Craig hits back with usual energy and rudeness at myself and Brian Barder. Worth a read if you can face yet more on Torture, Policy and all that.

I have posted a long comment there:


You accuse me of Attention Deficit Disorder? Excellent.

As per the private email exchanges going on, the disagreements between us are all about some simply stated but broadly unanswerable moral/political questions:

• How close to bad behaviour is too close? (ie what does ‘complicity’ mean, legally and morally?)
• Does torture sometimes ‘work’, ie it elicits facts which otherwise might not have come out?
• Can some good come from bad?
• Is it moral (enough) to stay within the law?
• How to balance incompatible policy objectives?
• How to engage with cruel regimes?
• How to get cruel regimes to change?
• Should HMG trust popular instincts here or aim for possibly higher values even if the risk to the public thereby goes up?

The blogosphere is just the place where it is impossible calmly to work through specific questions and try to reach a measure of consensus. Idiotic polemics erupt from nowhere.

How one answers some of those questions depends on the specific circumstances concerned. Different facts make a philosophical and operational difference.

Getting ‘information’ direct via ‘liaison’ from a government practising torture which gives you that information is one thing. Getting the same information eg from an agent working for you or by secretly intercepting that government’s communications is surely another.

In the first case you’re getting v close to your own ‘creating a market for torture’ argument, which does have some force.

In the second, you’re not – you’re secretly taking that information without any liaison, or soaking up whatever is in the ether and hoping to find something useful. A huge difference in moral terms.

You have misread John Sawers’ speech, and used his words unfairly to draw unfair conclusions. Here is one relevant passage in full:

• “We can’t do our job if we work only with friendly democracies. Dangerous threats usually come from dangerous people in dangerous places. We have to deal with the world as it is.

• Suppose we receive credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it. We will normally want to share it with those who can save those lives. We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner service will respect human rights. That is not always straightforward. Yet if we hold back, and don’t pass that intelligence, out of concern that a suspect terrorist may be badly treated, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved.

• These are not abstract questions for philosophy courses or searching editorials. They are real, constant, operational dilemmas. Sometimes there is no clear way forward…

• Torture is illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances, and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it. If we know or believe action by us will lead to torture taking place, we’re required by UK and international law to avoid that action. And we do, even though that allows the terrorist activity to go ahead.”

In that passage John is (I think) fairly illustrating one typical policy dilemma. He points to this situation: where we get credible information about a likely terrorist attack in country A from an impeccable source, but worry about tipping off country A’s secret police lest they rush out and torture local people to try to thwart the attack. In other words, possible future torture. How to get credible guarantees they won’t do that? As he then says, if MI6 know/believe that passing that information will lead to torture, MI6 don’t do it. Innocent people thereby might die.

He is NOT talking about what we do with information from a possibly/probably tainted source, and how far we should go in not accepting it (ie possible/probable past torture). This is the issue which you talk about at length – how close to bad behaviour can you get without being ‘complicit’ in it?

Here the UK makes various important legal distinctions, notably in the landmark House of Lords judgement which you yourself praised in your book. It was held specifically that our government may lawfully receive and act on information from a ‘tainted source’ if there is a clear public interest (notably possibly saving lives) in doing so.

That, no doubt, is why we continue to have close relations with the CIA who use methods we don’t like. And why every other government in the world who gets credible US tip-offs about potential terrorist activity is very grateful.

You deride the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario:

“John Sawers relies on the "ticking bomb" fallacy – the idea that torture happens to real terrorists and they give precise timely information to avert an imminent threat. That is a Hollywood scenario. There has never ever been a real life example that meets the ticking bomb cliche.”

How can you possibly say that? You just don’t know.

Plus it does not matter if the bomb is literally ticking. If we can intercept terrorists planning attacks ‘upstream before they turn on the bomb, so much the better.

You also say that torture is ineffective:

"Torture does not get you the truth. It gets you what the torturer wants to hear."

True sometimes. Not always. I have written on my site about a brave Pole who confessed under Soviet torture to belonging to an underground group. He gave out real information which helped his oppressors.

A long comment. But you deserve the courtesy of one.

Happy to debate these issues in a more structured way with you/Brian Barder and anyone else you propose.