Nothing solidifies the establishment more than a seemingly raging debate between two wings of it in which they are both wrong. Not only wrong, but in their wrongness, helping to cover their joint iniquities, all the while engaging in simultaneous embrace and finger-pointing to convey the illusion of debate and choice.
Such is the case with the “debate” on whether torture “worked” following the release of the Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s “Detention and Interrogation Program.”
On the one side, we have among others Dianne Feinstein: “The big finding is that torture doesn’t work and shouldn’t be employed by our country” she told PBS. Similarly, a headline in the Hill tells us: “McCain: ‘I know from personal experience’ torture doesn’t work.”
Then, we have six former directors and deputy directors of the CIA claiming the “interrogation program” “saved thousands of lives” by helping to capture al-Qaeda members. On this score, the Intelligence Committee report seems to have the goods, quoting CIA emails. While the former CIA directors claim a string successes based on torture: “KSM [Khalid Sheik Muhammed] then led us to Riduan Isamuddin, aka Hambali, East Asia’s chief al Qaeda ally and the perpetrator of the 2002 Bali bombing in Indonesia — in which more than 200 people perished.” But the report quotes CIA officials internal emails: “Frankly, we stumbled onto Hambali.”
But that doesn’t mean Feinstein and McCain are right and that’s the end of story. The truth is that torture did work, but not the way its defenders claim. It worked to produce justifications for policies the establishment wanted, like the Iraq war. This is actually tacitly acknowledged in the report — or one should say, it’s buried in it. Footnote 857 of the report is about Ibn Shaykh al-Libi, who was captured in Afghanistan shortly after the U.S. invasion and was interrogated by the FBI. He told them all he knew, but then the CIA rendered him to the brutal Mubarak regime in Egypt, in effect outsourcing their torture. From the footnote:
“Ibn Shaykh al-Libi reported while in [censored: ‘Egyptian’] custody that Iraq was supporting al-Qa’ida and providing assistance with chemical and biological weapons. Some of this information was cited by Secretary Powell in his speech at the United Nations, and was used as a justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ibn Shaykh al-Libi recanted the claim after he was rendered to CIA custody on February [censored], 2003, claiming that he had been tortured by the [censored, likely ‘Egyptians’], and only told them what he assessed they wanted to hear. For more more details, see Volume III.” Of course, Volume III has not been made public.
So, while CIA head John Brennan now says it’s “unknowable” if torture lead to information that actually saved lives, it’s provable that torture lead to information that helped lead to war and destroyed lives.
Nor was al-Libi the only one tortured to try to make the case for war. Many have reported that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaeda detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times — but few give the exact timing and context: The were so tortured in August 2002 and March 2003 respectively — the beginning and end of the Bush administrations push for the invasion of Iraq.
This was somewhat acknowledged in the other Senate report on torture, released by the Armed Services Committee in 2008. It quoted Maj. Paul Burney, who worked as a psychiatrist at Guantanamo Bay prison: “A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq and we were not successful. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link … there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.” The GTMO Interrogation Control Element Chief, David Becker told the Armed Services Committee he was urged to use more aggressive techniques, being told at one point “the office of Deputy Secretary of Defense [Paul] Wolfowitz had called to express concerns about the insufficient intelligence production at GTMO.”
McClatchy reported Sen. Carl Levin, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, said at that time: “I think it’s obvious that the administration was scrambling then to try to find a connection, a link (between al Qaida and Iraq) … They made out links where they didn’t exist.” But now, Levin seems more muted, saying, in response to the release of the recent report, that false information leads to “time-consuming wild goose chases” — which is quite an understatement given the human horrors that have resulted from the invasion of Iraq.
So, contrary to the claim that torture helped save lives, torture helped build the case of lies for war that took thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, helping to plunge the region into astounding violence, bringing al-Qaeda into Iraq, leading to the rise of ISIS and further bloody wars. As Arianna Huffington noted: “A perfect circle: Torture helps start Iraq War, which in turn gives us more people to torture. #happyhumanrightsday”
This oversight perhaps shouldn’t come as too big a shock given who’s calling the shots in Washington: Feinstein and McCain both voted for the Iraq war authorization in 2002, as did virtually everyone running foreign policy atop the Obama administration: VP Joe Biden, Pentagon heads Bill Gates and Chuck Hagel and Secs. of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.
Some have made an issue of videos of torture being destroyed — but it’s been widely assumed that they were destroyed simply because of the potentially graphic nature of the abuse. But there’s another distinct possibility: They were destroyed because of the questions they document being asked. Do the torturers ask: “Is there another terrorist attack?” Or do they compel: “Tell us that Iraq and Al-Qaeda are working together.”? The video evidence to answer that question has apparently been destroyed — with barely anyone raising the possibility of that being the reason.
Exploiting false information has been well understood within the government. Here’s a 2002 memo from the military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency to the Pentagon’s top lawyer — it debunks the “ticking time bomb” scenario and acknowledged how false information derived from torture can be useful:
“The requirement to obtain information from an uncooperative source as quickly as possible — in time to prevent, for example, an impending terrorist attack that could result in loss of life — has been forwarded as a compelling argument for the use of torture. … The error inherent in this line of thinking is the assumption that, through torture, the interrogator can extract reliable and accurate intelligence. History and a consideration of human behavior would appear to refute this assumption.” The document concludes: “The application of extreme physical and/or psychological duress (torture) has some serious operational deficits, most notably, the potential to result in unreliable information. This is not to say that the manipulation of the subject’s environment in an effort to dislocate their expectations and induce emotional responses is not effective. On the contrary, systematic manipulation of the subject’s environment is likely to result in a subject that can be exploited for intelligence information and other national strategic concerns.” [PDF]
So torture can result in the subject being “exploited” for various propaganda and strategic concerns. This memo should be well known but isn’t, largely because the two reporters for the Washington Post, Peter Finn and Joby Warrick, who wrote about in 2009 it managed to avoid the most crucial part of it in their story, as Jeff Kaye, a psychologist active in the anti-torture movement, has noted.
One reporter who has highlighted critical issues along these lines is Marcy Wheeler — noting as the recent report was being released: “The Debate about Torture We’re Not Having: Exploitation,” where she writes: “Some other things exploitation is used for — indeed the very things the torture we reverse-engineered for our own torture program was used for — are to help recruit double agents and to produce propaganda.” Her reporting also raises questions about how torture was used to push a whole host of policies, which would make us a virtual tortureocracy: CIA director “John Brennan has admitted to using information from the torture program in declarations he wrote for the FISA Court. This means that information derived from torture was used to scare [FISA judge] Colleen Kollar-Kotelly into approving the Internet dragnet in 2004.” (Disclosure: Wheeler writes a column for ExposeFacts.org, a project of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where I work.)
Many presumed critics of torture have been either intentionally or not obscured its connection to war making and other agendas. Teju Cole notes in an interview with the New York Times on Dec. 10 about that outlet: “The paper’s fabrications and support for the Iraq war is a generational shame that shouldn’t be too quickly forgotten. It should haunt us for a long time.” But his comments on the torture report betray a total lack of understanding of the connection between torture and the invasion of Iraq, ascribing to it the very human emotions of revenge rather than the more Machiavellian realities of policy making: “Let’s acknowledge torture for what it is: It is punishment, vengeance. It’s the kind of havoc you wreak on an enemy or bystander merely because your rage needs an outlet. It has vanishingly little to do with intelligence-gathering. It spreads grief, and though it intends to do so, it spreads even much more than it intends. It destroys the perpetrators too. Rage is not a precision weapon.”
But the rage of the general public — steered in large measure by major media — might have been useful in increased public acceptance of torture in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but that’s not what makes decisions in the U.S. It’s decided by the machinations of a narrow set of elites who act in their interests as the utility of torture shows. The coverups for how war was made have grown so complex that critics like Teju Cole have been sucked into it.
Researchers for Human Rights Watch have done some good work in getting information on the al-Libi case, but Ken Roth, the head of the group doesn’t seem to take to heart the lessons of that case, writing that the CIA “forgot its own conclusions from 1989: inhumane interrogation was ‘counterproductive,’ yielded false answers’ in reference to a recent New York Times piece: “Report Portrays a Broken C.I.A. Devoted to a Failed Approach.” But it’s not that the CIA “forgot”– the torture regime is actually designed to produce false but useful information that can be used to justify hideous polices. Pretending it’s a “failed approach” is to exactly avoid telling the truth about the torture program just as everyone is claiming that they are telling the truth about it.
And there are arguably other utilities of torture for war makers, often portrayed only as costs to the society as a whole: It’s profitable to a few. It helps stifle dissent as a method of social control. It was likely especially effective at silencing the Arab and Muslim American community just as the U.S. was gearing up to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
The recent report highlights a CIA memo that relayed instructions from the White House to apparently hide the program from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell could “blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s going on,” the email said. But when I questioned Powell on the connection between torture and war, he was remarkably defensive. His former chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson wrote in 2009 that the Bush administration’s “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.” Shortly after he wrote that, I questioned Colin Powell at the “media stakeout” as he left the CBS studios in DC:
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?
CP: I 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 has been waiting for the CIA to call him and tell him directly that torture was used to extract some of the information he used. See my piece “How Colin Powell Showed That Torture Works” and video.
This problem of torture yielding useful but false information was not unforeseeable. Professor As’ad AbuKhalil appeared on a news release for the Institute for Public Accuracy, where I work, 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.” Indeed, the utility of torture might also help further explain U.S. government ties to brutal regimes. Part of what the U.S. government derives from them is capacity to torture and kill. As professor Lisa Hajjar has noted, it was the Egyptian “Torturer in Chief” Omar Suiliman who got al-Libi to talk about a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda — the U.S. torturers in Gitmo had apparently failed. Bob Woodward quotes former CIA head George Tenet: “We created the Jordanian intelligence service and now we own it.”
Of course such regimes sometimes fall in an out of favor, there can be little honor among thieves. Al-Libi himself was eventually turned over to Muammar Qaddafi, at a time when — to the bewilderment of many — the U.S. government was rather cordial with the former Libyan dictator. In 2009, a newspaper run by one of Qaddafi’s son’s claimed al-Libi committed suicide in his Libyan jail cell. 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.”
But only if we insist on forgetting this case and the evidence that lies for war and torture are joined at the hip.
Sam Husseini is communications director for the Institute for Public Accuracy. He also founded VotePact.org, which encourages disenchanted Demorats and Republicans to team up. His website is: husseini.posthaven.com He’s on twitter: @samhusseini.