When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.
The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.
In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.
Simply, it is this: if torture is truly used as an interrogation technique, and not to fulfill a psychological need or as terrorism, it can not be an isolated event–it must be systemic and routine….
Figuring out what is reliable intelligence is difficult even with voluntary walk-ins; it will be much harder with someone who is actively trying to hinder you. So how do you figure out whether or not the torture victim is telling the truth? Corroborating evidence.
In other words, evidence acquired through torture will never reveal unique, unknown information. It is only useful when there is other confirmatory evidence….For torture to have any possibility of being an effective interrogation technique, you have to torture lots of people in the hope that multiple torture victims will confirm each others’ information. This means that torture has to become a routine component of interrogation.
The one-off, ‘Jack Bauer’ torture strategy has to fail, unless there is corroborating evidence–in which case, you didn’t need to torture someone.
I have no doubt that Abu Zubaida is an awful person. But the torture accomplished nothing. Absolutely nothing. And as Helmut and I noted, torturing the ‘known guilty’ for information virtually requires the torture of the innocent for even a remote chance of effectiveness (which did not occur here).
Next time we use a TV show (24) as a guide to policy, maybe we should use Sesame Street instead?
Related posts: Maha, Scott Horton, Publius, and emptywheel.