Candidates Reject the “Ticking Time Bomb” Hypothetical

In last night’s presidential debate, Tim Russert asked several of the candidates whether they would authorize torture in exceptional circumstances. The so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario used by Russert is a flawed one. Experienced interrogators say that soldiers in the field rarely if ever can know, for certain, that a suspect has accurate information about an imminent threat and that torture or cruel treatment would be the best technique to elicit that information. Furthermore, with a “ticking time bomb” exception, every situation becomes a ticking time bomb scenario.

All of the candidates who were asked rejected Russert’s hypothetical. And, two of them referenced a meeting organized by Human Rights First that brought together retried generals and admirals with presidential hopefuls for a discussion about the importance of ending policies authorizing torture and cruelty.

Check out the transcript:

RUSSERT: I want to move to another subject, and this involves a comment that a guest on Meet the Press made, and I want to read it, as follows: Imagine the following scenario. We get lucky. We get the number three guy in Al Qaida. We know there’s a big bomb going off in America in three days and we know this guy knows where it is.

RUSSERT: Don’t we have the right and responsibility to beat it out of him? You could set up a law where the president could make a finding or could guarantee a pardon. President (sic) Obama — would you do that as president?

OBAMA: America cannot sanction torture. It’s a very straightforward principle, and one that we should abide by. Now, I will do whatever it takes to keep America safe. And there are going to be all sorts of hypotheticals and emergency situations and I will make that judgment at that time. But what we cannot do is have the president of the United States state, as a matter of policy, that there is a loophole or an exception where we would sanction torture. I think that diminishes us and it sends the wrong message to the world.

RUSSERT: Senator Biden, would you allow this presidential exception?

BIDEN: No, I would not. And I met, up here in New Hampshire, with 17 three- and four-star generals who, after my making a speech at Drake Law School, pointing out I would not under any circumstances sanction torture, I thought they were about to read me the riot act.

BIDEN: Seventeen of our four-star, three-star generals said, Biden, will you make a commitment you will never use torture? It does not work. It is part of the reason why we got the faulty information on Iraq in the first place is because it was engaged in by one person who gave whatever answer they thought they were going to give in order to stop being tortured. It doesn’t work. It should be no part of our policy ever — ever.

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, this is the number three man in Al Qaida. We know there’s a bomb about to go off, and we have three days, and we know this guy knows where it is. Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation?

CLINTON: You know, Tim, I agree with what Joe and Barack have said. As a matter of policy it cannot be American policy period. I met with those same three- and four-star retired generals, and their principal point — in addition to the values that are so important for our country to exhibit — is that there is very little evidence that it works.

CLINTON: Now, there are a lot of other things that we need to be doing that I wish we were: better intelligence; making, you know, our country better respected around the world; working to have more allies. But these hypotheticals are very dangerous because they open a great big hole in what should be an attitude that our country and our president takes toward the appropriate treatment of everyone. And I think it’s dangerous to go down this path.

RUSSERT: The guest who laid out this scenario for me with that proposed solution was William Jefferson Clinton last year. So he disagrees with you.

CLINTON: Well, he’s not standing here right now.


RUSSERT: So there is a disagreement?

CLINTON: Well, I’ll talk to him later.



Published on September 27, 2007


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