On Ticking Time Bombs

The "ticking time bomb scenario" is a TV trope and, therefore, is a terrible guide for making policy.

Nuclear ExplosionIt should be obvious, but apparently it isn’t because I keep hearing/reading people reference it, from common citizens* to the Director of the CIA, but the “ticking time bomb scenario” is a TV trope and, therefore, is a terrible guide for making policy.

Consider the following ingredients needed for a “ticking time bomb” situation to work:

1.  A suspect would have to have been captured within a very specific amount of time (i.e., the time ticking off the bomb in question).  How this happens is unclear, nor is it clear why groups known for suicide bombings would, all of a sudden, start using timers (but we are talking about something most of us are familiar with from, you know, TV).

2.  Said suspect would have to be, without any doubt, guilty (i.e., have been the one who planted the bomb or was directly complicit in said planting).  Plus his certain guilt means we don’t have to feel bad about torturing him (and we know he is guilty, because we saw him do bad things, very, very bad things, in the first three acts of the show).

3.  The suspect would have to have the needed information to locate and stop the bomb (note:  bombs on TV often have a keypad or other data-entry device upon which a code can easily be entered to stop the bomb because mass murderers on TV are helpful that way or, if no keypad is available, there will be a colored wire that can be snipped—but only if you snip the right one!).

4.  The suspect has to be susceptible to relatively little pain to get him to talk and to talk quickly (after all, this show is only 44 minutes without commercials, so let’s get to it!).  Indeed, just a few threats will probably be all you need.  Maybe you have to break of few fingers, but they’ll heal (no time for rectal rehydration or lengthy sleep deprivation, because it is a almost time for a commercial).

5. Under threat of pain, or under actual pain, the culprit will confess all immediately (and in just enough time to stop the bomb, maybe with just 007 second left!  Close call, so it is a good thing we got the intel we need cleanly and easily!).

All flippant commentary aside, when does it happen that we a have person, with time sensitive information, who will perfectly divulge the needed intelligence in the way that the ticking time bomb scenario would supposedly work?  This strikes me as an astonishingly unlikely scenario.

And, for that matter, the abuse detailed in the Senate report is not suggestive of ticking time bomb scenarios, but rather to prolonged (and often indiscriminate) use of torture techniques (especially since several persons who were tortured ended up to be innocent, including a man who froze to death in US custody).

Further, if the CIA and its defenders have evidence to support their position, they should provide it.  However, the best we get are assertions that the report is Vice President Cheney calling it a “crock” or Director Brennan admitting that is “unknowable” if these methods yielded useful intel.

But, please, let’s all pretend like a common elements of action shows on TV are a good guide for national security policy (and are sufficient grounds for the moral turpitude we are discussing).

*I keep seeing it on FB and such and heard a caller on On Point mention it this morning.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism, US Politics, , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    Isn’t that why it’s called willful suspension of disbelief in theater arts classes?

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    (especially since several persons who were tortured ended up to be innocent, including a man who froze to death in US custody).

    A REALLY minor quibble Steven, but I doubt the individual in question actually “froze to death” as that would mean he actually, well you know, “froze”, as in got below 32 degrees F. Far more likely he died from hypothermia. Not that that is any less serious. As someone who has suffered thru bouts of hypothermia on several occasions, I know how life threatening it can be. BUUUTT…. The anal retentive stickler for accuracy within me feels the undeniable urge to correct you on this very minor point.

    Feel free to ridicule me from now until the day I die.

  3. jukeboxgrad says:

    This strikes me as an astonishingly unlikely scenario.

    Correct. And it’s so unlikely that no one is ever able to present a real example, in the entire history of the world. That’s pretty strong evidence of “unlikely.”

    Under threat of pain, or under actual pain, the culprit will confess all immediately

    Right. Torture is supposed to work immediately. But if that was true, we would not have waterboarded KSM 183 times.

    This is my advice to the interrogator in that ridiculous hypothetical. If you really think it will help (even though history shows that torture is not a good way to get reliable information), you do the torture, and then you should expect to stand trial, because you broke the law.

    If the jury sees it your way, they will praise you and release you. Otherwise, you will go to jail.

    Anyone who thinks that this torturer should not have to explain their decision to a court is a statist who hates democracy and the rule of law.

  4. CB says:

    Random side note to start off this thread- from the first moment I saw it years ago, probably in some class or another, that picture was, and remains, the most terrifying image I’ve ever seen. It strikes a dissonant chord deep down in my core. Nothing else has ever come close.

    And you know, I’ve heard stories from my buddy (Army Captain, Intel) about actual, honest to god time sensitive, life and death scenarios. But they never, ever resemble the apocalyptic, ticking time bomb, nor would torture ever be contemplated to stop them. Because torture wouldn’t work.

    I’m sorry, I meant enhanced interrogation techniques. Didn’t mean to be impolitic there.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:


    I’m sorry, I meant enhanced interrogation techniques “Verschärfte Vernehmung”. Didn’t mean to be impolitic there.

    FTFY. No charge as I know your heart is in the right place.

  6. CB says:


    It really does sound better in the original.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    The ticking time bomb scenerio is as mythical as WMD in Iraq, tax cuts that pay for themselves, single cells that are people, an unfettered free market, and small government.

  8. Guarneri says:

    That’s a lot of keystrokes to tell us it’s a silly hypothetical. Resolved: the ticking time bomb scenario is for half in the bag discussion over brandy and cigars or pungent smelling dorm rooms.

    Back in reality – Two threads and I haven’t yet heard a call for Obama to fire Brennan, or inquiry as to why he has not.

  9. Andy says:

    The “ticking time bomb” scenario is simply a short-hand for quickly perishable, actionable intelligence. “Ticking time bomb” scenarios (hereafter referred to as TTBS’s) are, however, fairly common – or at least were common during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure they weren’t preventing a terrorist nuke like in the movies, but there were many real situations dealing with imminent attacks in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Coalition military personnel (not just US personnel) were able to deal with them without resorting to torture.

    Additionally, to put it a bit simplistically, there are two levels of interrogation – tactical interrogation and strategic interrogation. Tactical interrogation takes place in the field, immediately or soon after capture. Strategic interrogation takes place later at an established facility by dedicated interrogators. TTBS’s and intelligence related to them almost always come from tactical debriefs or, more commonly in our recent wars, from exploitation of documents & media captured from enemy fighters (living or dead). The US and other military forces conducted thousands of field interrogations as well as tactical document exploitation to prevent actual ticking time bombs – all without the use of torture.

    The Bush administration’s torture program was at the strategic level and the kind of information you get there is more about relationships, goals, personnel, etc. Intelligence of tactical value is long expired by the time these people reach GITMO or wherever, so even if torture were effective (and it’s not), it would not yield intelligence for a TTBS outside of movie fantasies.

  10. Andy says:

    @Guarneri: Also there is a lack of discussion about impeaching Brennan….

  11. Pharoah Narim says:

    In other words….. Gruber was right.

  12. michael reynolds says:


    Any such inquiry would have to come from the Republican House or the soon-to-be Republican Senate, unless you know of some other approach. In other words, it would have to come from your people. What do you think the odds are of Republicans spending even a tenth of what they spent obsessing over Benghazi?

  13. @OzarkHillbilly: Its a fair cop.

  14. @Guarneri: Well, one is free to ignore said keystrokes if one prefers.

    And as much as I would like to think they were unnecessary keystrokes, I am reminded daily that the explanation is clearly needed.

  15. C. Clavin says:

    Brennan’s not the problem…firing him slices nothing…and forces you to deal with the Republican funny farm .

  16. steve says:

    Drew- If we go after Brennan shouldn’t we go after those who ordered him to engage in torture?


  17. Rick DeMent says:

    Mushroom clouds over New York, ticking time bombs, welfare queens, the free market, it’s a great bumper sticker ideology isn’t it.

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not a consequentialist so the ticking bomb scenario doesn’t mean much to me. It’s still wrong. The ends do not justify the means.

    However, I don’t buy the ticking bomb scenario for any number of reasons, Andy’s very helpful explication among them. But it’s not the only reason I don’t buy it.

    For it to have any force you need to know that the person you’re interrogating has the information you’re looking for. How do you know that? I think the only practical way you can know what information he has is that you already know the information you’re looking for. If you already know, it’s just sadism. If you don’t know, you’re casting around torturing people in the hope that you’ll learn something. That’s obviously immoral.

  19. Tyrell says:

    One scenario would be the situation involving a person who has been brainwashed and programmed to commit some sort of crime, usually involving an assassination, bombing, or some sort of sabotage. The thing to keep in mind is that torture will not work in trying to pull information from an individual who has been programmed to respond to certain triggers, suggestion, stimuli, code words, sounds, or according to a time frame. They are also skilled in making sure no evidence or information is left. Trying to crack these individuals is tough, requires skill and experience. That is even if they catch them to start with because these people stay way below the surface. You will not see them “claiming credit” or making crazy public statements. I would say that in most cases their crimes would probably be very hard to solve, even diverting attention to someone else.
    Most of the brainwashing methods were developed in the 1950’s. We often use the term that so and so has been brainwashed as an expression. But real brainwashing is still done that poses serious and dangerous threats to this country.
    So these individuals are a type of ticking time bomb .
    See brainwashing methodology of Manchuria and China.

  20. @Tyrell: You are kidding, right?

  21. C. Clavin says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    No…no, he’s not.

  22. Tyrell says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: On the contrary. This was a very real concern and subject during the cold war era that I grew up in. There was a lot of “stuff” going around about this subject, but I would agree about there being a lack of credible, reliable information available back then. Check the excellent research done by expert and scholar John C. Marks.
    This site gives a very brief overview on this complex, elusive subject:
    So a lot of information has now come to light and made the surface about brain washing.
    I failed to list one of the most important nations involved in brain washing: North Korea. That in itself is scary to think that the North Koreans seemed to have this down pat. Of course a lot of intelligence accounts of what North Korea was trying to do, and very well may have done, gave rise to the infamous and excellent “Manchurian Candidate” novel and movie (one of Frank Sinatra’s best performances. He was instrumental in having this movie pulled off the theaters right after the JFK assassination). This article also details a classified program that delved into the area of mind control and re-programming the mind. Let’s be clear: we are talking nothing short of reformatting a person’s brain and turning them into a virtual human robot. But the good news is that this is a complex operation and requires much expertise. I would doubt that few countries would have the people now to pull that off.

  23. michael reynolds says:

    You know. . . Tyrell is right. Anyone could be a Controller. The Yeerk slugs enter your brain and seep into the nooks and crannies of your brain, and from there seamlessly take control of your brain, mimicking you flawlessly so that their presence is not even suspected. It’s true: aliens do exist, somewhere, and they could totally be brain-controlling parasites. I called that one Animorphs.

    Also, nanotechnology machines known as nanobots can literally rewire your brain. It’s true: nanotechnology exists! And these mechanical nanobots have a biological counterpart called biots – even more capable, with a side dish of madness. Called that one BZRK.

    And what can’t you do to a human brain when you can grow a human from scratch, picking and choosing the details of body and mind with as much ease as a teenaged girl playing a video game. Called that one Eve and Adam.


    The only solution is to torture everyone. Including the torturers. Only then can we be safe.

  24. @Tyrell: You do realize that your best “evidence” is a decades-old movie, right?

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Oh, it’s easy to see that people can be brainwashed. Look at the immense number of abused wives who “stand by their man” because “he really loves me” even though the only action ever demonstrated is a constant stream of abuse., punches, hits, and all the rest of the sordid mess. But by gum, she’s convinced that deep down, “he really loves me” and it’s her fault for setting him off.

  26. Yolo Contendere says:

    However, the best we get are assertions that the report is Vice President Cheney calling it a “crock” or Director Brennan admitting that is “unknowable” if these methods yielded useful intel.

    I believe Brennan is asserting as well. Admitting would be if it were true, and it’s not unknowable. We know it didn’t yield useful info, we already had whatever useful info we were going to get.

  27. Tillman says:

    He says it’s a TV trope, doesn’t even bother linking to TV Tropes

    @michael reynolds:

    I called that one Animorphs.

    I could have sworn that was your wife.

  28. Tillman says:


    Two threads and I haven’t yet heard a call for Obama to fire Brennan, or inquiry as to why he has not.

    He made it pretty clear from the beginning he wasn’t going to bother holding anyone accountable for this. He did that as a gesture of goodwill to Republicans; y’know, not start off an administration with a witch-hunt. They certainly reciprocated in kind what with the years of comity we’ve seen since 2009.

  29. michael reynolds says:


    Actually the name came from Jean Feiwel. We wanted to call it “Changelings” which would have sucked amazingly.

    No, we co-authored basically everything from our hideous Harlequin up through Remnants. (Although she “gives” me Barf-O-Rama and I “give” her Silver Creek Riders.) After that we wrote on our own, I started back after a 4 year semi-retirement with GONE and she started back I think with HOME OF THE BRAVE. Within a very few years of writing on her own without my “guidance” she won the Newbery, which is sort of our Best Picture Oscar. I continue to not guide her except for the occasional plot or person consult, and I’m pleased that we also continue to have a joint checking account. That girl’s making some money last couple years.

  30. Tillman says:


    Random side note to start off this thread- from the first moment I saw it years ago, probably in some class or another, that picture was, and remains, the most terrifying image I’ve ever seen. It strikes a dissonant chord deep down in my core. Nothing else has ever come close.

    I walked in on my oldest brother watching a documentary-esque movie on History Channel called The Man Who Saw Tomorrow back when I was seven or so. Hosted and narrated by Orson Welles. It was about Nostradamus and his prophecies, and at the end they went into what he had supposedly predicted about the future along with artistic reenactments (from the standpoint of 1981). This included an Arabic “King of Terror” allying with Russia and starting World War III by nuking New York City. While the childhood belief in prophecies and their accuracy died out fairly quick, the fear of nuclear war did not.

    Then in high school I saw Threads. I would seriously recommend not watching it. It might be the most depressing thing put to film.

  31. Tyrell says:

    @Tillman: There are other reasons this president and those of the past have resisted calls for prosecution that would involve investigations that could go in all kinds of directions, plaves, agencies, and areas. They definitely do not want and will not allow the possibility of someone seeing or opening classified documents and information that goes back decades That will never happen.

  32. stonetools says:

    Against those who claim that TTBSs never happen, I think:

    1. TTBSs DO occassionally hapen.
    2. Its possible that using torture in those situations are justifiable.

    You can start here with Hoffman’s excellent article on the TTBS, “Nasty Business. Excerpt:

    Terrorism, he believed, could be fought only by thoroughly “terrorizing” the terrorists—that is, inflicting on them the same pain that they inflict on the innocent. Thomas had little confidence that I understood what he was saying. I was an academic, he said, with no actual experience of the life-and-death choices and the immense responsibility borne by those charged with protecting society from attack. Accordingly, he would give me an example of the split-second decisions he was called on to make. At the time, Colombo was on “code red” emergency status, because of intelligence that the LTTE was planning to embark on a campaign of bombing public gathering places and other civilian targets. Thomas’s unit had apprehended three terrorists who, it suspected, had recently planted somewhere in the city a bomb that was then ticking away, the minutes counting down to catastrophe. The three men were brought before Thomas. He asked them where the bomb was. The terrorists—highly dedicated and steeled to resist interrogation—remained silent. Thomas asked the question again, advising them that if they did not tell him what he wanted to know, he would kill them. They were unmoved. So Thomas took his pistol from his gun belt, pointed it at the forehead of one of them, and shot him dead. The other two, he said, talked immediately; the bomb, which had been placed in a crowded railway station and set to explode during the evening rush hour, was found and defused, and countless lives were saved. On other occasions, Thomas said, similarly recalcitrant terrorists were brought before him. It was not surprising, he said, that they initially refused to talk; they were schooled to withstand harsh questioning and coercive pressure. No matter: a few drops of gasoline flicked into a plastic bag that is then placed over a terrorist’s head and cinched tight around his neck with a web belt very quickly prompts a full explanation of the details of any planned attack.

    Chilling stuff. Are Thomas’s actions justifiable? I would say possibly-with the emphasis on justifiable. Justifiable implies justice: bringing Thomas to a court of law, where he is tried in open court for war crimes by a zealous prosecutor. If he can justify his actions by reference to any legal doctrine of defense of others, then fine: otherwise, he should be convicted and sentenced to prison.
    If there is no threat of prosecution, then what would be a tactic resorted to in an extreme circumstance would become common place. And that would be wrong. As another article demonstrates, interrogators have plenty of techniques that work well in extracting intelligence without the need for torture-“We Know All”, good cop/bad cop, “think of your family”, “get right with God.”,etc. They don’t have to be limited to the liberal’s favorite interrogation technique, “I’m your best friend”. And those techniques were used in a TTBS, and worked in recovering actionable intelligence. .

    I would recomend both articles before coming to a conclusion on this.

  33. Console says:

    How can you doubt the ticking time bomb scenario, it only took em 10 years to get Osama. Imagine what could have happened if they did things the old fashioned way and took 12 years? All sorts of mayhem.

    As an aside, the 12 year old version of myself is geeking about the Animorphs thing.

  34. gVOR08 says:

    @stonetools: One has to wonder if the TTBS described by men justifying their role are strictly verifiable, but there probably are such situations.

    In discussing the Battle of Algiers, the article you quote concludes, “The approach, however, at least strategically, was counterproductive. Its sheer brutality alienated the native Algerian Muslim community. Hitherto mostly passive or apathetic, that community was now driven into the arms of the FLN, swelling the organization’s ranks and increasing its popular support. Public opinion in France was similarly outraged, weakening support for the continuing struggle and creating profound fissures in French civil-military relations. The army’s achievement in the city was therefore bought at the cost of eventual political defeat.”

    IIRC Seymour Hersch and Naomi Klein have made it clear we have tortured people in the past. But on a small scale and secretly. The Bush administration’s sin was that they did it on a large scale, and wanted political credit for doing it. They’re proof of Orwell’s claim that the purpose of torture is torture.

    Yes. A good deal of moral ambiguity all around

  35. jukeboxgrad says:


    Hoffman’s excellent article

    His article you cited (1/1/02) is naked advocacy for torture, and soon after writing it he was employed by the CIA. His uncorroborated claims are treated skeptically by a Sri Lankan historian here. The person I am citing is described here.

    TTBSs DO occassionally hapen

    Other than Hoffman’s, I have never seen an example, and his example is dubious.

  36. stonetools says:


    As I’ve said, torture can only justifiable at all as a tactic in extremis, not as strategy. And those who do it should be prosecuted.

  37. stonetools says:

    Please rescue my comment from the spam defense.

  38. stonetools says:

    I agree that Hoffman doesn’t verify his scenario, but the historian you cited has his own pro-Tamil Tigers axe to grind. Bowden offers up aTTBS of sorts in his article:

    On a spring morning in the offices of Amnesty International, in Washington, D.C., Alistair Hodgett and Alexandra Arriaga were briefing me on their organization’s noble efforts to combat torture wherever in the world it is found. They are bright, pleasant, smart, committed, attractive young people, filled with righteous purpose. Decent people everywhere agree on this: torture is evil and indefensible.
    But is it always?
    I showed the two an article I had torn from that day’s New York Times, which described the controversy over a tragic kidnapping case in Frankfurt, Germany. On September 27 of last year a Frankfurt law student kidnapped an eleven-year-old boy named Jakob von Metzler, whose smiling face appeared in a box alongside the story. The kidnapper had covered Jakob’s mouth and nose with duct tape, wrapped the boy in plastic, and hidden him in a wooded area near a lake. The police captured the suspect when he tried to pick up ransom money, but the suspect wouldn’t reveal where he had left the boy, who the police thought might still be alive. So the deputy police chief of Frankfurt, Wolfgang Daschner, told his subordinates to threaten the suspect with torture. According to the suspect, he was told that a “specialist” was being flown in who would “inflict pain on me of the sort I had never experienced.” The suspect promptly told the police where he’d hidden Jakob, who, sadly, was found dead. The newspaper said that Daschner was under fire from Amnesty International, among other groups, for threatening torture.
    “Under these circumstances,” I asked, “do you honestly think it was wrong to even threaten torture?”
    Hodgett and Arriaga squirmed in their chairs. “We recognize that there are difficult situations,” said Arriaga, who is the group’s director of government relations. “But we are opposed to torture under any and all circumstances, and threatening torture is inflicting mental pain. So we would be against it.”
    Bowden later noted that the German authorities took no action against the police officers.

    Both Alan Dershowitz and Richard Posner have argued that TTBSs could happen, and that authorities in those cases should be prepared to use that option.
    I’m not a fan of the TTBS. But I won’t say it could NEVER happen, and we should be prepared to deal with it when it does, and to figure out what to do with those who respond to such a situation. Saying it could never happen doesn’t seem to me to be a wise approach.

  39. jukeboxgrad says:

    Saying it could never happen

    I haven’t heard anyone say that, and I described how it should be handled if it ever happened.

    Bowden offers up aTTBS of sorts

    It’s a weak example, for multiple reasons. No life was saved. Maybe that killer gave up the info specifically because he knew the kid was already dead, so he didn’t care.

    I want to see an example where torture saved a life. Hoffman tells that story, but it is pointedly unverified.

    The difficulty of finding verified examples, in the entire history of the world, is enough to establish that this is something rare, if not non-existent (at least so far). Therefore it should not be our focus when we create policy and law. When we give this scenario undue weight we end up with a cure that is worse than the disease.

  40. @stonetools: Given the infinite nature of the universe, I suppose I am willing to concede that “never” is a pretty strong standard to have to uphold.

    However, nothing in the Senate report, or in the current debate about the CIA, that really has much in common with the TTBS, although a number of people have cited it as a pro-torture argument. As such, I honestly think it is largely irrelevant.

    Moreover, I have to confess that the Atlantic article cited above has more of a “true crime” feel to it than am comfortable with in terms of it usefulness as evidence in this argument. All it really gives us are some anecdotes.

    Moreover, the tactics used by the French in Algeria are hardly ones I want the US government to emulate. And, indeed, the way in which those techniques can morph into being used against one’s own citizens can be seen in Latin America in late 1970s/early 1980s when the authoritarian regimes of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and other used those techniques on “subversives”. Some of the training in those cases came from lessons learned in Algeria as taught to the Argentines by the French.

    Indeed, there is a serious cautionary tale there, to be sure, as the Argentine military was extremely brutal to its own citizens, including those it simply suspected of subversion.

  41. jukeboxgrad says:

    the tactics used by the French in Algeria

    It’s helpful to notice that they lost.

  42. pylon says:

    Interrogator: Tell me where the bomb is!
    Prisoner: Never.
    Interrogator: OK, here’s some torture. Tell me where it is and I will stop.
    Prisoner: Oww. OK, the bomb is at the Empire State Building.
    Interrogator: I knew this would work. Let’s go find that bomb.
    [bomb goes off at Statue of Liberty]
    Interrogator: You lied!
    Prisoner: Sorry about that.

  43. Joel says:

    One major theme of JRR Tolkien’s writing (who was of course a conservative, though not one who would fit in with the Republicans) is that we can’t know for sure what the consequences of our actions will be, so an action’s morality should not be evaluated by the ends we think it will accomplish. Frodo says Bilbo would have saved everyone a lot of trouble by killing Gollum when had the chance, and at the time he says that it appears that Frodo may be right. But Gandalf says it was the right thing for him to show pity. In the end, of course, sparing Gollum proves to have been necessary to destroy the Ring. “Even the wise cannot see all ends.”

    Yes, I’m citing a fictional example, but ticking time bomb scenarios are fictional too, so it fits. How can you be so certain that the person knows the answer, or that torturing will get it from him, or that he’ll tell the truth? You’re appealing to hypothetical hoped-for consequences about which you can’t have any real certainty.