No Comment — May 30, 2007, 2:21 pm

The Zelikow Speech

Today’s New York Times features a story on the Intelligence Science Board’s study on the efficacy of the Bush Administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques, but it also picked up some discussion from a speech given by a former senior State Department official and advisor of Condoleezza Rice, Philip D. Zelikow. Now a history professor at the University of Virginia, Zelikow addressed an audience at the University of Houston Law School on April 26. His remarks are worthy of careful scrutiny; they reflect a very careful waltz around the issue–acknowledging the administration’s legal arguments while presenting a soft personal challenge to them on moral grounds.

Zelikow sketches some of the debate within the administration, but he presents it in softer terms than I imagine it’s been waged, and he presents what I would call the Rice-Bellinger perspective in triumphalist terms–as a new administration paradigm, already in the process of implementation as Hamdan was coming down. Though I sorely wish Zelikow were right about this, because I see the Rice-Bellinger perspective–while not something I would embrace–at least as not horrendously embarrassing, I am very skeptical of Zelikow’s portrayal. I’ve kept my eyes throughout this process on Dick Cheney and his key players, and I’m convinced that they’re adhering to the gameplan that has served them so well from the outset: give up nothing, and circumvent your adversaries.

But the Zelikow speech is intellectually rich and unusually profound.

From this point, the attitude that the administration should be “forward leaning” and “have chalk on its cleats” (to quote two phrases often attributed to Alberto Gonzales) dictated actually using every element of what was legally possible. Though Zelikow takes great care in these remarks to call John Yoo “brilliant,” it seems fairly clear that Yoo’s thoughts are being taken under the microscope, and treated very kindly. Of course, Yoo was not alone in this process. He was part of a fairly small clique of lawyers that took its doctrinal orientation from David Addington, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, and under whose spell Alberto Gonzales was drawn at an early stage.

Zelikow’s critique is simple and telling, but he develops it further with a focus on “just one” policy issue: intelligence interrogation. Zelikow says it’s “the most important,” and he’s clearly right about that.

The moral question is subjective, of course. It is closely related to another question: What standard of civilized behavior should the United States exemplify, in a fight to preserve civilization against barbarism? My own view is that the cool, carefully considered, methodical, prolonged, and repeated subjection of captives to physical torment, and the accompanying psychological terror, is immoral. I offer no opinion as to whether such conduct is a federal crime; merely that it is immoral…
Zelikow then looks at the “ticking bomb” scenario and explains with some patience why it fails to provide a moral justification for torture:

In most moral lexicons, there is some absolute core of behavior that is improper, whatever the policy gain.

– For that conduct which is morally problematical, but justifiable by necessity, the burden of proof may be high. Consider that the enemies we are fighting have used, even celebrated, the most barbaric and nihilistic tactics of violence ever employed by any terrorist organization in history. To the civilized world, this gives our nation moral ground about as high as one could have. The policy case would need to be compelling indeed to persuade our officials that they should slide and stumble their way down into the valley.

– These dilemmas are not new in American history. There is a long history of experience with questioning captives, both in law enforcement and in several recent American wars. In World War II, for example, the United States had a special program for high-value captives; the British had a comparable program. The threats were very great; the fate of thousands of lives could hang in the balance in many ways and on many issues (from antisubmarine warfare to A-bomb research to campaign plans, etc.) There was much trickery and deception. But, as far as I know, neither government found it necessary to use methods analogous to those our government has more recently chosen.
Zelikow then addresses proper way to test the efficacy of the “enhanced interrogation techniques:”

In such an analysis, the elementary question would not be: Did you get information that proved useful? Instead it would be: Did you get information that could have been usefully gained only from these methods?

– This question is especially apt because the United States has been employing other sets of methods, under different rules, against extremely dangerous and hardened captives in places like Iraq. So there are many fruitful bases for comparison and learning.

– It is also apt because – contrary to much public understanding – a special intelligence program can actually derive its main added value from the readiness to devote a great deal of individualized time and expert attention to a high-value captive – not from coercing him.

No institution would benefit more from such an objective appraisal than the CIA itself. A reputation for relying on physical coercion can have some benefits, of course. But, over the long-run, it might be better for the institution if CIA was regarded as special for its willingness to apply patient, labor-intensive expertise, rather than a (largely false) reputation of having the opposite preference.

Finally, once the gain from coercive techniques is better and more professionally understood, there is still the next step in the policy analysis, of balancing these gains against the moral stain and the political cost of relying, or appearing to rely, on physical torment.

This is a subtle, nuanced and diverse approach to the question of torture–probably the most interesting set of remarks to emerge from a former Bush administration official since we heard from former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora. But, as we bloggers are wont to say, read the whole thing.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



May 2015

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


“Don sucked the last of his drink through his straw and licked his lips. 'The coast, to me, is more interesting than the valley.'”
Photograph by the author
Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper's Magazine and a good friend. "Othello's Son," which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue.
Photograph © Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS
Beyond the Broken Window·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“By the time Bratton left the department, in 2009, Los Angeles had quietly become the most spied-on city in America.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Displaced in the D.R.·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“How is it possible that my birth certificate is invalid if I was born here?”
Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean
The Quietest Place in the Universe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Gaitskell and his colleagues are approaching the revelation of a new order, a new universe, in which even light will be known differently, and darkness as well.”
Painting by Sebastiaan Bremer

Number of African countries with vaccination rates higher than that of the United States:


Iowa urologists reported that only a minor portion of locker-room teasing arises from “the presence of excess foreskin”; most teasing targets small penises.

A farmer in Surrey, England, was ordered by the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council to tear down his cannon-equipped castle, which he had built secretly and then concealed behind hay bales.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today