Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Waterboarding Is Torture, and Torture Is Un-American

A former CIA interrogator comes out and says that waterboarding is torture and that we shouldn't do it anymore, but that it produced valuable information that saved lives in the case of Abu Zubayda:

A former CIA officer who participated in the capture and questioning of the first al-Qaeda terrorist suspect to be waterboarded said yesterday that the harsh technique provided an intelligence breakthrough that "probably saved lives," but that he now regards the tactic as torture.

Zayn Abidin Muhammed Hussein abu Zubaida, the first high-ranking al-Qaeda member captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, broke in less than a minute after he was subjected to the technique and began providing interrogators with information that led to the disruption of several planned attacks, said John Kiriakou, who served as a CIA interrogator in Pakistan.
"It was like flipping a switch," said Kiriakou, the first former CIA employee directly involved in the questioning of "high-value" al-Qaeda detainees to speak publicly.

In an interview, Kiriakou said he did not witness Abu Zubaida's waterboarding but was part of the interrogation team that questioned him in a hospital in Pakistan for weeks after his capture in that country in the spring of 2002.

He described Abu Zubaida as ideologically zealous, defiant and uncooperative -- until the day in mid-summer when his captors strapped him to a board, wrapped his nose and mouth in cellophane and forced water into his throat in a technique that simulates drowning.

The waterboarding lasted about 35 seconds before Abu Zubaida broke down, according to Kiriakou, who said he was given a detailed description of the incident by fellow team members. The next day, Abu Zubaida told his captors he would tell them whatever they wanted, Kiriakou said.

Which is what torture does, of course. Kiriakou claims that Zubayda provided "quality information" that disrupted attacks and saved lives, but is that true? We have no independent confirmation that it is -- and even CIA personnel are divided on the question:
After the United States captured al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in the weeks after 9/11, the CIA tortured him in an effort to get him to talk. Here's how Ron Suskind described what happened, starting with what CIA investigators found in Zubaydah's diary:
"The guy is insane, certifiable, split personality," [Dan] Coleman told a top official at FBI after a few days reviewing the Zubaydah haul....There was almost nothing "operational" in his portfolio. That was handled by the management team. He wasn't one of them...."He was like a travel agent, the guy who booked your flights....He was expendable, you know, the greeter....Joe Louis in the lobby of Caesar's Palace, shaking hands."

....According to CIA sources, he was water-boarded....He was beaten....He was repeatedly threatened....His medication was withheld. He was bombarded with deafening, continuous noise and harsh lights.

....Under this duress, Zubaydah told them that shopping malls were targeted by al Qaeda....Zubaydah said banks — yes, banks — were a priority....And also supermarkets — al Qaeda was planning to blow up crowded supermarkets, several at one time. People would stop shopping. The nation's economy would be crippled. And the water system — a target, too. Nuclear plants, naturally. And apartment buildings.

Thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each flavor of target. Of course, if you multiplied by ten, there still wouldn't be enough public servants in America to surround and secure the supermarkets. Or the banks. But they tried.

Sometime later, Zubaydah finally provided some actionable intelligence: the name of Jose Padilla and the news that "Mukhtar," a code name that had popped up multiple times on NSA sigint, was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But that information didn't come because Zubaydah had been tortured. It came only after a CIA interrogator slipped under Zubaydah's skin by convincing him, with the help of some ideas from the Koran, that Zubaydah was predestined to cooperate with them.

Suskind implies that Pres. Bush was less interested in actionable intelligence than he was in avoiding political embarrassment [see section I have bolded below]:
The torture of Abu Zubaydah has been a key White House talking point for quite a while. Last year, Bush personally discussed the interrogation in considerable detail, describing Zubaydah as “a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden,” who “had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained.”

To hear the president tell it, Zubaydah, after being subjected to an “alternative set of [interrogation] procedures,” was a font of useful information — dishing on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and at least one domestic terrorist attack in the works. Bush concluded, “Zubaydah told us that al Qaeda operatives were planning to launch an attack in the U.S., and provided physical descriptions of the operatives and information on their general location. Based on the information he provided, the operatives were detained — one while traveling to the United States.”

But there’s almost certainly more to this example. Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan in March 2002. The White House has identified him as al Queda’s chief of operations. Ron Suskind reported, however, that Zubaydah turned out to be mentally ill. We were torturing a man who was, in effect, retarded.
Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries “in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3″ — a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail “what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said.” Dan Coleman, then the FBI’s top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.”

Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda’s go-to guy for minor logistics — travel for wives and children and the like. That judgment was “echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President,” Suskind writes. And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.” And over the months to come, under White House and Justice Department direction, the CIA would make him its first test subject for harsh interrogation techniques. […]

“I said he was important,” Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. “You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?” “No sir, Mr. President,” Tenet replied. Bush “was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,” Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, “Do some of these harsh methods really work?” Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each … target.” And so, Suskind writes, “the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”

Zubaydah himself says that he said what he had to say to stop the torture:
In documents prepared for a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay, where he is still held, Abu Zubaida asserted that he was tortured by the CIA, and that he told his questioners whatever they wanted to hear to make the torture stop.

Josh Patashnik, writing at The New Republic's The Plank, says "...it's worth pointing out that even if former CIA agent John Kiriakou is right when he maintains that torture was helpful, this isn't a very good argument against the bill working its way through Congress that would ban such interrogation techniques.
Kiriakou, in voicing his opposition to torture, describes the incident as "an ugly little episode that was perhaps necessary at that time. But we've moved beyond that." This seems like just the type of thing Jack Balkin envisioned when he wrote:
Suppose you believe that there are a small number of situations posing immediate peril to a large number of people, in which torture is absolutely necessary to elicit the key information that will prevent the peril, so that every nation in the world will practice torture under these circumstances.

At the same time you wish to deter the use of torture in every other circumstance, because you are worried about descending down the slippery slope to situations where a great peril is not imminent, or where the information elicited by torture is not necessary to prevent this great peril but is merely helpful to advance national security or other important interests.

The best way to achieve this set of goals would be not to carve out a legal exception for torture in emergencies but rather to impose a total ban. If the situation is so dire that torture is absolutely necessary to save a large number of people, illegality will not be a deterrent. Government officials will still commit torture. Then, after the fact, legal decisionmakers can determine whether their actions should be excused or pardoned.

The other significant piece that comes out of Kiriakou's account is his ambivalence about waterboarding. Clearly, he is torn about what was done to Zubayda and other "high value" detainees to get them to talk. In fact, he seems to be struggling with feelings of guilt:
Now retired, Kiriakou, who declined to use the enhanced interrogation techniques, says he has come to believe that water boarding [sic] is torture but that perhaps the circumstances warranted it.

"Like a lot of Americans, I'm involved in this internal, intellectual battle with myself weighing the idea that waterboarding may be torture versus the quality of information that we often get after using the waterboarding technique," Kiriakou told ABC News. "And I struggle with it."

But he says the urgency in the wake of 9/ll [sic] led to a desire to do everything possible to get actionable intelligence.

Is this the "ticking time bomb scenario" we've heard so much about since 9/11? If it is, there seems to be a contradiction in the logic. Kiriakou makes it clear that the sense of urgency he and others felt in the days and weeks after 9/11 was based on fear, not on any specific, objective indications that another attack was imminent:
"What happens if we don't waterboard a person, and we don't get that nugget of information, and there's an attack," Kiriakou said. "I would have trouble forgiving myself."

It's interesting that he poses the question that way, rather than asking himself, "What happens if we waterboard a person, and fail to avert another attack because the person gives us bad information to stop the torture?"

Of course, Kiriakou is convinced (or has convinced himself) that the information Zubayda gave the CIA was solid. As we know, not everyone shares that conviction. Spencer Ackerman adds to that point:
... Kiriakou's televised confession undermines CIA Director Michael Hayden's stated rationale for the destruction of interrogation videos. Hayden has said the tapes were destroyed to protect the identities of interrogators from al-Qaeda reprisal. Clearly Kiriakou doesn't feel that his life is in danger.

He does, however, seem to feel that his peace of mind is in danger:
Kiriakou ... doesn't think that the torture was right, even if he says it had some intelligence value. It can't possibly be an easy thing for him to admit, and he has conflicting feelings about what he did.

Here is more of what he said on this subject in the ABC interview:
"At the time, I felt that waterboarding was something that we needed to do. And as time has passed, and as September 11th has, you know, has moved farther and farther back into history, I think I've changed my mind," he told ABC News.

A little further on, Brian Ross asks Kiriakou if he thinks the use of waterboarding compromised American principles or saved lives, or both:
"I think both. It may have compromised our principles at least in the short term. And I think it's good that we're having a national debate about this. We should be debating this, and Congress should be talking about it because, I think, as a country, we have to decide if this is something that we want to do as a matter of policy. I'm not saying now that we should, but, at the very least, we should be talking about it. It shouldn't be secret. It should be out there as part of the national debate."

It should be. Including, as Spencer Ackerman put it, the long-acknowledged toll that torturing takes on the torturer.

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