Whether or not torture got bin Laden does not justify torture, but torture didn’t get bin Laden.

Thursday, May 12th, 2011 @ 10:39 am | Torture, War Crimes

John McCain, who takes the torture issue a bit more seriously than the Republican party due to the fact that he experienced torture firsthand in Vietnam and has authority on this issue, felt the need to get to the bottom of what led to the intel that eventually led to bin Laden.

Leon Panetta gave torture supporters some ammo last week with a vague statement that info came from detainees, and that some of those detainees were tortured. This week Panetta seems to have looked into the specifics more closely and is thus able to shed a little more light on exactly what intel was gleaned from who and how:

I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.

In fact, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator — none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden — was obtained through standard, noncoercive means.

McCain doesn’t rule out that torture can potentially offer leads, but reminds us that torture will give you fewer leads of poorer quality than standard interrogation practices. Consistent with that paradigm, the most useful info that came from torture was when KSM and al-Libi lied badly, arousing investigator suspicions. It should be self-evident that interrogation that produces lies isn’t effective, and the question of what more could have been found will always haunt us. Instead, we got such paltry info that the CIA had declared the trail cold.

In conclusion, the bin Laden leads did not originate with torture and were not enhanced by torture, thus removing even the appearance of a moral quandary.

Torture would still be wrong even if we had gotten a useful nugget out of it, but the lack of evidence that torture led to bin Laden important to note because Republicans are perfectly content to use the pragmatic argument. Removing that plank reveals just how depraved and unscrupulous they’ve been the past week, as Fox News and nearly the entire Bush administration has launched a PR salvo in order to rehabilitate their reputations and retroactively justify torture. Much like Andrew Sullivan has noted, they are war criminals seeing an out. More literally, they are torturers who are desperate to find excuses for torture. They got it temporarily legalized, they got the NYT and others to call torture other names when it was done by the US, they got the next president to back off on prosecutions, but they still seem to understand that they lost the argument. They still felt that need for justification.

They thought they had it, and they squeezed tightly, but…it has run through their fingers, and there they are, empty-handed except for the bulk of their crimes. We are left with the threat that the next Republican president will resume torture, and of future blowback from torture-hardened enemies and sympathetic populaces. Letting criminals off inevitably rewards crime and guarantees its continuance.


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