Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Outsmarting the torturers

One of the often-repeated arguments in favour of torture is that, without it, We[1] can't convince Them[2] to tell us what they are planning to do. Without torture, how can we gather information to fight those who would harm us?

The assumption is that information we gather via torture is trustworthy information, useful to know. But is that the case?

A report in the Guardian shows that not only is the information gathered through torture suspect, but it can actually be counter-productive. A dedicated, self-sacrificing individual can out-smart the torturers and actually game the system -- and terrorist groups have no difficulty recruiting dedicated, self-sacrificing individuals.

According to "Omar Nasiri" (a pseudonym), a double-agent who has been secretly spying on al Qaeda for seven years, the al Qaeda operative Ibn Sheikh al-Libi successfully planted false information to US interrogators, telling them that al Qaeda had been training Iraqis.

Libi was captured in November 2001 and taken to Egypt where he was allegedly tortured. Asked on BBC2's Newsnight whether Libi or other jihadists would have told the truth if they were tortured, Nasiri replies: "Never".

Asked whether he thought Libi had deliberately planted information to get the US to fight Iraq, Nasiri said: "Exactly".

Nasiri said Libi "needed the conflict in Iraq because months before I heard him telling us when a question was asked in the mosque after the prayer in the evening, where is the best country to fight the jihad?" Libi said Iraq was chosen because it was the "weakest" Muslim country.

It is common sense that, whatever your enemy wants most, you should try the hardest to deny to them. But common sense is obviously not very common amongst the chicken-hawks of the American neo-con movement. Osama bin Laden was desperate for a war of civilizations between the West and Islam, and instead of denying him that war, the US has virtually handed it to him on a platter by invading Iraq. And let's not forget that Iraq, with its secular government, legal protection of non-Muslims, and women's relative freedom, was one of the few examples of an Arab nation that wasn't ruled (implicitly or explicitly) by the mullahs, and hence one of the targets of bin Laden's hatred.

Five years after Sept 11, Osama bin Laden has fooled the Americans into overthrowing Iraq's secular leader. Anger and hatred against the West is greater than ever. Bin Laden might have sacrificed a few thousand men in Afghanistan, but he's gained something far more important: a war between cultures and one of the most significant nations in the Arab world under the sway of the Mullahs. Even if they aren't necessarily bin Laden's Mullahs, the US has destroyed a secular nation that kept church and state separate and replaced it with one that has the two intimately connected.

I don't mean to exaggerate al Qaeda's victory -- the war certainly isn't going all their way. In the chaos of Iraq, there are many armed parties, and according to credible information from the CIA, less than 4% of the fighters owe allegiance to bin Laden.

But instead of opposing bin Laden's wishes, the Bush administration has spent the last few years handing him just what he wanted. The incident with Libi shows the sort of judo al Qaeda uses: use your enemy's strength against them.

But the tactical significance is that information gathered under torture is not only immoral (more for what it does to us than out of any goody-goody concern for the health and well-being of any specific man who would cheerfully stick a knife in us in a second) but it is also useless. It is untrustworthy information. If the Libi incident was not evidence enough, the evidence from past witch-trials is significant. Under torture, innocent people will lie and condemn themselves and others; and guilty people can game the system, plant false information, and sucker us into doing their wishes.

Faking actual physical evidence of al Qaeda training Iraqis would have been very difficult, probably far too difficult for al Qaeda to do convincingly. But they can lie. Lying is easy, and lying is even easier when you are being tortured, because the more you tell the torturers what they want to hear, the less you will be tortured.

But had Libi told the truth, that al Qaeda was not training Iraqis, that Saddam Hussein was doing his best to arrest or kill al Qaeda operatives, he would have just been tortured even more.

[1] "The Good Guys": people who like kittens and love their kids and never torture their enemies. Back

[2] "The Bad Guys", people who eat kittens and stomp on their kids' heads and ... torture their enemies... um... Back

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