It tells you something that the war criminals of the last administration have rushed to the media in the wake of the demise of Osama bin Laden to claim credit. Yes, as the world heaves a sigh of relief and joy, and president Obama reaps the political benefits of success – just as he would have reaped the whirlwind of failure (can you imagine how the right would be flaying him as Carter today if the helicopters had crashed?) – these men rush to change the subject to justify their own unpunished war crimes.
It tells you a couple of things: first, there is no clear evidence that torturing prisoners played any role in this successful operation; second, that this fact threatens the only narrative politically standing between these war criminals and prosecution under the Geneva Conventions. No wonder they are worried. And no wonder they have persuaded one of their primary outlets, the New York Times, to make this trivial issue in this astonishing Obama success a front-page story.
Take the torture-defenders' strongest point – at one moment in the long process of intelligence work, one prisoner gave some critical information thus:
[A] Qaeda operative named Hassan Ghul, captured in Iraq, … told interrogators that Mr. Kuwaiti was a trusted courier who was close to Bin Laden, as well as to Mr. Mohammed and to Abu Faraj al-Libi, who had become the operational chief of Al Qaeda after Mr. Mohammed’s capture. Mr. Kuwaiti, Mr. Ghul added, had not been seen in some time — which analysts thought was a possible indication that the courier was hiding out with Bin Laden. The details of Mr. Ghul’s treatment are unclear, though the C.I.A. says he was not waterboarded. The C.I.A. asked the Justice Department to authorize other harsh torture methods for use on him, but it is unclear which were used. One official recalled that Mr. Ghul was “quite cooperative,” saying that rough treatment torture, if any, would have been brief.
[My translation from the NYT's newspeak.]
We don't know what was done to this "quite cooperative" source of information, but the very fact that he was "quite cooperative" suggests that torturing him, if that is what was done, was unnecessary. This was 2004. We only found and killed bin Laden Monday. This was no ticking time-bomb scenario in any way – the slim exception to the rule used to create a torture bureaucracy. There was no need to torture. None whatsoever.
Then on to Abu Faraj al-Libi and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, both tortured by the Bush administration. What we know is that the result of torture was a repeated denial by both of them that the key courier in question was relevant, let alone any details about him:
According to an American official, familiar with his interrogation, Mr. Mohammed was first asked about Mr. Kuwaiti in the fall of 2003, months after the waterboarding. He acknowledged having known him but said the courier was “retired” and of little significance.
After Mr. Libi was captured in May 2005 and turned over to the C.I.A., he too was asked. He denied knowing Mr. Kuwaiti and gave a different name for Bin Laden’s courier, whom he called Maulawi Jan. C.I.A. analysts would never find such a person and eventually concluded that the name was Mr. Libi’s invention, the official recalled.
This is when it gets particularly truthy. The American war criminals then argue that although neither torture victim gave up the correct information, and one gave an entirely false lead, it was their refusal to tell the truth that proves torture worked! Seriously. It was the failure of torture to get accurate information that proves the validity of the torture! And here you see the psychology of the torturer in graphic light. They know what they did was inexcusable, un-American, evil. And so it must be justified in their minds.
Truths gained from torture legitimize it; lies gained from torture legitimize it. The torturer can pick and choose. This is not a reasoned argument; it is a form of self-exculpation after committing evil that will haunt these torturers to the end of their days, as it should.
And then the argument shifts again. You see: torture wasn't even designed to get information during the torture sessions. It was designed to break down a prisoner's will and dignity so completely and permanently that these shells of human beings became, in the chilling words of one confessed war criminal, "compliant." Money quote:
“The main thing that people misunderstand about the program is it was intended to encourage compliance,” says John McLaughlin, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency during the period in which waterboarding was used. “It wasn’t set out to torture people. It was never conceived of as a torture program.”
One former senior intelligence official says that “once KSM decided resistance was unwise, he then started spilling his guts to the agency and started providing lots of info, like the noms de guerres of couriers and explaining how al-Qaeda worked.” Rodriguez says, ”It’s a mistake to say this was about inflicting pain. These measures were about instilling a sense of hopelessness and that led them to compliance.”
Instilling a "sense of hopelessness" meant slamming human beings against plywood walls, near-drowning them scores of times, freezing them to near-death, hanging them in excruciating stress positions, depriving them of sleep for insane amounts of time, or putting them in coffins or threatening to kill their children. It meant torturing them. If the goal was to destroy these human beings in contravention of the laws of war and basic American values and thereby later get accurate information, then it clearly failed. KSM lied months after being waterboarded 183 times. And we are now expected to interpret that as a success for the torture program?
Yes, we are. It's about as desperate an argument as you can imagine. But desperation is clearly necessary. Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA chief quoted above, admits he destroyed the video evidence of the war crimes he authorized and now tries to spin away his disgraceful conduct. Ditto John Yoo. These allegedly independent commentators have a vested personal interest in making this absurd case, even as their torture techniques have been exposed in this instance as having provided false information, and as having been unnecessary, even according to the official accounts.
The capture of bin Laden was done according to American principles under a president who has outlawed torture. It involved countless individuals carefully piecing together shards of clues and evidence over a number of years – people who are not and never were war criminals, the decent ones, the law-abiding ones, the discreet heroes who will not take to newspaper op-ed pages to justify the unjustifiable or to claim credit for themselves for a victory they had almost nothing to do with. It is these people we should be honoring this week, along with the SEALs who pulled this off and the president who made the final call – not the men who brought such shame to this country and such damage to its intelligence.