The United States didn't need to waterboard anyone to get Osama bin Laden.
Did torture work? This is the question everyone is asking after Osama bin Laden’s death and the revelation that his fate was sealed by the identification of a courier whose nom de guerre emerged from the interrogation of top al Qaeda operatives who were known to have been subjected to waterboarding and similar techniques. "Did brutal interrogations produce the intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?" a May 3 New York Times story asked.
This is hardly the first time we’ve had this debate. In 2006, my team of interrogators in Iraq located local al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by identifying and following one of his spiritual advisors, Abu Abd al-Rahman. Eric Maddox, a U.S. Army interrogator, found Saddam Hussein by similar means, identifying his former bodyguards. It’s these little pieces of information that form the mosaic that gradually leads to a breakthrough. But how best to get those little pieces?
Current and former U.S. officials and their supporters have been quick to argue that "enhanced interrogation techniques" and waterboarding led to the identification of the courier’s alias, which started U.S. intelligence down the road to bin Laden. The day after the al Qaeda leader’s death was announced, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the House Homeland Security Committee chair, told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that "For those who say that waterboarding doesn’t work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information [from waterboarding] that directly led us to bin Laden." John Yoo, the former U.S. Justice Department official who drafted the George W. Bush administration’s legal rationales for officially sanctioned torture, repeated the claim and praised "Bush’s interrogation and warrantless surveillance programs that produced this week’s actionable intelligence." The torture bandwagon has started to kick into high gear. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In fact, the information about the existence of a courier working for bin Laden was provided by several detainees, not just waterboarded al Qaeda operatives Kalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi — we had one detainee in Iraq who provided information about a courier in 2006. The key pieces of information, however, were the courier’s real name and location. His family name was first uncovered by CIA assets in Pakistan through other sources. The NSA subsequently figured out his full real name and location from an intercepted phone call. Waterboarding had nothing to do with it.
Moreover, common sense dictates that all high-ranking leaders have couriers — and their nicknames do little to lead us to them. This is because many members of al Qaeda change names or take on a nom de guerre after joining for both operational security and cultural reasons. The names are often historically relevant figures in the history of Islam, like the Prophet Mohamed’s first follower, Abu Bakr. Think of it as the equivalent of a boxer taking on a nickname like "The Bruiser."
Understanding these cultural nuances is just one critical skill interrogators must have to be effective. The other is an understanding of the social science behind interrogations, which tells us that torture has an extremely negative effect on memory. An interrogator needs timely and accurate intelligence information, not just made-up babble.
What torture has proven is exactly what experienced interrogators have said all along: First, when tortured, detainees will give only the minimum amount of information necessary to stop the pain. No interrogator should ever be hoping to extract the least amount of information. Second, under coercion, detainees give misleading information that wastes time and resources — a false nickname, for example. Finally, it’s impossible to know what information the detainee would have disclosed under non-coercive interrogations.
But to understand the question "Does torture work?" one must also define "work." If we include all the long-term negative consequences of torture, that answer becomes very clear. Those consequences include the fact that torture handed al Qaeda its No. 1 recruiting tool, a fact confirmed by the U.S. Department of Defense’s interrogators in Iraq who questioned foreign fighters about why they had come there to fight. (I have first-hand knowledge of this information because I oversaw many of these interrogations and was briefed on the aggregate results.) In addition, future detainees will be unwilling to cooperate from the onset of an interrogation because they view all Americans as torturers. I heard this repeatedly in Iraq, where some detainees accused us of being the same as the guards at Abu Ghraib.
The more you think about, the less sense torture makes. U.S. allies will become unwilling to conduct joint operations if they are concerned about how detainees will be treated in U.S. custody (an argument made by the 9/11 Commission, among others). And future enemies will use our actions as justification to torture American captives. Torture also lowers our ethical standards to those of our enemies, an ugly shift that spreads like a virus throughout the Armed Services; witness the abuses of Abu Ghraib or the recent murders of civilians in Afghanistan.
Most importantly, we should be talking about the morality of torture, not its efficacy. When the U.S. infantry becomes bogged down in a tough battle, they don’t turn to chemical weapons even though they are extremely effective. The reason they don’t is because such weapons are illegal and immoral.
During the Revolutionary War, one top general made the point that torture was inconsistent with the fundamental beliefs of our founding fathers. "Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to insure any [prisoner] … I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require," he wrote to his troops in the Northern Expeditionary Force in the first year of the war. The general in question was George Washington. There’s a reason we pledge to believe in "liberty and justice for all" and not "liberty and security for all": It’s because we place our values and principles higher than we place our security. When we cease to do so, we forfeit our right to be called Americans.
We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him. American interrogators safely guided us through World War II without the use of torture, fighting an enemy and interrogating prisoners every bit as brutal and dedicated as the members of al Qaeda. Our interrogators continue to prove time and time again that they are smart enough to outwit al Qaeda’s best and brightest. No one should ever doubt that we have the mental and ethical fortitude to win this war — and to do it without lowering ourselves to the level of our foes.