Ticking Time Bombs and Torture
The argument that torture may be morally justified if it is the only way to find a ticking time bomb before it explodes is not relevant to the Bush administrations crimes for many reasons.
First, the standard assumption is that there is an imminent threat not that there might be one. Ticking time bomb + 1% doctrine = total depravity.
Second it is assumed that torture works quickly.
Third statements about the location of the ticking time bomb can be verified quickly. False statements are not very costly. 10 false statements and one true statement are much better than nothing. In the real world, false statements can be very costly. The falsehood of one was demonstrated by invading Iraq.
Fourth for some reason which I can't understand (I don't watch 24 so I am not expert on Bush administration reasoning about torture) it is assumed that the ticking time bomb can't be moved. I suppose, in the thought experiment, the person in custody who might be tortured acted alone. Or perhaps the terrorists still at large don't know he has been captured. Otherwise other terrorists could just move the ticking time bomb.
The argument that torture prevented subsequent al Qaeda attacks or that people might seriously have believed that they could prevent subsequent al Qaeda attacks really relies on the assumption that the ticking time bomb can't be moved. That plots known to the tortured prisoners were not modified after their capture.
In "White House Watch" which is not part of the operation edited by Fred Hiatt and is thus, probably reliable, Dan Froomkin notes that the claim that the torture of Abu Zubaida lead to the capture of Ramzi bin al Shibh can't easily be reconciled with the fact that bin al Shibh was captured more than 6 months after abu Zubaida. Wouldn't he have had time to figure out how to avoid places known to abu Zubaida ?
This isn't as extreme as the claim, in the ever reliable opinion pages of The Washington Post that the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammad lead to the disruption of a plot to fly airplanes into the Library Tower in LA-- which success was announced by the Bush administration before Khalid Sheik Mohammad was captured. I assume that there will be no correction since the Washington Post opinion pages are clearly a fact free zone.
The thought experiment only applies when there is information which is so valuable that obtaining it might justify torture and the information can rapidly be distinguished from misinformation and someone knows something about the present and future, not about plans in the past which would normally be changed because that person was captured.
How could anyone have believed they were in such a situation ? Did anyone believe they were in such a situation ?