Torture and the Broken Window Fallacy

Pouring millions of dollars into some government program, however ill-conceived, typically generates some sort of visible benefit to somebody—if only those who find jobs staffing it. Conservatives normally understand perfectly well that this is precisely what makes bigger government so appealing to so many people: The benefits are indirect and apparent, while the costs are diffuse and hidden, because it’s hard to measure innovation that doesn’t happen. They also understand that it’s a terrible way to assess whether a program is beneficial on the whole.

Yet in his most recent response to David Rittgers—which David himself has already ably tackled below—Rich Lowry falls for a surprisingly crude version of the so-called Broken Window Fallacy:

Unless Rittgers believes that every single one of these captures was of someone of no consequence, or would have happened anyway and just as quickly, he has to admit that the interrogation program helped us track down terrorists expeditiously. Most people would consider that a success and would doubt whether part of Rittgers’s preferred interrogation regime would be quite as effective — dangling the promise of reduced sentences.

This is a pretty strange decision procedure, and one I assume Lowry would recognize as wrongheaded in almost any other context—akin to arguing that a jobs program must be ranked a success if the particular jobs it funds wouldn’t otherwise exist.  Stipulate, strictly for the sake of argument, that some of the particular intelligence we got was obtained more quickly under torture than it would have been otherwise, and that there were particular non-buffoonish terrorists we therefore apprehended more quickly than we otherwise would have. There isn’t actually an argument offered for this proposition—just the assertion that “most people…would doubt” its denial—but forget it, he’s rolling. There’s still a problem here. You can count your intelligence “hits,” but the misses—the intelligence not acquired and the terrorists not caught as quickly as they would have been under a different strategy—are, by definition, unseen. But at least some experts—like former FBI agent Asha Rangappa—offer good reason for expecting the costs to be substantial:

But getting people to flip is primarily a psychological game rather than a material one. After all, the FBI is asking its targets to commit the ultimate act of disloyalty to their country—treason. Few people are willing to make this leap quickly, even in exchange for the most lucrative or attractive offer. It’s an FBI agent’s job to slowly win the target’s trust and help him rationalize his decision to switch his allegiance. In my experience as a former FBI agent who both participated in and observed successful recruitments, it’s much easier to do this when a target has, at some level, a sense of admiration and respect for the United States. A nugget of goodwill toward America offers an agent the chance to step in, gain the target’s confidence, and convince him that playing for Team USA is worth the risk.

Policies like the use of torture make it more difficult for the FBI to develop relationships based on trust. Even when torture is used on a few people and in another country, and by a different agency, it casts doubts on the U.S. government’s overall willingness to act in good faith. Targets often project the skepticism about the United States that torture fosters onto individual FBI agents, who are often the only face of the government they see. In short, torture is fundamentally at odds with the image of the United States as a country that will play by the rules, and that is how the FBI must be perceived in order to do its job.

Conor Friedersdorf offers a longer list of the “strategic drawbacks” of torture, among them:

eliciting false intelligence that squanders man hours; the fact that a torture policy causes some upstanding intelligence professionals to resign, and others to remove themselves from interrogations, hurting our capacity to gather good intelligence; that torture pushes more Muslims into the radical camp, increases anti-American sentiments, aids terrorist recruiting efforts, and undermines support for the war on terror even among significant numbers of Americans; that it causes allied countries to cooperate less with our counterterrorism efforts; that it reduces the morale of soldiers and intelligence professionals; and that “enhanced interrogation techniques” have demonstrably bled into military prisons, undermining our mission in a critical theater and leading to the rightful imprisonment of American soldiers, who were denounced even by the Bush administration.

What kind of national-security analyst ignores all that to argue that because KSM was waterboarded, sleep deprived, and later gave some useful information, the strategic case for “enhanced interrogation” is definitely vindicated?

Again, by their nature, these costs are hard to quantify directly. You’re never going to know about the guy who didn’t flip or approach the FBI voluntarily because he didn’t view the United States as trustworthy. You know what intelligence you did get from the detainee who broke under torture; you don’t know what you never learned from the guy in the next cell because harsh tactics destroyed the chance of building rapport. What seems wildly improbable, though, is that the costs are non-existent. Yet that’s the only assumption on which Lowry’s hasty inference from some benefit to net benefit makes any sense.