Did General David Petraeus just change his position on torture?

Shortly after the death of Osama bin Laden, GOP Senators trying to credit Bush-era so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” for the killing vowed they’d question the anti-torture Petraeus on the subject during his confirmation hearing to be head of the CIA. But Republicans didn’t even bring the issue up — intead, Democratic Senator Mark Udall broached the subject — and Petraeus gave a rather unexpected answer.

Petraeus, of course, has been seen as an important voice by anti-torture advocates, because his military experience and reputation make his arguments difficult to dismiss.

Udall was clearly trying to get Petraeus to reiterate his opposition to torture — he read back several quotes Petraeus himself had given saying such techniques are immoral and when they’ve been used, they’ve “turned around and bitten us in the backside.” Udall asked, “do you see torture any differently in a CIA context than in a military context?”

But Petraeus instead pivoted to the TV-ready “ticking time bomb” scenario, and said torture might be justified if you have a “special situation” where an “individual in your hands who you know has placed a nuclear device under the Empire State Building. It goes off in 30 minutes, he has the codes to turn it off.” Then he urged legislators to consider crafting such an exception into the law:

I think that is a special case. I think there should be discussion of that by policymakers and by Congress. I think that it should be thought out ahead of time. There should be a process if indeed there is going to be something more than, again, the normal techniques employed in such a case. And again, I -- I would certainly submit that that would be very helpful if that kind of debate could be held and if some resolution could be made as to what should be done in a case like that so that it is worked out ahead of time, rather than under an extraordinary sense of pressure in such a situation.

Later, in an exchange with Senator John McCain, Petraeus said that he believed this should be “a nuclear football kind of procedure where…there is an authorization, but it has to come from the top.. this can’t be something where we are forcing low-level individuals to have to make a choice under enormous duress.”

As Spencer Ackerman noted, this isn’t a full-throated embrace of torture. Petraeus emphasized that the Army Field Manual, to which government officials are limited with the force of an executive order issued by President Obama, “does prescribe techniques that work.”

The problem is that for torture advocates, everything is a “ticking time bomb scenario.”

When failed underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab was apprehended after setting himself on fire allegedly trying to blow up a plane, some conservatives started arguing almost immediately that he should have been waterboarded. That’s because, particularly in the immediate aftermath of an attack, little may be known about what else is coming. Thus every capture of a potential terrorist becomes a “ticking time bomb scenario” in which torture advocates can argue that torturing is necessary to save lives. At that point, it’s no longer tenable to argue that it should be reserved for the Jerry Bruckheimer style scenario Petraeus offered. This is why torture advocates love the “ticking time bomb scenario,” no matter how fictional it might be.

Of course, there are any number of problems with the “ticking time bomb” scenario. It assumes knowledge about the nature of the plot and that the individual being interrogated has the necessary information, and that torture will effectively yield it, rather than leading to an infinite number of false leads as it has in the past.

By endorsing torture in this “special circumstance,” Petraeus has implicitly conceded two things—that torture is so effective that it might be of use in an extraordinary circumstance, and that it’s morally defensible. Neither of those things happens to be true—and previously, Petraeus had made that clear.

Still, there might have also been political considerations behind Petraeus’ remarks — namely, reassuring the folks at the CIA that he’s on their side. Three years ago Leon Panetta, who like Petraeus had been a vocal opponent of torture, said during his confirmation hearing: “If we had the ticking bomb situation and I felt that whatever we were using wasn’t sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the president and request any additional authority that we would need.” What Petraeus said was similar, though different in one important respect.

Panetta, despite being pressed by Republican Senators on multiple occasions after becoming CIA Director, has always insisted that lawful interrogations work and resisted attempts to get him to say otherwise. But by specifically asking for lawmakers to address the problem, Petraeus’ remarks may ultimately reopen the torture debate — only this time, the anti-torture side may have lost one of its most powerful voices.