Each time I write anything objecting to the Bush administration’s use of torture, I get dozens of e-mails from self-styled “realists.” Some of my correspondents offer unprintable suggestions on punishments that should be meted out to people — like me, presumably — who just “don’t get it” about terrorism. But my more polite correspondents make some variant of the following argument:
“Ms. Brooks: It’s easy for you armchair critics to condemn torture as immoral. But though torture is not pretty, we need to get the information necessary to save American lives, and sometimes torture is the only way to make hardened terrorists talk.”
Here’s my answer: You’re right, torture can make even hardened terrorists talk. But before you decide that it’s a worthy interrogation tool, study the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi.
Libi was an alleged high-ranking Al Qaeda official who was captured in late 2001 in Pakistan. Initially, the FBI was in charge of interrogating him, and it did so by the book, reportedly even reading Libi his rights before questioning him. FBI interrogators soon felt they were establishing a good rapport with him, but he wasn’t giving up the information that administration hawks wanted, so CIA officials proposed that interrogators up the ante by threatening to kill Libi and his family. When the FBI refused, CIA Director George Tenet got White House permission for the CIA to take over Libi’s interrogation.
Libi subsequently disappeared, becoming one of the “ghost detainees” whose whereabouts and status U.S. officials refuse to discuss. Most likely, he was “rendered” to Egypt: A former FBI official told Newsweek that CIA agents cuffed Libi’s wrists and ankles, covered his mouth with duct tape and hustled him toward a waiting plane. “At the airport, the CIA case officer goes up to [Libi] and says, ‘You’re going to Cairo, you know. Before you get there, I’m going to find your mother and I’m going to [rape] her.’ “
We don’t know exactly where Libi was sent, or exactly who interrogated him when he got there. According to ABC News, CIA sources said Libi was subjected to progressively harsher interrogation techniques, but still refused to give his interrogators the information they wanted. Finally, he was “waterboarded” (a technique designed to make a detainee think he’s being suffocated or drowned) then forced to remain standing overnight in a cold cell, where he was repeatedly soaked with icy water.
After that, well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news? Under torture, Libi finally broke and started to talk.
The bad news? What he told his interrogators wasn’t true.
It was Libi who was the “senior terrorist operative” cited by former Secretary of State Colin Powell in his crucial February 2003 speech to the United Nations Security Council, making the case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“Fortunately,” Powell said, “this operative is now detained, and he has told his story. He says … Iraq offer[ed] chemical or biological weapons training for two Al Qaeda associates … [and] a militant known as Abu Abdula al Iraqi had been sent to Iraq several times … for help in acquiring poisons and gases…. With this track record, Iraqi denials of supporting terrorism take their place alongside the other Iraqi denials of weapons of mass destruction. It is all a web of lies.”
In fact, it was the evidence cited by Powell, derived from torturing Libi, that turned out to be a web of lies. A full year before Powell’s U.N. speech, a Defense Intelligence Agency memo had warned that Libi’s information was probably “misleading”: Libi “has been undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest.”
In January 2003, before Powell’s U.N. speech, the CIA acknowledged similar doubts in an internal document. The administration ignored this, and relied on Libi’s assertions to build the case for war in Iraq. In 2004, Libi recanted his earlier statements.
Recently, CIA sources told ABC News that they doubted that Libi had intentionally misled his interrogators. Most likely, they say, he was just desperate to stop the torture. “You can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture’s bad enough,” Bob Baer, a former CIA officer, told ABC.
And that’s the problem with torture. Sure, it can make even the most hardened terrorist talk, but it won’t necessarily produce the truth, or save lives. When U.S. officials decided to allow the torture of Libi, they made a pact with the devil. And by my reckoning, that pact has not only cost us our national soul, but has contributed, indirectly but surely, to the loss of more than 2,100 American soldiers in Iraq.