An FBI Interrogator on the Effectiveness of Torture

Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and an expert on al-Qaeda operations who has interrogated al-Qaeda members reviews the claims that the Bush Administration’s torture techniques were effective and finds them wanting:

The inspector general’s report distinguishes between intelligence gained from regular interrogation and from the harsher methods, which culminate in waterboarding. While the former produces useful intelligence, according to the report, the latter “is a more subjective process and not without concern.” And the information in the two memos reinforces this differentiation.

They show that substantial intelligence was gained from pocket litter (materials found on detainees when they were captured), from playing detainees against one another and from detainees freely giving up information that they assumed their questioners already knew. A computer seized in March 2003 from a Qaeda operative for example, listed names of Qaeda members and money they were to receive.

[…]

Supporters of the enhanced interrogation techniques have jumped from claim to claim about their usefulness. They have asserted, for example, that harsh treatment led Mr. Mohammed to reveal the plot to attack the Library Tower in Los Angeles. But that plot was thwarted in 2002, and Mr. Mohammed was not arrested until 2003. Recently, interviews with unnamed sources led The Washington Post to report that harsh techniques turned Mr. Mohammed into an intelligence “asset.”

This latest claim will come as news to Mr. Mohammed’s prosecutors, to his fellow detainees (whom he instructed, at his arraignment, not to cooperate with the United States) and indeed to Mr. Mohammed himself. He told the International Committee of the Red Cross that “I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear.”

Read the whole thing, which demonstrates quite effectively that the torture techniques employed by the CIA did not provide us with information about al-Qaeda operations. They did not enable us to stop any terror threats. They were counterproductive and not worth the costs.

As Adam Sewer rightly points out,

We’re not seeing too many “professionals” argue the case for torture–instead we see those who believe fighting terrorists is about some kind of contest of will between Islam and the West romanticizing criminal behavior as “necessary” because, for some reason, they think protecting American society requires that take our cues from those we’re fighting.

This is very much the case. Time and time again, people with actual experience with interrogating terror suspects and actual experience and knowledge about the effectiveness of torture techniques have come out to explain that they are ineffective and that their use threatens national security more than it helps.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Thomas Paine all supported the fair and decent treatment of even our enemies. Both the Redcoats and Hessian mercenaries were treated with decency and respect. Our Founding Fathers did this even though more American soldiers died as prisoners than died on the field of battle. They knew that American ideals meant something, and that fair and decent treatment was not only the right thing to do but the practical thing to do (many Hessian mercenaries stayed here and became loyal American citizens, for instance). Surely we can learn something from the wisdom of our Founding Fathers.

(link via Jim Henley)

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Terrorism, US Politics
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. Surely we can learn something from the wisdom of our Founding Fathers.

    You mean, like limited government and enumerated powers? Avoiding foreign entanglements? No fiat currency? No (progressive) taxation without (progressive) representation? Summary execution of captured enemies not in uniform?

    Congratulations on finding someone to support your beliefs. I don’t find this persuasive, but obviously YMMV. Your inability or unwillingness to distinguish between uniformed soldiers and guerrilla terrorists is growing rather tedious.




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  2. Alex Knapp says:

    Charles,

    Your inability or unwillingness to distinguish between uniformed soldiers and guerrilla terrorists is growing rather tedious.

    Considering that decent treatment produces results and torture doesn’t regardless of whether we’re talking uniformed soldiers or guerillas, what difference does it make?

    Additionally, the Convention Against Torture doesn’t distinguish between uniformed and non-uniformed soliders, so that’s just a red herring.

    You mean, like limited government and enumerated powers?

    Which is something I approve of.

    No fiat currency?

    I agree.

    No (progressive) taxation without (progressive) representation?

    You lost me here. I have no idea what that means.

    Summary execution of captured enemies not in uniform?

    Yes, well, this is not quite so wise. Given that the majority of “captured enemies” at Guantanamo Bay turned out to be people who did not engage U.S. forces and were not members of terrorist organizations, I think it’s a good thing that we didn’t execute innocent people. Don’t you? Or do you think that it’s okay to just accept the word of bounty hunters without evidence and just kill civilians willy-nilly?

    As for “finding people who agree with me”, I would note that there has been no evidence provided that there was any information obtained through torture that (a) saved American lives (b) provided intelligence not obtainable any other way or (c) was worth the immense moral and political costs. And on many occasions here at OTB, I have cited intelligence experts, real interrogators, psychologists, and counterterrorists–all of whom agree that torture undermines our national security.

    If you think otherwise, please provide evidence.




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  3. Steve Plunk says:

    The Founding Fathers fought a uniformed regular army not terrorists dressed as civilians targeting civilians. That is a huge difference.

    There is also a clear difference of opinion on the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation. I’m going to go along with Dick Cheney who is a serious man interested in the safety of American citizens. That along with the fact I couldn’t give a crap about terrorist rights.




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  4. Alex Knapp says:

    Steve,

    There is also a clear difference of opinion on the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation.

    The difference, though, is that those who claim that it’s ineffective have actual, real, evidence on their side, while those who claim its effective mostly rely on hypotheticals. Everytime a new document comes out that supposedly shows that torture “worked” by providing useful information, inevitably it turns out to be either a lie or that we had that information prior to the torture.




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  5. MarkedMan says:

    No (progressive) taxation without (progressive) representation?

    Cool! I didn’t know we got to amend the Constitution with parenthetical statements to alter it so it agree with us! How’s this? “We the people, (In order to give MarkedMan a deluxe ski chalet in Utah)…”




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  6. Wayne says:

    “ is that those who claim that it’s ineffective have actual, real, evidence on their side, while those who claim its effective mostly rely on hypotheticals.”

    And what evidence is that a former FBI Ali Soufan’s opinion of which we know little about his background or beliefs? He could simply be a translator for all we know. He states that someone gave false information during Enhanced interrogation as proof that it doesn’t work. Any interrogator worth a damn knows that you get false information from any interrogation including friendly ones. There are techniques to separate false claims from true ones. Stating that we have gain intelligence using forensics and other means doesn’t mean we can’t gain further information by using even more methods and additional means. What a lame argument.

    I trust the opinions of those who have experience in using a technique than those who speculates about a technique. Those who used it say it works. Those blinded by their philosophy will ignore the facts and lose credibility.

    If you want to argue that we shouldn’t use it, fine there are valid arguments in that area. However claiming that enhanced interrogation techniques don’t work just undercuts your whole position.




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  7. Alex says:

    “They knew that American ideals meant something, and that fair and decent treatment was not only the right thing to do but the practical thing to do.”

    Because George Washington was a champion of American ideals and human rights…as long as we’re talking about humans and not black people.




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  8. So former FBI agent Ali Soufan’s opinions count as real evidence. Got it.

    Links have been provided previously on the usefullness of information obtained from KSM after being waterboarded. If you choose not to accept them, what’s the point of providing more? You have every right to take a firm, unequivocal stand against torture. I certainly have no problem with that nor with defending or advocating your beliefs. What I do have a problem with is the sanctimoniousness that seeps through from trying to paint everyone who doesn’t share your selected absolutes as morally deficient or evil. But YMMV.




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  9. I should have left the (progressive) out above. It was too clever by half. If I revert back to no taxation without representation, the question then becomes twofold. What about no representation without taxation, since almost half our population pays no federal income taxes? Or given that we have a progressive taxation system, shouldn’t those more heavily taxed be entitled to commensurate representation? I mean, isn’t the whole point of no taxation without representation meant to draw a firm connection between taxation and representation rather than a squishy sort of adjustable pseudo-connection that can be altered by fiat?




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  10. Triumph says:

    Once again, the evidence is clear: torture works.

    Prior to 9/11, Clinton was too busy flirting with Monica Lewinsky to get tough on torture.

    After 9/11 Bush realized that we have been soft on these bastards and started making them pay.

    Because of this torture, America was safe. After the Clinton-facilitated 9/11 occurred, under Bush’s torture policy NO TERROR ATTACKS OCCURRED IN AMERICA.

    B. Hussein becomes “President” in January and stops torture.

    WITHIN FOUR MONTHS THERE WAS A TERRORIST ATTACK IN WICHITA.

    Had we continued the torture the terrorists would not have struck.

    Obama is selling us out to his terror buddies.




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  11. Alex Knapp says:

    Charles,

    (a) Regarding the “effectiveness” of torture on KSM, see both the linked article and my post here.

    (b) Everybody pays federal excise taxes and payroll taxes.




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  12. steve says:

    “I’m going to go along with Dick Cheney ”

    Fine, but that is pretty much your basis for believing that torture worked. We have the word of interrogators who were actually there, that torture yielded no usable intel. We have Cheney’s word that it did. I support a truth commission to find out the truth. You have blind faith in your leaders.

    “Dick Cheney who is a serious man”

    This is one of the parts most worrisome to me. The expert psychologists they hired to develop the torture program had never interrogated ANYONE. Not just a lack of experience interrogating Muslims or AQ members, they had interrogated no one. Soufan had been involved in interrogating after the Cole incident and was commended for his efforts. He actually achieved results, leading to the capture of KSM and other terrorists. His techniques are similar to those used by the most successful American interrogators of Japanese prisoners (Sherwood Moran? At work cannot loom up name for sure).

    As Alex notes, you just dont find professionals supporting torture. The goal is to obtain actionable intel so you can find and kill more terrorists. Torture gives bad results, at least based on prior experience and research. If the CIA, with its inexperienced people were able to change this, we should withdraw from the torture treaties and use this to our tactical advantage.

    Steve




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  13. Davebo says:

    They have asserted, for example, that harsh treatment led Mr. Mohammed to reveal the plot to attack the Library Tower in Los Angeles. But that plot was thwarted in 2002, and Mr. Mohammed was not arrested until 2003.

    Cheney made that claim as well. I’m guessing he knew his supporters either wouldn’t figure it out or wouldn’t care.




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  14. Joe R. says:

    While I’m in agreement with the folks who say we shouldn’t torture, can we stop pretending that torture never works? It does work, sometimes. Maybe it didn’t in these cases, but that’s not the same as saying it never does. Claiming that it never works is just a way of avoiding the more difficult argument.




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  15. Fog says:

    “shouldn’t those more heavily taxed be entitled to commensurate representation?”

    I think CA is on to something here! If you own the country, then dadgummit, you should decide how to run it.
    I propose we take this idea even farther and emulate the customs of the old Romans. Not the men of the pansy, bread-and-circuses Imperial Roman welfare state, but the stout men of the Republic, like Cato the Elder and Cincinnatus. The tiny city-state that conquered the Mediterranean World had a firm rule that only the wealthy (the land owners) could fight in the army. The theory was that men who had much would fight hard to preserve it, while men who had little (slaves, tenant farmers, tradesmen, etc) also had little incentive to fight.
    If we limit entrance in the armed forces to the wealthiest portion of society, then what a mighty war machine we would have!
    Or a new birth of serious diplomacy.




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  16. tom p says:

    Alex, why do you argue with the deaf who follow the blind?




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  17. G.A.Phillips says:

    Because George Washington was a champion of American ideals and human rights…as long as we’re talking about humans and not black people.

    Learn some history before you Lie about Christian super heroes.

    Ain’t it funny
    how there is no black and white for liberals till they start to lie about History they don’t understand?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington_and_slavery




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