Torture Worked! Foiled Los Angeles Attack! Yay Torture!

After several days of inflamed public debate following official confirmation that the United States government tortured suspected terrorists under specific authorization from the Bush administration, the inevitable pushback has begun.  Several reports now suggest that these extreme interrogation techniques had the desired effect, yielding valuable intelligence that saved lives.

The most interesting of these, alas, comes from CNS and is headlined “CIA Confirms: Waterboarding 9/11 Mastermind Led to Info that Aborted 9/11-Style Attack on Los Angeles.”

The Central Intelligence Agency told CNSNews.com today that it stands by the assertion made in a May 30, 2005 Justice Department memo that the use of “enhanced techniques” of interrogation on al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) — including the use of waterboarding — caused KSM to reveal information that allowed the U.S. government to thwart a planned attack on Los Angeles.

[…]

According to the previously classified May 30, 2005 Justice Department memo that was released by President Barack Obama last week, the thwarted attack — which KSM called the “Second Wave”– planned “ ‘to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into’ a building in Los Angeles.”

Marc Thiessen, who “served in senior positions in the Pentagon and the White House from 2001 to 2009, most recently as chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush,” takes to WaPo’s editorial pages to proclaim “The CIA’s Questioning Worked.”

In releasing highly classified documents on the CIA interrogation program last week, President Obama declared that the techniques used to question captured terrorists “did not make us safer.” This is patently false. The proof is in the memos Obama made public — in sections that have gone virtually unreported in the media.

[…]

Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques “led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the ‘Second Wave,’ ‘to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into’ a building in Los Angeles.” KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast. The memo explains that “information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the ‘Second Wave.’ ” In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.

The memo notes that “[i]nterrogations of [Abu] Zubaydah — again, once enhanced techniques were employed — furnished detailed information regarding al Qaeda’s ‘organizational structure, key operatives, and modus operandi’ and identified KSM as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.” This information helped the intelligence community plan the operation that captured KSM. It went on: “Zubaydah and KSM also supplied important information about al-Zarqawi and his network” in Iraq, which helped our operations against al-Qaeda in that country.

Peter Baker’s NYT report, “Banned Techniques Yielded ‘High Value Information,’ Memo Says,” is a bit less exciting.

President Obama’s national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.  “High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.

Admiral Blair sent his memo on the same day the administration publicly released secret Bush adminis

[…]

“I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past,” he wrote, “but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given.”

[…]

“The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”

The foiled LA attack has long been murmured about (Patrick Frey wrote about it in November 2007, for example).  It’s unclear from these reports how serious the plan was.  Certainly, we have seen reports of numerous “foiled” attacks that, upon closer scrutiny, appeared to be mere fantasies of incompetents.  Then again, we’re talking about the planner of the 9/11 attacks here.

But let’s take at face value that CIA interrogators managed to extract information that foiled a developed, 9/11 style attack, thereby saving, say, 3000 innocent American civilians.   Does that outweigh the moral and legal issues of waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times?   I’d say it does.  It’s as close to the “ticking time bomb” scenario as we’re ever likely to get.

[UPDATE: Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that Timothy Noah examines the timeline and demonstrates we likely foiled the LA Towers plot months before KSM was captured! This doesn’t necessarily obviate any of the other “high value information” but it would undermine the most impressive of the examples offered.]

Blair correctly notes that we may well have gotten this information using legal techniques.  Then again, we might not have.  These guys didn’t break before they were tortured.   Of course, we didn’t try very long if we managed to get in 183 waterboarding sessions during KSM’s first month in U.S. custody.  The most reliable forms of interrogation require establishing trust and can take weeks, if not months.

What we also don’t know is how much damage the fact that the world, including our enemies, know that we were torturing terrorist suspects did.   Blair wrote, “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”   The first clause in that sentence is undeniable; the second is not.

In my recent interview with retired Ambassador Robert Oakley, he observed that, in Pakistan, “We’ve forgotten Rumsfeld’s question: ‘Are we creating more terrorists than we’re killing?’ And we probably are. The drones may be killing a lot of Taliban and al Qaeda but they’re alienating the tribesmen we need to win the war.”  Remember all the hostage beheadings, wherein the victims were dressed in Gitmo-style orange jumpsuits?  Would they have occurred had we not done this?  We don’t know.  How many people joined al Qaeda and the Taliban after these incidents became public, convinced that the United States really is as degenerate as the jihadists claimed we were?  We don’t know.

When I was being trained on this issue as a young cadet a quarter century ago, in addition to the legal and moral factors explaining why we must treat captured enemy combatants humanely — even risking our own lives and the accomplishment of our immediate mission to safeguard them — was a practical lesson:  The other guy was a hell of a lot more likely to surrender to you if he expected to be treated well.   Americans were more likely to keep fighting in Vietnam even against overwhelming odds because they knew they enemy would treat them as subhumans, whereas NVA and VC soldiers would surrender to us knowing they’d get three hots and a cot.   Certainly, that proved to be the case in both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq; Saddam’s soldiers couldn’t throw their weapons down fast enough.

That’s not likely to be the case for some time now.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Iraq War, Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Hoodlumman says:

    James, did you really just compare Taliban and Al qaeda to uniformed regulars? You’re saying that if we didn’t waterboard they’d surrender quicker or at all?

    I’ve read plenty of reasons why we shouldn’t have used enhanced interrogation techniques but this line of reasoning is one of the weakest.

  2. James Joyner says:

    James, did you really just compare Taliban and Al qaeda to uniformed regulars? You’re saying that if we didn’t waterboard they’d surrender quicker or at all?

    Most combatants aren’t “regulars” but conscripts. Saddam’s Republican Guard fought harder than his regular forces.

    Are hard core AQ or Taliban fighters going to surrender in the same way? No. Are they somewhat more likely to do so if they know they’ll be treated with dignity? Probably.

    But I’m mostly talking about future wars against ordinary soldiers and even combat against what Kilkullen calls “Accidental Guerrillas,” the non-ideological folks who’ll fight with the Taliban for money or to resist foreign invaders.

  3. Brian Knapp says:

    I just don’t see how this is ever acceptable. Even given that this may be the greatest success water-boarding or enhanced interrogation (torture) proponents could ever have hoped for, we should never do it again. Ever. To anyone. For any reason, under any circumstance.

  4. Eric says:

    But let’s take at face value that CIA interrogators managed to extract information that foiled a developed, 9/11 style attack, thereby saving, say, 3000 innocent American civilians. Does that outweigh the moral and legal issues of waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times? I’d say it does. It’s as close to the “ticking time bomb” scenario as we’re ever likely to get.

    I think that all this talk about “when” it’s OK to torture really skirts the deep philosophical and ethical issue here: torture is not about who they are; it’s about who we are. Another angle that seems obvious: we prosecuted Nazis for the very same “enhanced interrogation techniques” at Nuremburg. Why suddenly are they OK for us now?

    I think that many people simply cannot or will not confront those questions directly. For, if one does, then the answer is clear: torture under any circumstances is wrong.

  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    Are hard core AQ or Taliban fighters going to surrender in the same way? No. Are they somewhat more likely to do so if they know they’ll be treated with dignity? Probably.

    James, I highly doubt they would understand dignity.

  6. Look, if it were just KSM, it would be one thing. You can make a case for a need for extraordinary illegality in certain very, very rare cases.

    That isn’t the issue. The issue is the systematic and bureaucratized institutionalization of torture at the policy of the United States. It is the overarching claim that the President of the United States, on his sole authority, can order the detention and torture of anyone he deems an “enemy combatant” without trial, hearings, or appeal. It is the application of torture to hundreds of individuals in the hopes that one of them, perhaps, will have useful information.

  7. Mithras says:

    It’s as close to the “ticking time bomb” scenario as we’re ever likely to get.

    And, let’s note, it’s not even that close. The premise of the ticking time bomb scenario is that you know there is a bomb. In real life, torturers assume the bomb, and then they’re off to the races. Turns out, torture a guy hard enough, he’ll invent a story about a bomb for you.

  8. sam says:

    The most interesting of these, alas, comes from CNS

    About Us

    The Cybercast News Service was launched on June 16, 1998 as a news source for individuals, news organizations and broadcasters who put a higher premium on balance than spin and seek news that’s ignored or under-reported as a result of media bias by omission.

    Study after study by the Media Research Center, the parent organization of CNSNews.com, clearly demonstrate a liberal bias in many news outlets — bias by commission and bias by omission — that results in a frequent double-standard in editorial decisions on what constitutes “news.”

    In response to these shortcomings, MRC Chairman L. Brent Bozell III founded CNSNews.com in an effort to provide an alternative news source that would cover stories that are subject to the bias of omission and report on other news subject to bias by commission.

    L. Brent Bozell III–Hell, I’m convinced.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    It seems to me that it takes a specific variety of consequentialism to support the activities that apparently have gone on.

    Could someone who believes we did the right thing please explain to me where you draw the line? Why not just torture every prisoner? Aren’t you certain to get actionable intel from somebody?

  10. James Joyner says:

    It is the overarching claim that the President of the United States, on his sole authority, can order the detention and torture of anyone he deems an “enemy combatant” without trial, hearings, or appeal. It is the application of torture to hundreds of individuals in the hopes that one of them, perhaps, will have useful information.

    and

    The premise of the ticking time bomb scenario is that you know there is a bomb. In real life, torturers assume the bomb, and then they’re off to the races.

    Quite agreed. I oppose torture and wouldn’t have authorized it. If, arguendo, doing so in this case saved 3000 lives, though, was it “worth it” in hindsight? Sure. Does that make it a good policy? No.

    Sam: Thus the “alas.” But the WaPo piece says the same thing.

  11. FranklinTest says:

    Does that outweigh the moral and legal issues of waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times? I’d say it does.

    I’d basically agree with Bernard Finel above, that if there was indeed a mountain of evidence that this guy was not only guilty but had information in a ticking time bomb situation, then maybe, just maybe we could trust the government to do something extraordinary.

    But none of this helps people like Khalid El-Masri and all the others who were abused but indeed were demonstrably not guilty of anything, including those who were simply defending their home countries from invasion.

    I think it’s important to emphasize JJ’s point that we didn’t even try legal interrogation techniques in Mohammed’s case, if indeed he was tortured 183 times in the first month. As Admiral Blair points out (and most conservative outlets have ignored), we’ll never know if other techniques could have worked, and furthermore he would never have authorized the enhanced techniques.

  12. jukeboxgrad says:

    joyner: “I’m mostly talking about future wars against ordinary soldiers”

    Thanks for your excellent post, and for making this important point. All our soldiers in all future wars are now in greater danger, thanks to Bush. All future enemies now have a greater incentive to fight to the death, rather than surrender. Because they know that Americans torture. The price of Bush’s torture policy will probably be paid in American lives.

    “we didn’t try very long if we managed to get in 183 waterboarding sessions during KSM’s first month in U.S. custody”

    You’re raising another important point, and this brings us to a significant contradiction that is passing unnoticed. Blair said “there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means.” Trouble is, Blair’s statement is in direct contradiction with a claim made by his predecessor, DNI McConnell, who said we used waterboarding only in the following circumstances: “Situations where there’s been interrogation over a period of time. It was unsuccessful. Water boarding was used and then information started to flow.”

    According to McConnell, we do indeed know that “the same information could [not] have been obtained through other means.” According to McConnell, we resorted to waterboarding only after exhausting other methods.

    No one is asking this question: why did Blair contradict McConnell? Which one of them is telling the truth?

  13. Steve Plunk says:

    Accepting these techniques is a far cry from “yay torture”. It’s a rough world out there and the stakes are high. Sometimes too high to maintain a moral standard that makes everyone happy.

    I imagine the administration officials who debated these techniques did so in a somber manner understanding how serious of an issue it is. Grown ups get serious in serious times.

  14. Bithead says:

    Accepting these techniques is a far cry from “yay torture”. It’s a rough world out there and the stakes are high. Sometimes too high to maintain a moral standard that makes everyone happy.

    I imagine the administration officials who debated these techniques did so in a somber manner understanding how serious of an issue it is. Grown ups get serious in serious times.

    Whereas others tend to get hung up in legalities. Agreement, and well said.

  15. Davebo says:

    Wouldn’t you say that Sullivan’s “contention” is fairly irrefutable therefore making the entire premise of both articles and this post irrelevant?

  16. Gustopher says:

    I never really liked Los Angeles anyway.

    But more to the point, becoming a torturer strips you a bit of your humanity, and I don’t want to make our boys in uniform go through that.

  17. markm says:

    I imagine the administration officials who debated these techniques did so in a somber manner understanding how serious of an issue it is. Grown ups get serious in serious times.

    And in the context of time, debating this in the fall or winter of 2001 versus the the spring of 2009 would probably yield different results.

  18. Bithead says:

    Since the reports are that the Democrat leaders in Congress were breifed on the matter and approved, are we now going to see the folks screaming for proceutions, call for those congressional Democrats to testify under oath as to what they knew and approved of, and when?

    Somehow I’d expect a deafending silence from Pelosi’s office, as an example.

  19. Our Paul says:

    I will not call for a “stand up and a round of applause” on this one James. A moment of silence for those we tortured, but were innocent is more appropriate. That said, you will get my silent applause for further lancing this boil and presenting torture for discussion one more time.

    Said it before, but I will say it again. Torture is a slice within the Universe of abuse. Unless we guard against prisoner abuse, potential subsets of torture will occur. Subsets of torture, you ask with a raised eyebrow. For that we have correspondent PD Shaw (April 19, 2009 | 03:47 pm) to thank when he brought to our attention Mark Bowden’s exhaustive article examining this practice. A brief passage, quoted before, will suffice:

    Then there are methods that, some people argue, fall short of torture. Called “torture lite,” these include sleep deprivation, exposure to heat or cold, the use of drugs to cause confusion, rough treatment (slapping, shoving, or shaking), forcing a prisoner to stand for days at a time or to sit in uncomfortable positions, and playing on his fears for himself and his family. Although excruciating for the victim, these tactics generally leave no permanent marks and do no lasting physical harm.

    Bowden is a tough hard read, and certainly not for those faint of heart. The barbarism and brutality of this practice is clearly documented. I will go with Eric (April 22, 2009 | 08:38 am) on this one: torture is not about who they are; it’s about who we are.

  20. markm says:

    Could someone who believes we did the right thing please explain to me where you draw the line?

    In the back of my mind is a Congressional hearing (guessing 2005/2006-ish) where Congressional members were all over the place on torture/waterboarding. I recall several members saying we need a clear definition of what torture is and proceeded to take political shelter buy not defining it. So, at that time we must not have had a definition of torture but we already abandoned the practice of waterboarding.

    Fast forward to present, we currently must go by the Army Field Manual and in special circumstances have “loopholes” in place for the CIA to go above and beyond…beyond what?. Do we have a clear definition of what torture is yet? (honestly asking as I have not read that we have done so).

    Dave, to your question, I do believe we did the right thing with the handful of high value targets that we used these enhanced techniques on with the exception beating them against a wall (which was noted in the released report). Being without a very clear definition of what torture is, in my mind, making someone think they are drowning is not torture. Starving them, beating them, breaking bones….John McCain was tortured in my mind. KSM had an uncomfortable experience(s) and I have no problem with that.

    As for where do you draw the line…that should be up to the administration, Congress and the DOJ.

  21. Oldcrow says:

    The basic premise is false these methods are not torture if it is how come we keep seeing liberal idiots doing to each other over and over again? By this definition six flags tortures people and yes before you ask I have been water boarded, sleep deprivation and stress positions during SERE training yeah it sucked sometimes it was even terrifying but torture? No not even close.

    Certainly, that proved to be the case in both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq; Saddam’s soldiers couldn’t throw their weapons down fast enough.
    That’s not likely to be the case for some time now.

    Well as someone who did a tour in Iraq it has never been the case for the fundamentalists and I can tell you with 100% certainty that when they capture our guys they are not given Geneva convention treatment but then that has been true in every war we have been in, we used to sit around and talk about what we would do if captured and the answer was always keep fighting do everything you could to make them kill you right then and there better that than show up on you tube getting your head chopped off with a rusty knife, that is after they stuck a power drill through various parts of your anatomy. And Our Paul none of what was done is torture and none of the documents show these techniques were used on any innocent people.

  22. markm says:

    Somehow I’d expect a deafending silence from Pelosi’s office, as an example.

    Well, she is a bit tied up at the moment…what with all those ethics investigations that are ongoing….

  23. Wayne says:

    “Certainly, that proved to be the case in both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq; Saddam’s soldiers couldn’t throw their weapons down fast enough.
    That’s not likely to be the case for some time now.”

    Ever occur to you that the massive duck shoot during the first Gulf War where we easily killed large groups of Iraqis had anything to do with that?

    In the future they are just as likely to throw down the weapons as they were before. If we had a general policies of torture for anyone capture, yes that would change. However a harsh interrogation on a few high valued targets doesn’t change future enemy soldiers from surrendering.

    What happen to the harsh interrogation and\or torture don’t won’t crowd? They were wrong about that and they are wrong about playing nice protects out troops.

  24. Crust says:

    Andrew Sullivan contends that 2002 was before 2003. James Joyner may or may not agree.

  25. James Joyner says:

    Andrew Sullivan contends that 2002 was before 2003. James Joyner may or may not agree.

    I don’t know when we foiled the plot, or even if there was a plot.

  26. markm says:
  27. Ben says:

    The basic premise is false these methods are not torture if it is how come we keep seeing liberal idiots doing to each other over and over again? By this definition six flags tortures people and yes before you ask I have been water boarded, sleep deprivation and stress positions during SERE training yeah it sucked sometimes it was even terrifying but torture? No not even close.

    102 legal professors, John McCain and military JAGs disagree with you on that one.

    And Our Paul none of what was done is torture and none of the documents show these techniques were used on any innocent people.

    That’s not the point. The point is that you’re advocating just “trusting the government” to never get it wrong as to who is guilty and who isn’t. The number of DNA exonerations in the last few years proves that’s foolhardy. Just looking back in hindsight and saying “well, they were all guilty, so it doesn’t matter” is short-sighted and disastrous for human rights (not civil rights, mind you).

    I for one, am not OK with giving the government the latitude to completely dispense with rule of law and human rights whenever they deem it necessary. To me, that is indistinguishable from royal fiat, especially when all of the actors will be shielded from any consequences of wrong-doing.

  28. steve says:

    “I imagine the administration officials who debated these techniques did so in a somber manner understanding how serious of an issue it is. Grown ups get serious in serious times.”

    What evidence that exists, suggests that they did not make there discussions after talking with experienced interrogators. The CIA psychologist who pushed the program had never interrogated anyone. The decisions were made by a very small group with little experience in international law, so they were probably unaware we had prosecuted waterboarding as a war crime in the past.

    We need a truth commission of some sorts to find out what really happened. We also need to look at this in the larger context of wha tit means to all of our troops and our further attempts at gathering intel. The folks at SWJ have put out links to studies looking at how the jihadists recruit and what issues help them.

    Steve

  29. Crust says:

    James Joyner:

    I don’t know when we foiled the plot, or even if there was a plot.

    The point about whether there really was a plot or not is fair enough; there’s plenty of indication it was overstated.

    But what’s your point about the timing? As Andrew Sullivan (or rather Tim Noah to whom Sullivan linked) pointed out, according to the Bush administration’s own statements the plot was disrupted in 2002, but KSM wasn’t captured until 2003. Where’s the room for the ambiguity you apparently see?

  30. James Joyner says:

    But what’s your point about the timing? As Andrew Sullivan (or rather Tim Noah to whom Sullivan linked) pointed out, according to the Bush administration’s own statements the plot was disrupted in 2002, but KSM wasn’t captured until 2003. Where’s the room for the ambiguity you apparently see?

    I read through Sullivan too fast the first time and hadn’t read Noah’s piece until just now. On first read, it looked like the only evidence that the plot was thwarted in 2002 was Townsend’s claim but it appears it was subsequently repeated in official documents.

    I’ve amended and bolded the update above to make it more clear.

  31. GM says:

    Wayne you get close to the point about the first and second gulf wars, but don’t really call James out on it.

    I emphatically disagree on the point about the vietnamese and iraqis surrendering. First of all, the vietnamese thought we were apes who eat babies. And I don’t recall them surrendering in massive numbers, if anything they really pushed hard in the face of overwhelming firepower.

    The Iraqis in the first gulf war were out the desert for a few months with their supply chains completely destroyed. They certainly did not think we were benevolent people, they were at the end of their ropes. The 2003 war they were just a fraction of their strength 10 years before and just couldn’t hack it in the face of the Coalition. Most regulars would take their chances with capture instead of fighting against overwhelming odds.

    It’s a total lie that keeps on being repeated. I’ll take wayne’s statement even further and postulate that there has never been a war or conflict in which american POW’s were not mistreated. Peacetime rules just do not apply in war and the moral high ground that we keep on repeating as important just does not seem to influence our enemies.

    Al Queda thought that the US didn’t actually have the forthwith to go after them, that we were soft. Whether or not you think the memos are true or not, the CIA wanted approval to use the SERE techniques against KSM because he thought that he had no reason to give up information, meaning that building trust with him was going to be a waste of time.

    The distinction, perhaps I’m missing something, is that Hambali was the guy who was in charge of the attacks on LA. He was arrested in Aug 2003. So it’s still out there whether or not KSM had good information or not.

  32. James Joyner says:

    there has never been a war or conflict in which american POW’s were not mistreated.

    Likely true. I’m not arguing we’ll get reciprocity, merely that a reputation for torturing prisoners makes getting prisoners less likely.

  33. Houston says:

    I’m sorry, I haven’t read through all these comments, but I’m wondering – is it now an accepted fact that these techniques in question are torture?

    James’ first sentence says, “…following official confirmation that the United States government tortured suspected terrorists…”

    I didn’t hear anyone considered “official” confirm that the US tortured prisoners…only Democrats and leftists that want to blame Bush at all costs.

    I just want to know – is this point no longer debatable?

    If so, I am concerned, because in my mind waterboarding is not even close to torture, by any historical (or even contemporary non-American) meaning.

    This creep in the definition of “torture” has happened in a number of other cases as well – “racism,” “sexual abuse,” “disinfranchisement,” … etc. The meanings of these words have been hijacked by political opportunists trying to encite hysteria and hatred, generally directed toward conservatives in general, Republicans specifically.

  34. Houston says:

    I’m also amused at the condescention directed at the news source for this thread – “alas,” CNSNews, to James’ and others’ chagrin.

    What’s wrong with a news organization doing its job? Are there any others out there doing better? Fairly reporting on this issue?

    Agencies like Reuters, AP and the NYT casually inject words like “brutal” and “gruesome” in their stories to describe the “torture”- not quoting from any sources but simply injecting the reporter’s bias.

    Apparently just because a News agency run by Brent Bozell renders it unacceptable, as if Bill Keller were any better.

  35. James Joyner says:

    If so, I am concerned, because in my mind waterboarding is not even close to torture, by any historical (or even contemporary non-American) meaning.

    See my post Waterboarding is Torture for one explanation. See Gene Healy’s “Of Course It Was Torture” for a much longer discussion.

  36. Crust says:

    James Joyner:

    I’ve amended and bolded the update above to make it more clear.

    Thanks, looks good.

  37. Crust says:

    Houston:

    I didn’t hear anyone considered “official” confirm that the US tortured prisoners…

    I just want to know – is this point no longer debatable?

    If so, I am concerned, because in my mind waterboarding is not even close to torture…

    What do you think of Jonah Goldberg’s point that even if you think waterboarding isn’t torture, can you really deny in good conscience that waterboarding 183 times in a month is torture?

    To my mind, it’s clear that waterboarding even once (like any form of mock execution) is torture. On the other hand, I wouldn’t generally say sleep deprivation is torture. But once you talk about sleep deprivation for 11 days straight and some of the ways it was implemented with shackles, etc. that does sound like torture to me. My point is that frequency, intensity and what methods are combined with each other do matter.

  38. Eric says:

    If so, I am concerned, because in my mind waterboarding is not even close to torture, by any historical (or even contemporary non-American) meaning.

    Do you really mean this seriously? I mean, really? Because not only are you simply mistaken, you’re completely wrong. Waterboarding has been historically considered torture. It was used by, for example, the Spanish Inquisition, as well as by the Khmer Rouge. We prosecuted and even executed Nazis for this at Nuremburg.

    I don’t know where you get your information from, but you need to do a little better research. Start here.

  39. Houston says:

    I don’t know where you get your information from, but you need to do a little better research. Start here.

    Sorry, but despite the Wikipedia lawyers, I simply don’t believe that we ever approached torture. And for every lawyer who says that we did, there are plenty of others who say we didn’t.

    I’m not saying it’s an open and shut case, but I think it’s wrong to simply accept as a given that what we did was torture. There are plenty of legal arguements that it wasn’t.

    But again, to equate what we did against these three terrorists with the Nazis and the Spanish Inquisition is simply disingenuous. You know full well we had doctors on hand at all times, to ensure the safety of the prisoners. (Did the Nazis do that?) There was never an intent to cause lasting damage or pain – only immediate psychological stress and fear, to break down defenses against revealing secrets. By all accounts, it worked.

  40. Houston says:

    What do you think of Jonah Goldberg’s point that even if you think waterboarding isn’t torture, can you really deny in good conscience that waterboarding 183 times in a month is torture?

    Can we please stop with this myth? Even KSM himself says he was waterboarded 5 times. This 183 number is somebody’s rough accounting for how many times water was poured on the guy’s face, one several-second-long dribble at at time, over a month-long period. Look, if you strap the guy on the table and pour water on his face 10 times in a span of 2 minutes, it that one waterboarding or 10?

    It would help if people would retain their sanity when debating this topics.

  41. Houston says:

    From the memos:

    Interrogations were to be “continuously monitored” and “the interrogation team will stop the use of particular techniques or the interrogation altogether if the detainee’s medical or psychological conditions indicates that the detainee might suffer significant physical or mental harm.”

    Did the Nazis do that?

    And on the slamming against the plastic wall, the point was to inflict fear and uncertainty, not physical pain:

    …the idea is to create a sound that will make the impact seem far worse than it is and that will be far worse than any injury that might result from the action.

    The methods we used were harsh, sure, but they fall well short of “torture.” And continuing to use that word to describe what we did diminishes the true meaning of the word.

  42. Houston says:

    Oh and another thing. Not all waterboarding is created equal. What we did with those three guys is nothing like the “waterboarding” that was done in the past by the Japanese, Spanish Inquisition, etc.

    Even according to that great Wikipedia article:

    Waterboarding is a form of torture that consists of immobilizing the victim on his or her back with the head inclined downwards, and then pouring water over the face and into the breathing passages. By forced suffocation and inhalation of water, the subject experiences drowning and is caused to believe they are about to die.

    We didn’t do this. According to the guidelines, cellophane or cloth is placed over the subject’s mouth to keep water out of nose and mouth. There was never an intention for water to enter the airways – in fact, the intent is for the flow of water to block the airways. Very different.

    But I know details get in the way of emotions.

  43. An Interested Party says:

    How fascinating that some of the same people who whine and cry about how horrible the federal government is don’t mind giving that same entity the power to torture people and now we have someone making the ridiculous argument that some waterboarding is really bad and some isn’t…yeah, trying to argue that something which is torture really isn’t definitely diminishes the meaning of the word…

  44. G.A.Phillips says:

    How fascinating that some of the same people who whine and cry about how horrible the federal government is don’t mind giving that same entity the power to torture people and now we have someone making the ridiculous argument that some waterboarding is really bad and some isn’t…yeah, trying to argue that something which is torture really isn’t definitely diminishes the meaning of the word…

    No were near as bad as sucking out a baby’s brain, riping it out it’s mother womb, and throwing it in the garbage, and then saying it’s not really a baby.

    fricking liberals and their moral code,I am wrong the Nazi aint got poop on you guys, I’ll just start calling you what you really are, fricking Satan worshipers!

    Hitler would be in awe of your kill count, and proud that you get 1 out of every 2 black babies.

    So lets call republicans tortures and racists liberals, come on, I have not heard it for a couple minutes.

  45. Eric says:

    How fascinating that some of the same people who whine and cry about how horrible the federal government is don’t mind giving that same entity the power to torture people and now we have someone making the ridiculous argument that some waterboarding is really bad and some isn’t…

    Yes, the very same people who decry liberals’ alleged “moral relativism” (or “situational ethics”) are now doing precisely that in their defense of torture.

  46. RocketsGlare says:

    In reading various sources, it is apparent that waterboarding is only used on high level enemy detainees when there is credible evidence that they have information on an imminent terrorist threat. Further, it is used after other methods of interrogation have proven ineffective. Why isn’t that information reported alongside the waterboarding toteboard?? And how dare we be compared to regimes that systematically murdered innocent people!!!

  47. anjin-san says:

    The methods we used were harsh, sure, but they fall well short of “torture.” And continuing to use that word to describe what we did diminishes the true meaning of the word.

    And you know this because you were there, of course…

  48. Tlaloc says:

    Then again, we’re talking about the planner of the 9/11 attacks here.

    Or are we? After 183 waterboardings I’ll happily admit to planning the 9/11 attacks too. Hell I’d admit to planning the Great Depression if that’s what you wanted me to say.

  49. Our Paul says:

    Me thinks that our host, James Joyner (April 22, 2009 | 02:35 pm) has put a cap on this thread. He links to a past post (October 29, 2007) by himself where he quotes Malcom Nance, and a recent post by Gene Healy, of the Cato Institute, to unequivocally point to waterboarding as torture. Both deserve a read, but Nance who was a trainer at SERE deserves close attention.

    Said it before, but I will say it again. By focusing our attention on waterboarding, we obscure the widespread and systematic physical and mental abuse applied to prisoners at Gitmo and Basra. The key word is systematic. None of this was isolated “bad apples”. The uniformity of practices points an accusing finger up the chain of command.

  50. jukeboxgrad says:

    houston: “According to the guidelines, cellophane or cloth is placed over the subject’s mouth to keep water out of nose and mouth.”

    Take a look at the 46-page Bradbury memo, 5/10/05, p. 13: “we understand that water may enter — and may accumulate in — the detainee’s mouth and nasal cavity, preventing him from breathing.”

    You’re having a lot of trouble getting your facts straight. We did not use cellophane (although that’s what Kiriakou falsely told Brian Ross in 2007). We use cloth, but the purpose of the cloth is not to “keep water out of nose and mouth.” On the contrary. The purpose of the cloth is to stay wet and make it less possible to gulp air along with the water.

    The procedure we used was also used by the Japanese. We said it was torture and we prosecuted them (pdf).