The Utter Stupidity of Torture

The United States has paid a very high price for the Bush administration’s decision to use torture on captured detainees from the Middle East — and not just in terms of moral authority.

David Rose’s must-read article in the current Vanity Fair focuses on a less-examined aspect of torture: its ineffectiveness. He does this by looking closely at four high-profile individuals — Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Jose Padilla, and Binyam Mohamed — whose cases the administration has used to make its claim that torture — or, in their usage, “alternate interrogation techniques” — is “an essential tool in the war against terror.”

All of these men were tortured. In fact, Abu Zubaydah, who was captured on March 28, 2002, was subjected to torture before any of the infamous written legal justifications for torture had been prepared. Among other things, he was waterboarded. He was also held and interrogated at various C.I.A. “black site” prisons. Other detainees, like Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and Binyam Mohamed, were waterboarded, beaten, and suspended from the ceiling by the wrists, with their feet dangling just above the floor. Often they were forced to hang like this for many hours. These were by no means the only torments to which they were subjected.

Did any of this result in actionable intelligence? Dick Cheney, Pres. Bush, and others involved with the torture program say it did. But actual counterterrorism experts in the Pentagon and elsewhere disagree:

President Bush has said it works extremely well, insisting it has been a vital weapon in America’s counterterrorist arsenal. Vice President Dick Cheney and C.I.A. director Michael Hayden have made similar assertions. In fact, time and again, Bush has been given opportunities to distance his administration from the use of coercive methods but has stood steadfastly by their use. His most detailed exposition came in a White House announcement on September 6, 2006, when he said such tactics had led to the capture of top al-Qaeda operatives and had thwarted a number of planned attacks, including plots to strike U.S. Marines in Djibouti, fly planes into office towers in London, and detonate a radioactive “dirty” bomb in America. “Were it not for this program, our intelligence community believes that al-Qaeda and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland. By giving us information about terrorist plans we could not get anywhere else, this program has saved innocent lives.”

Really? In researching this article, I spoke to numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Their conclusion is unanimous: not only have coercive methods failed to generate significant and actionable intelligence, they have also caused the squandering of resources on a massive scale through false leads, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts—with Abu Zubaydah’s case one of the most glaring examples.

Here, they say, far from exposing a deadly plot, all torture did was lead to more torture of his supposed accomplices while also providing some misleading “information” that boosted the administration’s argument for invading Iraq.

It wasn’t only the unreliability, in and of itself, of information gained through torture that created the harm. It was also the C.I.A.’s poor understanding of Al Qaeda organization, and of how Islamist terrorist organizations are structured and how they operate, in general. As a result of this lack of knowledge, the intelligence operatives who captured and interrogated Zubaydah had no real insight into who Zubaydah was, what he did, what his connections or his role were. They thought he was much more of a central operational figure than he was:

Everything that was to go wrong with the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah flowed from a first, fatal misjudgment. Although his name had long been familiar to the C.I.A., that did not make him an operational terrorist planner or, as Bush put it in September 2006, “a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden.” Instead, Scheuer says, he was “the main cog in the way they organized,” a point of contact for Islamists from many parts of the globe seeking combat training in the Afghan camps. However, only a tiny percentage would ever be tapped for recruitment by al-Qaeda.

According to Scheuer, Abu Zubaydah “never swore bayat [al-Qaeda’s oath of allegiance] to bin Laden,” and the enemy he focused on was Israel, not the U.S. After Abu Zubaydah’s capture, Dan Coleman, an F.B.I. counterterrorist veteran, had the job of combing through Abu Zubaydah’s journals and other documents seized from his Faisalabad safe house. He confirms Scheuer’s assessment. “Abu Zubaydah was like a receptionist, like the guy at the front desk here,” says Coleman, gesturing toward the desk clerk in the lobby of the Virginia hotel where we have met. “He takes their papers, he sends them out. It’s an important position, but he’s not recruiting or planning.” It was also significant that he was not well versed in al-Qaeda’s tight internal-security methods: “That was why his name had been cropping up for years.”

Declassified reports of legal interviews with Abu Zubaydah at his current residence, Guantánamo Bay, suggest that he lacked the capacity to do much more. In the early 1990s, fighting in the Afghan civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, he was injured so badly that he could not speak for almost two years. “I tried to become al-Qaeda,” Abu Zubaydah told his lawyer, Brent Mickum, “but they said, ‘No, you are illiterate and can’t even remember how to shoot.’” Coleman found Abu Zubaydah’s diary to be startlingly useless. “There’s nothing in there that refers to anything outside his head, not even when he saw something on the news, not about any al-Qaeda attack, not even 9/11,” he says. “All it does is reveal someone in torment. Based on what I saw of his personality, he could not be what they say he was.”

So they were using torture — almost completely ineffective to begin with — to get confirmation or further details about information he did not have but that they were certain he did have, because they didn’t have a clue who he was in the first place. Then these bright lights went out and arrested and tortured other people on the basis of what Abu Zubaydah — under torture — had told them. And on and on like that.

You can probably see what a total fucking disaster an intelligence-gathering program of that nature would be.


  • On KSM:

    K.S.M. was certainly knowledgeable. It would be surprising if he gave up nothing of value. But according to a former senior C.I.A. official, who read all the interrogation reports on K.S.M., “90 percent of it was total fucking bullshit.” A former Pentagon analyst adds: “K.S.M. produced no actionable intelligence. He was trying to tell us how stupid we were.”

  • On the “ticking time bomb” scenario:

    Inside the C.I.A., says a retired senior officer who was privy to the agency’s internal debate, there was hardly any argument about the value of coercive methods: “Nobody in intelligence believes in the ticking bomb. It’s just a way of framing the debate for public consumption. That is not an intelligence reality.”

  • On C.I.A. “groupthink“:

    Convinced that the dirty-bomb plot was real, those interrogating Binyam Mohamed assumed that he must be part of it, and if he could not fill in missing details, he must have been covering up. …

    M.I.5 seems to have shared the C.I.A.’s groupthink. Sources in London say that its agents also assumed that anything Mohamed said to try to defend himself must be a lie. …

  • On Padilla and the “dirty bomb” plot:

    … “The dirty-bomb plot was simply not credible,” [retired FBI agent] Jack Cloonan says. “The government would never have given up that case if there was any hint of credibility to it. Padilla didn’t stand trial for it, because there was no evidence to support it.”

The “dirty bomb” plot was “revealed” by Abu Zubaydah under torture. C.I.A. agents thought that Binyam Mohamed was part of the plot (because they thought Mohamed and Padilla were close associates, because at one point they were both booked on the same plane flight) and tortured him, to0 — and, as quoted above, refused to believe him when he could not provide details.

Believe it or not, there is much more to this article than what I have quoted here — including an instructive example of what can be accomplished when an interrogation is done the correct way. I urge you to read it.

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