Waterboarding 'Worked'?: Media Push Pro-Torture Message

To hear some tell it, the intelligence clues that ultimately led to Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan were generated by the use of torture. But the evidence available so far does not bear this out.

2010 Anti-Torture Vigil - Week 3

Torture advocates on the right are claiming vindication. On Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor (5/2/11), Rep. Peter King (R.-N.Y.) announced that

we obtained information several years ago, vital information about the courier for Obama [sic]. We obtained that information through waterboarding. And so for those who say that waterboarding doesn't work, to say that it should be stopped and never used again-- we got vital information which directly led to us bin Laden.

This led O'Reilly to proclaim: "You're not going to hear that on the other networks. I guarantee you."

Actually, talk about how water torture may have revealed the identity of bin Laden's trusted courier could be heard widely. On the CBS Evening News (5/2/11), reporter David Martin said, "Some of the leads to that courier came out of the CIA's secret prison where those Al-Qaeda captives were waterboarded."

And ABC World News reporter Jonathan Karl tapped Dick Cheney for expertise (5/2/11):

KARL: One key, Cheney suggests: the CIA's enhanced interrogation program that Obama stopped because he said it included torture. An early tip leading to bin Laden's courier came from some of those interrogations.

CHENEY: All I know is what I've seen in the newspaper at this point, but it wouldn't be surprising if, in fact, that program produced results that ultimately contributed to the success of this venture.

The Los Angeles Times (5/2/11) reported:

Crucial information about the trusted courier who owned the compound came years ago from CIA interrogations of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohamed, the official said. This is significant, because the Al-Qaeda mastermind was subject to waterboarding and other brutal interrogation methods.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted (5/3/11) that Obama killed bin Laden "with an apparent assist from the Bush administration's interrogation program." And on NBC's Today show (5/3/11), Jim Miklasziewski reported:

U.S. officials tell NBC News that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, while in CIA custody, provided key information regarding a courier close to bin Laden. Intelligence sometimes obtained through aggressive interrogation techniques like waterboarding.

But the details that are known so far do not support the argument that torture produced any of the key intelligence. As New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer wrote (NewYorker.com, 5/2/11):

You would think that if the CIA's interrogation of high-value detainees was all it took, the U.S. government would have succeeded in locating bin Laden before 2006, which is when the CIA's custody of so-called "high-value detainees" ended.... This timeline doesn't seem to provide a lot of support for the pro-torture narrative.

The blog Think Progress (5/3/11) noted that administration officials disputed the idea that critical information came from torture sessions:

This morning on MSNBC's Morning Joe [5/3/11], Obama's counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan confirmed that the information acquired over nine years did not come from waterboarding but was pieced together from multiple sources.

The New York Times (5/4/11), interviewing an array of intelligence sources, reported that "a closer look at prisoner interrogations suggests that the harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying Bin Laden's trusted courier and exposing his hide-out."

Most importantly, the Times noted that "two prisoners who underwent some of the harshest treatment--including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times--repeatedly misled their interrogators about the courier's identity. "

An Associated Press dispatch (5/2/11) reported that

Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.

This "up for debate" conclusion is strange, given that evidence would suggest that the pro-torture side of the "debate" has little to support their case. And such discussions serve to reaffirm a media narrative that tries to normalize torture by making it a debate that prioritizes outcomes--i.e, Does it work?--over legality and morality. (See Extra!, 1-2/02.)

Along those lines, CNN's Kiran Chetry (5/3/11) posed this question to former Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice:

Things like enhanced interrogation have fallen out of favor. This administration has said they were ending some of those controversial practices like waterboarding that were acceptable under the Bush administration. The other big thing is the so-called black sites, these CIA interrogation sites around the world. All of this met with huge criticism. As more trickles out about whether or not any of these strategies played a key role in eventually killing Osama bin Laden, do they have to rethink this administration?

Along with rethinking the Bush administration, there are many media voices suggesting we should be reevaluating the question of whether torture should be an accepted practice for the U.S. government. One can only hope the media treat the subject more carefully than they have in the past.

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