Learning to love torture

Politicians and media commentators are using Osama bin Laden's killing to justify human rights abuses in the name of "stopping terrorism," reports Nicole Colson.

The fence at the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay (Larisa Epatko)

ISN'T TORTURE great?

It is if you're one of the many pundits and politicians trying to use Osama bin Laden's corpse to claim a little slice of victory.

Exploiting bin Laden's death, a number of politicians and media commentators have stepped forward to claim that the raid on America's public enemy number one shows that torture works--that it enabled the U.S. to "get our man."

John Yoo, the former Justice Department official who was the chief architect of the Bush administration's legal justification for torture, was one of the first to say "I told you so."

"President Obama can take credit, rightfully, for the success today," Yoo wrote in the National Review the day after the announcement of bin Laden's death, "but he owes it to the tough decisions taken by the Bush administration."

By "tough decisions," Yoo meant the torture techniques he claimed were necessary to win the "war on terror"--for example, shackling detainees naked or in painful positions for prolonged periods of time, subjecting them to sleep deprivation and extreme temperatures, threatening them with dogs and, of course, covering their heads with hoods and dousing them in the face with water until they could not breathe in order to simulate drowning.

Meanwhile, on Fox News' O'Reilly Factor, Republican Rep. Peter King--an Islamophobe who recently led congressional hearings into the domestic "threat" posed by "radical Islam"--announced that "we obtained information several years ago, vital information about the courier for Obama [sic]. We obtained that information through waterboarding. And so for those who say that waterboarding doesn't work, to say that it should be stopped and never used again--we got vital information which directly led to us bin Laden."

King's Freudian slip aside, that line was repeated ad nauseum in the mainstream press in the days that followed--from CBS Evening News reporter David Martin, who claimed that "[s]ome of the leads to that courier came out of the CIA's secret prison where those al-Qaeda captives were waterboarded," to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, who wrote that bin Laden was killed "with an apparent assist from the Bush administration's interrogation program."

But former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld must have gotten the Republican talking points memo late. He first stated that "beneficial" information about Osama bin Laden had not been obtained through either waterboarding or "harsh treatment." Then Rummy had a change of heart--the next day, on Fox's Sean Hannity Show, Rumsfeld proclaimed, "Three people were waterboarded by the CIA...and then later brought to Guantánamo...the information that came from those individuals was critically important."

Rumsfeld also agreed with Hannity that "if he [Obama] had had his way, and Democrats had their way, we wouldn't have had this intelligence."

Some in the Obama administration appeared to go along with the new consensus about torture. CIA Director Leon Panetta, for example, said that it was an "open question" whether waterboarding produced important intelligence in finding bin Laden.

As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald noted, "There's clearly an attempt underway by the political (and media) class to rehabilitate the Bush torture regime, which is why it is more important than ever to make clear that torture is never justifiable no matter what it produces."

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THE NEW York Times exemplified the erratic view of the media.

For three days straight following bin Laden's assassination, the newspaper of record reported in major articles that torture--or, rather, "harsh interrogation methods," since the New York Times tends to shy away from actually using the word "torture"--had a hand in getting the information that led to the killing of bin Laden.

The Times articles included such Orwellian gems as the contention that the raid on bin Laden's compound "was the culmination of years of painstaking intelligence work, including the interrogation of C.I.A. detainees in secret prisons in Eastern Europe, where sometimes what was not said was as useful as what was."

So apparently torturing suspects helps CIA agents act like fortune-tellers to guess what prisoners being held in brutal conditions might be trying to avoid saying.

It was only days later--when it became clear that Republicans were attempting to steal Obama's moment of "victory"--that the Times suddenly seemed to remember it had been on the record as generally opposed to torture. In an editorial, the paper stated, "Efforts to justify torture after the killing of Bin Laden are cynical and destructive."

But after castigating the "crowing by the apologists and practitioners of torture that Bin Laden's death vindicated their immoral and illegal behavior," the Times went on to proclaim that "the real lesson of the bin Laden operation is that it demonstrated what can be done with focused intelligence work and persistence."

In other words: torture's bad, especially when Republicans do it, but Obama is our hero for "getting" bin Laden, even if the assassination was the work of commandos who acted--no doubt with the approval of the White House--as judge, jury and executioner in killing an unarmed man.

For its part, the Obama administration also seemed reluctant to flat-out embrace the idea that torture works--not because its leading figures object to torture on principle, but because they also don't want their predecessors in the Bush administration to get credit for bin Laden's assassination.

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WHAT'S THE basis of the claim that torture "worked"? At issue is the identity of a courier named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was allegedly tracked back to bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, revealing his location.

In particular, apologists for torture claim that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed--supposedly, the principal architect of al-Qaeda's September 11 attacks--produced information about the courier. The Today show's Jim Miklasziewski was typical in claiming that "U.S. officials tell NBC News that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, while in CIA custody, provided key information regarding a courier close to bin Laden--intelligence sometimes obtained through aggressive interrogation techniques like waterboarding."

It's certainly a possibility that Mohammed may have said the name of the courier during one of the 183 times in a single month in 2005 that he endured simulated drowning. Or maybe he spoke up when he was told that his children, who were in the custody of Pakistani and American authorities, would be murdered.

What's certain, however, is that many things Khalid Sheik Mohammed "confessed" to turned out to be utterly bogus--including that he personally killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, or that he plotted the murder of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as Pope John Paul II.

That's because people who are being tortured tell their interrogators what they think they want to hear in order to make the torture stop.

However, the Associated Press reported that "Mohammed did not reveal the [identify of the courier and other al-Qaeda personnel] while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic."

Furthermore, if, as Rep. Peter King and others are claiming, information from tortured prisoners "directly led" to the killing of bin Laden, why didn't the Bush administration follow that trail years ago?

As the American Civil Liberties Union's Ben Wizner told NPR, those who are taking credit for torture "working" have an agenda. "The people who are pushing this narrative are the ones who have the most to gain if it takes hold, and the most to lose if the ongoing criminal investigation of that program continues," he said. As NPR pointed out:

That investigation is a Justice Department inquiry into whether anyone connected to the interrogation program went outside the law to get information out of terrorism suspects. "No one has ever argued that intelligence can't be extracted through brutality," Wizner says, "only that brutality is much less effective than humane interrogation."

In the post-September 11 world, secret prisons, indefinite detention and torture are clearly weapons is the U.S. arsenal--first under Bush, but now under the Obama administration.

As a presidential candidate, Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs:

To build a better, freer world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people...This means ending the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law.

Yet as president, Obama has consistently reneged on each of those promises.

In the tide of patriotism and warmongering that followed September 11, those who dared to question the policies of the Bush administration--the bombing of Afghanistan, extraordinary rendition, torture--were labeled apologists for terrorism.

Today, the cheerleaders for war want to cast things in the same terms--and their contention that torture was necessary for the U.S. to "get" Osama bin Laden and thus "make the world a better place," as Barack Obama contended, is a central part of their case.

The jingoistic fervor after bin Laden's death isn't nearly as deep as after September 11, nor will it last as long. But it remains important for anyone committed to peace and justice to challenge the claims of those who attempt to justify war and horrendous human rights abuses in the name of "stopping terrorism."