Waterboarding in action — attacks disrupted, lives probably saved

Today’s front page headline in the Washington Post informs us that an ex-CIA officer who participated in the interrogation of Abu Zubaida believes that the waterboarding of this terrorist “probably saved lives” but constitutes “torture.” The interrogator in question, John Kiriakou, says that Zubaida wouldn’t provide any information until he was waterboarded. After 35 seconds of that procedure, he broke down. The Post quotes Kiriakou as saying that, as a result of the information the CIA obtained, “several” planned attacks were disrupted. In fact, Kiriakou told ABC’s Nightline that the information “disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.” Post reporters Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick decided, in other words, to downplay the positive effects of getting Zubaida to talk.
Kiriakou is probably well-positioned to report on the efficacy of the waterboarding of Zubaida and the positive results achieved by virtue of the information the CIA obtained. On the other hand, Kiriakou’s view that the technique constitutes torture, which was not his view at the time, seems largely worthless, particularly if one construes it as a legal opinion.
It’s understandable that Kiriakou has held conflicting views on whether waterboarding constitutes torture, just as it’s understandable that Nancy Pelosi saw nothing objectionable in the procedure when she first was briefed about it. Waterboarding has some elements in common with practices which are universally deemed torture, but lacks other elements. For example, it causes no physical harm; indeed, we subject some of our own servicemen and agents to the procedure. Kiriakou was one of them.
Under these circumstances, a metaphysical discussion of whether waterboarding fits the “torture” category is probably not the best way to decide whether to use the procedure in an exigent case. The more promising approach is to consider the actual practice (not a label) and the level/duration of the distress it inflicts, evaluate its likely efficacy, consider whether less drastic methods will work, and weigh (as best we can) the need for information that the detainee is thought to possess. If Congress objects to this case-by-case approach, it should specifically ban waterboarding.
It’s easy to believe that the decision-making process I just described would favor the use of waterboarding in at least a few cases, and there