The Obama administration got one thing right – and a great deal wrong – with its release last week of the so-called “interrogation memos,” a series of legal documents produced by the Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel and detailing some of the harsher interrogation methods used by the CIA against high-level al-Qaeda operatives.
To its credit, the administration vetoed the possibility of legal prosecution for either the memos’ Justice Department authors or the CIA personnel who conducted the interrogations, rejecting appeals from the anti-anti-terror Left, most prominently the ACLU, which had sued for the memos’ release. Despite a backlash from its partisan base, the administration has stood firm on that decision, with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel being only the latest figure to affirm that the administration will not be pursuing the “retribution” that many of its supporters demand.
Nevertheless, the administration erred in releasing the memos. The reason has been most compellingly stated by former CIA director Michael Hayden. Hayden points out that disclosing details of U.S. interrogation tactics will only allow terrorist suspects to resist intelligence questioning in the future by revealing “the outer limits that any American would ever go in terms of interrogating an al-Qaeda terrorist.” Hayden’s argument holds true even if the tactics described in the memos are no longer used, and even if, as the administration argues, many of the details had previously been made public in reports on detainee treatment by the Red Cross. Interrogation techniques are effective only to the extent that they confound a detainee’s expectations about the kinds of treatment he may receive. By revealing the precise boundaries of that treatment, and by making them official, the administration has made al-Qaeda’s job that much easier.
The administration’s other mistake was to endorse the view, promulgated by the Left, that the techniques described in the memos deserve to be called “torture.” Even a cursory examination indicates otherwise. Indeed, so far from being “brutal,” as the New York Times has reported, most of the interrogation techniques are remarkable in their mildness. That is why all of the techniques described in the memos – with the exception of one innovative tactic involving an insect – were also used on some members of the military during their survival (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) training. Far from being licensed to abuse detainees, moreover, CIA interrogators were instructed to make sure that their tactics never caused serious physical or even mental harm – even though their subjects were hardened terrorists avowedly committed to killing as many Americans as possible.
Take the insect “torture.” Specifically designed for al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, a confidant of Osama bin Laden’s with a fear of spiders, it involved placing Zubaydah in a “cramped confinement box” with an ostensibly stinging insect. Except that the insect would actually be harmless caterpillar. No physical harm whatsoever was meant to come to Zubaydah himself and, in any case, the tactic was never used. As evidence of “torture,” this is far from compelling.
One interrogation technique that was used is sleep deprivation. Importantly, however, the memos reveal that the emphasis was always two-fold: to obtain intelligence and cooperation but only insofar as no lasting physical or mental harm came to the detainee. To that end, they stipulate that if the detainee were to be denied sleep then “personnel with medical training” had to be available to intervene “in the unlikely event of an abnormal reaction.”
Even greater precautions were taken as part of a tactic called “walling.” In this technique, interrogators grab a detainee and slam him into a wall. That may sound brutal in theory, but in practice it was anything but. The wall into which subjects would be slammed, for instance, was to be “a flexible false wall.” In addition, the memos explain that when an individual hits the wall, “the head and neck are supported with a rolled hood or towel that provides a c-collar effect to help prevent whiplash.” The effectiveness of walling was not in the physical impact, which was minimal, but rather in the intimidating sound that the detainee would hear upon hitting the (again, fake) wall.
It should be noted that some have challenged the memos’ description of walling, pointing to a Red Cross report that cites the claims of Zubaydah, admitted 9-11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, as well as other al-Qaeda operatives, that they were directly slammed into a hard concrete wall. But even if the Red Cross report is to be believed – a big if, given that terrorist captives are trained to exaggerate their mistreatment by the U.S. – the fact remains that all admit to wearing a protective collar at the time of this alleged abuse. Even if they exceeded their prescribed authority – a point that is, as noted, by no means proven – CIA interrogators still went out of their way to minimize the physical harm that al-Qaeda operatives endured. If the intent was truly to “torture” these detainees, it’s hard to see why interrogators repeatedly tried to avoid inflicting serious harm.
This inconsistency may explain the obsessive focus with the most controversial of the interrogation techniques used, waterboarding, which entails placing an individual on an inclined bench, covering his forehead and eyes with cloth, and saturating the cloth with water for up to 40 seconds to simulate drowning. Particular outrage has greeted this week’s revelation that the CIA waterboarded two al-Qaeda operatives – Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – a total of 266 times. By all accounts, waterboarding, which was used on only three detainees, is an intensely unpleasant procedure, and reasonable people can disagree about the legitimacy of its now-suspended use by the United States. But several points are worth bearing in mind.
First, as with other government-approved interrogation tactics, waterboarding was carefully monitored to avoid causing severe physical and mental harm. The procedure was not to last beyond 20 minutes at a time, and medical experts were required to be present throughout. In Zubaydah’s case, special care was taken to prevent physical injury, because at the time of his interrogation the al-Qaeda lieutenant was nursing a wound – sustained while fighting against U.S. troops in Pakistan – that his interrogators did not want to exacerbate.
Second, waterboading seems to have been effective, yielding vital intelligence in the War on Terror. According to ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden, Zubaydah revealed critical intelligence information – such as details that led to the capture of senior al-Qaeda agent Ramzi Binalshibh – only after interrogators began using techniques like waterboarding. The same was true for Khalid Shiekh Mohammed (KSM). A May 30, 2005 memo notes that as a result of interrogation techniques like waterboarding, KSM revealed information that led to the discovery of a terrorist plot to crash a hijacked airliner into a Los Angeles building, the disruption of a 17-member Indonesian terrorist cell, and the capture of an Indonesian terrorist and al-Qaeda liaison known as Hambali, among other successes. More broadly, the memo points out that thanks to enhanced interrogation techniques, “KSM and Zubaydah have been pivotal sources because of their ability and willingness to provide their analysis and speculation about the capabilities, methodologies and mindsets of terrorists” (emphasis added). Not surprisingly, the memo reports that the CIA viewed these techniques as “indispensable” to the task of uncovering “actionable intelligence” on terrorist organizations.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of that last fact. The same documents now being denounced as proof of American “torture” represent the U.S. government and the CIA’s best efforts to prevent the repeat of a devastating attack that killed 3,000 Americans. It’s a shame that the Obama administration has chosen to portray those efforts – undertaken with studied caution and a powerful awareness of the consequences of failure – as a betrayal of American ideals. What these officials have received is political absolution for a crime they did not commit. What they deserve is profound thanks for keeping the country safe.
Read an Opposing View from the Cato Institute, Of Course It Was Torture
Is torture ever justified? See the Opposing Views debate.