The Unwelcome Return of the Torture Debate

More

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

Copy of waterboarding.jpg

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?

Jump to comments
Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In