The CIA and the Moral Sunk Costs of the Torture Program

This morning, The Washington Post has a blockbuster story about that 6,300-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's torture program. The part that will likely get the most attention is the conclusion that torture produced little if any useful intelligence, which is extremely important. But even more damning is the picture the committee paints of a CIA that all along was trying to convince everyone that what they were doing was effective, even as it failed to produce results. I have a post on this over at the Post this morning, but I want to elaborate on this aspect of the story. This is a tale of moral sunk costs, and how people react when they've sold their souls and realize that they won't even get paid what they bargained for.

In case you're unfamiliar with the economic idea of sunk costs (here's a nice summary), it's basically the idea of throwing good money after bad: once you've gone down a particular path, what you've already invested (money, time, effort) acts as an emotional tug preventing you from abandoning that path even if a more rational assessment would dictate that you change course.

In the case of the CIA (and the Bush administration), they had a moral sunk cost in the torture program. They had made an extraordinary ethical choice, to make torture the official policy of the United States (and renaming it "enhanced interrogation" wasn't going to fool anyone, not even themselves). Once that decision was made and the torture began, it had to be effective, and not just effective but fantastically effective, in order to justify the moral compromise they had made. When the torture program failed to produce the results they hoped for, they could have said, "This stuff isn't working; let's focus on what does." But by then they couldn't retreat; the only hope of balancing the moral scales was to go forward. They were probably hoping that if they just kept on torturing, eventually it would produce something helpful and the whole program could be justified. But in the meantime, they'd try to fool people into thinking it was working splendidly:

One official said that almost all of the critical threat-related information from Abu Zubaida was obtained during the period when he was questioned by [FBI interrogator Ali] Soufan at a hospital in Pakistan, well before he was interrogated by the CIA and waterboarded 83 times.

Information obtained by Soufan, however, was passed up through the ranks of the U.S. intelligence community, the Justice Department and Congress as though it were part of what CIA interrogators had obtained, according to the committee report.

"The CIA conflated what was gotten when, which led them to misrepresent the effectiveness of the program," said a second U.S. official who has reviewed the report. The official described the persistence of such misstatements as among "the most damaging" of the committee's conclusions…

The committee described a similar sequence in the interrogation of Hassan Ghul, an al-Qaeda operative who provided a critical lead in the search for bin Laden: the fact that the al-Qaeda leader’s most trusted courier used the moniker “al-Kuwaiti.”

But Ghul disclosed that detail while being interrogated by Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq who posed questions scripted by CIA analysts. The information from that period was subsequently conflated with lesser intelligence gathered from Ghul at a secret CIA prison in Romania, officials said. Ghul was later turned over to authorities in Pakistan, where he was subsequently released. He was killed by a CIA drone strike in 2012.

So over and over, the CIA is attributing information they got through ordinary interrogation to torture. If the torture program was even marginally effective, there would be no need to do so; it wouldn't be threatened by the fact that some information came from other means, so long as torture was producing some other information as well. Only if the torture program was useless would it become necessary to lie about it.

The picture this paints is one of an agency that is simultaneously torturing prisoners, without much effect, and also trying desperately to tell a story to the rest of the government that the torture is working. And to this day, everyone on up the chain—most recently Dick Cheney, who said the other day of the torture program that he'd do it all over again, because "The results speak for themselves"—insists the same thing. Because if it didn't work, what are they? They're monsters. They transgressed one of humanity's most profound moral injunctions, for nothing. And no one wants to believe that about themselves.



Since when did the CIA EVER get presumptive credibility for ANY of its communications? Why should any of this be a surprise? That bunch, along with the FBI, have obviously been lying to the American people and corrupting belief in US government credibility for a long, long time. None of them is to be given any benefit of any doubt.

It's way past time for some healthy US citizen skepticism. The ongoing and thoroughly corrupt "pseudo-war" in central Asia has no more merit than did the Vietnam nonsense. I trust Edward Snowden and Julian Assange over Barack Obama and his gang of snoopy, war-mongering thugs any day! All they have accomplished is to embrace the same lying nonsense generated by George W. Bush and HIS predecessors!

H. Watkins Ellerson
PO Box 90
Hadensville, VA 23067

I have been following this issue from afar (Canada) since Bush made torture legal based on some tortured legalese produced by John Yoo. Finally Americans have a report that confirms what the witch-finders and the courts of Europe concluded in the early 17th century. Now come the counterarguments.

I'll never forget George Tenent in a 60 Minutes interview, suddenly leap forward and emphatically tell his interviewer, "We don't torture." He was really incensed about it.

It included waterboarding. He knew that. Waterboarding had been used in WW II and Japanese soldiers who had practiced it were executed or subjected to lengthy sentences of hard labor after being tried.

But all we had to do was change the name to "enhanced interrogation" and problem. We don't torture.

Sure, we keep them up for days on end, subject them to loud music, slam them into a wall, dangle them by their arms and legs, wrap them in sleeping bags and sit on them, subject them to intense heat and cold and complete isolation......but "we don't torture."

You mentioned that "nobody wants to think of themselves" as torturers. There's the rub. Cheney never has and never will think of himself as a torturer. He's Kiefer Sutherland with a mission to save the nation. And it is how he lives with himself today.

If equal justice were ever meted out, Dick's ticker would be trying to deal with hard labor at a minimum. But it wouldn't be torture...because we don't do that. And if you disagree with us, we have Mr. Yoo to back us up.

I think the author is assuming that Dick Cheney doesn't want to be labeled "a monster." My read of the man is that he likes that label very much.

We don't torture because we want information.

We torture because we want revenge.

It's the same reason why we went into Afghanistan and (partially) why we invaded Iraq.

Revenge, pure and simple.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)