Marc Ambinder

Torture apologists must live with this undeniable truth: Torture doesn't work

It would take you nearly a full day to read the full Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA's brutal interrogation programs, and then the response of the CIA, and then the responses of former CIA directors, and then the op-eds of the "enhanced interrogation technique" amen corner.

So let me try to boil this down into one digestible blog post.

Bravura aside, the argument of the torture techniques' defenders has four prongs to it.

1. The detainees possessed intelligence related to imminent attacks on U.S. interests.

2. Traditional interrogation techniques could not, would not, and did not persuade the detainees to give up that actionable intelligence.

3. Had the CIA not used the "enhanced" techniques, the chances that the detainees would have volunteered this information would be appreciably lower.

4. The intelligence provided by the detainees was of a higher quality, more useful, and more actionable after the interrogations.

But the Senate staff, using information provided by the CIA itself, found that the detainees often did not possess intelligence related to imminent attacks on U.S. interests. Furthermore, traditional interrogation techniques, such as those used by the FBI, or by friendly foreign countries like Germany, France, the UK, or Iraqi Kurdistan, are directly associated with the most valuable, actionable intelligence that the detainees produced.

No doubt, Senate Democrats and their staff were predisposed to find evidence that confirmed their own theory of Bush-era torture programs. But even the CIA's rebuttal does not make the case that the "enhanced" interrogation techniques were any better. It merely says that detainees provided intelligence after they applied these techniques. Over and over, the rebuttal claims that the intelligence gathered from the detainees helped to fill in the agency's gaps in understanding about al Qaeda, that intelligence from one source is almost never actionable and requires a "mosaic" and independent sources and methods, and that to suggest that the detainees inside the program did not produce valuable intelligence is wrong.

Note carefully: The Senate report acknowledges that the detainees regularly provided valuable intelligence after torture. But it notes that there is no reason to believe that torture was necessary to pry out whatever bit of information CIA headquarters required.

Let me bold this: None of the detainees seemed to be hiding pertinent facts about imminent terrorist attacks. None of them needed any coercion to give up what they knew. None. The CIA does not dispute this.

Over and over, the interrogators reported that a detainee was compliant. Over and over, headquarters responded along the lines of, "That can't be true. They must know something. Or, at the very least, we need to put them in enough duress to ensure that they know nothing. If they're not telling us about plots, plots we think we know about from other fragmentary sources, then the interrogations need to be harsher."

And so, the interrogators would waterboard, or threaten rape, or sleep deprive, using whatever bureaucratically sanctioned method was on the menu that day. (And the menu often changed!)

And then, the detainees began to fabricate information to give the captors what they wanted to hear, because they were human and in pain. The captors, feeling for their prisoners, were apt to pretend to believe, or actually believe, the threat information, and passed it along to CIA headquarters. Virtually none of it was corroborated.

The CIA defenders say that sometimes, when presented with information after having endured torture, the detainees accurately confirmed information already obtained about plots in motion, and that months and years after the detainees stopped being tortured, they helped provide analysts with connect-the-dot information about al Qaeda financiers, and previous plots, associates, and infrastructure. This is the crucial point: We are told, say, that a prisoner recognized a photograph of an important person that happened to be shown to him after the prisoner was tortured, and that helped the CIA put together a piece of a puzzle. To call THAT a success of the program is to imply that there was no reason to think that the prisoner would have provided the same information at the same time if he had not been tortured, and that the pre-torture rapport built by the interrogators and the captors remained intact. The CIA rebuttal goes out of its way to suggest that there is no way to know that what would have happened. An epistemological question is how one CIA officer put it.

But it should not have to be! If the program is a success, there should be many examples where a detainee was presented with the same questions before and after "enhanced interrogation" and only provided the valuable, accurate intel after the fact. Here, absence of evidence is evidence of absence, precisely because we can say with near certainty that the detainees provided extremely valuable information before being tortured — information that, had these prisoners been truly trained to resist interrogation, they would not have easily gotten up.

As much revulsion as I have for torture on a moral level, I am not above admitting that my moral qualms would be eased (slightly) if there was evidence that torture was appreciably better than regular interrogation techniques at preventing terrorism or helping policy-makers protect the country.

Fortunately, for those of us who think torture is morally wrong and believe that it is also ineffective, the totality of the report released Tuesday, the rebuttals, and the arguments of its critics and defenders all point to the same conclusion: Torture doesn't work.


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