Good for Eric Holder

I'm becoming more enthusiatic about Eric Holder as Attorney General. It's nice to see some clarity about waterboarding--that is, partial drowning interrogation. From Steve Benen:

The exchange was helpful in learning about both the senator and the nominee. [Republican Senator] Cornyn wanted Holder to admit that he'd torture a terrorist in a "ticking-time-bomb scenario," in order to "save perhaps tens of thousands of lives." Holder responded sensibly, noting that we have interrogation methods that aren't torture, and that torture wouldn't produce reliable intelligence anyway.

Cornyn was undeterred, asking again about what Holder would do if "the only thing standing between you and deaths of tens of thousands of Americans" was torture. Holder saw no reason to play along, responding, "Again, I think your hypothetical assumes a premise that I'm not willing to concede."

Cornyn, unaware of how absurd he appeared, insisted that Holder "assume" that the only way to get necessary information was to torture a suspect. The A.G. nominee replied, "I don't think I can do that."

Nor should he. Cornyn's Jack Bauer fantasy has no place in a confirmation hearing for the nation's chief law-enforcement officer. As Ali Frick explained, "Intelligence officials have repeatedly rejected the idea of a ticking time bomb scenario. Jack Cloonan, who spent 25 years as an FBI special agent and interrogated members of al Qaeda, said that he has 'been hard pressed to find a situation where anybody' can say 'that they've ever encountered the ticking bomb scenario' when interrogating terrorists. He said it is a 'red herring' and '[i]n the real world it doesn't happen.'"

I've written about how torture alone can't reveal useful information, so it's good to read that Holder is like-minded. Having said that, I'm not optimistic about the possibility of prosecutions for those responsible, although Coyner's and Pelosi's recent noises about prosecutions provide a glimmer of hope.

Nonetheless, having an anti-torture Attorney General is a good thing.

That previous sentence should indicate what Little Lord Pontchartrain did to our country.

Related post: Holder wants to take corruption by the previous administration seriously. Good for him.

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Holder wants to take corruption by the previous administration seriously.

I think you just explained Senator Cornyn's zeal to obstruct this nomination...

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 25 Jan 2009 #permalink

Just as awesome as Holder's rejection of torture was his wholesale rejection of the false dichotomy torture defenders always call up. The adults are back in charge.

In the ticking-time-bomb scenario, how can anyone claim to know with certainty that the guy has the information we need to save ten thousand lives, unless they gave him the information? (In which case, cut the prisoner loose and put a gun to the head of the guy who wanted to torture him.)

If it's only that we hope this guy knows the stuff, so then we'll torture him and make him tell us, this makes it an application of game theory.

You are the guy they're going to torture. You know you can't give them what they want. What's your best play? Make them kill you quickly.

Or, you have what they want but you don't want to give it up. Best play? Make them think you want to make them kill you quickly.

By Gilipollas Caraculo (not verified) on 25 Jan 2009 #permalink

I think there is a perfectly easy, correct, and moral response to these kinds of (fantasy) ticking time bomb scenarios. It is to say this:

If torturing a terrorist is the only way to save ten thousand innocents, and I really thought torture was going to work, then
yes, I would torture the suspect. And then I would expect to be prosecuted for committing such a crime. I would plead guilty, and expect to spend a significant part of the remainder of my life in jail.

Torture is a crime, and crimes must have a price. If I think the crime is necessary, it still must have a price. No one gets off free.


I agree with Kevin 100%. If I found myself in the "ticking time bomb" scenario, I would have to make the call based on the available evidence, and plan to live with the consequences, knowing full well that I'm violating the law. Even if I succeeded and saved thousands of lives, I would insist on prosecution. I might plead for leniency in sentencing, but the crime must be prosecuted. Such a scenario is no more justification for making torture legal, than is killing an enemy combatant in time of war justification for making murder legal in time of peace.

Cornyn should be ashamed. Republicans should be ashamed of him. (And I'm a "registered" Republican.)

Although it's still based on a silly premise. Torture doesn't give you any information you can count on as being reliable by itself. It might give you information that following extensive investigation turns out to be reliable but in this ticking-time-bomb situation you have no time for such checking - all you know is the "bad guy" said something you wanted to here to stop you feeding any more of his extremities your tank of piranha.

If you need to know RIGHT NOW whether you need to cut the red or the blue wire to save the hangar full of starving orphans from being blown up then you may as well save yourself the trouble (and carpet cleaning costs) of torturing your captive and just pick randomly. It'll be just as reliable as getting the captive to pick randomly for you, as you've no way to determine whether the captive ArchFiend is telling the truth or trying to get you to blow yourself up.

By Captain Obvious (not verified) on 26 Jan 2009 #permalink

Kevin is right on the money. I'd put it in rougher terms though. The answer should be something like "Yes, if somehow, hypothetically, it became clear that torture was the unique, effective way to stop a large number of the deaths, I would do it. If bludgeoning you to death with my own fists became the only way to stop a large number of deaths, then Senator, you'd be a bloody pulp on the floor. This doesn't give any good reason why torture or the brutal murder of a US senator should not be crimes"