George W Bush Defends Waterboarding

In his “Decision Points” memoir, George W Bush confirms that he ordered three people to be waterboarded to obtain information about another terrorist attack, justifying this in an interview with The Times by saying it saved British lives.

Ex-president Bush believes that in authorising torture, he was acting for the greater good, reacting to the deaths of 3,000 people in New York’s 9/11 disaster by forcing its terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to talk. Bush “felt Kahlid had information about another attack”, so he and two others were waterboarded dozens of times, producing information that is said to have prevented a similar attack on London’s Canary Wharf.

Whilst others like the head of MI6 John Sawyers insist that if useful information is received it must be acted upon regardless of how it might have been obtained, both he and the British government condemn torture and refuse to have anything to do with it. As the using of information implies complicity in – or at least some sort of responsibility for – how it was gathered, there could be contradictions in this.

All intelligence is evaluated in terms of its source, and MI6 could only give the US intelligence the necessary high accuracy ratings for its implementation, by knowing where it came from. One aspect of the evaluation of information obtained by torture is that it has a high probability of being inaccurate – the subject having said whatever he was required to say to avoid further pain.

But we don’t know the extent to which MI6 knew or suspected how the Americans were getting this new information. It’s likely that there was knowledge of this, but possibly not at the highest levels, with conversely the general suspicions of very savvy intelligence professionals…

However, to what extent does this matter? Are there parallels in the use of information gained through inhumane methods that might help judge the moral issue here? How about the dreadful experiments made by Nazi doctors into the effects of cold on the human body?

As part of helping highly trained German U boat crews survive sinking to return and man new boats, many Jewish concentration camp inmates were closely observed, measured and monitored as they died in cold laboratory water baths. The data from these experiments was used extensively after the war, and form the basis of many tables and further studies still in very wide usage.

Using this data has undoubtedly saved many lives – and continues so to do. The original subjects are dead anyway, and so one might argue that at least their suffering has led to something good. So this might lead one to argue that using information gained from torture isn’t in itself immoral. So although the British government is arguing that it didn’t know the information was the product of torture, this certainly humbug. They would have been gullible in the extreme not to have suspected, and the people concerned are not gullible – but in any case what was the moral issue in merely using the information?

Use of the information is a red herring. The real issue is President Bush’s decision to torture al-Qaeda suspects, and the failure of the many people who knew or suspected what was going on, to stop him – on this side of the Atlantic included.

Terrorism seeks to portray governments as being powerless to protect their citizens, or prevent terrorist attacks. The attacks are not strategic, designed to overthrow government or seriously disrupt the operations of state, but to frighten people. The terrorists do not want to take over. Attacks need to be very public, liable to be shown on television, and as gruesome as possible. The actual numbers of people directly affected is irrelevant; so long at it looks bad on television. (One can always rely on the media to make a modest disaster look far worse…)

A successful terrorist attack creates fear, and demands that government take action, which ideally from the terrorist point of view should be as draconian as possible, suspending democratic freedoms and alienating as many groups of people as possible. The rounding up of all suspected Moslems, the closing of all mosques and the banning of Moslem dress are all ideal governmental over-reactions, proving to the people that the government cannot govern.

And if terrorists are captured, how better could a democratic government demonstrate its inability to cope than to suspend its most basic values and human rights, to torture the suspects?

911 had been a massive shock to the USA, which had literally been shut down as if under nuclear attack. GW Bush approval ratings had soared to 90% as his defense secretary Rumsfeld swept up all possible suspects including Iraq and Afghanistan. The waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed took place some 18 months later, after his capture by the CIA in Pakistan.

So rather than being a clearly thought-through moral decision, taken on humanitarian grounds to prevent further innocent deaths, George W Bush ordered torture in response to voter demands that he be taking action – as with his confused and unhelpful declaration of the “Axis of Evil”, the demonisation of Saddam and the eventual invasion of Iraq. The use of torture was supposed to mean that everything possible was being done, but its true meaning was that al-Qaeda had succeeded far in excess of their wildest dreams.

And of course, the waterboarding of these three suspects is but nothing in comparison to the tsunami of what I consider to be un-American injustice that was to follow: Guatanamo Bay, Abu Grahib and so…

The problem with terrorism is that for the governments against who it is waged, it truly isn’t a war, and if governments decide to call it one and act accordingly, they’ve lost and the terrorists have won.

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