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How Colin Powell Showed That Torture Works


Ten years ago, Colin Powell made the case for invading Iraq before the United Nations Security Council. Many aspects of his case were clearly dubious at the time, but one notorious aspect desperately needs to be truly understood: Some of Powell’s argument for an Iraq link to al-Qaeda came from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who was tortured into giving such “evidence” — that is, he told the torturers what they wanted to hear so that the torture would stop.

This is particularly noteworthy as the movie Zero Dark Thirty has many liberals screaming “torture doesn’t work” — which, in a sense is totally true and at the same time exactly misses the point. Torture does work. It just doesn’t work in so far as its stated purpose (catching criminals, stopping evil plots) is concerned.

Former long-time CIA analyst Ray McGovern, has written that the al-Libi case was central to Powell keeping the alleged al-Qaeda link to Iraq in his UN speech:

Al-Libi’s stories misinformed Colin Powell’s U.N. speech, which sought to establish a “sinister nexus” between Iraq and al-Qaeda to justify invading Iraq.

Al-Libi recanted his claims in January 2004. That prompted the CIA, a month later, to recall all intelligence reports based on his statements, a fact recorded in a footnote to the report issued by the 9/11 Commission. …

The al-Libi case might help you understand why, even though information from torture is notoriously unreliable, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the sycophants running U.S. intelligence ordered it anyway.

In short, if it is untruthful information you are after, torture can work just fine!

Col. Lawrence B. Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s own former chief of staff, similarly  wrote:

“What I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 — well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion — its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaeda.

“So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney’s office that their detainee ‘was compliant’ (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qaeda-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, ‘revealed’ such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

“There in fact were no such contacts.” [Wilkerson elaborated on this on Democracy Now Wednesday morning, should be posted here. He notes he and Powell agreed to drop the accusation of an al-Qaeda link to Iraq until they were given the “evidence” from al-Libi’s interrogation.]

I asked Powell about this in 2009 and he seemed remarkably defensive and uninterested in finding out if the words he uttered on the world stage were based on misinformation from torture:

Sam Husseini: General, can you talk about the al-Libi case and the link between torture and the production of tortured evidence for war?

Colin Powell: I don’t have any details on the al-Libi case.

SH: Can you tell us when you learned that some of the evidence that you used in front of the UN was based on torture? When did you learn that?

CPI don’t know that. I don’t know what information you’re referring to. So I can’t answer.

SH: Your chief of staff, Wilkerson, has written about this.

CP: So what? [inaudible]

SH: So you’d think you’d know about it.

CP: The information I presented to the UN was vetted by the CIA. Every word came from the CIA and they stood behind all that information. I don’t know that any of them believe that torture was involved. I don’t know that in fact. A lot of speculation, particularly by people who never attended any of these meetings, but I’m not aware of it.

But my questioning was based on statements by Wilkerson, who was in the room. Presumably Powell is waiting for the CIA to call him and tell him directly that torture was used to extract some of the information he used.

This problem of torture yielding useful but false information was not unforeseeable. Professor As’ad AbuKhalil appeared on a news release I assembled the day after Powell’s notorious UN speech: “The Arab media is reporting that the Zakawi story was provided by Jordanian intelligence, which has a record of torture and inaccuracy.”

But the al-Libi story gets even worse. First off, al-Libi had initially cooperated with FBI officials when he was first questioned by them, giving them true and useful information without being tortured. Secondly, he was tortured by chief Egyptian spymaster Omar Suleiman, widely seen and the CIA’s man in Cairo, who attempted to take over from Mubarak when the longtime dictator finally stepped down because of the uprising in 2011 (Suleiman himself died in a Cleveland hospital in 2012).

After al-Libi recanted to the CIA, he was eventually shipped off to Libya where he died in a prison cell. The newspaper of one of Qaddafi’s son’s claimed it was a suicide. As Juan Cole wrote at the time: “The best refutation of Dick Cheney’s insistence that torture was necessary and useful in dealing with threats from al-Qaeda just died in a Libyan prison.”

Before his death, Human Rights Watch “briefly met with al-Libi on April 27 during a research mission to Libya. He refused to be interviewed, and would say nothing more than: ‘Where were you when I was being tortured in American jails.’”

After al-Libi’s death Human Right Watch stated: “The death of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi means that the world will never hear his account of the brutal torture he experienced. So now it is up to Libya and the United States to reveal the full story of what they know, including its impact on his mental health.” Right after Al Capone investigates his own dealings.

Note that al-Libi died in Libyan custody when relations were quite chummy between Qaddafi and the U.S. It’s hard not to think this was part of a quid pro quo — the Qaddafi regime offs al-Libi to help the U.S. cover up the torture-war link and in exchange Qaddafi got (rather short-lived  acceptance from part of the U.S. establishment.

If Hollywood — or any media for that matter — had any interest in communicating the realities of the modern Mideast and U.S. policy there, the story of al-Libi should be front and center.

Sam Husseini is communications director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, and founder of



Sam Husseini is founder of the website

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