The only fair conclusion from the CIA interrogation documents released last week is
that former Vice President Dick Cheney largely won his argument with President
Barack Obama about enhanced techniques.
The reports indicate that most of the most valuable information came from high-value
detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, including the
revelation of numerous plots and terrorists whose names were not previously known to
The reports do not clearly say that the information resulted from the enhanced
interrogation techniques, but the implication is quite clear. The CIA initially
sought approval for EITs because it felt that Abu Zubaydah was withholding
information about terrorist networks and plots. The CIA Inspector General's report
describes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the terrorist who came up with the idea for 9/11,
as not forthcoming before EITs were used.
There were 10 enhanced interrogation techniques approved. Only one, waterboarding,
can even remotely be described as torture. Waterboarding simulates drowning and
induces an involuntary panic response.
However, another clear implication from the CIA documents is that it was
waterboarding that made the difference. So, we cannot escape the moral issue
presented by the use of the technique and the information it produced.
The first thing these documents should do is to substantially narrow the range of
the debate. Previously, the argument was frequently made that rough interrogation
techniques don't work, that detainees make stuff up to get the physical and
psychological discomfort to go away.
With respect to these particular interrogation techniques, that argument is
impossible to sustain in the light of the CIA documents. Important, accurate
information was revealed that allowed terrorist plots to be thwarted and terrorists
to be captured.
President Obama was careful not to make that argument. Instead, his argument has
been that simply because EITs produced information doesn't mean that the same
information couldn't have been produced without EITs.
That's true, and will always be so. You can't prove that something that wasn't done
wouldn't have worked.
But the documents cast doubt on the claim that the same information could have been
elicited without EITs, particularly waterboarding. The record is unclear about how
long standard techniques were used on the three detainees eventually waterboarded.
Given the lawyering that went on before EITs were approved for use on Zubaydah,
standard techniques were presumably being tried for a reasonable period. The CIA
appears to have been pretty quick in moving to EITs with Mohammed, however.
The best evidence, although inconclusive, is that EITs, particularly waterboarding,
produced information that standard interrogation techniques didn't.
I can understand the Obama administration taking the position that waterboarding is
torture and won't be used even if the record indicates that it worked. What I can't
understand is it changing responsibility for interrogating terrorist detainees and
prosecuting CIA operatives who conducted these interrogations.
The CIA produced results, operating within the rules it was given. Nevertheless, the
Obama administration has transferred interrogation responsibility from it to the
FBI, whose post-9/11 record is far more spotty, with direct oversight by the White
The CIA did occasionally color outside the lines in its interrogations. A mock
execution was staged. A gun and power drill brandished. Mohammed was told his
children would be killed if there was another attack in the United States.
This was outside the lines. But none of it is close to putting people on the rack,
or merits the prosecution of CIA interrogators taking risks to protect us.
We have a CIA, in part, because there is some nasty stuff in the world that needs to
be dealt with. Spooks and cops playing rough to get important information from bad
guys is a staple of our fiction.
In real life, however, we don't like to think about it.