Law Professors: Only Jack Bauer Believes In The ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ Scenario For Torture

One of the right wing’s favorite talking points to defend torture is that it could be useful in a so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario. In 2005, for example, a “senior administration official” said President Bush’s signing statement waiving a torture ban was justified because a ‘’ticking time bomb” could necessitate the need for torture. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently endorsed “smacking someone in the face” if he were hiding “the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles.”

But in a House Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) asked three jurists who have extensively studied interrogations if they have ever heard of such a scenario. As Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) put it, they responded with “radio silence”:

Marjorie Cohn, President, National Lawyer’s Guild: I know of one. It’s on the show 24. And that’s the only one I know of.

Philippe Sands, University College, London: I know none other, and I’ve never seen the show 24, so I don’t even know of that one.

David Luban, Georgetown University: I have been trying to chase down true ticking time bomb cases for a couple of years. There have been a couple that have been alleged to be ticking time bomb cases. They turned out not to be true.

Watch it:

Luban said that even a “poster child” ticking bomb scenario was bogus. He described a situation where an al Qaeda member was tortured in the Phillippines, eventually confessing about a plot on U.S. airliners and the pope. But Luban said the detainee “broke” under the threat of being turned over to another country — not after torture. “When you have torture as your A option, you don’t look at your B option,” he noted.


Even torture proponents can’t think of a scenario. One of the lawyers in the hearing, David Rivkin, a former Reagan Justice Department official, defended the administration throughout the hearing. But even he couldn’t think of a scenario, saying, “I personally do not have complete proof” of a particular instance.