No, The Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Story Does Not Prove That “Torture Works”

The blogosphere has been abuzz over yesterday’s story in The Washington Post discussing how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the September 11th attacks, went from adversary to alleged CIA asset:

After enduring the CIA’s harshest interrogation methods and spending more than a year in the agency’s secret prisons, Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called “terrorist tutorials.”

In 2005 and 2006, the bearded, pudgy man who calls himself the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks discussed a wide variety of subjects, including Greek philosophy and al-Qaeda dogma. In one instance, he scolded a listener for poor note-taking and his inability to recall details of an earlier lecture.

Speaking in English, Mohammed “seemed to relish the opportunity, sometimes for hours on end, to discuss the inner workings of al-Qaeda and the group’s plans, ideology and operatives,” said one of two sources who described the sessions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because much information about detainee confinement remains classified. “He’d even use a chalkboard at times.”

These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its “preeminent source” on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.

“KSM, an accomplished resistor, provided 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intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate or incomplete,” according to newly unclassified portions of a 2004 report by the CIA’s then-inspector general released Monday by the Justice Department.

The debate over the effectiveness of subjecting detainees to psychological and physical pressure is in some ways irresolvable, because it is impossible to know whether less coercive methods would have achieved the same result. But for defenders of waterboarding, the evidence is clear: Mohammed cooperated, and to an extraordinary extent, only when his spirit was broken in the month after his capture March 1, 2003, as the inspector general’s report and other documents released this week indicate.

Over a few weeks, he was subjected to an escalating series of coercive methods, culminating in 7 1/2 days of sleep deprivation, while diapered and shackled, and 183 instances of waterboarding. After the month-long torment, he was never waterboarded again.

“What do you think changed KSM’s mind?” one former senior intelligence official said this week after being asked about the effect of waterboarding. “Of course it began with that.”

The highlighted portions above are important because they lay bare a fact that the Post story glosses over; namely the fact that KSM’s lengthy cooperation occurred a full two years after he had been waterboarded and subject to other “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Given the amount of time that elapsed, and the lack of any evidence that there was any actual useful information obtained from the 2003 interrogations, it seems to be a stretch at best to say that those interrogation techniques were the reason he cooperated. It’s just as likely that the standard interrogation techniques that continued after March 2003 succeeded in breaking him.

Second, it’s not even clear that the information Mohammed gave the interrogators was at all reliable:

Mohammed, in statements to the International Committee of the Red Cross, said some of the information he provided was untrue.

“During the harshest period of my interrogation I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop. I later told interrogators that their methods were stupid and counterproductive. I’m sure that the false information I was forced to invent in order to make the ill-treatment stop wasted a lot of their time,” he said

That’s the problem with torture, you can never be sure if the information you’re getting is reliable, or whether it’s just something you’re being told so that the torture will stop.

The other problem is one that Justin Gardner puts aptly:

And that gets me to the real point of this post. Torture works? Again, no. Because it completely undermines the values that we’re fighting to defend. America is not a TV show. Fighting terrorism doesn’t work like that. And if you don’t understand that having policies that allow us to kidnap and torture anybody we want makes us look like the big bullies they accuse of being, makes it easier for more people to hate us and therefore makes us less safe, well, please think on this some more.

We’re Americans, we don’t torture.


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