Wednesday, April 22, 2009


In the avalanche of stories and commentaries that are following from the release the Armed Services Committee report last night, torture apologists are seizing on two in particular to argue that torture was effective and thus justified. First, Marc Thiessin, former Bush speech-writer, repeats the claim that the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed disrupted a plot to attack the Library Tower in Los Angeles:

Consider the Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005. It notes that "the CIA believes 'the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.' . . . In particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques." The memo continues: "Before the CIA used enhanced techniques . . . KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, 'Soon you will find out.' " Once the techniques were applied, "interrogations have led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding al Qaeda and its affiliates."

Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques "led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' 'to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into' a building in Los Angeles." KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast. The memo explains 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 Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the 'Second Wave.' " In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.

An astute reader will note that the OLC memos merely repeat claims being made by the CIA about intelligence that they allegedly obtained from Mohammed, so this can hardly be considered any kind of definitive "proof" as to torture's usefulness (never mind that the purpose of the memos was to justify torture, making them doubly dubious.) But as Timothy Noah at Slate points out (via Andrew Sullivan) this claim that torture foiled the Library Tower attack-a claim that has been made repeatedly by torture apologists-is just wrong:

What clinches the falsity of Thiessen's claim, however (and that of the memo he cites, and that of an unnamed Central Intelligence Agency spokesman who today seconded Thessen's argument), is chronology. In a White House press briefing, Bush's counterterrorism chief, Frances Fragos Townsend, told reporters that the cell leader was arrested in February 2002, and "at that point, the other members of the cell" (later arrested) "believed that the West Coast plot has been canceled, was not going forward" [italics mine]. A subsequent fact sheet released by the Bush White House states, "In 2002, we broke up [italics mine] a plot by KSM to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast." These two statements make clear that however far the plot to attack the Library Tower ever got—an unnamed senior FBI official would later tell the Los Angeles Times that Bush's characterization of it as a "disrupted plot" was "ludicrous"—that plot was foiled in 2002. But Sheikh Mohammed wasn't captured until March 2003.

Torture apologists will also cite to this NY Times story about a memo that current Director of Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair sent to his staff last week when the OLC memos were released, in which he states that the "enhanced interrogation" techniques produced "high value information":

“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.

It would be interesting to know exactly what information was produced, and exactly how useful it was, especially as Blair himself goes on to say:

“The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

Which is essentially the point that opponents of torture have been making all along. Naturally, torture apologists will look for the tiniest scrap of evidence that torture produced actionable intelligence of even the most insignificant nature and attempt to use that to justify a program that exceeded even the flimsy legal boundaries established by the OLC, while completely dismissing the harm that torture has done to our national security. But I think that's rather obviously a losing argument.

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