Does Waterboarding et al Produce Reliable Information?
Yesterday I ended by noting that, not only does making a government policy for torture get us on a slippery slope, but some argue that not only is the “ticking time bomb” scenario is fantastical, but also enhanced interrogation, waterboarding specifically, doesn’t work. It yields unreliable information and sends U.S agents on wild goose chases. Vanity Fair’s David Rose writes,
The unreliability of intelligence acquired by torture was taken as a given in the early years of the C.I.A., whose 1963 kubark interrogation manual stated: “Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, concocted as a means of escaping from distress. A time-consuming delay results, while investigation is conducted and the admissions are proven untrue. During this respite the interrogatee can pull himself together. He may even use the time to think up new, more complex ‘admissions’ that take still longer to disprove.”
One of the most striking testimonies to that effect is from FBI agent Ali Soufan. Talking about the famous memos, he states:
One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.
It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.
We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.
There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.
Soufan is a reliable witness, and no weak kneed pushover. His testimony should be considered. It should be acknowledged, though, that most of the testimonies regarding the success of waterboarding is in reference to KSM, not Zubaydah, who Soufan was involved with. Both were different men in different circumstances, and perhaps they required different approaches.
Time Magazine, referencing Soufan’s questioning of another AQ operative, argues that waterboarding doesn’t work. The magazine notes it took a plate of “sugar free cookies” to turn him.
I’d be laughing at that if I hadn’t made that note earlier about being serious…so I’ll just take this at face value.
Ok, so a plate of sugar free cookies and “doing nice things” (not kidding…direct quote from the article) helped with Abu Jandal…but does that mean that coercive interrogation techniques should be off limits in every circumstance? To paraphrase Patterico, I think most people thinking with common sense would acknowledge that it would take more than a few snicker doodles to get a hardened terrorist to talk.
Testimony is Split
In addition to that, despite the testimonies and arguments layed out above, I’m not so sure the TTB thought experiment is just a thought experiment. There are plenty of reasons to think it happens in real life and that, in the controversial cases with the CIA, waterboarding and other less harsh enhanced techniques (sleep deprivation, playing loud music, etc) helped save American lives. Krauthammer, in a follow up column to his original piece, counters the popular meme that the TTB scenario doesn’t apply to reality:
On Oct. 9, 1994, Israeli Cpl. Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car. He was interrogated with methods so brutal that they violated Israel’s existing 1987 interrogation guidelines, which themselves were revoked in 1999 by the Israeli Supreme Court as unconscionably harsh. The Israeli prime minister who ordered, as we now say, this enhanced interrogation explained without apology: “If we’d been so careful to follow the (’87) Landau Commission (guidelines), we would never have found out where Waxman was being held.”
Who was that prime minister? Yitzhak Rabin, Nobel Peace laureate. (The fact that Waxman died in the rescue raid compounds the tragedy but changes nothing of Rabin’s moral calculus.)
That moral calculus is important. Even John McCain says that in ticking time bomb scenarios you “do what you have to do.” The no-torture principle is not inviolable. One therefore has to think about what kind of transgressive interrogation might be permissible in the less pristine circumstance of the high-value terrorist who knows about less imminent attacks.
Mark Thiessen at the Washington Post (HT: Patterico) also notes that the thought experiment doesn’t stop at being mere thought. Waterboarding of KSM yielded actionable intelligence that foiled another terrorist plot: the “Second Wave,” the bombing of the Library Tower in LA:
Consider the Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005. It notes that “the CIA believes ‘the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.’ . . . In particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques.” The memo continues: “Before the CIA used enhanced techniques . . . KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, ‘Soon you will find out.’ ” Once the techniques were applied, “interrogations have led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques “led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the ‘Second Wave,’ ‘to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into’ a building in Los Angeles.” KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast.
Thiessen explains that the foiling of that plot was just the start. He claims we gained lots of useful information from waterboarding KSM.
Go here to see the relevant part of the memo. Some have claimed this is bogus because the timing is odd. Patterico, in the link, gives a plausible timeline that resolves the discrepancies.
There are other voices as well that unequivocably say that waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques yield reliable information.
President Obama’s national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.
“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.
Admiral Blair sent his memo on the same day the administration publicly released secret Bush administration legal memos authorizing the use of interrogation methods that the Obama White House has deemed to be illegal torture. Among other things, the Bush administration memos revealed that two captured Qaeda operatives were subjected to a form of near-drowning known as waterboarding a total of 266 times.
The thing is that Blair’s admission was deleted from the version originally released to the media:
Admiral Blair’s assessment that the interrogation methods did produce important information was deleted from a condensed version of his memo released to the media last Thursday. Also deleted was a line in which he empathized with his predecessors who originally approved some of the harsh tactics after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past,” he wrote, “but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given.”
He did say that the information gained was not essential to our national security, and that there’s no way of knowing if the intel could have been had by other means, but the above admission is striking.
John Kiriakou, now a retired CIA agent, says waterboarding worked (HT: Hotair, again. They’ve done some stellar digging on this issue). His testimony is important to read for both sides of the debate. He says right now, waterboarding is unnecessary, but back then it was. He also says that waterboarding compromised our principles, but it saved American lives:
“What happens if we don’t waterboard a person, and we don’t get that nugget of information, and there’s an attack,” Kiriakou said. “I would have trouble forgiving myself.”
From a recent briefing on Capitol Hill:
GOP members on the Intelligence Committee on Thursday told The Hill in on-the-record interviews that they were informed that the controversial methods have led to information that prevented terrorist attacks.
When told of the GOP claims, Democrats strongly criticized the members who revealed information that was provided at the closed House Intelligence Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing. Democrats on the panel said they could not respond substantively, pointing out that the hearing was closed.
In the bowels of the Capitol Visitor Center, members of the panel gathered behind locked doors on Thursday morning to begin a series of hearings on the interrogation of terrorism suspects…
But Republicans on the panel said that not only did the use of interrogation techniques come up Thursday, but that the data shared about those techniques proved they had led to valuable information that in some instances prevented terrorist attacks…
“Democrats weren’t sure what they were going to get,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), ranking Republican on the Intelligence panel, referring to information on the merits of enhanced interrogation techniques. “Now that they know what they’ve got, they don’t want to talk about it…”
“The hearing did address the enhanced interrogation techniques that have been much in the news lately,” [GOP Rep. Jon] Kline said, noting that he was intentionally choosing his words carefully in observance of the committee rules and the nature of the information presented.
“Based on what I heard and the documents I have seen, I came away with a very clear impression that we did gather information that did disrupt terrorist plots,” Kline said.
Allahpundit at Hotair comments:
Watch the goalposts move. First the left insisted that America doesn’t torture as a matter of simple morality, whether or not that means another round of crashing airplanes forcing office-dwellers to swan-dive off of skyscrapers. That one didn’t fly, so they shifted to the cagier argument that enhanced interrogation never, ever, ever, ever, evah works — ever — except that Cheney and Obama’s own DNI claim that it does, and now a majority of the public believes them. In fact, according to Gallup, Pelosi’s slo-mo meltdown over what she knew about waterboarding has left her credibility so thoroughly shot that she’s almost exactly as popular as Darth Cheney himself.
Note that no Democrat interviewed for the Hill’s piece disagrees with Kline’s conclusion, just that they’re pissed that he chose to say anything. Like Tom Maguire says, given that The One already published the details of our interrogation techniques by releasing the torture memos, what damage is done to national security by the GOP insisting that EIT works? There’s plenty of political damage done to the left, but surely angry Democrats’ only concern with leaks is how it complicates protecting America, no? Exit question: How exactly did the GOP congressmen who talked to the Hill reveal any more or less than Carl Levin did last week when he denied that those two memos Cheney wants declassified confirm that EIT is effective? Neither he nor the Republicans revealed any information beyond asserting whether it works or whether it doesn’t. Double standard, anyone?
In the debate on torture and waterboarding specifically, all the testimonies need to be weighed. As of now, I think the balance of evidence points to the techniques being useful, but not in all cases. It is unwise to say that because waterboarding didn’t work in a few cases, that it therefore never works, and we should just toss it.
All this is just prudential reasoning, though. I still haven’t analyzed whether waterboarding is torture, and if so, whether that means it is always impermissable. That will be for the next post in the series. You can access the next posts by clicking on the proper trackback links in the comments section.