Does Bin Laden’s Death Vindicate Bush-Era Harsh Interrogation Techniques?

The killing of Osama bin Laden has revived a debate over the usefulness and morality of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a euphemism for torture according to critics) employed by the George W. Bush administration to extract information from suspected terrorists.  Several Bush administration officials and conservative commentators have claimed that the enhanced techniques, such as waterboarding, produced the vital intelligence that led the U.S.to bin Laden’s hideout.  Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, entitled “The Waterboarding Trail to Bin Laden,” makes this case.  Mukasey argues that coercive interrogations, though used very infrequently, led to the capture of top Al-Qaeda operatives including Ramzi bin al Shibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed who were themselves subjected to these techniques and gave crucial information about bin Laden’s couriers—information that helped the U.S. track and kill the elusive bin Laden.  Upon taking office, President Obama discontinued the CIA program of harsh interrogations, a decision Mukasey suggests will harm U.S. security: “But policies put in place by the very administration that presided over this splendid success promise fewer such successes in the future. Those policies make it unlikely that we’ll be able to get information from those whose identities are disclosed by the material seized from bin Laden. The administration also hounds our intelligence gatherers in ways that can only demoralize them.”   

Opponents of Bush-era interrogation practices immediately fired back, contending there is little evidence that torture led to bin Laden, and pointing to the lengthy gap between the use of these techniques and the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound.  Adam Serwer of the Plum Line argues along these lines: “The pro-torture argument ignores the obvious — that if torture was so effective, bin Laden would have been dead long ago. Bin Laden was found through years of painstaking intelligence gathering, not through the barbarous methods supported by many Bush apologists.”  Former interrogator Matthew Alexander joins many critics (including Senator John McCain) in arguing that torture is not only immoral but practically it does more harm than good: it prompts detainees to fabricate information to stop the pain, it puts U.S. soldiers at risk, it harms America’s image overseas, and it serves as a potent recruiting tool for America’s enemies, including Al Qaeda. 

As is often the case, the answer to the question of whether enhanced interrogation techniques were pivotal in this case lies somewhere in between the stark narratives provided by either of these camps.  It appears that some of the intelligence that ultimately led to bin Laden did come from detainees who were subjected to these techniques (CIA Director Leon Panetta conceded as much in an interview with NBC news) but a great deal of additional intelligence gathering and analysis was required before the mission could be launched.  As National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor put it in a NY Times interview, “The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003…It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

Should these facts prompt President Obama to reconsider his rejection of his predecessor’s interrogation policies?  Is Obama putting America at risk by leaving a potentially important tool in the War on Terror in the toolbox?  Or does the use of this tool actually harm America’s interests, undermine its values, and make us more like our enemies?

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