The Pointless Scuffle Over Torture

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John Moore / Getty

A juvenile Iraqi detainee stands in a solitary confinement cell outside at the Camp Cropper detention center in Baghdad, Iraq.

The CIA is still torturing, according to the New York Times, and the Administration is still denying it. "The government does not torture," Bush said Friday.

So what do you call simulated drownings — waterboarding — and slapping and freezing, techniques that were approved in a 2005 secret Department of Justice legal opinion? If the Eighth Amendment prohibits American police from waterboarding suspects, common sense tells me it's illegal.

But legal or not, the important thing to remember is that torture doesn't work. When I was in the CIA I never came across a country that systematically tortures its citizens and at the same time produces useful intelligence. The objective of torture, invariably, is intimidation.

When Stalin asked the KGB to find out how to make an atomic bomb, the KGB didn't kidnap and torture American and British scientists. It recruited spies. And Stalin got his bomb.

The Israelis figured all of this out a long time ago. For the last three years I have been in and out of Israeli jails interviewing members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Many of them had been in suicide bomber cells — just the kind of people the Israelis would want to extract every last detail out of. None of them, however, claimed to have been tortured. The Israelis found out what they needed to know using traditional, legal police methods. It simply isn't worth it for them to risk damaging their already shaky international reputation by torturing suspects on the slim hope they just may get a lead.

Another thing the Israelis learned is that the "ticking bomb" scenario so popular on shows like 24 (and even in recent presidential debates) is a false choice. Any terrorist group capable of carrying off a sophisticated attack knows enough to "compartmentalize" its attack — the operatives are told only what they need to know. Or the attacks are so closely timed that it is impossible to stop them. For instance, had we arrested one of the 9/11 teams, there would not have been enough time to physically coerce its members into telling us about the other three hijacking teams.

One of the ironies of the story is that even a repressive state such as Saudi Arabia has evolved its counter-terrorism policy, while the Bush Administration is still stuck on torture. On October 1, 2007, the Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, issued a decree (fatwa), which forbids Saudis from joining the jihad abroad. The mufti knows that if the Saudis don't get out of the suicide bombing business, it will come back to bite them.

If the Saudis can learn, why can't we? As long as the Administration takes its lead from Jack Bauer, we're going to continue to spend a lot of international capital for very little return.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down