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The Bin Laden Intel/Torture Debate

As soon as we started talking about torture on the level of efficacy, i.e. whether torture “worked,” it was inevitable that we’d have a day like this. The AP reports that intelligence from secret CIA prisons first uncovered the name of the courier which eventually led to the bin Laden compound. The information came from either, or both, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi, according to current and former officials.

Current and former U.S. officials say that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, provided the nom de guerre of one of bin Laden’s most trusted aides. The CIA got similar information from Mohammed’s successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Both were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics inside CIA prisons in Poland and Romania.

The news is sure to reignite debate over whether the now-closed interrogation and detention program was successful. Former president George W. Bush authorized the CIA to use the harshest interrogation tactics in U.S. history. President Barack Obama closed the prison system.

So this debate will be opened once again. Tyler Cowen kicks it off, saying “The moral and the practical do not always coincide, and perhaps we should be celebrating just a bit less.”

There’s an assumption made here that there exists a store of information that can only be gained through torture and not other means. There’s another assumption that all information gained through torture is correct. There’s a third assumption that this particular speck of information about the courier, which was refined and added to through detective work over time, was definitively gained through an act of torture. None of these assumptions have been proven.

But I agree with Kevin Drum that they’re not particularly relevant. The efficacy of torture is a kind of parlor game that you can play, but torture is not illegal because it does or does not work. It’s illegal because it’s a crime against humanity. It has been used over time by the worst regimes the world has ever known to debase and humiliate and destroy enemies. Civilized nations the world over have rejected it as a tactic. And they didn’t take a poll about whether or not it works when they rejected it. They rejected it because they have souls.

Another part of this is that, whatever the truth here, I think we can put the ticking-bomb scenario out the window now. KSM and al-Libi revealed this information years and years ago. Then the slow, deliberate work went into action to reconstruct the information and determine the whereabouts of bin Laden. It’s not sexy. It won’t play well on 24. But there was no scenario of some interrogator screaming “Where’s bin Laden!?!?” and some functionary revealing the information. That’s not how it works in the real world.

Finally, I don’t see how this scenario, however the truth comes out, proves the need to keep people locked up for years and years without charges. But maybe someone will explain that to me.

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David Dayen

David Dayen