article

05.04.11

Osama bin Laden's Death Exposes the Price of Torture

Bush aides are demanding credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden. They have a point—harsh interrogations do yield intelligence—but they're blind to the moral costs, says Tara McKelvey.

Bush aides are demanding credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden. They have a point—harsh interrogations do yield intelligence—but they’re blind to the moral costs, says Tara McKelvey. Plus, full coverage of Osama bin Laden's death.

Torture works, says John Yoo, a former Justice Department official, and he is right. He is taking some of the credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, since information that led to his demise was apparently culled from harsh interrogations conducted on terrorists, a result of “tough decisions taken by the Bush administration,” wrote Yoo in National Review.

The events that led to the raid on bin Laden’s Pakistani compound are still being examined, and it is not clear to what extent the harsh interrogations played a role. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, for example, told The New York Times that if officials had had reliable information from the harsh interrogations, “we would have taken Osama bin Laden in 2003.”

Yet on a broader scale, Americans have been able to find out important things about terrorists and despots because military officers and CIA operatives knocked people around during interrogations. As one military analyst told me, U.S. officials figured out where Saddam Hussein was hiding near Tikrit in 2003 because soldiers and interrogators pulled people out of their houses in neighboring towns and beat them bloody; eventually, they revealed information about his whereabouts. In other words, harsh methods pay off.

But if you have met the people who were subjected to enhanced interrogations during the Bush era, as I did while researching my book Monstering, you might see things differently. One evening in December 2004, I sat in a hotel room in Amman, Jordan, and spoke with an Iraqi lawyer, a former diplomat who had attended the U.N. General Assembly in New York in December 2001. His 3-year-old daughter crawled around the hotel room as his wife, an engineer who told me that George Orwell’s 1984 was one of her favorite books, plied their daughter with chocolate from the minibar.

Americans have been able to find out important things about terrorists because military officers and CIA operatives knocked people around during interrogations.

Sitting in the hotel room, the lawyer lifted up his pants leg and showed me a red hole where electrodes had been placed in his knee during an interrogation in a U.S.-run detention facility. I told him not all Americans are like the ones he met. “We’re not a nation of torturers,” I said. Later, I wondered, how did this happen?

If there is a smoking gun, it was in the hands of John Yoo. He is a graduate of Yale Law School, and he was the person behind a Justice Department memo that said interrogators could do what they wanted so long as the intensity of pain was less than that which the prisoners would feel if they suffered from organ failure or another life-threatening injury. These guidelines created the conditions that allowed for almost any sort of physical abuse.

Yoo, along with David Addington, a Duke Law School graduate who was an aide to Dick Cheney, and Timothy Flanigan, a University of Virginia law school graduate who served as a deputy White House counsel—all of whom had studied at the nation’s premier law schools—got together in meetings in Washington to discuss the possibility of using harsh techniques on al Qaeda operatives and other high-level terrorists.

Shortly after returning from one of my trips to the Middle East, I called Flanigan and told him that the techniques he had been discussing with Yoo and other government lawyers had been used on men, women, and children in Iraq. Flanigan and I talked for a long time, and he explained that those techniques were intended only for high-level al Qaeda suspects. I know that Flanigan and Yoo thought they were doing the right thing and that they wanted to protect America from a future attack. Yoo and his colleagues believed they were on the side of the angels, and this week Yoo seems to feel he was vindicated by the death of bin Laden.

But the fact is that Yoo and his colleagues came up with the legal definitions that allowed for harsh techniques and cleared the way for all sorts of abuse, much of which was inflicted on innocent people, and culminated in the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004. The Abu Ghraib photographs have provided al Qaeda commanders and other terrorists with an effective, and durable, recruiting tool.

In his memoir, Decision Points, George W. Bush said he had personally approved of the enhanced interrogation methods that were used on prisoners. He also wrote about how CIA officers had said they wanted to make sure that he thought they could go ahead and waterboard a prisoner. “Damn right,” he recalled telling them. Few who have honestly examined the use of waterboarding and other harsh methods and have spoken with military and CIA interrogators would deny that these techniques yield intelligence. But human-rights advocates say that misses the point; for them, the question is not, “Does torture work?” but rather, “Is this the kind of nation we want to become?”

Tara McKelvey, a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, is the author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War (Basic Books).