Vice President Dick Cheney has claimed for months that two secret CIA memos would confirm his claim that “enhanced interrogation techniques” — a euphemism for torture — was essential in getting captured al Qaida operatives to sing to U.S. intelligence officers. He demanded that those memos be made public.
This week, both memos were released. They do not prove Cheney’s claim; they do not even address Cheney’s claim. Both memos are absolutely, thunderously silent on any role that “enhanced interrogation” may have played in extracting information.
The reports do describe the nature of the information acquired from detainees and its usefulness both in halting potential plots and understanding the nature and organization of al Qaida. However, if you read the memos through, nowhere do they state, imply, hint or suggest that information was acquired or could only have acquired through torture or “EITs.”
To the contrary, in the more than a dozen instances in which the documents explain how specific information was obtained, it is through standard interrogation techniques. Most often, it is because detainees were fooled into thinking that the information they were offering had already been obtained.
Take, for example, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the captured mastermind of 9/11. The memos explain at least some of what was learned from interrogating Muhammad, who is referred to by the acronym “KSM.” He was waterboarded 183 times, although the memos make no mention of that or what role it might have played.
It does say this, however:
“Uncharacteristic for most detainees, KSM almost immediately after his capture in March 2003 elaborated on his plan to crash commercial airlines into Heathrow airport; he may have assumed that Ramzi bin al Shibh, who was captured in December 2002, had already divulged this plan.”
When KSM coughed up information about al Qaida’s anthrax program, “he apparently calculated — incorrectly — that we had this information already.”
When he explained the role of another operative, the CIA memo notes that KSM knew the operative had been captured months earlier and “possibly believ(ed) the detainee was talking.” The memos refer to that process of using nuggets of information to extract additional nuggets as “the building block process.”
The documents are in places heavily redacted. It is conceivable that the redacted information would prove or at least support the case that Cheney has tried to make. However, Cheney has claimed that the memos AS RELEASED prove his case, and they do not. As stated above, they do not even address his case.
Of course, the memos do not disprove Cheney’s claim either. But they do suggest that torture in the real world is much less effective than in the world of Jack Bauer. It apparently does not turn its subjects into babbling brooks of information, eager to tell all just to make the pain stop.
“As in information from other collection streams, detainee reporting is often too incomplete or general to lead directly to arrests; instead, detainees provide pieces to the puzzle….” one memo explains.
And at least twice in the memos, the authors make it clear that “We assess that every detainee likely has information that he will not reveal…”
A couple of final points:
Some have argued that it doesn’t matter whether torture was effective, that terrorists deserve punishment anyway. But it’s pretty clear based on the inspector general’s report and other information that as a result of “enhanced interrogation”, a number of innocent people were tortured. As the CIA IG report concluded, in dry, bureaucratic language:
“Agency officers report that reliance on analytical assessments that were unsupported by credible intelligence may have resulted in the application of EITs without justification. Some participants in the Program, particularly field interrogators, judge that … assessments to the effect that detainees are withholding information are not always supported by an objective evaluation of available information and the evaluation of the interrogators but are too heavily based, instead, on presumptions of what the individual might or should know.”
Finally, as Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune notes, the international convention against torture was signed into American law by President Ronald Reagan. That document states, in part:
“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
From there, Chapman notes:
“Reagan undoubtedly knew what modern conservatives forget — that once you rationalize torture, there is no logical place to stop. If threatening a prisoner with a power drill is permissible, why not drilling holes in him? If choking is OK, why not strangulation? If threatening to kill a detainee’s children passes muster, why not actually killing them? If 30 wall slams don’t do the job, why not 100?.”
Well, “because we’re the United States of America” used to be a good enough reason, and it ought to be again.