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Reading about Torture

By Brian | May 3, 2009 | Share on Facebook

Jeff Porten raised an interesting question about the water boarding of 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, which led me to do some more detailed reading on the subject, specifically the International Red Cross Report on Detainee Abuse, and several of the Top Secret DOJ memos from May, 2005 that President Obama recently declassified (Memo 1, Memo 2, Memo 3, Memo 4).

Setting aside the (enormous) moral question about whether this stuff is ever morally justified, I must admit to being blown away by how specific our self-imposed rules were. Example:

the waterboard may be approved for use with a given detainee only during, at most, one single 30-day period, and that during that period, the waterboard technique may be used on no more than five days. We further understand that in any 24 hour period, interrogators may use no more than two “sessions” of the waterboard on a subject with a “session” defined to mean the time that the detainee is strapped to the waterboard and that no session may last more than two hours. Moreover, during any session, the number of individual applications of water lasting 10 seconds or longer may not exceed six. As noted above, the maximum length of any application of water is 40 seconds (you have informed us that this maximum has rarely been reached). Finally, the total cumulative time of all applications of whatever length in a 24-hour period may not exceed 12 minutes.

In the Red Cross memo, KSM even points out the presence of a doctor at all times, and the fact that we kept a pulse-ox meter on his finger throughout the interrogation, so it could be stopped if the doctor thought he was in danger of any (physical) injury.

If we were breaking international law here, we were doing it in very specific and deliberate ways.

Beyond the intense monitoring and record keeping, though, there were specific rules about when water boarding could or could not be used:

You have explained that the waterboard technique is used only if: (1) the CIA has credible intelligence that a terrorist attack is imminent; (2) there are “substantial and credible indicators the subject has actionable intelligence that can prevent, disrupt or delay this attack”; and (3) other interrogation methods have failed or are unlikely to yield actionable intelligence in time to prevent the attack.

(Source: Declassified DOJ Memo)

I’ve heard much debate lately about whether or not “torture works.” The predominant argument is that it does not, because the prisoner will tell you anything to stop the torture, rendering it ineffective at getting at the truth. I’ve also read that the odds of a prisoner being questioned at the 11th hour before a major terrorist attack are so slim as to be more apropos of a Hollywood action movie than viable CIA policy.

So, imagine my surprise when I read this from another of the declassified DOJ memos:

You have informed us that the interrogation of KSM – once enhanced techniques were employed – led to the discovery of KSM plot, the “Second Wave,” “to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into” a building in Los Angeles. You have informed us that information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemaah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the “Second Wave.” More specifically, we understand that KSM admitted that he had tasked Majid Khan with delivering a large sum of money to an al Qaeda associate. Khan subsequently identified the associate (Zubair), who was then captured. Zubair, in turn, provided information that led to the arrest of Hambali. The information acquired from these captures allowed CIA interrogators to pose more specific questions to KSM, which led the CIA Hambali’s brother, al-Hadi. Using information obtained from multiple sources, al-Hadi was captured, and he subsequently identified the Guraba cell. With the aid of this additional information, interrogations of Hambali confirmed much of what was learned from KSM

So, it seems to me, this is no longer a theoretical question, but a very practical one: Was the water boarding of KSM worth the prevention of another 9/11 attack in Los Angeles and whatever damage these seventeen Al Qaida operatives could have continued to cause had they not been captured?

Obviously, that’s a moral question, and well meaning, intelligent people can come to different conclusions. To be honest, I’m not sure how I’d answer it myself.

Moreover, since the subsequent captures of the terrorists KSM spoke about independently confirmed his stories, those who claim that torture is never effective have, at least anecdotally, lost their leg to stand on.

One other point: these memos were classified “Top Secret,” so it’s hard, at this point, to suggest that the DOJ was engaging in any propaganda or spin to justify its actions. At the time they were written, the authors did not expect them to ever become public knowledge. I mention this only because so many of the things the Bush administration told us about what they were doing to prevent terrorism were dismissed out of hand as lies. By providing declassified, Top Secret memos for source material, President Obama has given us what we’ve long been asking for – the truth. If the above story about “The Second Wave” was a lie, then the DOJ was lying only to itself.

Topics: Political Rantings | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Reading about Torture”

  1. Jeff Porten says at May 3rd, 2009 at 12:07 pm :
    Lots to say to this, obviously… now I just have to figure out which blog to post it on. So a quick note here — noting that the PDFs you linked to are at Fox News, I’m *very* tempted to do a digital compare against the memos from other sources to see if they were modified before publication.

  2. Brian says at May 3rd, 2009 at 1:00 pm :
    Go for it. That occurred to me as soon as Google returned FOX News as the first hit. I decided to allow the Internet’s “Army of Davids” to check it out for me.

    I’ll also point out that while FOX News is clearly biased, the only news organizations I know of that have published (and defended) falsified documents are CBS and Reuters…

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