Aura of Waterboarding Undermines US' Reputation

Wednesday, 11 May 2011 11:28 AM

By Judith Miller

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So much for Barack Obama's proclaimed moment of "national unity" over the killing of Osama bin Laden. America's own Islamist Darth Vader may be dead, but the partisan divisions he so relished exploiting endure.

By the time the president laid the memorial wreath at ground zero on Thursday, pundits were already quarreling over how bin Laden was killed, the implications of his death, the legality of his killing, and whether graphic photos of his corpse should be released.

But the fiercest dispute so far surrounds the issue of whether bin Laden's demise justifies the CIA's use of torture — which its advocates call "enhanced interrogation techniques," or EIT — to extract information from suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and in a secret network of prisons abroad.

On some of these controversies, the Obama administration bears some responsibility for all the back and forth. Its inability to get the raid's facts straight helped puncture the country's celebratory mood. First we heard that bin Laden was killed in a fierce 40-minute firefight and had used a woman, who had been shot and killed, as a human shield. Then it turned out that bin Laden was unarmed, and the human shield was his wife, who had lunged in the dark at Navy SEAL Team Six members before being shot in the leg.

Bin Laden's son Hamza was initially said to have been killed. But it turned out to be Khalid, a different son. And so on.

The administration's narrative was a mess, wrote Paul Harris of the Guardian, a remarkable display of PR ineptitude that fueled broader questions about the raid. "It you don't know the full facts, then don't release any of them," he wrote. "That is basic PR stuff."

The effectiveness of EIT, though, goes far beyond public relations. Impassioned voices on the left and right have been marshaling facts for and against the use of waterboarding and other abusive techniques. Both sides accuse the other of distorting and rewriting history to justify their position.

John Yoo, the former Bush Justice Department lawyer, argued that bin Laden's death showed that such techniques were not only proper, but effective and necessary. And in a classic example of shifting narratives, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who initially said that no coerced evidence had helped identify and locate bin Laden, was saying by Thursday that such mistreatment had, in fact, produced invaluable clues.

A study by New York Times reporters Scott Shane and Charlie Savage concluded that torture played only a "small role at most" in the years of persistent analytical and intelligence work that led to bin Laden's compound.

Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism researcher who has closely studied Islamist detainees at Gitmo and examined all of their leaked or declassified interrogation files, said he thinks it remains unclear whether torture produced the information that enabled investigators to track down bin Laden. "There is no clear narrative on this yet," he told me.

However, he added, there was "substantial evidence" that EIT had produced valuable intelligence about dozens of other detainees and plots. "There are too many declassified memos, published accounts and FBI alerts generated from this information to say these techniques don't work," he asserted.

"Could the information have been gotten without relying on such abusive techniques? That's an open question," he acknowledged, "but it is hard to second-guess the program's intelligence successes."

On the other hand, a former intelligence officer at Gitmo insisted to me that most detainees who cooperated were broken not by such techniques, but because interrogators were well-prepared and well-trained, were persistent, and developed a rapport with the detainee.

I have visited Gitmo, but I have not studied detainee files and interrogation records in detail. I'm willing to concede that EIT may have produced information that helped track down terrorists, or "evildoers," as former President George W. Bush called them. But effectiveness should not be the sole standard in determining how America treats terrorist suspects in detention.

Terrorism, after all, was an effective tool for bin Laden, at least for a while. That made it neither moral nor politically justifiable.

Whether or not Americans agree that waterboarding is torture or that torture is wrong, the record suggests that the CIA's use of it undermined the nation's international standing, and thereby our moral high ground against the bin Ladens of the world.

As long as America needs to protect itself by imprisoning suspected terrorists at Gitmo and other facilities — and there is likely to be serious disagreement about that as well in days to come — it should never again have to apologize for the treatment of those it detains.

Read all of Judith Miller's columns on Pundicity.com.

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