The Justification of Torture Gets Obliterated Part One – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

Any debate concerning the use of torture on suspects always contains an accepted assumption about the tactic: torture works by giving law enforcement actionable intelligence leading to more arrests/stopping of crime.  The big problem with this assumption is none of it is actually true.

The Constitution Project released a bipartisan study this week stating the United States did, in fact, torture as a tactic in the ongoing War on Terror begun under the Bush Administration.  The study was co-chaired by Asa Hutchinson.  You may recognize the name from his recent stint heading up the NRA’s ridiculous school safety plan so this obviously was not a study put together by a bunch of radical leftists.

The key reason why this study particularly destroys the justification of torture is that it addresses some of the key factors many torture advocates point to as examples of how it allegedly works.  The three key pieces of info it debunks:

  • That Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) gave up his valuable info while being tortured.
  • That Abu Zubaydah gave up his valuable info while being tortured.
  • That the plot to bring down the Library Tower in Los Angeles with hijacked planes was thwarted through intelligence gathered by torture.

This is followed by an interesting section on false confessions that I will touch on at the end.

The critical part of this study I’m referring to begins on page 262 in a section entitled “Assertions of Useful Information Obtained Through Coercion”.  Let’s look at the many highlights of this part of the report.

After the death of Osama bin Laden (OBL), some asserted KSM broke under the pressure of torture and squealed the name of OBL’s courier, the man that eventually led the U.S. to OBL’s hideout in Pakistan.  Not true:

According to an American official familiar with KSM’s interrogation, KSM wasn’t asked about al-Kuwaiti until the fall of 2003, months after his waterboarding had concluded. KSM reportedly acknowledged having known al-Kuwaiti but told his interrogators al-Kuwaiti was “retired” and of little significance.

This backs up a fact pointed out last year in a 60 Minutes interview with torture advocate and former head of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez, who is mentioned heavily in this part of the study.  I noted in a post last year that Rodriguez is not only admitting torture failed in this instance but also showing even a highly trained person like him can’t actually tell when someone is lying or telling the truth, a point I’ll return to later.

Then it is stated important info about the courier came from a man named Hassan Ghul.  Ghul was tortured but it seems there is a little problem with the timing of the torture and when he gave up the info:

In May 2011 Sen. Dianne Feinstein told Reuters about a CIA detainee who “did provide useful and accurate intelligence.” But she added at the time: “This was acquired before the CIA used their enhanced interrogation techniques against the detainee.” Three U.S. officials told Reuters that Feinstein was referring to Ghul…Hassan Ghul, “did provide relevant information” about al-Kuwaiti, but “he did so the day before he was interrogated by the CIA using their coercive interrogation techniques.”

In short, the info came first and the torture second.

Breaking Down What Ex-CIA Agent Rodriguez Said in 60 Minutes Interview

The interview with Jose Rodriguez, former head of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, was both fascinating and horrifying as he did his best to defend the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used on terrorism suspects in the years after 9/11.  So much of what he said could have been delved into deeper and the interview could have gone on for another hour yet still not covered everything.  I’d like to highlight some of the things he said and the weakness of his defense of torture.

We made some al Qaeda terrorists with American blood on their hands uncomfortable for a few days.

This is a tricky quote to some extent.  It suggests the torture was only performed on known terrorists and in the case of the CIA only (and not including the other branches of defense) that might be accurate.  But we know innocent people were tortured and in some cases died due to torture while in U.S. custody.  He also contradicts himself later about the idea of this torture just being “a few days” for some suspects when he talks about sleep deprivation for a week at a time in at least one case.  Maybe some members gave up information after a few days but he gives zero examples of that.

So we were facing a ticking, time bomb situation.

This is a common defense of torture by its advocates.  The scenario is a bomb is ticking, someone has been caught who has info on its whereabouts, and he is tortured because he won’t give up the location.  Which works really well…in movies, not so much in reality.  In fact, I’m not sure how this idea gets lumped in with suicidal terrorists.  How many bombs have been placed with a timer by Islamic terrorists?  I’m guessing the number is around zero since the vast majority are suicide bombers.  The “ticking, time bomb” defense is ridiculous when applied to al Qaeda’s actual tactics.

At first, FBI interrogators used their standard interviewing techniques with no coercion, and Abu Zubaydah cooperated, giving tips and leads but–

Jose Rodriguez: After he regains his strength he stopped talking…He shuts down.

Or did he just not know anything else?  Rodriguez backs up the idea he had more information with virtually no evidence.  It’s pointed out in the story the FBI claims he gave up everything he knew prior to the torture.  But someone assumed he knew more and was lying that he didn’t, which we can’t be sure of.  Rodriguez defends this by stating:

He gave us a road map that allowed us to capture a bunch of Al Qaeda senior leaders.

He is angry but noticeably stumbles at this point in the interview before he says “a bunch.”  It was as if he knew he needed to give something reasonably logical and important here but could come up with nothing.  He clearly wanted to be able to give a number or a few names of captured terrorists to corroborate his claim but fails.

Then the interview immediately shifts to Khalid Sheik Mohammed so we are left to assume his capture may have resulted from the enhanced interrogation techniques on Zubaydah.  This is not properly delved into by 60 Minutes at this point since we don’t know that to be true nor do we know if that capture came from the information the FBI got prior to the torture.

People don’t understand that this program was not about hurting anybody.

Wow.  People died because of the bodily harm inflicted by this program.  This statement is the equivalent of someone robbing a bank and in the process of robbing that bank, they shoot and kill everyone in the bank.  Then when they are put on trial their lawyer asks the murder charges to be thrown out because the crime committed was just about robbing the bank and “not about hurting anybody.”  Clever attempt to dance around that one, Mr. Rodriguez.  Sadistic, but clever.

But many of the tips from detainees reportedly led to blind alleys and expensive wild goose chases.

Jose Rodriguez: But the issue here was timing. We needed information and we needed it right away to protect the homeland.

Rodriguez is essentially saying the torture was virtually useless when we couple this revelation with an earlier point he made.  He stated a psychologist he consulted on torture techniques said it would usually take about thirty days to “break” someone and get pertinent information.  By this time, the info leading to other terrorists is likely irrelevant since the free terrorists would probably move from their locations in the interest of their own safety when they realize someone has been caught who knows their whereabouts.  Rodriguez is also contradicting himself and the idea of the ticking time bomb scenario with the thirty days revelation.

Lesley Stahl: Now, here’s what I heard: that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told you the courier had retired and threw you off the scent for a while.

Jose Rodriguez: That was the one secret he was going to take to the grave, and that was the protection of the Sheikh. He was not going to tell us.

The courier they are speaking of here is the one that eventually led to Osama bin Laden.  An important point since Rodriguez is admitting torture failed on KSM and, not only did it fail, he also shows they had no idea when someone was lying to them even when being tortured.  A very poor defense for torture considering KSM is usually the prime example of torture allegedly “working.”

Then comes the most fascinating part of this interview: the discussion of the tapes that recorded the “enhanced interrogation” of Zubaydah and their destruction by Rodriguez.

The reason why we taped Abu Zubaydah was because we– he was very wounded when he was captured. And we feared that he was gonna die in captivity. So we wanted to show the world that we actually had nothing to do with his death. That you know, he died on his own.

First off, I’m assuming he was saying the “died on his own” part tongue-in-cheek.  I haven’t known many people to get wounded by another person then ‘die on their own’ because of the wounds inflicted by someone else.

But the bigger question here is why tape the interrogation then destroy it?  Zubaydah was one of the first relatively big captures in the War on Terror and was also one of the first to be tortured.  Rodriguez claims he destroyed the tapes so they could not be used as propaganda and to protect the identities of his agents in the videos.  If they were only making people “uncomfortable for a few days” and it was “not about hurting anybody”, why would the tapes be propaganda?  Answer: because it’s actually torture.  And the idea he was protecting his agents’ identities?  Was the CIA not familiar with blurring stuff out of videos?  Could they really not hire a 10-year-old with a computer and video editing software to do this one for them?  And if they had a video of Zubaydah giving the location of 9/11 mastermind KSM, wouldn’t this be the best justification of their techniques?

Since Rodriguez gives no real defense of why he destroyed the tapes, I’ll give one considering the evidence we are given.  He destroyed the tapes of the Zubaydah interrogation because torture wasn’t working on him and they wanted no record showing their embarrassment of the false information they believed and followed around the world wasting a ton of money and resources.  If the tapes existed and showed the FBI was right and he was wrong, he and everyone in the government advocating torture over the past decade would be shamed forever.

Which leads us to one last point.  If this were to be true, it would have been even more vicious than the idea of torture itself to continue the program when you know it to be a failure.  And they did continue it…

More Defense of Torture Heading Our Way

60 Minutes will be airing its interview with the ex-head of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez, this week.  It appears Rodriguez will be going on the defense for the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used on terrorism suspects during the War on Terror and will be arguing they worked in extracting information from suspects that saved lives.  Rodriguez specifically uses (like many before him) the example of Khalid Sheik Mohammed as a suspect that was tortured and provided valuable information.  Now if only we could ask KSM’s opinion to either corroborate this story or debunk it we could prove whether torture worked on him or not and show if Mr. Rodriguez is correct.

Oh yeah.  That happened already.  Five years ago.  Again, the widely reported quote that seems to be forgotten too often from KSM:

During the harshest period of my interrogation I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop.  I later told the interrogators their methods were stupid and counterproductive.  I’m sure that the false information I was forced to invent in order to make the ill-treatment stop wasted a lot of their time and led to several false red-alerts being placed in the U.S.

Now make no mistake here.  KSM (and many criminals like him) is a terrorist and deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars.  But the last part of his statement combined with another nugget of information produces an interesting situation.  During Lesley Stahl’s appearance on the CBS Evening News to preview her interview, she tells Scott Pelley it was Rodriguez who ordered the destruction of the videos that recorded the “enhanced interrogations” of KSM and other terrorist suspects.  He apparently ordered this destruction to both keep the interrogators identities secret and keep the harsh images from reaching the rest of the world and giving the U.S. a bad image regarding its use of torture.  But what if there was a somewhat significant third motive?

What if Rodriguez also destroyed these tapes to save himself and his fellow torture advocates the embarrassment of proving KSM’s allegation about producing false alerts correct and show they could not tell when he was lying while being tortured?  The recordings would have no doubt been dated so a direct trace could be made between the information given and the changing in the now ridiculed color alert system put in place by the Bush administration after 9/11.

Imagine how this would look.  We would be shown a video of KSM being tortured and giving false information on a Monday.  On Tuesday, the government raises the terror alert to…I don’t know.  Eggshell white mixed with aqua blue and a hint of hunter green?  The country goes into its collective panic expecting a terrorist attack.  Then we are shown the video from a few days later of KSM laughing at an interrogator and telling them he lied and their methods are stupid.  Then the government lowers the alert level and issues a statement saying an attack had been thwarted. Just a thought.

How’s torture being a useful tactic looking now?  It’s at least possible and probably likely Rodriguez and others around him could see the problem here and had good reason to destroy these recordings.  He did the “right thing” in his eyes and can now give his interview without the possibility of being proved wrong by those videos.  Good for him and torture, I suppose.  Bad for the country.