The Constitution Project report concludes torture was not more effective than humane interrogation techniques
Torture of detainees held in U.S. custody after 9/11 did not yield useful information that thwarted terrorist attacks or contributed to the capture of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, according to The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment.
The task force’s 602-page report on detainee treatment found that torture was not any more effective than traditional interrogation techniques, debunking claims made by former top Bush administration officials to justify the CIA’s interrogation program that used techniques widely regarded as torture or cruel, degrading, and abusive treatments of detainees.
“The public record strongly suggests that there was no useful information gained from going to the dark side that saved the hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of lives that have been claimed,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. David Irvine, a member of the task force who has taught prisoner interrogation and military law at the Sixth Army Intelligence School for 18 years.
Irvine, who served as a Republican lawmaker in Utah after his retirement from the military, noted that the Bush administration policymakers who pushed for the use of torture – or so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” – on detainees “have no experience with interrogation, have no experience with law enforcement, have no experience in the military in how these matters are approached.”
(Notably, the two CIA contract psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen who designed the agency’s enhanced interrogation program modeled after the SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape] techniques were not even trained interrogators.)
Nevertheless, these officials – including former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney – have repeatedly asserted that torture has “prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people”.
However, Irvine pointed out that those claims have “largely been made in a vacuum”, which gave the American public the impression that torture is effective and, therefore, acceptable even though the practice is illegal under both U.S. and international laws, not to mention morally objectionable.
Irvine also noted that the Bush administration touted the efficacy of torture without offering any verifiable evidence to support those claims. Much of the information that would support such claims remain classified.
In fact, Irvine stressed, “There are many instances in that public record to support the notion that we have been badly misled by false confessions that have been derived from brutal interrogations. And unfortunately, it is a fact that people will just say whatever they think needs to be said if the pain becomes more than they can bear.”
Joe Navarro, retired FBI agent and one of the nation’s top interrogators, told the task force that torture frequently yields misinformation.
“You spend time on bad leads. [Bad leads] eat up time,” said Navarro.
Navarro, who conducted the initial interviews of top terrorist suspects after 9/11, told the task force that he only need three things as an interrogator:
“(1) A quiet room (2) I need to know what the rules are for where the interrogation is taking place because I don’t intend to get into trouble and (3) I need time to build a rapport with the subject and become his only friend. If you give me those three things I’ll get [the information]. I don’t need to be rough.”
Jennifer Bryson, a former interrogator at Guantanamo, confirmed that rapport-based interrogation techniques were more effective in obtaining intelligence than torture.
“By 2004, we’re seeing the people who are engaged in rapport based interrogation are doing the thing morally and they are the ones getting intelligence. And the others are not,” said Bryson.
Bryson told the task force that detainees who were subjected to hours of extremely loud music or sensory deprivations, or were short-chained or suffered other abuses in Guantanamo are even less likely to cooperate with interrogators, arguing that the harsh techniques were counter-productive.
“[The detainee] was angry. He was annoyed. He was distrustful. And all of those are characteristics which don’t make somebody want to talk to you,” Bryson explained. “It took a lot more work to get that detainee around to the point of ‘let’s have a conversation’…They created a situation that created more work for us and things proceeded more slowly than they would have otherwise.”
The task force’s report called attention to the lesser-known fact that the most valuable intelligence used to abort terrorist plots – such as hijacking and crashing an airliner into the Library Tower in Los Angeles or blowing up the Brooklyn Bridge or detonating a dirty bomb in Washington D.C. or shoe bomber Richard Reid – were collected from detainees prior to them being tortured by the CIA.
Of the numerous case studies cited in the report examining the efficacy of torture, three cases stood out: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi.
Case Study #1. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Al Qaeda architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He is currently on trial for 9/11 terrorism charges before a military commission in Guantanamo.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) was waterboarded 183 times. Shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey credited waterboarding for forcing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to disclose the name of bin Laden’s courier “Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti”. Mukasey claimed that Mohammed “broke like a dam” after being subjected to waterboarding.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden insisted that bin Laden’s capture would have been “nearly impossible” without the CIA’s harsh interrogation tactics.
But the task force emphasized that sources familiar with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s interrogation said that Al Qaeda’s #2 was not asked about al-Kuwaiti until the fall of 2003 – after the waterboarding practice ceased – and even then he lied and told interrogators that al-Kuwaiti was “retired” and of no significance to the Al Qaeda network.
The report noted that other detainees subjected to torture between 2002 and 2003 told interrogators that al-Kuwaiti had died after being wounded while fleeing Tora Bora.
In fact, the report maintained that most of the relevant intelligence on al-Kuwaiti were obtained from detainees before they were tortured.
“The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003,” Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman, told the New York Times.
Case Study #2. Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi national arrested in Pakistan in March 2002. He was tortured by the CIA in a “black site” in Thailand and is still being held as an enemy combatant in Guantanamo. Despite spending 11 years in U.S. custody, Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime.
Although intelligence indicated otherwise, Zubaydah was erroneously accused by President Bush as Al Qaeda’s #3. This designation prompted the CIA to waterboard him 83 times, after which he falsely confessed that he was number three in Al Qaeda network and a partner of Osama bin Laden.
“I say, ‘Yes, I was partner of bin Laden. I’m his number three in Al Qaeda and I’m his partner of Ressam.’ I say okay but leave me. So they write but they want what’s after, more information about more operations, so I can’t. They keep torturing me,” Zubaydah said during his combatant status review proceeding at Guantanamo.
Ali Soufan, one of the FBI agents who interrogated Zubaydah in Thailand, pointed out that Zubaydah, a former mujihadeen who allegedly worked at an Al Qaeda-linked training camp in Afghanistan, identified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks before the CIA interrogated him at the black site. Soufan pointed out that Zubaydah even informed interrogators of the plot by Jose Padilla to unleash a “dirty bomb” in Washington D.C. months before the CIA was authorized to waterboard him. Padilla was arrested in Chicago in May 2002; the waterboarding technique was approved in August 2002.
“Everything we know about Abu Zubaydah came from when we arrested him until May,” said Soufan. In fact, according to Soufan, Abu Zubaydah “stopped talking when CIA contractors began to use nudity and sleep deprivation” and eventually brutal enhanced interrogation techniques.
Abu Zubaydah’s interrogations, including the waterboarding sessions during which he was reportedly vomiting and screaming in pain, were recorded, but all 92 videotapes were destroyed under the orders of Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA Director of National Clandestine Service.
Case Study #3. Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a Libyan national who allegedly ran the Al Qaeda-linked Khalden training camp in Afghanistan. He was arrested in November 2001, initially held at Bagram Air Base and interrogated by the FBI before the CIA transferred him to Egypt and then Libya, where he died in 2009. The Libyan government claimed that al-Libi committed suicide; human rights groups alleged that he died from torture.
Soufan pointed out that when al-Libi was questioned by the FBI using traditional interrogation techniques in December 2001 he willingly “provided intelligence about Zacarias Moussaoui, Richard Reid, and several active plots, including a planned attack against the U.S. embassy in Yemen that was close to execution.”
But once al-Libi was transferred to CIA custody, he was renditioned to Egypt and Libya, where he was subjected to brutal torture interrogations, which prompted him to falsely claim a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq’s purported development of chemical weapons and “a story that three Al Qaeda members went to Iraq to learn about nuclear weapons.” The false intelligence that al-Libi provided in an attempt to stop the brutal torture sessions was used as the “primary source for the faulty pre-war intelligence that the Bush administration repeated leading up the war in Iraq”.
“He made a number of confessions, and provided false information about ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda that Colin Powell would later cite in his presentation to the United Nations,” the report found.
Not only did the use of torture produce false confessions that led investigators on wild goose chases and resulted in costly and deadly decisions by U.S. policymakers, the detainee abuses also made U.S. allies less willing to hand over terrorist suspects to U.S. custody.
“The country doesn’t really understand the cost,” said Alberto Mora, former General Counsel of the U.S. Navy.
He recounted an example where the widespread use of torture by U.S. forces prompted the British military to a terrorist in Basra, Iraq.
“[The] British military captured a terrorist – not a terrorist suspect, a terrorist – in Basra and released him. They gave him a 48 hour head start and only then notified the American authorities. They did not have detention facilities [at that time], and they did not trust either the United States or the Iraqi forces not to abuse this individual,” said Mora. “So rather than engage in potentially aiding and abetting criminal activity, [the British forces] through that the least worst option was to release a terrorist back into the field.”
Later at a conference, Mora was told by other military lawyers from the UK, Canada, Australia at a conference that “We know what you’re doing. It’s a question of criminal activity in our countries and we can’t be party to this.”
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Remarks by Ambassador James Jones on the Constitution Project’s report on detainee treatment – April 16, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Remarks by Asa Hutchinson on the Constitution Project’s report on detainee treatment – April 16, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Press briefing Q&A on the Constitution Project’s Task Force report on detainee treatment – April 16, 2013
- The Constitution Project: Detainee Task Force