That’s a very thoughtful post, and adds an important layer to the “did it work” debate. A few quick things. Personally, I’m skeptical of the argument from folks on my side of this debate that if we hadn’t used these tactics we inevitably would have suffered a terror attack in LA. It sounds like a conservative “just so” story to me. How do they know this attack would have come off even if we hadn’t learned of it? But I’m also a skeptic of the argument that pressure tactics never work. Why would only positive inducements get people to talk? This is a “just so” story that the Left tells itself to avoid saying they would oppose coercive interrogation even if it did work (a morally respectable position, but a politically problematic one).
As for the costs, on a very practical level (outside of any questions of right or wrong), I think we’ve been hurt most by images, because they are so powerful. The photos of Abu Ghraib hurt more than even the most graphic written accounts of what happened to KSM ever will. But what most inflames the recruiting of terrorists is the sense that they are winning. Iraq was a magnet for terrorists when they were winning; now that we are beating them, it isn’t anymore–and it doesn’t particularly matter what our interrogation tactics are. This is all very speculative, but I’m guessing that if al Qaeda took out another skyscraper in an American city that would do more for their cause than anything that could possibly happen in a CIA black site.
As for “torturing nations,” I don’t think anything we’ve done–even if you think it crossed the line–makes us anything like a “torturing nation,” or risks overturning an element of the American identity. I believe the Bush administration was engaged in a good faith effort to find the line and honor it. Inevitably, there’s going to be a gray area. Now, you can argue that we should never stray from the Army Field Manual because once you do, you’re going to have to make tough calls in a murky area and risk crossing the line. As a realist, I think those kind of tough calls in murky areas are inevitable in foreign affairs, and especially in a shadowy war against lawless extremists. Sometimes there are no good or easy answers.