The Unwelcome Return of the Torture Debate

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The successful end of the bin Laden story has the "enhanced interrogation" crowd wanting to take some credit

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The shot-up corpse of Osama bin Laden was barely wet at the bottom of the sea when conservative heavyweights began praising Bush-era "enhanced interrogation" tactics as a big reason why U.S. soldiers were able to know in which multistory house in which million-dollar compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the al Qaeda leader was holed up. With a spectacularly successful "end" to the bin Laden story, the we-told-you-so crowd evidently now wants to go back and re-litigate the legitimacy of the "means" by which they claim it all came about.

And, in the absence of any other juicy political conflict surrounding the news of bin Laden's death, serious journalists were only too happy to oblige the counterfact festival choreographed (typically without attribution, of course) mainly by the nation's various spies and spooks. One earnest reporter after another, from the right and the left and in between, dutifully stoked the suddenly "reignited" fires of debate over the effectiveness of torture as a means of gathering material information from terror detainees.

On Monday into Tuesday, as a running sidebar to the main story about how the bin Laden assault took place, there were a slew of news articles arguing the back-and-forth of the torture meme as if the two sides to the argument came to this august moment in American history on equal footing in fact or law. For example, NBC's mighty Michael Isikoff tried to finesse the matter by describing the torture of terror law prisoners as "aggressive interrogations" or "sometimes controversial interrogations." And then he wrote: 

The behind-the-scenes story of how bin Laden was finally located is yet to be fully told, but emerging details seem likely to reignite the debate over whether "enhanced interrogation" techniques and other aggressive methods that have been widely criticized by human rights groups provided useful - or timely -- intelligence about al-Qaida. While some current and former U.S. officials credited those interrogations Monday with producing the big break in the case, others countered that they failed to produce what turned out to be the most crucial piece of intelligence of all: the identity and whereabouts of the most important figure in bin Laden courier's network.

One of the "behind-the-scenes" nuggets apparently involves Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, who was said by some unidentified analysts to have given up the nicknames of some of bin Laden's couriers only after being subjected to waterboarding. One of those couriers, we now know, was brilliantly tracked by American operatives to the Abbottabad hideout and thus to bin Laden himself. But here's what the Associated Press had to say about 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.

Just exactly why the merits of waterboarding as an honorable tool of U.S. policy are "once again up for debate" based upon the Mohammed example was left unwritten by the AP. So perhaps former secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- who knows a thing or two about torture -- could help us out? Nope. He just mostly wanted everyone to know what it wasn't his beloved subordinates at the Pentagon who did anything wrong in the first place. Throwing the Central Intelligence Agency under the bus again, he was quoted Monday at Newsmax.com saying:

The United States Department of Defense did not do waterboarding for interrogation purposes to anyone. It is true that some information that came from normal interrogation approaches at Guantanamo did lead to information that was beneficial in this instance. But it was not harsh treatment and it was not waterboarding.

On Tuesday night, The New York Times chimed in. After noting the "chorus" of self-justifying chatter Monday from former Bush officials, but before mentioning what they called the "revived" national debate about torture in the wake of Bin Laden's death, Scott Shane and Charles Savage wrote:

But 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. One detainee who apparently was subjected to some tough treatment provided a crucial description of the courier, according to current and former officials briefed on the interrogations. But 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.

To have a renewed public debate, or at least widespread reports of one, it's apparently enough that some connected people in and out of official Washington who were in favor of torture ten years ago are still in favor of it today and especially so in the wake of the biggest intelligence success in recent U.S. history. Never mind the intervening legal and political and diplomatic disaster that our torture policies wrought. There is nothing quite like a dramatic change in shipping news to bring the rats back to the ship, right? And, really, is anyone surprised that Liz Cheney and company would try to take full advantage of perhaps their last best chance to alter the way in which historians will view the Bush team's odious terror law policies?

Except that it is already too late. We have been through this debate before. And the high-ranking Bush Administration officials who orchestrated and condoned the torture of detainees in the name of the American people lost the argument. They lost it as a matter of politics. And they lost it as a matter of law. They lost it over Abu Ghraib and they lost it over Maher Arar. They lost it by such a wide margin, in fact, that only political comity on the part of the Obama Administration (for which it was roundly roasted by progressives) prevented some of them from the possibility of being indicted or otherwise sanctioned.

It is entirely possible that some valuable intelligence information about bin Laden's couriers was gleaned from long-ago waterboarding. And it is possible that some of this information was part of what Attorney General Eric Holder Tuesday called a "mosaic" of information that led to bin Laden's demise. But it is beyond doubt that the United States was able to track and then kill its arch enemy in Abbottabad based upon regular old gumshoe detective work, both traditional and innovative, that occurred years and years after the detainees in question were reportedly tortured. How exactly does that suffice to restore credibility to the pro-torture argument? 

In any event, even such generalities tend to steer us right back into the thicket of a debate the time for which has passed. So if our nation's torture apologists still really want to right this fight again they should do so for real and not via the media. Instead of offering up cheesy post-hoc torture rationalizations on op-ed pages or via anonmous leaks, instead of hopping on the bin Laden Bandwagon now that he's been wiped off the face of the Earth, they should publicly beg President Obama and his Holder to appoint a Truth Commission on Torture.

Bring on the testimony. Swear in the witnesses. If the torture lobby is still convinced of the righteousness of its cause it should say so loud and proud under oath and on the record. Such hearings would be great theater, have important cathartic value, and represent yet another unintentional legacy wrought by the miserable life and violent death of America's Public Enemy No. 1.

Image credit: Reuters

Drop-down image credit: Reuters

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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