stop with eliciting information? Jimbo’s argument applies with greater force to doing “whatever is necessary” to stopping the terrorists. Why not just carpetbomb North Waziristan? Sure, you’d kill “innocents.” But you could just as easily argue that those alleged “innocents” allow al-Qaeda safe haven, or that you can’t do anything else to get at the al-Qaeda safe havens, etc., and you can just wrap up the Afghanistan war a lot quicker and isn’t that more humane in the long run? And how many North Waziristani (or Yemeni, or Somali, etc.) “innocents” are worth the prospect of another American domestic terror attack? And so on and so forth. The point is, someone could just as easily levy the “moral cowardice” argument against someone who recognizes that warfare, to be both civilized and effective, requires prudent limitations, even if our adversaries don’t respect that argument.

And I know Jimbo is precisely such an individual, because that dirty hippie says so rather eloquently right here. I’m a big boy, and if he wants to call me a moral coward, I’m not going to take it personally. But there are many others who believe that the U.S. has a fundamental interest in living our values, even when the easy or satisfying answer is to forsake them. If Jimbo wants to go down this road, he’ll have to call, among others, David Petraeus a moral coward as well.