Last night, ABC News reported that authorities believe Najibullah Zazi's may have co-plotters who are still at large. (The NYDN has reported the same.)What the hell is wrong with Americans? The police are arresting more people in this plot every day. They had had him in their sights for months. The plot is broken up. And the first thing that comes to this guy's mind is the proverbial "ticking time bomb" (which we know means that we simply must bring out the torture device and start squeezing.)
Question #1: Doesn't this seem like something approaching the "ticking time bomb" scenario that constantly bedevils debates about interrogation techniques? How hard are the feds working Zazi for information about possible would-be terrorists inside the U.S. right now? How hard should they be working him? I keep leaning towards one conclusion--then imagining how I would feel about that conclusion if a bomb kills someone I know on the New York subway next week.
"[Najibullah Zazi] rented a suite at a hotel in his hometown of Aurora, Colo., authorities charge. The room had a kitchen, and subsequent FBI testing for explosives and residue in the suite found the presence of residue in the vent above the stove.
"In July and August, Zazi bought unusually large amounts of hydrogen peroxide and acetone -- a solvent commonly found in nail polish remover -- from beauty supply stores in the Denver metropolitan area ..."
If true, and if the evidence of explosive ingredients or concentration of hydrogen peroxide is substantial, Zazi will be sent over -- probably for life. The various documents, focusing on the last .pdf which indicates a frantic search for hydrogen peroxide and acetone, on display at Cryptome, are particularly damning with regards to the accused man.
In the UK, there have been three bomb plots which employed peroxide. Most recently, I blogged about the Airplane Plot Liquid Bombers. For them, concentrated hydrogen peroxide was the oxidizer for a primary of Tang citric acid/sugar powder concentrate.
In the chapati flour and peroxide bomber case, the prosecution took pains to convince that the bombs, which fizzled, were deadly. In this, a variety of experts were trotted out to make statements to point in this general direction. They were never particularly convincing, except as arguments from authority, asserting that cobbled-together soggy things consisting of flour and an indeterminate concentration of store bought hydrogen peroxide would be dangerous without explaining how or why.
The more accurate picture was that the bomb-makers were yet another dismal collection of stupid al Qaeda men, in contravention of the usual received wisdom in the media that jihadists are Islamo-MacGyvers, always well-trained, efficient, smart and capable of whipping up a batch of death from anything.
However, because such people are quite often ineffective, or arrested before they can move forward, does not in any way ameliorate the uncharitable and anti-social nature of the activity.
An entire archive of pieces on jihadists and peroxide bombing, accumulated over the past few years, is at my blog here.
Oh yessss. It would be irresponsible not to.
A rough interrogation of Zazi, Toobin concludes, "would be both immoral and counterproductive."
It's a well-argued case, and I think I agree. But, let's play Devil's Advocate:
1) While the Obama administration's new emphasis on the illegality of torture is very important here, of course, even some mainstream Democrats have argued for an implicit wink-wink exception in "ticking bomb" cases. (This was Hillary Clinton's position for a time during the 2008 primaries; and although she refined her language under pressure, in my reading she still allowed for such exceptions.*)
2) Toobin argues that this isn't really a ticking bomb case anyway. Rough interrogation isn't warranted, he argues, given that the feds have already amassed so much information about Zazi's associates. That is reassuring. But it still doesn't mean we know where those guys are right now. Zazi might.
3) Toobin adds that mistreating Zazi might hurt the government's legal case against him. But is that really more important than preventing a bombing? (A question which complicates the question of morality, I would argue.)
4) One argument I'm surprised Toobin doesn't make: that torture doesn't yield useful information. That could be the best rationale of all here, although I've never quite been convinced that's an indisputable fact--and I suspect others in the government, probably including White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, feel the same.
If it were up to me, I don't know what I would do; I would need to know more facts. I am not a proponent of torture, which I think has done enormous harm to America's image abroad and moral fiber at home. But I ride the subways these guys may have been planning to attack and I would like to be quite sure we've found all of them. At a minimum, this is a good opportunity to stress-test the debate about interrogation techniques, because it may be that life can imitate 24 after all.