Let’s assume the following hypothetical facts are true. U.S. officials have KSM in custody. They know he planned 9/11 and therefore have a solid basis to believe he has other deadly plots in the works. They try various noncoercive techniques to learn the details of those plots. Nothing works.
They then waterboard him for two and one half minutes.
During this session KSM feels panicky and unable to breathe. Even though he can breathe, he has the sensation that he is drowning. So he gives up information — reliable information — that stops a plot involving people flying planes into buildings.
My simple question is this: based on these hypothetical facts, was the waterboarding session worth it?
But here’s the problem with hypotheticals like this: They’re totally and completely divorced from reality. The situation Patterico describes, wherein Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (“KSM”) was tortured actually happened; KSM did, in fact, confess to planning 9/11. Of course, he also confessed to planning such a ridiculous laundry list of attacks that it’s difficult to believe he had a hand in all of them (the guy claims he made plans to assassinate President Carter, President Clinton, and the Pope, among a wide variety of other crimes). Chances are, he did what most people do when they’re being tortured: He told his torturers whatever he thought they wanted to hear in order to make it stop. Which makes for really, really bad intelligence that potentially compromises American lives.
In March, Mariane Pearl, the widow of the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, received a phone call from Alberto Gonzales, the Attorney General. At the time, Gonzales’s role in the controversial dismissal of eight United States Attorneys had just been exposed, and the story was becoming a scandal in Washington. Gonzales informed Pearl that the Justice Department was about to announce some good news: a terrorist in U.S. custody—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda leader who was the primary architect of the September 11th attacks—had confessed to killing her husband. (Pearl was abducted and beheaded five and a half years ago in Pakistan, by unidentified Islamic militants.) The Administration planned to release a transcript in which Mohammed boasted, “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head.”
Pearl was taken aback. In 2003, she had received a call from Condoleezza Rice, who was then President Bush’s national-security adviser, informing her of the same news. But Rice’s revelation had been secret. Gonzales’s announcement seemed like a publicity stunt. Pearl asked him if he had proof that Mohammed’s confession was truthful; Gonzales claimed to have corroborating evidence but wouldn’t share it. “It’s not enough for officials to call me and say they believe it,” Pearl said. “You need evidence.” (Gonzales did not respond to requests for comment.)
The circumstances surrounding the confession of Mohammed, whom law-enforcement officials refer to as K.S.M., were perplexing. He had no lawyer. After his capture in Pakistan, in March of 2003, the Central Intelligence Agency had detained him in undisclosed locations for more than two years; last fall, he was transferred to military custody in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. There were no named witnesses to his initial confession, and no solid information about what form of interrogation might have prodded him to talk, although reports had been published, in the Times and elsewhere, suggesting that C.I.A. officers had tortured him. At a hearing held at Guantánamo, Mohammed said that his testimony was freely given, but he also indicated that he had been abused by the C.I.A. (The Pentagon had classified as “top secret” a statement he had written detailing the alleged mistreatment.) And although Mohammed said that there were photographs confirming his guilt, U.S. authorities had found none. Instead, they had a copy of the video that had been released on the Internet, which showed the killer’s arms but offered no other clues to his identity.
Further confusing matters, a Pakistani named Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh had already been convicted of the abduction and murder, in 2002. A British-educated terrorist who had a history of staging kidnappings, he had been sentenced to death in Pakistan for the crime. But the Pakistani government, not known for its leniency, had stayed his execution. Indeed, hearings on the matter had been delayed a remarkable number of times—at least thirty—possibly because of his reported ties to the Pakistani intelligence service, which may have helped free him after he was imprisoned for terrorist activities in India. Mohammed’s confession would delay the execution further, since, under Pakistani law, any new evidence is grounds for appeal.
A surprising number of people close to the case are dubious of Mohammed’s confession. A longtime friend of Pearl’s, the former Journal reporter Asra Nomani, said, “The release of the confession came right in the midst of the U.S. Attorney scandal. There was a drumbeat for Gonzales’s resignation. It seemed like a calculated strategy to change the subject. Why now? They’d had the confession for years.” Mariane and Daniel Pearl were staying in Nomani’s Karachi house at the time of his murder, and Nomani has followed the case meticulously; this fall, she plans to teach a course on the topic at Georgetown University. She said, “I don’t think this confession resolves the case. You can’t have justice from one person’s confession, especially under such unusual circumstances. To me, it’s not convincing.” She added, “I called all the investigators. They weren’t just skeptical—they didn’t believe it.”
Special Agent Randall Bennett, the head of security for the U.S. consulate in Karachi when Pearl was killed—and whose lead role investigating the murder was featured in the recent film “A Mighty Heart”—said that he has interviewed all the convicted accomplices who are now in custody in Pakistan, and that none of them named Mohammed as playing a role. “K.S.M.’s name never came up,” he said. Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. officer, said, “My old colleagues say with one-hundred-per-cent certainty that it was not K.S.M. who killed Pearl.” A government official involved in the case said, “The fear is that K.S.M. is covering up for others, and that these people will be released.” And Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father, said, “Something is fishy. There are a lot of unanswered questions. K.S.M. can say he killed Jesus—he has nothing to lose.”
Mariane Pearl, who is relying on the Bush Administration to bring justice in her husband’s case, spoke carefully about the investigation. “You need a procedure that will get the truth,” she said. “An intelligence agency is not supposed to be above the law.”
And then there’s this:
Yet Mohammed’s confessions may also have muddled some key investigations. Perhaps under duress, he claimed involvement in thirty-one criminal plots—an improbable number, even for a high-level terrorist. Critics say that Mohammed’s case illustrates the cost of the C.I.A.’s desire for swift intelligence. Colonel Dwight Sullivan, the top defense lawyer at the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, which is expected eventually to try Mohammed for war crimes, called his serial confessions “a textbook example of why we shouldn’t allow coercive methods.”
In the real world, interrogators have adopted a “learned dependence” model to break down prisoners — a model lifted directly from the KGB. There’s just one leetle problem:
Steve Kleinman, a reserve Air Force colonel and an experienced interrogator who has known Mitchell professionally for years, said that “learned helplessness was his whole paradigm.” Mitchell, he said, “draws a diagram showing what he says is the whole cycle. It starts with isolation. Then they eliminate the prisoners’ ability to forecast the future—when their next meal is, when they can go to the bathroom. It creates dread and dependency. It was the K.G.B. model. But the K.G.B. used it to get people who had turned against the state to confess falsely. The K.G.B. wasn’t after intelligence.”
And here are the kind of “not torturous” things we do to detainees:
According to sources familiar with interrogation techniques, the hanging position is designed, in part, to prevent detainees from being able to sleep. The former C.I.A. officer, who is knowledgeable about the interrogation program, explained that “sleep deprivation works. Your electrolyte balance changes. You lose all balance and ability to think rationally. Stuff comes out.” Sleep deprivation has been recognized as an effective form of coercion since the Middle Ages, when it was called tormentum insomniae. It was also recognized for decades in the United States as an illegal form of torture. An American Bar Association report, published in 1930, which was cited in a later U.S. Supreme Court decision, said, “It has been known since 1500 at least that deprivation of sleep is the most effective torture and certain to produce any confession desired.”
Under President Bush’s new executive order, C.I.A. detainees must receive the “basic necessities of life, including adequate food and water, shelter from the elements, necessary clothing, protection from extremes of heat and cold, and essential medical care.” Sleep, according to the order, is not among the basic necessities.
In addition to keeping a prisoner awake, the simple act of remaining upright can over time cause significant pain. McCoy, the historian, noted that “longtime standing” was a common K.G.B. interrogation technique. In his 2006 book, “A Question of Torture,” he writes that the Soviets found that making a victim stand for eighteen to twenty-four hours can produce “excruciating pain, as ankles double in size, skin becomes tense and intensely painful, blisters erupt oozing watery serum, heart rates soar, kidneys shut down, and delusions deepen.”
Mohammed is said to have described being chained naked to a metal ring in his cell wall for prolonged periods in a painful crouch. (Several other detainees who say that they were confined in the Dark Prison have described identical treatment.) He also claimed that he was kept alternately in suffocating heat and in a painfully cold room, where he was doused with ice water. The practice, which can cause hypothermia, violates the Geneva Conventions, and President Bush’s new executive order arguably bans it.
And no one really denies that torturing KSM got us a whole lot of bad information:
Without more transparency, the value of the C.I.A.’s interrogation and detention program is impossible to evaluate. Setting aside the moral, ethical, and legal issues, even supporters, such as John Brennan, acknowledge that much of the information that coercion produces is unreliable. As he put it, “All these methods produced useful information, but there was also a lot that was bogus.” When pressed, one former top agency official estimated that “ninety per cent of the information was unreliable.” Cables carrying Mohammed’s interrogation transcripts back to Washington reportedly were prefaced with the warning that “the detainee has been known to withhold information or deliberately mislead.” Mohammed, like virtually all the top Al Qaeda prisoners held by the C.I.A., has claimed that, while under coercion, he lied to please his captors.
Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that the torture means that it may be exceedingly difficult to actually try terrorists in a court of law:
Critics of the Administration fear that the unorthodox nature of the C.I.A.’s interrogation and detention program will make it impossible to prosecute the entire top echelon of Al Qaeda leaders in captivity. Already, according to the Wall Street Journal, credible allegations of torture have caused a Marine Corps prosecutor reluctantly to decline to bring charges against Mohamedou Ould Slahi, an alleged Al Qaeda leader held in Guantánamo. Bruce Riedel, the former C.I.A. analyst, asked, “What are you going to do with K.S.M. in the long run? It’s a very good question. I don’t think anyone has an answer. If you took him to any real American court, I think any judge would say there is no admissible evidence. It would be thrown out.”
So the pro-torture conservative mob is making it easier for terrorists to get off. KSM is, by all accounts, an exceptionally dangerous person and a terrorist who needs to be behind bars. But the torture tactics and the resulting false confessions mean that there’s a lack of reliable, admissible evidence; there’s also an international lack of trust in our government and our legal system which is going to plague us for years to come, particularly when it comes to the terrorism issue. The fact is, the “ticking time-bomb” scenario is a TV fiction. In the reality-based world, terror suspects are being held for exceptionally long periods of time, and have their wills, their bodies and their minds so thoroughly broken that the information they give is unreliable and often useless. If the terrorists are ever allowed to see an actual court of law, much of the information they give can’t be presented to make a case against them. Of course, the pro-torture conservatives oppose giving terrorists their day in court anyway, which is certainly interesting given how much they claim to love America and its fine institutions. Do they not trust our justice system to adequately prosecute terrorists? Do they not trust our intelligence officials to gather the necessary information to get a conviction? Do they not have faith in the very system of democracy and rule of law that they say they want to spread abroad? Federal judges who have experience trying and sentencing terrorists are frustrated with the way conservative “patriots” are stomping all over the Constitution of the country they claim to hold dear. What gives?
There is no ticking time bomb, we aren’t on 24, and despite your proud membership in the 101st Fighting Keyboardists and your hard-on for Manly Men, you are not Jack Bauer. So no, torture isn’t worth it, especially when it gives us bad information, compromises our international standing, and makes it harder to actually bring terrorists to justice. But who knows — maybe if we keep up the waterboarding, someone will finally confess to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby.