So Abu Zubaydah, a half-crazy mid-level Al Qaida “fixer”, is captured in Pakistan. Questioning begins. Zubaydah coughs up a lot of info, including information that helps lead to the identification of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad as the mastermind of the 9/11 operation.
But in Washington, high-level officials aren’t satisfied. They want more. Over the protests of experienced interrogators, they demand the application “alternative” interrogation techniques. But as the Washington Post recently reported:
“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.”
The New York Times reports the story as well:
“Abu Zubaydah had provided much valuable information under less severe treatment, and the harsher handling produced no breakthroughs, according to one former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case. Instead, watching his torment caused great distress to his captors, the official said.
Even for those who believed that brutal treatment could produce results, the official said, “seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.”
C.I.A. officers adopted these techniques only after the Justice Department had given its official approval on Aug. 1, 2002, in one of four formerly secret legal memos on interrogation that were released Thursday.
A footnote to another of the memos described a rift between line officers questioning Abu Zubaydah at a secret C.I.A. prison in Thailand and their bosses at headquarters, and asserted that the brutal treatment may have been “unnecessary.”
Quoting a 2004 report on the interrogation program by the C.I.A. inspector general, the footnote says that “although the on-scene interrogation team judged Zubaydah to be compliant, elements within C.I.A. headquarters still believed he was withholding information.”
….”You get a ton of information, but headquarters says, ‘There must be more,’ ” recalled one intelligence officer who was involved in the case. As described in the footnote to the memo, the use of repeated waterboarding against Abu Zubaydah was ordered “at the direction of C.I.A. headquarters,” and officials were dispatched from headquarters “to watch the last waterboard session.”
Now The New York Times reports that in the course of that “alternative” interrogation, Zubaida was waterboarded not once, not twice, not a half dozen or a dozen times, but 83 times.
Eighty three times.
Muhammed, on the other hand, was reportedly waterboarded 183 times.
Now, some will undoubtedly argue that the two men deserved it, and that Muhammed in particular was a deserving target. I’m glad to hear that talk, because at least it gets us closer to an honest conversation.
The argument that “they deserved it” implicitly accepts that what happened was about punishment, not about interrogation. It wasn’t about reluctantly doing what was necessary to get information to save lives, it was about revenge and putting a serious hurting on people.
Over and over again.
Of course, in addition to his role in 9/11, Muhammed is believed to have been the man who beheaded Daniel Pearl. So we in turn waterboarded him 183 times. That doesn’t mean we’ve gotten even with him, that we’ve exactly matched his cruelty with our cruelty.
But we’re a little more even than we ought to be, given how we’re supposed to be all civilized and all, the nation of laws, the shining city on the hill, the beacon for all others.