Torture had absolutely zero to do with finding bin Laden


It's time to tear down a myth right now before it spreads.

Torture had absolutely nothing to do with killing Osama bin Laden. Nothing. Zero. Ziilch. Nada. In fact, it was during the era of waterboarding and other "extreme interrogation" methods that we commonly call torture (at least when other nations do it) that the trail for bin Laden grew ice cold. It was in the years that the government changed course and stopped torturing -- beginning with George W. Bush's second term and continuing into the Obama era -- that the hunt for the 9/11 mastermind got back on track: The tools involved were traditional, legal methods of interrogation, improving our human intelligence network in Pakistan, high-technology including wiretapping of foreign terror suspects (not law-abiding American citizens) and satellite surveillance.

Remember, there are two huge arguments why using torture is wrong. The first is, quite simply, is that torture is both illegal -- as marked in the United States both by a history of treating waterboarding as unlawful and under the United Nations Torture Convention signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 -- and immoral.

The second reason -- which comes into play, frankly, because so many people ignore the first reason -- is that torture doesn't even work; frequently, it causes inmates looking to end the painful process to blurt out false and counter-productive information, and many top interrogators say they typically get info by gaining an inmate's trust, not by beating the living daylights out of him.

Over the last three or four years, even as it became clear that a) the waterboarding of captured terrorists like 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and harsh interrogation of other suspects at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere yielded no useful results and b) the use of torture by a nation that had long advertised itself as a beacon of human rights caused serious damage to America's reputation, the architects of the Bush-era torture policy like legal justifier John Yoo and their allies grew even more aggressive in their defense of the practice, seeking in part to make sure they were never punished for their crime.

This week, as news began to dribble out about how bin Laden was found and then killed, torture advocates seized on one particular piece of information. The early information that identified bin Laden's courier who eventually led agents to bin Laden came from Guantanamo inmates, and some of that intel came from the two high-profile inmates including one who was waterboarded: KSM, along with Abu Faraj al-Libi, another al-Qaeda higher-up captured in 2005.

Indeed, the Associated Press rushed out a story that was published in my own newspaper -- the Philadelphia Daily News -- with this headline: "Harsh interrogations led CIA to terrorist's lair"; no doubt the same story ran in many other newspapers with similar headlines (especially since so many papers rely on the AP for national and international news in this age of downsizing).

An early version of the story is bolstered by this quote, referring specifically to "harsh interrogation":

"We got beat up for it, but those efforts led to this great day," said Marty Martin, a retired CIA officer who for years led the hunt for bin Laden.

Not surprisingly, pro-torture politicians, bloggers and activists pounced:

The most prominent of these conservatives was Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who took to Twitterto ask sardonically, "Wonder what President Obama thinks of water boarding now?

Tea Party Express tweeted:

We hope all those who attacked the CIA interrogations of detained terrorists will now apologize and shut up - you were wrong!

The right-wing apologist Andrew Malcolm of the Los Angeles Times (Laura Bush's former press secretary) wrote:

The trail to Monday morning's assault on Osama's Pakistan compound began during someone else's presidency. That previous president authorized enhanced interrogation techniques which convinced folks like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to give up, among many other things, the name of their top-secret courier, now deceased.

Of course, former Inquirer op-ed columnist John Yoo who signed off on the torture regimen had to weigh in and gloat:

Imagine what would have happened if the Obama administration had been running things back in 2002-08.  It would have given Miranda warnings and lawyers to KSM and other al Qaeda leaders, no Gitmo, no military commissions -- instead civilian trials on US soil with all of the Bill of Rights benefits for terrorist defendants. There would have been no enhanced interrogation program, no terrorist surveillance program, and hence no intelligence mosaic that could have given us the information that produced today's success.

There's just one problem with all this gloating -- it's all complete hogwash. In fact, the information that led to Osama bin Laden did not come during enhanced interrogation, but years later. In fact, the AP -- which had done so much, unfortunately, to spread the initial misinformation -- moved a later version of its story (too late, apparently, for the print readers of the Daily News) that corrected the facts:

Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic.

Also stepping forward to acknowledge that torture had nothing to do with finding bin Laden was the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Diane Feinstein:

Moreover, Feinstein added, nothing about the sequence of events that culminated in Sunday's raid vindicates the Bush-era techniques, nor their use of black sites -- secret prisons, operated by the CIA.

"Absolutely not, I do not," Feinstein said. "I happen to know a good deal about how those interrogations were conducted, and in my view nothing justifies the kind of procedures that were used."

So how they did find bin Laden? Well, as the AP reported in its second try, there wes regular interrogation, which is not only legal but much, much more effective than torture, as both top current agents and the guys who got info from the Nazis back during World War II could have told the Bush administration. By the way, we now know that the "enhanced interrogation" torture regime was over by 2005 when al-Libi was captured, which makes the torture apologists look even sillier.

There were other key factors. The most important -- and let's give credit where it's due; it was indeed launched during Bush's second term -- was an effort to step up the human intelligence network in Pakistan and Afghanistan:

By 2005, many inside the C.I.A. had reached the conclusion that the Bin Laden hunt had grown cold, and the agency’s top clandestine officer ordered an overhaul of the agency’s counterterrorism operations. The result was Operation Cannonball, a bureaucratic reshuffling that placed more C.I.A. case officers on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

With more agents in the field, the C.I.A. finally got the courier’s family name. With that, they turned to one of their greatest investigative tools — the National Security Agency began intercepting telephone calls and e-mail messages between the man’s family and anyone inside Pakistan. From there they got his full name.

So none of the things that were so rightly criticized during the Bush years -- torture,  warrantless wiretapping of American citizens -- had anything to do with finding bin Laden. And there was something else very important: A renewed focus on finding bin Laden by Obama after he became president in January 2009:

Feinstein further claimed that the Obama administration's decision to reconstitute the CIA's bin Laden unit -- which the Bush administration shuttered in 2005 -- was a key factor in the mission's ultimate success. "I think it was very crucial," she said. "I mean this has been there for a substantial period of time. People become experienced with the intelligence."

So the evidence is overwhelming that torture had absolutely zero to do with the killing of Osama bin Laden, but I can assure you that we will continue to hear this fact-free meme in the right-wing media repeatedly in the weeks and months to come. Why? The politicians and the pundits who supported torture created the climate for possibly the most despicable action endorsed by the United States government during my lifetime -- an episode that took the great American experiment in liberty and dragged it into the unthinkable muck of banana-republic-type actions, with nothing to show for it other than a tattered reputation. It's human nature for these folks to want to justify what they said or did, especially when it is morally wrong, and this is the best straw they will ever have to grasp at. But it simply doesn't hold water.

I must repeat myself. Torture is illegal. It is immoral. It only works for fictional characters like Jack Bauer on "24" -- not in real life.

And it didn't find Osama bin Laden.