Let me clarify: getting our hands dirty in terms of forming alliances with brutal tyrants or fanatical kooks has indeed paid off. In WWII, in Korea, in Afghanistan, and so on.
But getting our hands dirty in terms of torturing people has not paid off. The intel that is gained that way is not reliable.
Now, Matt Welch addresses this issue at Hit & Run:
[W]ater boarding elicited the “vital” information from Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi that “Iraq trained al Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons.” As a CIA-sourced ABC News investigation reports, “al Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.”
The administration’s position is now crystal clear. “We do not torture,” we water board; we do not use Soviet-style imprisonment/interrogation tactics, we just secretly use former Soviet facilities and Red Army false-confession techniques. And if some detainees die in the process, well, bad apples and all that.
It’s easy to get distracted by the semantics and immorality of it all, but the ABC News story suggests a very pragmatic rebuttal to the administration: By whatever name or euphemism, water boarding seems like one of the worst methods possible of obtaining quality information. And treating water-boarded data either as a strong basis for policy, or as a prop to make a political argument, seems unwise at best.
The argument against torture (and, pace The Wall Street Journal, any interrogation techniques that rely on physical suffering are torture) seems devastating, on both moral and pragmatic grounds. One can argue that when fighting a war for survival, we should not be afraid to “get our hands dirty” if that’s the only way we can win. But in this case, it looks like we’ve got a lot of dirt on our hands, and we’re none the safer for it.