There’s been a lot of controversy over a line in Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)’s jab yesterday at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) over foreign policy. As Matthew Yglesias reported, Obama drew a contrast between himself, his rival, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) by saying the Democrats don’t need a nominee who "actually differed with [McCain] by arguing for exceptions for torture before changing positions when the politics of the moment changed." Oh snap!
As this Politico story from the fall notes, Clinton shifted positions on torture, having previously said she would seek a legal exemption for torture in the case where the U.S. has a detainee in custody who knows of an imminent attack — the famous "ticking bomb" hypothetical." But she now says "as a matter of policy it cannot be American policy, period," which is hardly an ironclad repudiation, since one can imagine exemptions for torture that aren’t official "policy." Such are the ways in which the meddlesome priest is gotten rid of. So let’s take a closer look at torture, even in the ticking bomb case.
When I was reporting my CIA interrogations piece, I talked with Mike Rolince, a longtime FBI counterterrorism special agent. To call Rolince, who has interrogated many detainees, a strident opponent of torture is to understate matters by orders of magnitude. I brought up the ticking-bomb case with Rolince, since torture advocates roll it out to make their strongest case. Rolince turned the tables on the would-be torturers: he said that torture would ensure the ticking bomb detonates, despite the lazy assumptions of the torture proponents, who ignorantly fancy themselves to be tough on national security.
"If a person is put under durress, coercion, or tortured, they’ll say anything, whether it’s true, false, made up, or saying what you already know," Rolince told me. "Let’s say they give you — I’m making up this number — 100 [supposed] facts, and ten of them true. That’ll lead you someplace, and I would argue that you could get [those ten] some other way. But the 90 that don’t lead you anywhere, that aren’t true — how long, and at what cost, will it take for people to learn that they’re bullshit? How many people will die as a result of that strategy? The amount of wasted time doesn’t justify what you think you’re getting, and could get in other ways. [The ticking bomb case] is nothing but a scare tactic."
Does Sen. Clinton agree?
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