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We Will Never Know Whether Torture Works. That Shouldn't Matter.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Earlier today, CIA Director John Brennan came out swinging against a central claim in the just-released Senate Intelligence Committee torture report—particularly its dramatic conclusion that CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were “not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.” Brennan disagreed sharply, speaking of the CIA’s duty to “speak truth to power” and explaining that important and useful intelligence had been obtained from those who had undergone CIA’s brutal interrogations. In contrast to the Senate majority report, he insisted that whether these brutal interrogations were the cause of those intelligence revelations is a question that is “unknown and unknowable.”

In a certain sense, the current debate over efficacy seems irrelevant. Now, even the CIA readily concedes that enhanced interrogation program was a mistake, and that the tactics used should not be authorized again. As Brennan wrote to Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, “I personally remain firm in my belief that enhanced interrogation techniques are not an appropriate method obtain intelligence and that their use impairs our ability to continue to play a leadership role in the world.” Nevertheless, perhaps because the question of torture’s efficacy is a major source of disagreement between the CIA and Senate Democrats, it has dominated much of the recent coverage and today’s press conference.

The actual back and forth between committee’s report, the CIA, and Senate Republicans on this question is debilitatingly dense. The committee’s study points out that “seven of the 39” subjected to CIA enhanced interrogation “produced no intelligence while in CIA custody.” Republicans respond that this still leaves “82 percent of detainees subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques” producing intelligence, a significantly better rate than the 57.5 percent effectiveness rate for detainees not subjected to the similar tactics. Democrats emphasize that “multiple detainees fabricated information” both during and after entering the CIA’s extreme interrogation program. Republicans rejoin that this is not itself a strike against the program because “multiple detainees who were not subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques also provided fabricated information.”

At times, the debate turns on the smallest details and valences of interpretation. The Senate Committee reviewed “20 of the most frequent and prominent examples of purported counterterrorism successes” attributed to the brutal interrogations and concluded that the brutality was unhelpful in all cases. The CIA and Republicans dispute this vehemently. For instance, the committee’s majority concluded that information from detainee Hassan Ghul leading to the location of Osama bin Laden was obtained through normal interrogation, well before his torture. Republicans respond that Ghul’s repetition of the story—with key details included— only came afterward. Similarly, Democrats point out that key information came from detainee Abu Zubaydah well before he was subjected to torture in August 2002. But again, Republicans point out that he had already been subjected to similar techniques that April. Repeatedly, the majority points out that information gleaned after the brutal interrogations were simply corroborative, while the minority insists that corroboration is actually critical to determining which pieces of information are accurate. In the face of this mess, Feinstein’s triumphant announcement that “torture doesn’t work” sounds overly conclusive.

The truth is likely more complicated. Senator John McCain and Brennan’s more modest claims—that torture was of “dubious efficacy” and that its effectiveness was “unknowable,” respectively—seem better supported by the mass of just-released material. We’ll never know whether the information gotten through torture might have been obtained other ways, and even the most generous interpretations of the CIA’s results leave us with relatively little, and offers no solace in the face of the sheer scale of the program and its brutality. But we must also admit that elements of the Republican dissent seem plausible; intelligence estimates really are built by weaving together mosaics from multiple streams of intel. So even if someone somewhere had once said something similar, hearing Abu Zubaydah confirm and focus attention on a specific target was consequential to American security. Determining what tidbits actually matter, parsing nuances, and checking for lies necessitates hearing multiple versions from multiple sources.

It’s therefore difficult to escape the sense that Senate Democrats, and much of the media, have allowed their (correct) disgust to affect their reading of the data. In their rush to condemn torture, they have overstated the empirical case against its effectiveness. This is understandable, and indeed traditional. Underlying all of our norms about war—the prohibition on targeting civilians, on collective punishment, on violating truces—lie both an intuition about their inherent wrongness and an unproven hope that in the long run, these norms will decrease suffering overall.

It would be lovely if we lived in a just world where efficacy and morality were always aligned, where we never had to ask ourselves difficult, gut-wrenching questions—because, after all, torture never works anyway. But wishing doesn’t make it so, and too-fervent wishing has veered some commentators into dangerous over-readings of the available empirical evidence. And when we too easily escape the moral dilemma, we set ourselves up for committing the same crimes again. Because in convincing ourselves that torture doesn’t work, we never have to ask ourselves whether it would be acceptable if it did work. So when the next bomb goes off in downtown Manhattan, and “experts” once again suggest a new technique that might break an informant, we will go back to the evidence against torture’s efficacy and decide it really wasn’t that strong to begin with. And we will torture again.

Our norms against brutal interrogations ought to be based on stronger stuff than overly confident determinations of torture’s ineffectiveness. Here again, McCain is instructive. On the floor of the Senate the day the report was released, he explained, “But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us.” So as the CIA, Senate Democrats, and the press continue to argue about torture’s effectiveness, we’d be well served to remember that the debate is a sideshow.