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.