Jun
01
2011

'Waterboarding Worked'?

After bin Laden’s death, media push pro-torture message

A waterboarding demonstration in Coney Island.--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Salim Virji

A waterboarding demonstration in Coney Island.--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Salim Virji

To hear some tell it, the intelligence clues that ultimately led to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan were generated by the use of torture. But the evidence available so far does not bear this out.

Torture advocates on the right are claiming vindication. On Fox News Channel’s O’Reilly Factor (5/2/11), Rep. Peter King (R.-N.Y.) announced that

we obtained information several years ago,vital information about the courier for Obama [sic]. We obtained that information through waterboarding. And so for those who say that waterboarding doesn’t work, to say that it should be stopped and never used again—we got vital information which directly led to us bin Laden.

This led O’Reilly to proclaim: “You’re not going to hear that on the other networks. I guarantee you.”

Actually, talk about how water torture may have revealed the identity of bin Laden’s trusted courier could be heard widely. On the CBS Evening News (5/2/11), reporter David Martin said, “Some of the leads to that courier came out of the CIA’s secret prison where those Al-Qaeda captives were waterboarded.”

And ABC World News reporter Jonathan Karl tapped Dick Cheney for expertise (5/2/11):

KARL: One key, Cheney suggests: the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program that Obama stopped because he said it included torture. An early tip leading to bin Laden’s courier came from some of those interrogations.

CHENEY: All I know is what I’ve seen in the newspaper at this point, but it wouldn’t be surprising if, in fact, that program produced results that ultimately contributed to the success of this venture.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted (5/3/11) that Obama killed bin Laden “with an apparent assist from the Bush administration’s interrogation program.” And on NBC’s Today show (5/3/11), Jim Miklasziewski reported:

U.S. officials tell NBC News that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, while in CIA custody, provided key information regarding a courier close to bin Laden. Intelligence sometimes obtained through aggressive interrogation techniques like waterboarding.

When media outlets tried to get more specific about what this “key information” consisted of, it tended to undermine the case. Time (5/20/11) reported that Al-Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, subjected to water torture, was asked about bin Laden’s courier; “when he pleaded ignorance, they knew they were on to something promising.” Another waterboarding subject “also played dumb,” Time pointed out, suggesting that the lack of information produced by torture illustrates how valuable torture is.

Stephen Carter in Newsweek (5/5/11) had a different version, claiming that torture produced the “vital clue” that bin Laden “communicated only through two couriers believed to be brothers.” Even if true, it seems very likely that the U.S. government would have been looking for bin Laden’s couriers even without this “crucial” information, which Carter asserts “likely led us to bin Laden’s door.”

Some journalists pointed out that the known details did not support the argument that torture produced essential intelligence. As New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer wrote (NewYorker.com, 5/2/11):

You would think that if the CIA’s interrogation of high-value detainees was all it took, the U.S. government would have succeeded in locating bin Laden before 2006, which is when the CIA’s custody of so-called “high-value detainees” ended.... This timeline doesn’t seem to provide a lot of support for the pro-torture narrative.

The New York Times (5/4/11), interviewing an array of intelligence sources, reported that “a closer look at prisoner interrogations suggests that the harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying Bin Laden’s trusted courier and exposing his hide-out.” Most importantly, the Times noted that “two prisoners who underwent some of the harshest treatment—including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times—repeatedly misled their interrogators about the courier’s identity.”

So the most famously tortured prisoners were of little help when it came to actually finding bin Laden. And a Los Angeles Times report (5/5/11), based on interviews with various government officials, found that “none of the three most critical pieces of information—the courier’s name, the area of Pakistan in which he operated and the location of the compound in which Bin Laden was living—came from detainees.”

Nonetheless, in many media accounts the premise of the “debate” over torture seemed to be that it worked. As USA Today presented it (5/10/11), “The revelation that tips prodded from captured al-Qaeda members subjected to ‘enhanced interrogations’ led to the capture of Osama bin Laden has ignited a debate over whether Obama should revisit the policies he cast aside.”

An Associated Press dispatch (5/2/11) reported that

Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.

This “up for debate” conclusion is strange, given that evidence would suggest that the pro-torture side of the “debate” has little to support their case. And such discussions serve to reaffirm a media narrative that tries to normalize torture by making it a debate that prioritizes outcomes—i.e, Does it work?—over legality and morality. (See Extra!, 1-2/02.)

Along those lines, CNN’s Kiran Chetry (5/3/11) posed this question to former Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice:

Things like enhanced interrogation have fallen out of favor. This administration has said they were ending some of those controversial practices like waterboarding that were acceptable under the Bush administration. The other big thing is the so-called black sites, these CIA interrogation sites around the world. All of this met with huge criticism. As more trickles out about whether or not any of these strategies played a key role in eventually killing Osama bin Laden, do they have to rethink this administration?

Despite Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that his show was a lonely pro-torture voice, there were many media voices suggesting a reevaluation of whether torture should be an accepted practice for the U.S. government. Bin Laden may be dead, but the corrosive effect on public discourse of the “war on terror” lives on.

SIDEBAR:

Sunday Morning Torture Talk

by Peter Hart

It’s bad enough that corporate media are having such an ill-informed debate about whether torturing some prisoners helped find Osama bin Laden. But considering whom the media invite to this debate, it’s probably not a surprise. Take the May 8 Sunday shows.

On NBC’s Meet the Press, Obama national security adviser Thomas Donilon basically refused to take a definitive position on torture, waterboarding and intelligence, saying “No single piece of intelligence led to this.” NBC followed that with a segment with former CIA head Michael Hayden and Rudy Giuliani, both of whom basically endorsed the idea that torture worked.

On CBS’s Face the Nation, Donald Rumsfeld declared that these tactics worked.

Fox News Sunday had an “exclusive” with Dick Cheney, which followed a pretty contentious interview with Donilon. Cheney did not surprise.

On ABC’s This Week, torture advocate Liz Cheney was on the roundtable to say exactly what you’d expect. (“That debate is over. It worked. It got the intelligence. It wasn’t torture. It was legal.”) This came after host Christiane Amanpour provided a misleading set-up, saying that Obama officials had admitted that waterboarding “did, in fact, yield fruitful information in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.”

But ABC deserves some credit for at least having a critic of torture on their show. Former Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks said this:

I never thought I’d live in a country where we would debate whether we should endorse torture as an official policy. Was some information obtained through torture? Probably yeah. Could it have been obtained through more professional methods the intelligence professionals recommended? Almost certainly yes. We could have gotten it sooner and better.Also, what we know is that the use of torture became the prime recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda and for insurgents in Iraq, and so directly resulted in the death of American troops.

These facts about torture were rarely mentioned in discussions too often confined to Obama officials unwilling to forcefully denounce torture and former Bush officials eager to defend their pro-torture record.

SIDEBAR:

Bush’s ‘Palpable Persistence’ in Pursuit of bin Laden

by Peter Hart

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz (5/2/11) was among the first to introduce a popular theme in the coverage of the killing of Osama bin Laden: that finding the Al-Qaeda leader owed as much to the work of George W. Bush as to the Obama administration:

Bush put down the marker not long after the September 11 attacks, saying he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive.” That was taken as a sign of cowboy swagger by a Texan president by some of his critics, but it was a reflection of the absolute importance that he and much of the nation attached to bringing to justice the man responsible for the worst terrorist attack on the homeland in the history of the nation....Bin Laden eluded Bush and his team, to their regret, but not for lack of trying. Bush’s persistence was palpable and set the tone for the intelligence community tasked with bringing bin Laden to justice. Obama picked up on that commitment when he came into office and redoubled efforts to defeat Al-Qaeda and kill bin Laden.

“Not for lack of trying”? Actually, the Bush administration’s failure to apprehend bin Laden in December 2001 is directly traceable to its diversion of resources to the already-anticipated invasion of Iraq--as documented by the Washington Post’s own reporting (5/6/11). Not long after, Bush (3/13/02) said of bin Laden:

Who knows if he’s hiding in some cave or not. We haven’t heard from him in a long time. The idea of focusing on one person really indicates to me people don’t understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person. He’s just a person who’s been marginalized.... I don’t know where he is. I really just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with you.

The Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen (5/2/11) noted that in 2005, Bush shut down the CIA unit that had been hunting bin Laden (New York Times, 7/4/06). The next year, Bush told Fred Barnes (Weekly Standard, 9/13/06) that an “emphasis on bin Laden doesn’t fit with the administration’s strategy for combating terrorism.”

Still, the Postkeeps giving Bush credit: According to Scott Wilson and Anne Kornblut (5/5/11), Obama ought to thank Bush not only for “a detention and interrogation system that Obama once condemned as contrary to American values,” but also for “wag[ing] wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have forged a military so skilled that it carried out a complicated covert raid with only a minor complication.”