Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Did torture work?" is the wrong question - Ali Soufan shows why

Today's NYT op-ed by Ali Soufan, one of the FBI agents who interrogated Abu Zubaydah before the CIA entered the scene and began torturing him, shows that it's pointless to parse rival claims about whether Zubaydah gave up information ultimately leading to the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed before or after the CIA began first subjecting him to cold, nakedness, incessant loud music and sleep deprivation, and later out-and-out torturing him. It's pointless, first, because the claim by Michael Hayden and Michael Mukasey that Zubaydah "was coerced into disclosing information that led to the capture of Ramzi bin al Shibh...who in turn disclosed information which -- when combined with what was learned from Abu Zubaydah -- helped lead to the capture of KSM and other senior terrorists" is simply false:
The information that led to Mr. Shibh’s capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods.
Even more important, arguments about whether specific bits of information were elicited by torture is ultimately beside the point. Leaving aside the undermining of U.S. civil liberties and America's standing in the world, torture undermines the interrogation process itself:

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...

One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An F.B.I. colleague of mine who knew more about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed than anyone in the government was not allowed to speak to him.
Philip Zelikow, who interviewed Soufan for the 9/11 Commission, says that he "seemed to us to be one of the more impressive intelligence agents -- from any agency -- that we encountered in our work."

Having read many passionate claims by people I admire that torture always yields false information, I have feared that such assertions are too simple and too comforting. Soufan, who credibly claims to have obtained valuable results without coercion, provides an honorable practitioner's clarity. The point -- again leaving aside the damage torture does to the society that authorizes it -- is not that torture may never yield true information, but that it corrupts and short-circuits the painstaking, intense long-term engagement required to obtain a body of credible information. Torture yields an indistinguishable mishmash of truth and fiction conforming to what the torturers want to hear -- as when Zubaydah affirmed operational ties between al Qaeda and Iraq.

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