The Unjustifiable Defense of Torture and Guantanamo

With the reported assassination of Osama bin Laden, one of the most alarming responses has been a kind of casual and widespread acceptance that the death of America's number one bogeyman would not have been achieved without the use of torture, and without the existence of Guantanamo.

With the reported assassination of Osama bin Laden, one of the most alarming responses has been a kind of casual and widespread acceptance that the death of America's number one bogeyman would not have been achieved without the use of torture, and without the existence of Guantanamo.

This is wrong on both fronts, as Jane Mayer of the New Yorker explained in response to an early manifestation of the story, put out by torture apologists Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol:

It may have taken nearly a decade to find and kill Osama bin Laden, but it took less than twenty-four hours for torture apologists to claim credit for his downfall.

Keep America Safe, an organization run by former Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol, released a victory statement today that entirely failed to mention President Obama, but lavishly credited "the men and women of America's intelligence services who, through their interrogation of high-value detainees, developed the information that apparently led us to bin Laden."

Funny. You would think that if the CIA's interrogation of high-value detainees was all it took, the US government would have succeeded in locating bin Laden before 2006, which is when the CIA's custody of so-called "high-value detainees" ended. Instead, after the Supreme Court ruled that year that prisoners needed to be treated humanely in compliance with the Geneva Conventions, the CIA was forced to turn its special detainees over to the military for detention and interrogation using more lawful tactics in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It took five more years before all the dots could be adequately connected.

Although it was suggested that the key to bin Laden's killing -- tracking down one of his most trusted couriers -- began with the interrogation of the "high-value detainee" Khalid Sheikh Mohammed during his long detention in secret CIA prisons, from March 2003 to September 2006, involved the interrogation in 2004 of a "ghost prisoner," Hassan Ghul, who was never held at Guantanamo, and was followed up during the interrogation of another "high-value detainee," Abu Faraj al-Libi, seized in Marwan, Pakistan, in May 2005 and also held in secret CIA prisons until September 2006, when he, KSM and 12 others were transfered to Guantanamo, the only parts of the story that involved detention in secret prisons were the disclosure by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed of the kunyas (nicknames) used by various couriers, and it has not been suggested that torture was used in extracting this information, and the interrogation of Hassan Ghul, seized in Iraq, and held in unknown locations.

As the Associated Press reported, "four former US intelligence officials" told them that KSM had yielded the names of "several of bin Laden's couriers" while being held in "a secret prison in Eastern Europe" -- in other words, in Poland or Romania, where he was held in 2003 and 2004. In relation to Hassan Ghul, the New York Times reported that, "according to current and former officials briefed on the interrogations," Ghul "provided a crucial description of the courier" after "some tough treatment." It would be useful, of course, if Ghul could one day be asked about what happened, but that seems unlikely as, although he is now being referred to widely in the mainstream media, and also turns up regularly in the classified military documents released last week by WikiLeaks, his whereabouts are completely unknown, as he is one of dozens of "ghost prisoners" held by the Bush administration in its shadowy network of secret CIA prisons, who never ended up in Guantanamo. As such, it would be appropriate if those mentioning him in the media were to ask what happened to him, but now, it seems, "ghost prisoners" can be summoned up without context in news stories, as though their actual existence -- their life or death -- is completely irrelevant.

A clear sign of the distortions seeping into media reports was to be found elsewhere in the AP report, when the authors, Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, claimed that "The revelation that intelligence gleaned from the CIA's so-called black sites helped kill bin Laden was seen as vindication for many intelligence officials who have been repeatedly investigated and criticized for their involvement in a program that involved the harshest interrogation methods in US history." That shameful defense of torture in secret CIA prisons -- in which torture itself was coyly and dishonestly referred to as "the harshest interrogation methods in US history" -was followed up by a bullish, triumphalist quote from Marty Martin, described as "a retired CIA officer who for years led the hunt for bin Laden," who said, "We got beat up for it, but those efforts led to this great day."

Only in the next paragraph did the AP deign to acknowledge that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed "did not reveal the names while being subjected to ... waterboarding," which was described, as is usual in the mainstream media, as a "simulated drowning technique," even though it is a torture technique, recognized as such for centuries, and does not involve anything simulated at all.

After finally explaining that KSM "identified them [the couriers] many months later under standard interrogation," the AP concluded that these revelations left it "once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic."

Readers will, I hope, realize how everything in these passages from the AP confirms what I described at the start of this article as the "casual and widespread acceptance" that bin Laden's death "would not have been achieved without the use of torture, and without the existence of Guantanamo," as the KSM element of the story, which, the AP eventually conceded, did not involve torture, and the main part of the story actually involved the name of a key courier being disclosed in 2007, at Guantanamo, by Abu Faraj al-Libi (as revealed in his Detainee Assessment Brief, released by Wikileaks last week). Even then, it took another two years until US officials were able to identify where this particular courier operated, and they didn't manage to locate the actual compound in which bin Laden was found and killed until August last year.

As a defense of torture, the bin Laden trail is therefore useless, as Jane Mayer explained. "This timeline doesn't seem to provide a lot of support for the pro-torture narrative," she wrote, adding, "One would think that if so-called 'enhanced interrogations' provided the magic silver bullet, and if the courier was a protege of KSM's, then the CIA might have wrapped this up back in 2003, while they were waterboarding the 9/11 mastermind a hundred and eighty-three times."

Moreover, as a defense of Guantanamo -- also implied in the general tenor of the reporting suggesting that there should be a renewed "debate" about torture -- it also fails. "High-value detainees" like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi should never have been tortured, but had they been interrogated lawfully they would still have been recognized as particularly significant prisoners, and therefore the extraction of information from them has absolutely nothing to do with Guantanamo.

Rather than being a prison focused on securing intelligence from a handful of significant prisoners, Guantanamo was -- and still is, fundamentally -- an abomination and an aberration, an experimental facility in which prisoners seized in a largely random manner were held neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects to be put forward for trials, but as "unlawful enemy combatants," a category of prisoner invented by the Bush administration, who were supposed to be held without any rights whatsoever for as long as George W. Bush wished, and interrogated for "actionable intelligence" in whatever way the Commander in Chief saw fit.

Alarmingly, Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, an advocate of indefinite detention without charge or trial for "War on Terror" prisoners, has tried to claim that what the news about the information that led to bin Laden's death demonstrates is the opposite: that it justifies the limitless dragnet conceived by the Bush administration in the early years of its "War on Terror," in which as many people as possible should be rounded up and interrogated for years -- or decades -- to produce pieces of a larger "mosaic" of intelligence.

In Wittes' words, the account of how the information was obtained "strongly supports what intelligence community folks have long argued about the way good operational intelligence comes about." He continued by claiming that "Information has a very long life," that it "gets put together piece by piece in a kind of mosaic over many years," and, moreover, that "one doesn't necessarily know what the significant pieces will be when one is collecting the information."

Not only is this not backed up by the evidence about the "high-value detainees," rather than the general population of Guantanamo, but anything that tries to revisit the worst years of the Bush administration, and to justify holding hundreds, or thousands of prisoners for what they may be able to conribute to some sort of limitless "mosaic" of intelligence, still fills me with chills, as do attempts to defend the use of torture.

On that front, the most significant comments I have read over the last few days have come from former FBI agent Jack Cloonan. I have regularly quoted from Cloonan and his colleague Dan Coleman, discussing their abhorrence of torture and their defense of rapport-building and psychological, torture-free interrogations with Jane Mayer of the New Yorker back in 2006, so I was delighted to see that David Danzig of Human Rights First also drew on an interview with Cloonan in an article on Tuesday, "Five Reasons Why Torture Did Not Help U.S. Forces Find Bin Laden."

Danzig wrote:

Some will argue that it was only thanks to the waterboarding that KSM and al-Libi were willing to talk at all. This notion is rejected by the more than 75 interrogators, questioners and debriefers with the military, the FBI and the CIA who I have spoken to in depth about this subject since the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib. I have yet to speak to a professional interrogator who believes that torture is an effective means of questioning suspected terrorists.

Jack Cloonan who served on the FBI's Osama Bin Laden unit for 6 years told me that during an interrogation (or what the FBI calls an interview) the goal was to, "work towards the objective of getting this person to cross the threshold and become, in effect, a traitor to their own cause."

According to Cloonan, "the Al-Qaeda people that I dealt with were all very sophisticated in terms of their language skills and understanding of what was at stake." Cloonan said that it essentially became a question of whether he could offer the detainee enough of what he wanted (protection for his family, more lenient sentencing/incarceration etc.) to convince him to talk. "They struggled," he said, "with whether or not I was being truthful and I was going to honor everything I said."

If you gave the detainee any reason not to trust you, there is no negotiation, Cloonan explained. The detainee won't be willing to bargain with giving up his knowledge in exchange for something the interrogator can provide. He simply won't trust you. Torture, Cloonan says, shatters any possibility for trust. "It changes the dynamic," Cloonan said. "And once you have gone down that path, in my experience there is no going back."

My conclusion, then? Without torture, Osama bin Laden might have been found many years ago. Torture remains illegal, as well as counter-productive, and attempts to revive it as a topic for "debate" are as vile and unprincipled as attempts to claim that the death of Osama bin Laden somehow justifies the ongoing existence of Guantanamo.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.