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Did torture help track down and kill Osama Bin Laden the way the right-wingers are claiming? Matthew Alexander, former senior military interrogator in Iraq, who participated in over 1,300 interrogations, says no.

In fact, he says, torture was harmful to the process and to the country in multiple ways:

His main points:

1. People lie under torture, and cause false leads to be followed.

One of the things that people aren’t talking about is the fact that one of the people that was confronted with this information that bin Laden had a courier is Sheikh al-Libi, who was held in a CIA secret prison and was tortured and who gave his CIA interrogators the name of the courier as being Maulawi Jan. And the CIA chased down that information and found out that person didn’t exist, that al-Libi had lied. And nobody is talking about the fact that al-Libi caused us to waste resources and time by chasing a false lead because he was tortured.

2. People who have the information don't give it up under torture.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed certainly knew the real name of the courier, whose nom de guerre or nickname was Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had to have known his real name or at least how to find him, a location that we might look, but he never gave up that information.

3. Torture makes people more resistant to giving up the information they have.

[W]hen you look at the use of waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques in the case of the trail of evidence that leads to Osama bin Laden, what you find is, time and time again, it slows down the chase. In 2003, when we—or '02, when we have Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, we have the person most likely to be able to lead us to bin Laden, and yet we don't get to him until 2011. You know, by any interrogation standard, eight years is a long time to not get information from people, and that’s probably directly related to the fact that he was waterboarded 183 times.

4. Traditional rapport-based interrogation techniques are more effective.

I was a senior interrogator in charge of an interrogation team. I conducted quite a few interrogations myself, over 300... And what I found is...that non-coercive techniques, time and time again, proved extremely effective against al-Qaeda, especially techniques that came from law enforcement that were based on rapport building.

5. Wrong or incomplete information leads to actions that create blowback.

[O]ver half the houses we raided in Iraq were the wrong house, because we were acting on very small intelligence tips that we didn’t have time to flesh out and get the detailed information that we needed to ensure we’re going to the right house....[W]e weren’t paying compensation or issuing apologies to the head of households when we raided these wrong houses....I believed very strongly that if we didn’t do that, we were going to end up creating more enemies than we were taking off the streets.

6. Torture doesn't work, plus it's immoral, illegal, and un-American.

I don’t torture because it doesn’t work. I don’t torture, because it’s immoral, and it’s against the law, and it’s inconsistent with my oath of office, in which I swore to defend the Constitution of the United States. And it’s also inconsistent with American principles....

You know, if torture did work and we could say it worked 100 percent of the time, I still wouldn’t use it. The U.S. Army Infantry, when it goes out into battle and it faces resistance, it doesn’t come back and ask for the permission to use chemical weapons. I mean, chemical weapons are extremely effective—we could say almost 100 percent effective. And yet, we don’t use them. But we make this—carve out this special space for interrogators and say that, well, they’re different, so they can violate the laws of war if they face obstacles.

7. Torture was al-Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.

When I was in Iraq, I oversaw the interrogations of foreign fighters. And those foreign fighters, the majority of them, said, time and time again, the reason they had come to Iraq to fight was because of the torture and abuse of detainees at both Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. And this is not my opinion. The Department of Defense tracked these statistics. And they were briefed, every interrogator who arrived there, that torture and abuse was al-Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.

And remember, these foreign fighters that came to Iraq, they made up 90 percent of the suicide bombers. They killed hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers.

8. Americans will now be subjected to these techniques in future.

[F]uture Americans are going to be subjected to the same techniques by future enemies using our own actions as justification.

9. Torture is counterproductive to America's real goals in the war on terror.

[W]hat’s our ultimate national security goal here? It’s not to stop terrorist attacks. We cannot defeat al-Qaeda, we cannot defeat violent extremism, by stopping terrorist attacks. That’s an endless game of hide-and-go-seek. What we have to do is stop terrorist recruitment. That’s the only way to put an end to al-Qaeda, is when they can no longer recruit fresh fighters. That’s been the downfall of numerous terrorist organizations. And when our policies help our enemies to recruit, we end up losing in the long run. So, this policy of torture and abuse, what it did is it helped al-Qaeda recruit, it lowered our moral standing in the world, it sacrificed our principles, and ultimately it cost us more time to find bin Laden, and it will take us longer to defeat violent extremism.

That's the way to answer the wingnuts who love the idea of torturing America's enemies. Give them both barrels, on all fronts, and don't concede that anything at all was or could be gained by their grotesque flouting of the law and of basic standards of human decency.

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Comment Preferences

    •  all of the above is true (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      peachcreek, Jon Says

      it explains why innovative interrogation works better than torture.

      However, it doesn't prove that torture cannot provide one bit of useful intel in that flood of misleading and useless information. Conflating the fact that torture is extremely ineffective compared to other types of interrogation with torture never ever eliciting useful information will simply make your argument unbelievable.

      •  Are you saying (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        you think torture is occasionally useful?

        •  There is no dispute (7+ / 0-)

          that torture has elicited useful information for the torturer. I'll point you at the work by Darius Rejali. He's compiled an exhaustive database of Gestapo torture and it's results. He makes the point that, although torture had elicited actionable information it was far less useful than the information from informers and other types of interrogation. The point about torture as a method of getting information  is not that it never gets useful information but that it is much less effective at getting useful information than other interrogation methods.

          All the above is not even touching on the moral issue.


          •  don't know why this link got screwed (0+ / 0-)
          •  No dispute? (5+ / 0-)

            Your own cited expert disputes it's useful.

            You say "torture has elicited useful information for the torturer." That's questionable when it comes out in the midst of a blizzard of lies, half-truths, and omissions as Matthew Alexander describes. "Useful" isn't just about a piece of information - it's about achieving whatever your goal is. And if it ends up recruiting more  - and more implacable - enemies as a result, it isn't useful. It undermines your actual goals. And Darius Rejali agrees with that: he says torture is THE most powerful factor in recruiting enemies against you and delegitimizing yourself in the face of the world.

          •  Darius Rejali says: (4+ / 0-)
            When I talked about people under torture saying anything, I was especially interested in the cases where torturers interrogate for true information. That’s what I document doesn’t work. But it seems pretty clear that torture works to generate false confessions, which serve equally as well as true confessions for many state purposes.


            •  he also said (0+ / 0-)
              I've spent more than a decade collecting all the cases of Gestapo torture "successes" in multiple languages; the number is small and the results pathetic, especially compared with the devastating effects of public cooperation and informers.

              So saying that torture never elicits information that's useful isn't correct. But saying that it's counterproductive and that other methods will be more successful is.

              •  This is what Rejali (0+ / 0-)

                actually says about the Gestapo and torture in his 5 Myths About Torture and Truth:

                1 Torture worked for the Gestapo.

                Actually, no. Even Hitler's notorious secret police got most of their information from public tips, informers and interagency cooperation. That was still more than enough to let the Gestapo decimate anti-Nazi resistance in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Russia and the concentration camps.

                Yes, the Gestapo did torture people for intelligence, especially in later years. But this reflected not torture's efficacy but the loss of many seasoned professionals to World War II, increasingly desperate competition for intelligence among Gestapo units and an influx of less disciplined younger members. (Why do serious, tedious police work when you have a uniform and a whip?) It's surprising how unsuccessful the Gestapo's brutal efforts were. They failed to break senior leaders of the French, Danish, Polish and German resistance. I've spent more than a decade collecting all the cases of Gestapo torture "successes" in multiple languages; the number is small and the results pathetic, especially compared with the devastating effects of public cooperation and informers.

                He specifically says the idea that torture "worked" for the Gestapo is a myth. Rather different what he's actually saying when given the full context. He's not supporting your position, he's demolishing it.

          •  Torture has a poor signal-to-noise ratio.... (8+ / 0-)

            .... compared to other means of interrogation and other intelligence methods.  And whatever results it produces, can't be duplicated or tested systematically.  

            That's what makes it not only a poor technique, but downright dangerous in terms of wasting time & resources.

            •  More than that (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Spoc42, Oh Mary Oh

              Interrogators have to be able to even recognize signal when they're hearing it, which is far more problematic in intelligence work than in police matters for various reasons:

              More from leading torture expert Darius Rejali:

              It’s also true that torturers often hear what they want to hear. In fact that’s one of the big problems with torture that I document in the book and the “Five Myths” article. Even if torture could actually break a person and they told you the truth, the torturer has to recognize it was the truth, and too often that doesn’t happen because torturers come into a situation with their own assumptions and don’t believe the victim. Moreover, intelligence gathering is especially vulnerable to deception. In police work, the crime is already known; all one wants is the confession. In intelligence, one must gather information about things that one does not know.

              And let’s remember, torturers aren’t chosen for intelligence; they are chosen for devotion and loyalty, and they are terrible at spotting the truth when they see it. In the “Five Myths” piece I talk about how the Chilean secret service lost valuable information in that way when they broke Sheila Cassidy, an English doctor, and she told them everything but they didn’t believe her. And one can just repeat dozens of stories like this. My favorite is when Senator John McCain tried to explain the concept of Easter to his North Vietnamese torturer. “We believe there was a guy who walked the earth, did great things, was killed and three days later, he rose from the dead and went up to heaven.” His interrogator was puzzled and asked him to explain it again and again. He left, and when he came back, he was angry and threatened to beat him. Americans couldn’t possibly believe in “Easter” since no one lives again; McCain had to be making this up.

              •  that problem exists in all aspects of intel. (4+ / 0-)

                It also exists in a range of fields of science and technology.

                As long as you're trying to bear down upon some specific goal or outcome, you can miss things that are off to the side that could be more useful, or that contradict your chosen hypothesis.  

                It's always important to be open to unexpected information.  This goes against most of our culture and education, but it can be learned and practiced until it becomes second nature.  

          •  Doesn't this assume that the Gestapo... (5+ / 0-)

            ...had only intelligence gathering as "the finish line" when employing torture?

            It seems to me that torture as a pointed warning to the Occupied populace who might entertain notions of defiance was as much an intended goal as extracting information. Crucifixion, after all, was not the most efficient means of putting to death enemies of Roman occupation, but execution was only one aspect of the intent.

            The so-called "rising tide" is lifting only yachts.

            by Egalitare on Thu May 05, 2011 at 04:17:21 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  however (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Egalitare, Oh Mary Oh, Nova Land

            you appear to be ignoring the negative effect of torture for information-gathering - the flood of bad information, which presumably will harm efforts at gathering intelligence much more than any few chunks of information that might be correct. After all, as they say, a broken clock is correct twice a day, but that doesn't mean consulting that broken clock will be anything but a disastrously misleading way to gather information on what time it is. There is also the unknowable question of whether any good information one did get from torture was information one would have gotten anyway if one just engaged in other forms of interrogation. (Well, it's unknowable unless you first conduct rapport-building, then torture someone afterwards anyway, then systematically compare if any additional information you got from torture was in fact true or helpful.) So saying "people have occasionally got useful information from torturing people" is actually somewhat misleading, it seems to me. It's like saying you can occasionally get a good idea how to get to City Hall by consulting the entrails of a sheep, it will not always mislead you, while not mentioning that merely asking a passerby for directions, while not infallible, is much more likely to yield good information.

            •  Sheep entrails don't think (0+ / 0-)

              bad analogy.

              Th0rn above uses an example where the Chilean police got totally accurate information from torture. The problem was they didn't believe it. Apparently because it was in a flood and partly because it wasn't what they wanted to hear.

              Rapport building interrogators may not have believed it either. At that point the question becomes how good is their fact checking?

              But agreed, that's not the most common case. More often than not there's no good information at all.

              •  yeah but it's kind of irrelevant (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Nova Land

                it doesn't matter if sheep entrails think. The point is that if you flip a coin, you will get some right answers too. Almost any method you choose of gathering information will give you some right answers. It may well be that no method of gathering information has never been invented that will never, under any circumstances, provide you with any sort of useful information of any kind.

        •  while browsing around I found this (3+ / 0-)
          In the unlikely event that bin Laden's capture turned on intelligence obtained via torture, the effect of that revelation should be to tarnish the victory, not to resurrect interrogation methods that have been justly renounced by civilized nations and the people who lead them.
          cache: . His conclusion is mine as well.
  •  I recall... (8+ / 0-)

    ...a diary on DKos about an interrogator during WWII who interrogated Japanese soldiers, withOUT torture, and who was yet one of the most successful interrogators.  (I wishe I could remember the diary title or the diarist!)  Rather than pain, he used his deep knowledge of Japanese culture to extract information, for example, intimating to the interrogatee that everyone thought he was an antisocial fellow.  This caused them such consternation that they felt compelled to provide at least one nugget of information, from which a relationship, providing much more information, was often built.

    Stupid is as stupid elects.

    by TheOrchid on Wed May 04, 2011 at 11:56:14 PM PDT

  •  We don't torture for the sake of intelligence... (3+ / 0-)

    gathering. We torture because it breaks resistance.

    One needn't find the "right people" or apply the "right techniques" to them. Any group of people will do - the point is to send the clear, unavoidable message that horrific suffering means nothing to us and it will be inflicted upon anyone we choose to see as resisting.

    •  I think I get what you're saying 2020adam (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Spoc42, Oh Mary Oh

      to say it in even starker terms, under the Cheney/Bush crowd it was seen as important to send the message--both inside the United States and around the world--don't mess with us, we feel no constraints whatsoever. These later-day Nixonians didn't especially care if torture was ever effective (or how rare or miniscule the "advantage" might be). I think they tortured because they could. Absolutely drunk on power, they viewed the chance to treat others in any way they wished as yet another expression of their own "awesomeness."

      I have been disappointed that President Obama has not repudiated the practice of torture more emphatically, but I hope we learn in the future that under his leadership we have left such dreadful (and often counter productive) tactics largely in the past. Unfortunately I don't think we've ended our use of torture entirely. I would like to hear the Obama Administration address the issue of torture boldly.

      An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out? Rene Descartes

      by Had Enough Right Wing BS on Thu May 05, 2011 at 03:40:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  it's "counter-terror" in the most literal sense (3+ / 0-)

        torture is a form of terrorism. It's a way of saying "imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. That's what we'll do if we catch you!"

        it has nothing to do with information really, that's just an excuse

        having been caught with their pants down and seen to be utter failures at protecting America, the Bush crew basically said, "oh yeah, well we can be even worse terrorists than you!"

      •  The Shock Doctrine existed long before Messrs. ... (0+ / 0-)

        Bush and Cheney.

        And to clarify, the point is that torture is effective - one needn't be drunk on anything to believe that. There's nothing Nixonian about the understanding that torture is an incredibly effective tool in the subjugation of resistant cultures.

        In other words, George Bush and Dick Cheney didn't torture because they were out of their minds. They tortured because the Iraqi and Afghan people weren't playing their proper role as the pliant, loving subjects. And one of the most effective ways of inducing such pliancy in a culture is torturing lots of people.

        •  Engaging in the use of torture may in some (0+ / 0-)

          instances  influence particular cultures, but it hardly seems certain to induce compliance. Sometimes the opposite is true, if abuse becomes "too" common it may enhance the resolve of people to express even greater resistance--they have little to loose, right?

          As in Ireland, when people felt oppressed and some who were believed to be their leaders were tortured. As I understand it this didn't lead to much acceptance or pliancy.

          Sometimes the results may be spectacularly positive (from the perspective of the torturer), but I don't think they are predictable. In much the same way that we may agree torture could provide some useful information (assuming the torturer was able to identify the true bits) it might break a culture to the point of accepting "overlords." Then again, it might spur them to even greater resistance.

          An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out? Rene Descartes

          by Had Enough Right Wing BS on Fri May 06, 2011 at 03:45:43 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Another even more obvious example of the (0+ / 0-)

            ineffectiveness of torture as a crude tool for social domination would be the Shah's Iran. People's fear was replaced by their growing anger.

            An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out? Rene Descartes

            by Had Enough Right Wing BS on Fri May 06, 2011 at 04:46:58 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  Correct. Even effective tools don't always work. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Had Enough Right Wing BS

            I'd highly recommend that you read the Shock Doctrine. Ms Klein does an amazing job of chronicling the American development and use of shock as a means of crushing resistance to global capitalism.

            •  I do intend to read The Shock Doctrine, but I (0+ / 0-)

              can't claim to have a completely open mind. I think Th0rn does a great job of documenting the reasons torture is so often ineffective (as well as being wrong).

              I don't expect that Ms. Klein is advocating in favor of torture so much as documenting  its use and development, as you say, as a means to crush resistance to global capitalism. As I read I will continue to ask myself if the techniques used to induce "shock" (which of course include torture) are as successful as lulling people into acceptance through other means might be.

              In fairness, Al Queda--and especially the  leaders of the group--are more immune to all efforts to sway them than typical people might be. Neither manipulating them through the use of force or managing their fears nor lower key attempts to persuade them with the softer power of distraction are likely to have a lot of impact.

              One of the problems with torture (among many), is that it can come to be viewed as a potential solution to situations where it not only doesn't achieve stated goals but rather their opposite. Instead of helping to crush AQ for instance it can be argued, as Th0rn does, that rather than terrorizing them into submission torture became their number one recruiting tool.

              I would also note that bin Laden's problem with the US had little or nothing to do with any opposition to capitalism. Yet some find the application of a one-size-fits-all technique more or less acceptable.

              My particular bias against torture has much less to do with protecting monsters like Osama bin Laden than with rejecting behaviors that I feel are unhealthy for us as a decent people. The cost is high and the value is low.

              Still "The Shock Doctrine," although it may not seek to advocate torture may show it to be sometimes effective. Thanks to your suggestion this book has moved higher on my "to read" list.

              An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out? Rene Descartes

              by Had Enough Right Wing BS on Sun May 08, 2011 at 04:45:16 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

    •  yes (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      torture is not about information we get, but the message it sends. It is a control and fear tactics to force people into submission.

  •  2 points (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Had Enough Right Wing BS
    1. People lie under torture, and cause false leads to be followed.

    I would guess that people also lie under other forms of interrogation.

    Khalid Sheikh Mohammed certainly knew the real name of the courier, whose nom de guerre or nickname was Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

    This is hardly certain. Since KSM was part of de guerre, it makes perfect sence that he'd know him by that name. The more information is compartmentalized, the safe the organization.

    •  lying occurs all the time - so what? (0+ / 0-)

      the point about torture is that if they're just asking you questions, and you don't want to tell them something, you normally just refuse to speak. Then at least the interrogator knows he doesn't have the information. If the interrogator makes it clear they are going to cause you agonizing pain until you say something, then you will likely say something, but if you really don't want to give away the information, you'll probably just make something up - especially if it sounds like the sort of thing the interrogator wants to hear. That way the interrogator thinks he knows something but he doesn't.

      It's better to at least know you don't know something than to think you do and be wrong.

      Then there's the additional factor, which seems to have run amok in the Bush case - that when you torture people and they start telling you whatever it is you want to hear, it turns into a disaster because what you want to hear is something that isn't true - like, say, that Saddam Hussein was involved in 911. Sure, you can get people to tell you what you want to hear without torture, but again, probably not from someone like KSM. The use of torture seems to have led to Bush people to incredibly stupid and self-serving conclusions that arguably did a lot of damage to America, not to mention all those thousands of people who got killed as a result.

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