History has shown that a lie repeated often enough starts to sound like the truth. At one point, 70 percent of the American people believed (erroneously) that Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks, the result of the Bush administration’s extended disinformation campaign.
And so it is with those who claim torture “works.” Bin Laden’s corpse wasn’t even cold before Bush administration officials began appearing on camera to assert that “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, had extracted the crucial intelligence information. They are desperate to vindicate their past policies, both before history, and because some could face arrest for war crimes if they travel to Europe.
They have another, related worry: Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a prosecutor last August to investigate interrogation abuses, which could lead up the chain of command.
Waterboarding was always torture until the Bush administration decided to rewrite history. It was a war crime in WWII when we sentenced Japanese officers to prison for waterboarding American POWs. In 1947, the U.S. sentenced a Japanese officer to 15 years hard labor for waterboarding an American civilian; in 1968, a U.S. soldier was court-martialed for waterboarding a North Vietnamese soldier.
Torture advocates claim that only the “worst of the worst” were subjected to coercive interrogation; coincidentally, Dick Cheney termed the 750 original detainees at Guantanamo “the worst of the worst.” Yet before Bush and Cheney left office, they released 530 of them. That leaves only two possible conclusions: either Bush/Cheney released 530 hard-core terrorists back into society, or, many innocent people were imprisoned and abused at Guantanamo by mistake.
Furthermore, contrary to their theology, torture doesn’t work.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), who almost certainly knew bin Laden’s whereabouts, was captured March 1, 2003 and waterboarded 183 times, according to the New York Times of April 19, 2009. But he gave away nothing of value, say people knowledgeable about his interrogation, including bin Laden’s whereabouts. If there had been actionable intelligence, the Bush administration would not have closed down its bin Laden unit in 2005, and it would not have taken eight more years to find him.
Matthew Alexander, a former senior military interrogator who conducted or supervised over 1,300 interrogations in Iraq, has said that waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques “always result in either limited information, false information or no information.” KSM, for example, never gave up bin Laden nor bin Laden’s courier, whose name he also must have known, says Alexander. FBI interrogator Ali Soufan and others (TIME, June 8, 2009) share that assessment and describe proven interrogation methods that don’t involve torture.
The case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, (born Ali Mohamed al Fakheri), demonstrates another negative aspect of torture. Al-Libi was captured by the CIA and then turned over to the Egyptians in late 2001, who then tortured a “confession” out of him alleging that al-Qaida was receiving training in chemical weapons from Saddam.
This was the "credible evidence" Bush cited in his late 2002 address asserting that Saddam was cooperating with al-Qaida on WMD…even though a February 2002 DIA report questioned the confession as likely obtained under torture.
In January 2004, al-Libi recanted his “confession,” and a month later, the CIA recalled all intelligence reports based on his statements. A bipartisan Senate Intelligence committee report later concluded that al-Libi fabricated the link “to avoid torture.” But Bush got what he wanted, a trumped-up war that ended up creating more terrorist recruits for bin Laden.
One of the other costs of torture is the expense of checking out the many false leads it produces. As Matthew Alexander points out, despite being tortured, al-Libi gave a false name for bin Laden’s courier — Maulawi Jan — which sent the CIA on a wild goose chase. The government eventually got the courier’s real name — Abu Ahmad — in 2007, four years after waterboarding was stopped (in spring 2003, says ex-CIA Director Michael Hayden).
Then there is the torture carried out at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Manadel al-Jamadi, an Iraqi deemed a high-value target by the CIA, was severely beaten, suffering several broken ribs before being subjected to a form of torture known as “Palestinian hanging.” He died 45 minutes later without having revealed whatever information his American interrogator was seeking. NPR (October 27, 2005) and other sources reported that a military autopsy ruled his death a homicide.
We know even less about interrogation practices at Bagram and the “black” CIA prisons around the world, whose locations were kept secret so that the CIA would not have to allow Red Cross visits, as required by the Geneva Conventions. Could it be some prisoners were not “presentable?”
We can’t let the torturers and their enablers rewrite history.
(A version of this piece first appeared in the Mankato (MN) Free Press, by the author.)