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What Waterboarding Accomplished

The substantial arguments against the Washington Post's assessment that torture worked

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"How a Detainee Became an Asset," The Washington Post's front-page article from the weekend, posited that waterboarding worked effectively in getting information from detainee Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Unsurprisingly, the story has drawn substantial criticism from anti-torture advocates. Beneath the usual accusations of "stenography journalism," there are some substantial arguments on the objectivity of the anonymous sources, the logic of whether torture demonstrably caused confessions, and whether torture even really preceded those confessions.

  • Trustworthy Sources?  The Post's story relied heavily on anonymous sources, drawing skepticism. Glenn Greenwald noted, "There is not a single on-the-record source to corroborate the Torture-Saved-Us-From-Mass-Death narrative, nor is there even a shred of information about the motives or views of these 'officials.'" Lindsay Beyerstein raised questions about whether the anonymous sources could be both fully informed and sufficiently objective. "The story seems to imply that they showed up 2 or 3 years after he started cooperating. In which case, why should we trust their hunches about what turned the prisoner?" she wrote. "And if they were around for the torture, how much stock should we put in anonymous anecdotes from people who might be facing criminal charges? Of course they're going to say that the program was dazzlingly effective. At this point, good PR is their best chance of staying free and employed."
  • Correlation versus Causation  Critics argued that the Post falsely assumed that, because torture preceded confessions, torture causes confessions. Glenn Greenwald said of the story, "At best, it's nothing more than a statement of obvious chronology, not causation [...] notwithstanding the complete absence of any evidence for such claims." Lindsay Beyerstein agreed, noting that 183 waterboarding sessions were performed. "With no control group, we have no way of knowing whether KSM broke any faster than he would have with traditional rapport-based interrogation tactics. For all we know, torture actually prolonged the process," she wrote. Marcy Wheeler rejected the idea that torture made any difference. "WaPo doesn't note that KSM went from capture to torture in a matter of weeks, so any claim that he was uncooperative--weighed against two years of rapport-based interrogation--is completely bogus," she wrote.
  • What About Rapport-Building?  Marcy Wheeler argued that interrogators got confessions as a result of rapport-building sessions, not torture. "After KSM's most intense torture ended, the CIA started to use rapport-based interrogation with him. I guess they didn't think that little detail--that the treatment of KSM immediately preceding the time when he was so cooperative and helpful actually adopted a different approach to interrogation--was worthy of mention," she wrote. "The WaPo had an opportunity to show the progression of KSM's treatment: almost immediately to torture, then to rapport, and after that, helpful though still not entirely reliable contributions." She concluded, "CIA didn't try other methods with KSM until after he had been tortured and that it was months and years of rapport, not the torture, most closely tied to his cooperation.
  • Helping Al Qaeda  Of course, questions of chronology and sourcing and correlation can seem a bit secondary to the broader issue of torture's morality and place within American foreign policy. John McCain summed it up on Face the Nation: "I think the interrogations were in violation of the Geneva Convention against torture that we ratified under President Reagan. I think that these interrogations, once publicized, helped al Qaeda recruit. I got that from an al Qaeda operative in a prison camp in Iraq who told me that. I think that the ability of us to work with our allies was harmed. And so -- and I believe that information according to the FBI and others could have been gained through other methods."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.