What do you call the people who have kept the country safe since 9/11 while preventing new terrorist attacks on American soil? If you’re the New York Times and the Obama administration, you call them war criminals.
The latest trigger for the outrage against the Bush administration and its counterterrorism policies – specifically, harsh interrogation measures like waterboarding that were used on high-level detainees until 2003 – is a recently declassified 2004 CIA inspector general’s report on prisoner interrogations. If last week’s Times editorial is to be believed, the document lays out the “illegal and immoral behavior” perpetrated by the CIA on the Bush administration’s orders – a systematic regime of “torture” that should be punished, not defended, as former vice president Cheney, to the Times’ dismay, insists on doing.
That claim may make for neat moral judgments, but it’s a highly misleading reading of the CIA report. Contrary to the Times’ description, the inspector general’s report, though still only partially declassified, makes a powerful case that interrogation tactics like waterboarding proved highly effective in inducing detainees to cooperate and yielded valuable intelligence that helped thwart terrorist plots before they could be carried out.
Most instructive is the case of arch-terrorist and 9/11 architect Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KSM). The CIA report points out that shortly after his capture, KSM was “an accomplished resistor,” providing “only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate or incomplete.”
Once waterboarding was tried, however, the tightlipped jihadist became a fount of actionable intelligence. According to the CIA report, not only did KSM become interrogators’ “preeminent source” on al-Qaeda operations, but he also furnished information that helped lead to the arrests of several other terrorists, including Sayfullah Paracha and his son Uzair Paracha, al-Qaeda-connected businessmen who planned to smuggle explosives into the United States; Saleh Almari, a sleeper-cell operative in New York; Majid Khan, an operative who could enter the United States was instructed to research ways to carry out attacks; and Iyman Faris, a truck driver arrested in early 2003 in Ohio who has pleaded to providing material support to al-Qaeda.
KSM wasn’t the only demure detainee who proved more forthcoming after waterboarding. Al-Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaydah also became more accommodating after he was waterboarded. Although the CIA report acknowledges that “it is not possible to say definitively that the waterboard is the reason for Abu Zubaydah’s increased production, or if another factor, such as the length of detention, was the catalyst,” it also notes that “since the use of the waterboard” Abu Zubaydah has “appeared to be cooperative.” That may be sufficiently hedged for opponents to deny the efficacy of harsh interrogation techniques. But given the abruptness of Zubaydah’s conversion after the introduction of waterboarding, it seems fanciful, to say the least, to discount the connection between the two.
And even some liberal opponents of coercive interrogation techniques are willing to admit that they proved effective when used on Saudi al-Qaeda operative Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Once again, the CIA report provides corroborating evidence. Though it cautions that “it is difficult to identify why exactly al-Nashiri became more willing to provide information,” the fact remains that he “provided information about his most operational planning” only after being waterboarded.
If this flies in the face of claims about the purported “futility” of the more strenuous interrogation techniques, it’s because such claims were always based more in ideology than evidence. John Helgerson, the former CIA inspector general who investigated interrogation techniques for the 2004 report, has observed that waterboarding and sleep deprivation were the two most effective techniques used and elicited a wealth of information. All told, thanks to waterboading and similar measures, the CIA in 2003 was able to discover the names of 70 previously unknown operatives “that al-Qaeda deemed suitable for Western operations.” Not a bad track record for a putatively futile program.
This success is not entirely surprising. While al-Qaeda members are reportedly trained to resist severe interrogation techniques, captured jihadists are actually happy to surrender information – provided their symbolic resistance is broken.
That’s where coercive interrogations come in. As one intelligence officer recently told the Washington Post, “Once the harsher techniques were used on [detainees], they could be viewed as having done their duty to Islam or their cause, and their religious principles would ask no more of them.”
The overall success of harsh interrogation techniques should not obscure the reality that abuses did take place. A number of reliable accounts, including the declassified CIA report, suggest that in its earliest phases the interrogation program was shoddily run and inadequately supervised, with the result that CIA interrogators occasionally exceeded the permitted bounds of the program. In the worst case, an Afghan detainee was brutally beaten with a large metal flashlight and kicked during interrogation sessions. He later died during custody.
Tragic though it was, the above incident is notable for being an exception. The interrogator responsible for the abuse was fired by the CIA and punished. Even so, it must be considered a black mark on the CIA’s interrogation record – all the more egregious because it casts doubt on the commendable work of more scrupulous interrogators who succeeded in extracting valuable intelligence without blurring the line between controlled severity and sadism. Yet that’s what the Obama administration has done by approving attorney general Eric Holder to investigate whether CIA officers should be face criminal prosecution for conducting the same interrogation techniques that have kept the country safe.
Distinctions like that are lost on the critics of the CIA interrogation program, who comfort themselves with the “self-evident truth” that measures like waterboarding are wrong and must never be used – all consequences be damned. The argument is problematic enough coming from newspaper editorial pages, who don’t have to deal with the real-life consequences of their moral preening, but it is doubly dangerous when backed by the government tasked with safeguarding the country.
The CIA’s report serves as a useful corrective to partisan attacks on the agency’s interrogation program. The irony is that the report was declassified only after the American Civil Liberties Union brought suit. The ACLU wanted to embarrass the Bush administration and repudiate its counterterrorism policies. Instead, it has vindicated both. As the 8th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks nears, the Obama administration would be well advised to take notice.