The Corner

McCain & Coercive Interrogation

Chris Wallace also asked Senator McCain about coercive interrogation in light of the contention by former CIA Director George Tenet that the interrogation methods used by the CIA on high-value al Qaeda detainees saved countless American lives.  (It must be noted, Tenet insists these methods did not rise to the level of torture regardless of how cavalierly the public discussion suggests otherwise.)

Here is the McCain/Wallace exchange (from a transcript of the entire McCain interview, available at

WALLACE: Senator, you talked about torture. Former CIA Director Tenet now says that the intelligence that they got from harsh interrogation techniques against some of these big Al Qaida types, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the intelligence they got from them using, reportedly, things like water-boarding, extreme temperatures, was more valuable than all the other CIA and FBI programs.  Were you wrong? I mean, this is the CIA, former CIA director, saying this. Were you wrong to limit what CIA interrogators could do?

McCAIN: A man I admire more than anyone else, General Jack Vessey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, battlefield commission, told me once — he said, “John, any intelligence information we might gain through the use of torture could never, ever counterbalance the image that it does — the damage that it does to our image in the world.”  I agree with him. Look at the war in Algeria. Look, the fact is if you torture someone, they’re going to tell you anything they think you want to know. It is an affront to everything we stand for and believe in.  It’s interesting to me that every retired military officer, whether it be Colin Powell or whether it be former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — everybody who’s been in war doesn’t want to torture people and think that it’s the wrong thing to do. And history shows that.  We cannot torture people and maintain our moral superiority in the world….

WALLACE: But when George Tenet says…

McCAIN: I don’t care what George Tenet says. I know what’s right. I know what’s morally right as far as America’s behavior.

WALLACE: But if I may, sir… when George Tenet says we saved live through some of these techniques…

J. MCCAIN: I don’t accept it. I don’t accept that fundamental thesis, because it’s never worked throughout history.  And so again, I know this for a fact, and anyone who’s had experience with this, I think, that’s — well, the people I respect will tell you that if you inflect enough physical pain on someone, they will tell you anything they think you want to know in order to relieve that pain.  That’s just a fundamental fact. And we’ve gotten a huge amount of misinformation as well as other information from these techniques.

Sure, except now here is McCain in the 2005 essay he penned for Newsweek, addressing the “ticking bomb” scenario (italics is mine):

Those who argue the necessity of some abuses raise an important dilemma as their most compelling rationale: the ticking-time-bomb scenario. What do we do if we capture a terrorist who we have sound reasons to believe possesses specific knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack?

In such an urgent and rare instance, an interrogator might well try extreme measures to extract information that could save lives. Should he do so, and thereby save an American city or prevent another 9/11, authorities and the public would surely take this into account when judging his actions and recognize the extremely dire situation which he confronted. But I don’t believe this scenario requires us to write into law an exception to our treaty and moral obligations that would permit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. To carve out legal exemptions to this basic principle of human rights risks opening the door to abuse as a matter of course, rather than a standard violated truly in extremis. It is far better to embrace a standard that might be violated in extraordinary circumstances than to lower our standards to accommodate a remote contingency, confusing personnel in the field and sending precisely the wrong message abroad about America’s purposes and practices.

So, confronted by the do-or-die starkness of a ticking-bomb, McCain acknowledged in 2005 that it “might well” be necessary to use “extreme measures,” and that so doing might in fact “save an American city or prevent another 9/11.”  Was his bottom-line position that coercive interrogation doesn’t work?  Of course not.  It was that such interrogation might very well work but that it would be a mistake to write an exception permitting it into our law because the exception would be abused. 

That is a perfectly respectable position — there is a serious (though beneath-the-radar) debate about whether the best way to minimize the use of coercion is (a) to regulate it tightly and prosecute all violations, or (b) categorically ban it and assume that interrogators would know enough to ignore the ban in true emergencies.  But, it is just plain bluster to argue, as McCain continues to insist, that coercion never works and he doesn’t care what anyone else says.  As his answer on the ticking-bomb demonstrates, even he doesn’t believe that.

Common sense tells us it is preposterous to claim that an interrogee will always just tell his interrogator whatever the latter wants to hear.  That claim might have some validity if the purpose of interrogation was to wrangle a confession to be used in some sort of show-trial.  But the point of interrogation for intelligence purposes is to find out what is going on, not to fix blame.  Usually, the interrogator won’t know what he wants to hear, and will be asking open-ended questions.  The interrogee will have no way of knowing the “right” answer; if he does not resist, his choice will be to provide true information or false information, and sorting that out is a matter of corroboration. 

Sometimes the information will, indeed, be false — just as criminals who testify in exchange for leniency sometimes provide false information because they know the value of their cooperation to prosecutors (which determines how much leniency they get) calls for them to inculpate other people.  But very often, the information from such criminals proves to be true.  That, of course, is why we permit the government to offer incentives (like generous plea deals, money, relocation, etc.) to get people to cooperate.  Our experience tells us that just because people have an incentive to lie — even a powerful one — does not mean the information they provide will be false.  Often it is true.  That is not an argument for widely permitting coercive interrogation; but it does underscore that McCain and others should stop making the silly claim that coercion never works.


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