Getting Osama Bin Laden: The Case against Torture

May 13, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared on The Huffington Post on May 13, 2011.

After making Osama bin Laden U.S. Enemy Number One President George W. Bush botched the job. Yet officials from his administration are claiming credit for getting bin Laden. Torture maven John Yoo wrote that the recent raid “vindicates the Bush administration, whose intelligence architecture marked the path to bin Laden’s door.”

President Bush should have focused on destroying al‐​Qaeda and suppressing the Taliban in the aftermath of September 11. Instead, he quickly turned away. He was too busy preparing for his foolish Iraq adventure to provide the forces necessary to capture bin Laden when the latter could have been trapped at Tora Bora in Afghanistan. By precipitously withdrawing resources from that country, the Bush administration tossed away any hope of achieving peace and stability.

Unfortunately, President Bush’s lengthy nation‐​building exercises in both Iraq and Afghanistan created more terrorists, even spawning a new al‐​Qaeda franchise in Iraq. As Michael Hirsh pointed out in National Journal, the two wars also resolved the tension created by bin-Laden’s insistence on attacking the “far enemy” of America while others in the organization preferred to focus on the “near enemy” of Arab states allied to America. President Bush made it easy for al‐​Qaeda.

But with President Barack Obama responsible for the operation which killed bin Laden, Republican uber‐​hawks needed something else to criticize: President Obama refuses to allow the torture of captives.

Congress has passed legislation and approved treaties outlawing torture. The executive branch prosecuted Japanese military officers for torturing Americans. Washington routinely criticizes other governments for employing torture. Nevertheless, the GOP torture caucus argues that Bush‐​era prisoner abuse enabled officials to track down bin Laden.

Assume for the moment that this is true. It still offers no compelling argument to torture.

Bin Laden was a moral monster, well deserving of his fate. But for all of his plotting, he does not appear to have achieved very much in recent years. Wrote Charles Fried, a former U.S. Solicitor General, and Gregory Fried, a philosophy professor: “Osama bin Laden was not the ticking bomb requiring immediate defusing, so familiar now from television dramas.” There may be hard cases, but this was not one of them.

Moreover, the U.S. government’s use of torture has hurt America. The Bush administration sullied America’s image and reinforced bin Laden’s meme. George Bush likely created far more enemies of America than he killed around the world.

Americans who served in the field are emphatic. Argued Matthew Alexander, an Air Force reserve officer and interrogator: “torture handed al‐​Qaeda its No. 1 recruiting tool, a fact confirmed by the U.S. Department of Defense’s interrogators in Iraq who questioned foreign fighters about why they had come there to fight.” An anonymous interrogator currently working in Afghanistan told Forbes: “I cannot even count the amount of times that I personally have come face to face with detainees, who told me they were primarily motivated to do what they did, because of hearing that we committed torture… Torture committed by Americans in the past continues to kill Americans today.”

Moreover, torture has impeded the ongoing battle against terrorism. By tarnishing America’s reputation, torture has made it harder to win the cooperation of friendly states in fighting terrorism. The interrogator in Afghanistan complained that public attempts to justify torture have infected new intelligence officers who in effect must be deprogrammed to make them more effective.

Torture also makes it more difficult to interrogate other prisoners. Explained Matthew Alexander: “future detainees will be unwilling to cooperate from the onset of an interrogation because they view all Americans as torturers. I heard this repeatedly in Iraq, where some detainees accused us of being the same as the guards at Abu Ghraib.”

If Americans are seen as torturers, then captured Americans are more likely to be tortured. Obviously some people need no excuse to brutalize U.S. prisoners, but Afghanistan may not be America’s last conflict. Sen. John McCain (R‐​Ariz.) warned of a future war with a more traditional opponent.

Moreover, an America that tortures has no standing to complain if others behave the same way. The U.S. prosecuted Japanese military officers for war crimes including waterboarding: how can American interrogators use the same technique today? “Do as we say, not as we do” is not the battle cry of the world’s moral leader. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby said simply: “It is wrong when bad guys do it to good guys. It is just as wrong when good guys do it to al‐​Qaeda.”

Even more fundamental is the moral damage done to America. Torture is wrong. President Bush claimed that terrorists hated the U.S. because it was free, yet he needlessly sacrificed those very freedoms in the fight against terrorism. The American republic rests upon a belief in the centrality of human liberty and dignity. Washington is to protect the American people from foreign threats, but it must do so in a way consistent with basic humanity. We must secure our principles as we secure our nation.

While those targeting Americans are not entitled to the protection of U.S. constitutional liberties, they still must be treated in a way that reflects basic human values. Torture offends what Americans represent; torture transforms how Americans behave; torture distorts Americans’ national soul. Retired CIA interrogator Glenn L. Carle reported that even interrogators were “deeply concerned and most felt it was un‐​American and did not work.”

Indeed, a refusal to torture, like a refusal to use terrorism, is a basic dividing line between civilized and uncivilized peoples. Even when the temptation to torture is strong we must be “better than those who would destroy us,” said Sen. McCain.

The Bush administration’s torture policy resulted in extraordinary harm. It also turned out to be a dubious intelligence tool. Obviously, torture was not necessary for many recent big intelligence coups. Matthew Alexander pointed to the capture of Saddam Hussein and killing of Abu Musab al‐​Zarqawi, head of al‐​Qaeda Iraq, as examples.

In fact, many professional interrogators argue that torture generally is ineffective. Carle complained that torture “didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information.” The interrogator stationed in Afghanistan, who also has worked in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, stated: “No torture, no waterboarding, no coercion — nothing inhumane — is considered a useful tool in our work.”

Warned Stuart Herrington, a retired Army colonel who interrogated leading Iraqis, “The abuse often only strengthens their resolve and makes it that much harder for an interrogator to find a way to elicit useful information.” Similarly, Alexander, now with the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, argued that prisoners tend to “quit talking” after being tortured.

Even if they continue talking, what they say cannot be trusted, since torture creates an incentive to appear cooperative and say whatever will stop the pain. Wrote Alexander: “First, when tortured, detainees will give only the minimum amount of information necessary to stop the pain. No interrogator should ever be hoping to extract the least amount of information. Second, under coercion, detainees give misleading information that wastes time and resources — a false nickname, for example.”

The most sophisticated case for torture, offered by some of President Bush’s defenders, is that it encourages cooperation, which then will yield useful information after the torture has ceased. However, many interrogators say that establishing a human connection is the most effective technique. Stuart Herrington said the experience of those who dealt with Khalid and other terrorists was “that they are narcissists and that they do want to talk — and talk and talk.” Channeling the resulting conversations in a useful direction requires building relationships, which torture makes more difficult.

In the case of bin Laden, Jose Rodriguez who headed CIA counterterrorism efforts lauded the use of torture, claiming that “Information provided by [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] and Abu Faraj al‐​Libbi, about bin Laden’s courier was the lead information that eventually led to the location of” bin Laden. Other knowledgeable figures vehemently disagree. The interrogator working in Afghanistan said that such claims are “propaganda [that] degrades our intelligence operations more than any other factor I can think of.”

Even granting the pro‐​torture lobby’s claim, the information from tortured detainees constituted only a small part of bin Laden’s intelligence picture. John Brennan, a former CIA officer now advising the Obama administration on counter‐​terrorism, explained that “The information that was collected over the course of nine years or so came from many different sources: human sources, technical sources, as well as sources that detainees provided. It was something as a result of the painstaking work that the analysts did.”

Moreover, even if torture yielded Abu Ahmed’s nickname, other techniques also could have done the same — along with much more information. Observed Alexander: “the information about the existence of a courier working for bin Laden was provided by several detainees, not just waterboarded al‐​Qaeda operatives.” The courier’s real name, Abu Ahmed al‐​Kuwaiti, came from CIA sources in Pakistan and telephone intercepts.

In fact, though Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, provided Abu Ahmed’s nom de’ guerre, Khalid apparently was not the first detainee to do so. That information also was not garnered while he was being tortured–when, in fact, Khalid lied about many details about the courier. Sen. McCain, who was tortured as a POW in Vietnam, noted that “None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al‐​Qaeda.”

Khalid admitted knowing Abu Ahmed’s nickname only months after the torture had ceased. Said Alexander, this “tells me from my experience that I saw in Iraq, that the waterboarding actually slowed down the acquisition of intelligence.” Army interrogator Marcus Lewis made a similar argument: the fact that torture only yielded a nickname “demonstrates how extraordinarily counterproductive our overt policy of torture was.”

Al‐​Libbi, who apparently was subjected to “enhanced” interrogation but not waterboarding, also initially lied to investigators about the courier. In this case Rodriguez claimed the useful revelation came just a week after the “enhanced” interrogation — but al‐​Libbi suffered far less than Khalid. Harshness appears to have been inversely related to results. And while Rodriguez lauded al-Libbi’s information, it led the former to conclude that bin Laden was merely a figurehead, which runs contrary to the evidence collected from bin Laden’s compound.

What was the case for torture again?

U.S. intelligence officials have proved that they can succeed without torture. And they must succeed without torture. Torture is practically unproductive. Torture is morally wrong. Torture creates a horrid precedent. The U.S. government should not torture.

Justice was served by bin Laden’s death. But the Bush administration policy of torture deserves no credit. Never again should Washington, like Esau, sacrifice America’s fundamental values for a mess of pottage.

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