Torturing Khalid Shaikh Mohammed Worked
The Chicago Tribune ran a chilling piece in yesterday’s edition by John Crewdson bolstering the case for torturing terrorist suspects.
Moral and legal aspects aside, conventional wisdom is that torture simply isn’t practical: that someone who is being tortured will say anything to make the torture stop, and that information gleaned through torture is therefore not reliable. Some former military and intelligence officers say, however, that physically aggressive interrogation techniques that some human-rights groups consider torture can be effective in the short term. When asked for specifics, the technique they cite is “waterboarding,” in which water is poured over a subject’s face to create the sensation of drowning.
Consider Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the 39-year-old former Al Qaeda operative who was the Sept. 11 mastermind and bearer of many Al Qaeda secrets. If anyone had a motive for remaining silent, it was the man known to terrorism investigators as “KSM.” But not long after his capture in Pakistan, in March 2003, KSM began to talk. He ultimately had so much to say that more than 100 footnoted references to the CIA’s interrogations of KSM are contained in the final report of the commission that investigated Sept. 11. Not that everything KSM said was believable. But much of his information checked out in separate questioning of other captured Al Qaeda figures.
What made KSM decide to talk? The answer may be waterboarding, to which KSM was subjected on at least one occasion, according to various accounts. Intelligence operatives say that while waterboarding can break through a suspect’s initial resistance, it isn’t effective for long-term interrogation. Once a suspect begins to communicate, however, an interrogation specialist can put into action a wide range of far more subtle techniques, which include playing to a subject’s ego or pretending to be his friend.
It could not be learned exactly when KSM was waterboarded or whether the technique was used more than once. But only 12 days after being captured in Pakistan, on March 1, 2003, KSM made his first reported major revelation.
Crewdson follows this with a detailed timeline gathered from the 9/11 Commission’s final report and ends, “The commission’s report was published in July 2004. But for all the world knows, KSM may be talking still.”
This is good news in the war on terror but bad news in the fight against torture. As I noted earlier this month,
I am able to maintain my opposition to torture not only on philosophical grounds at least partly because of my practical sense that it is ineffectual–indeed, harmful–on public policy grounds. Those who believe that torture works may, understandably, be willing to rationalize away their moral objections.
Success stories only strengthen their case. This is only one case and we don’t really know to what degree waterboarding contributed to breaking Mohammed. It nonetheless subtly shifts the balance of the argument.
Update: Robert Prather and Pat argue that waterboarding isn’t torture because, “It doesnÃ¢€™t involve any permanent damage of any kind” and “It does no physical harm and leaves no scars,” respectively.
The CONVENTION AGAINST TORTURE and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which the United States and United Kingdom are signatories, defines it thusly:
For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
Whether one believes waterboarding ought be within bounds when dealing with terror suspects, it is certainly “torture.”
Related at OTB:
Bush Accepts Torture Ban
Boot Camp as Torture
Torture: A Bad Idea
ItÃ¢€™s the Torture, Stupid
Senate Compromise on Detainee Rights, Torture
Canadian Court Allows Bush Torture Prosecution
U.K. to Deport Islamist Radicals, Possibly Even Citizens
Another Prison Torture Scandal
Guantanamo: Torture or No Torture?
Truth Extraction: Honey Beats Vinegar
In Defense of Rendition