Did Waterboarding Prevent Terrorism Attacks?

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Left; Janet Hamlin / AFP / Getty: AP

Terrorism suspects Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, left, and Abu Zubaydah

In the wake of the release of the CIA torture memos, the Obama Administration already has its hands full with critics on the left who want senior Bush Administration officials prosecuted for the use of harsh interrogation techniques like water boarding. But thanks to former Vice President Dick Cheney, it has to deal with a different line of attack from the right. The growing chorus claims the Administration selectively chose which CIA memos to declassify, deliberately holding back documents that show "the success of the effort...specifically what we gained as a result of this activity," as Cheney put it in an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity Monday.

Like many of his allies, Cheney insists that methods like waterboarding or sleep deprivation are an essential tool needed to pry vital intelligence from terrorists who otherwise refused to cooperate with their captors. Last month he said "the enhanced interrogation program" stopped "a great many" 9/11-like attacks. "I've seen a report that was written, based upon the intelligence that we collected then, that itemizes the specific attacks that were stopped by virtue of what we learned through those programs," Cheney said to CNN, adding that its contents are "still classified" and can't be detailed. (See pictures of life inside Guantanamo.)

Opponents aren't buying any of this. They say that such an approach is a violation of international law that's tantamount to torture, and that whatever chunks of actionable intelligence it dislodged were dwarfed by the damage done to the U.S. image and reputation around the world. In addition, many of the Bush Administration's prosecutions of purported terrorists — announced with great fanfare as key victories in the war on terror — ultimately fell apart because of the suspect methods used to extract confessions. "I believe that our nation is stronger and more secure when we deploy the full measure of both our power and the power of our values, including the rule of law," the President said Monday during a visit to the CIA. (Read six ways to fix the CIA.)

Both the White House and Senate Intelligence Committee are probing into the conflicting claims, and the CIA is combing through thousands of classified cables trying to determine just how important such techniques were to national security. But reaching consensus on what we really learned as a result of things like waterboarding won't be easy. There's a reason, after all, the intelligence world is often likened to a hall of mirrors. What appears to be true to one spy looks exactly the opposite to another.

Officials in the Bush Administration maintain that the intelligence wrung from terror detainee Abu Zubaydah (whom the CIA waterboarded "at least" 83 times, according to an an agency document released by the Obama Administration last week) led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the self-proclaimed architect of the 9/11 attacks. His capture, in turn, helped prevent future terror strikes, they maintain; Mohammed himself, the memos revealed, was waterboarded a startling 183 times in March 2003 (a May 2005 memo from a CIA lawyer said waterboarding could be used on a detainee up to 12 times daily for as long as 40 seconds per event). Then-CIA director George Tenet, in his 2007 memoir, says that tough interrogation of al-Qaeda members — and documents found on them, he is careful to add — thwarted more than 20 plots "against U.S. infrastructure targets, including communications nodes, nuclear power plants, dams, bridges, and tunnels." A "future airborne attack on America's West Coast" was likely foiled only because the CIA didn't have "to treat KSM like a white collar criminal."

Critics of such claims argue that what was thwarted were merely al-Qaeda fantasies. "Torture gets people to talk — no question," says a former senior U.S. national security official involved in such matters. "They talk and talk and talk, until you stop hurting them. But in every instance, bar none, you later discover that they've just been lying or exaggerating, or telling you what they think you want to hear." In fact, a 1963 CIA interrogation manual warned that those resisting questioning "are likely to become intractable if made to endure pain" or generate "false, concocted as a means of escaping from distress."

Complicating matters is that even if such foiled plots were more than fantasies it's as hard to prove a negative after September 11 as it was before. Just because there were no attacks after 9/11 doesn't necessarily mean that the interrogations deserve the credit. And of course the intelligence community's failure to discover that Saddam Hussein lacked any weapons of mass destruction before the Bush Administration invaded Iraq in 2003 makes their purported knowledge about thwarting attacks suspect to many observers.

Even one of the memos itself acknowledges the disagreement within the intelligence community about the effectiveness of the harsh methods. A footnote in the May 30, 2005 memo by Steven Bradbury, then acting head of the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel, states that, "According to the [CIA] IG Report, the CIA, at least initially, could not always distinguish detainees who had information but were successfully resisting interrogation from those who did not actually have information ... On at least one occasion, this may have resulted in what might be deemed in retrospect to have been the unnecessary use of enhanced techniques. On that occasion, although the on-scene interrogation team judged Zubaydah to be compliant, elements within CIA headquarters still believed he was withholding information ... At the direction of CIA Headquarters, interrogators therefore used the waterboard one more time on Zubaydah. . . . [I]n the Zubaydah example, CIA Headquarters dispatched officials to observe the last waterboard session. These officials reported that enhanced techniques were no longer needed."

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Read "Why Obama Needs to Reveal Even More on Torture."