Yesterday, John McCain took to the Senate floor to set the record straight about waterboarding and the intelligence that led us to Osama bin Laden:

With so much misinformation being fed into such an essential public debate as this one, I asked the Director of Central Intelligence, Leon Panetta, for the facts. And I received the following information:


The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. We did not first learn from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed the real name of bin Laden’s courier, or his alias, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the man who ultimately enabled us to find bin Laden. The first mention of the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, as well as a description of him as an important member of Al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country. The United States did not conduct this detainee’s interrogation, nor did we render him to that country for the purpose of interrogation. We did not learn Abu Ahmed’s real name or alias as a result of waterboarding or any ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ used on a detainee in U.S. custody. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts, or an accurate description of his role in Al-Qaeda.

In fact, not only did the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed; it actually produced false and misleading information. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married, and ceased his role as an Al-Qaeda facilitator — which was not true, as we now know. All we learned about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti through the use of waterboarding and other ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ against Khalid Sheik Mohammed was the confirmation of the already known fact that the courier existed and used an alias.

I have sought further information from the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and they confirm for me that, in fact, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in Al-Qaeda and his true relationship to Osama bin Laden — was obtained through standard, non-coercive means, not through any ‘enhanced interrogation technique.’

In short, it was not torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees that got us the major leads that ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find Osama bin Laden. I hope former Attorney General Mukasey will correct his misstatement. It’s important that he do so because we are again engaged in this important debate, with much at stake for America’s security and reputation. Each side should make its own case, but do so without making up its own facts.


The entire speech deserves our attention, but for the sake of the pro-torture pragmatists I want to focus on the highlighted section. The torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed produced false and misleading information. This isn’t surprising since a key fact about waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques”—and it remains indisputable—is that they are less effective than non-coercive means. Forget whether torture can ever be effective. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that point. The fact remains that those methods are less effective than non-coercive means.

This simple truth has been proven time and time again. Indeed, interrogators with the FBI and the military have said for decades that harsh methods simply do not work as well as non-coercive means. In testimony presented to the Senate Judiciary committee, FBI interrogator Ali Soufan said, “These [enhanced interrogation] techniques, from an operational perspective, are ineffective, slow and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda.”

Anyone who has taken a class in economics should be able to understand why harsh interrogation techniques are inefficient. As economists frequently note, people respond to incentives. This is certainly true in interrogation situations, and harsh techniques ensure that the incentives for the interrogator and the prisoner are exactly opposite. If a prisoner responds to torture by providing reliable information, then the interrogator has a strong incentive to keep torturing the prisoner . Why would a prisoner tell the truth when the “reward” is more torture? Torture provides a strong incentive to lie.

Considered from the perspective of incentives, it becomes easier to understand why non-coercive methods have historically produced better results.

Imagine that you are a high-level member of Al Queda being held at Guantanamo detention center. You know you will never, ever be going home. This is now your life. The dull routine of the prison is interrupted only by the occasional interrogation session. What incentives would you be most likely to respond to favorably? If you’re like most humans, you’ll be willing to trade some relatively innocuous pieces of information (e.g., the name of Osama’s courier) for small comforts that improve your life. If fact, one of the most successful interrogations of an Al-Qaeda operative by U.S. officials after 9/11 involved giving the prisoner sugar cookies.

It sounds ridiculous until you put yourself in the place of the prisoner. Their incentive structure has been radically altered. They’ve been denied even the most trivial luxuries for years and will never again have such pleasures. That is, unless they tell their captors something useful. Being rewarded provides a strong incentive for them to tell the truth.

This should be obvious to everyone. Yet the the pro-torture armchair interrogators, the folks that tend to confuse reality with an episode of 24, have a hard time recognizing this obvious truth. They find it difficult to fathom that intelligence gathering in the real-world is slower and much duller than in the world of Jack Bauer. While the CTI agent would break out the jumper cables and threaten to induce great pain in order to get a terror suspect to talk, a real interrogator would offer up an extra blanket and hold out the promise of a small pleasure. The real world method is not as dramatic, not as cinematic as a Bauer-style torture session. But it has the advantage of being effective.

For those who are deaf to moral arguments against torture and consider only the pragmatic case, isn’t that what really matters?

(Quoted text via Outside the Beltway )

Articles by Joe Carter

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