This week, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence announced its report on the George W. Bush administration’s use of torture. Here is how Wikipedia describes the document:
The 6,000-page report, which took five years and $40 million to compile, details abusive actions by CIA officials (amounting to systemic mistreatment of detainees) and various shortcomings of the detention project. On December 9, 2014 — eight months after voting to release parts of the report — the SSCI released a 525-page portion that consisted of key findings and an executive summary of the full report. The rest of the report remains classified.
The report details actions by a number of CIA officials, including torturing prisoners and providing misleading or false information about CIA programs to government officials and the media. It also revealed the existence of previously unknown detainees, the fact that more detainees were subjected to harsher treatment than was previously disclosed, and that more techniques were used than previously disclosed. Finally, it offers conclusions about the detention project, including that enhanced interrogation techniques did not help acquire actionable intelligence or gain cooperation from detainees.
The report has been blasted by its critics as inaccurate, incomplete, egregiously one-sided, and politically partisan. And it has reignited the recurring dispute in this country about the usefulness of torture and what it says about us as a people whose government is willing to employ it. For example, Charles Krauthammer points to the absence of any new terrorist attacks since 9/11 as confirmation of torture’s effectiveness (Q.E.D.). And former Vice President Dick Cheney, a strong supporter of what he called “enhanced interrogation techniques” while he was in office, now appears on news show after news show as an ubiquitous advocate of the practice.
Of course, I’m no expert on the subject, but most of what I’ve read about it says that torture doesn’t work. A tortured prisoner, according to intelligence experts, will only end up saying whatever his tormentors want him to say. In the words of Ali Soufan, “a former FBI special agent with considerable experience interrogating al-Qaeda operatives”: “When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them. That means the information you're getting is useless.”
The Senate’s torture report also dredges up memories of the Iraq War itself. A number of news stories regarding people like former counter-terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke and Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill have said that Bush wanted to invade Iraq at the very beginning of his tenure. Indeed, when Bush established his administration, he appointed several advocates of “regime change” in Iraq — such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle — to positions of power. As the news interviews with Clarke and O’Neill suggest, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 provided Bush with an opportunity to implement his long-held ambition to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Now, I would like to say something that the more misanthropic corner of my mind has suspected ever since the Abu Ghraib prison story broke. I didn’t go around announcing my suspicion to everyone I knew because it would have made me sound like a far-left nutjob. This is the suspicion: I’ve long feared that much of Bush and Chaney’s “intelligence” about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq came from tortured prisoners of the War in Afghanistan. In other words, Bush and Chaney so badly wanted a rationale to invade Iraq that they had prisoners of war tortured until those detainees parroted the regime-change hawks’ notions of WMD. We now know that these notions of a nuclear-armed Iraq were erroneous, but I can imagine “enhanced” interrogators tormenting a detainee about WMD and the prisoner saying that Hussein was acquiring them just to make the pain stop. And this is the main reason, my sardonic side suspects, that Bush and Chaney so vigorously defend torture: it (along with other debunked “evidence”) helped to provide the Iraq War’s false casus belli.
This all sounds extremely cynical, I know, and as much as I disliked the Bush administration, I still gave it the benefit of the doubt that it wouldn’t go quite so far to achieve its dubious ends. But a news story in the National Journal now gives credence to my formerly far-fetched suspicions.
December 9, 2014 — A Senate investigation into the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation practices released Tuesday suggests that at least one detainee supplied false intelligence contributing to erroneous claims by the Bush administration that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was working with al-Qaida.
A footnote buried in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 500-page report references a Libyan national known as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who “reported while in ... custody that Iraq was supporting al-Qaida and providing assistance with chemical and biological weapons.”
Some of that intelligence from al-Libi was used by former Secretary of State Colin Powell during a speech to the United Nations attempting to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, according to the footnote, despite al-Libi later recanting the claim.
That speech by Powell, delivered on Feb. 5, 2003, was a pivotal part of the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, wherein the secretary discussed Iraq's “deadly weapons program” and the country’s “involvement in terrorism.”
No weapons of mass destruction were ever discovered in Iraq, nor was Hussein found to have deep, crucial ties to al-Qaida. It is unclear how significant al-Libi's testimony was to the Bush administration's insistence that Hussein possessed them.
To be sure, the story does not say that al-Libi supplied the false intelligence as a direct result of torture, and the article states that it’s not certain to what extent, if any, al-Libi’s “testimony” contributed to Bush’s justification for the invasion of Iraq.
But the fact that this news story comes as close as it does to confirming my worst suspicions is bad enough to get me to write this post. The known history of the Iraq War — its being based on false intelligence, the hasty and heedless way that Bush rushed into it, its incompetent mismanagement — already makes it an egregious calamity. If the false intelligence used to justify it turns out have been the result of torture, this would boost it to a cataclysmic tragedy.
For a long time now — and the new Senate report now says that I had a good reason — whenever I listened to Chaney or any other regime-change apologist defending the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” this is what I heard between the lines of what they said: Torture is good because tortured detainees tell us what we want to hear.