Posted by Brad @ 5:46 pm on March 29th 2009

This Just In (Yet Again): Torture Does Not Work

The practical case against torture is so clear I still have no idea why so many people who claim to be so committed to the pragmatic case for the War on Terror cling to it. The ticking time bomb scenario is the sort of hoax the government uses across the board as a way of claiming power it doesn’t really need, does not rightly belong to it, and that it will use to (at best) useless ends. We see the ticking time bomb scenario used all the time in government power grabs, of course—the ticking time bomb of poverty, of youth violence, of impending banking doom, yadda yadda yadda. But for some reason when it’s a literal ticking time bomb scenario, the conservative response has been “where do I sign that blank check?”

But I digress. The point of torture is not, and never has been, that of information gathering. For one very simple reason: torture is very poorly suited for that end, as the consensus of nearly everybody who works in military intelligence recognizes. And yet, a small cabal of true believers still like to think that we live in a Jack Bauer world where all you need to do is kick ass and good wins. What a crock.

One of the very first cases of the application of “enhanced interrogation” was that of Abu Zubaida, purportedly the first high value captive that the government freely admits to torturing. Dick Cheney and George Bush and others have mentioned his case by name as evidence that torture works. He apparently talked up a storm while he was drowned and beaten, and this was prima facie evidence that the Bush methods got results.

Only it turns out, after all the leads have been followed up on, that not a single thing he said led to any actionable intelligence. The WaPo’s great story also has a great headline: “Detainee’s Harsh Treatment Foiled No Plots”.

When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations,” and other top officials called him a “trusted associate” of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.

Abu Zubaida was not even an official member of al-Qaeda, according to a portrait of the man that emerges from court documents and interviews with current and former intelligence, law enforcement and military sources. Rather, he was a “fixer” for radical Muslim ideologues, and he ended up working directly with al-Qaeda only after Sept. 11 — and that was because the United States stood ready to invade Afghanistan.

What more is there to say?

Perhaps just this: the Spanish court that brought Augusto Pinochet to justice has opened the books on their case against the torture enablers in our previous administration. By pretty much any objective measure, Cheney et al are transparently war criminals. Whether or not they’ll ever be brought to justice, who knows, but if their exact administrative practices had been practiced in some tinpot third world country we had our targets set on, there’s little doubt in my mind the United States would have had them hanged.


  1. I suspect that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and maybe others will be charged and thus become unable to leave the country without risking arrest. I think Rumsfeld is already under effective “country-arrest” due to charges in France, maybe?

    It’s shameful that we didn’t have better leadership but its even worse that we don’t have the integrity to hold them accountable. Our country deserves better.

    The Ticking Time Bomb scenario isn’t even plausible as a reason for torture. I don’t know why Jack Bauer’s victims don’t just feed him something else to send him off in the wrong direction. When a time bomb is ticking down, you only have to delay the authorities a few minutes.

    Comment by Jerrod — 3/29/2009 @ 8:13 pm

  2. That would make for a pretty funny episode.

    Kiefer Sutherland, wandering around Los Angeles, knocking on doors to empty apartments, emptying garbage bins, scratching his head.

    Comment by Brad — 3/29/2009 @ 8:20 pm

  3. The terrorists in the 24-world aren’t very bright. I’m pretty sure the first thing I would do if I were a bad guy, is figure out which city Jack was in and then go somewhere else. I mean, they spent six straight years attacking L.A., and then when Jack goes to D.C. they strike there?

    Comment by Redland Jack — 3/29/2009 @ 9:27 pm


    Greenwald’s got a good post on the issue of holding leaders accountable for complicity in torture and how the UK is dealing with it (and the USA is not).

    Comment by Jerrod — 3/30/2009 @ 1:32 am

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