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The Tortured Logic Of Enhanced Interrogation

Did torture work? This is the question everyone is asking after Osama bin Laden’s death and the revelation that his fate was sealed by the identification of a courier whose nom de guerre emerged from the interrogation of top al Qaeda operatives who were known to have been subjected to waterboarding and similar techniques. “Did brutal interrogations produce the intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?” a May 3 New York Timesstory asked.

This is hardly the first time we’ve had this debate. In 2006, my team of interrogators in Iraq located local al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by identifying and following one of his spiritual advisors, Abu Abd al-Rahman. Eric Maddox, a U.S. Army interrogator, found Saddam Husseinby similar means, identifying his former bodyguards. It’s these little pieces of information that form the mosaic that gradually leads to a breakthrough. But how best to get those little pieces?

Current and former U.S. officials and their supporters have been quick to argue that “enhanced interrogation techniques” and waterboarding led to the identification of the courier’s alias, which started U.S. intelligence down the road to bin Laden. The day after the al Qaeda leader’s death was announced, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the House Homeland Security Committee chair, told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that “For those who say that waterboarding doesn’t work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information [from waterboarding] that directly led us to bin Laden.” John Yoo, the former U.S. Justice Department official who drafted the George W. Bush administration’s legal rationales for officially sanctioned torture, repeated the claim and praised“Bush’s interrogation and warrantless surveillance programs that produced this week’s actionable intelligence.” The torture bandwagon has started to kick into high gear. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In fact, the information about the existence of a courier working for bin Laden was provided by several detainees, not just waterboarded al Qaeda operatives Kalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi — we had one detainee in Iraq who provided information about a courier in 2006. The key pieces of information, however, were the courier’s real name and location. His family name was first uncovered by CIA assets in Pakistan through other sources. The NSA subsequently figured out his full real name and location from an intercepted phone call. Waterboarding had nothing to do with it.

Moreover, common sense dictates that all high-ranking leaders have couriers — and their nicknames do little to lead us to them. This is because many members of al Qaeda change names or take on a nom de guerre after joining for both operational security and cultural reasons. The names are often historically relevant figures in the history of Islam, like the Prophet Mohamed’s first follower, Abu Bakr. Think of it as the equivalent of a boxer taking on a nickname like “The Bruiser.”

Understanding these cultural nuances is just one critical skill interrogators must have to be effective. The other is an understanding of the social science behind interrogations, which tells us that torture has an extremely negative effect on memory. An interrogator needs timely and accurate intelligence information, not just made-up babble.

What torture has proven is exactly what experienced interrogators have said all along: First, when tortured, detainees will give only the minimum amount of information necessary to stop the pain. No interrogator should ever be hoping to extract the least amount of information. Second, under coercion, detainees give misleading information that wastes time and resources — a false nickname, for example. Finally, it’s impossible to know what information the detainee would have disclosed under non-coercive interrogations.

But to understand the question “Does torture work?” one must also define “work.” If we include all the long-term negative consequences of torture, that answer becomes very clear. Those consequences include the fact that torture handed al Qaeda its No. 1 recruiting tool, a fact confirmed by the U.S. Department of Defense’s interrogators in Iraq who questioned foreign fighters about why they had come there to fight. (I have first-hand knowledge of this information because I oversaw many of these interrogations and was briefed on the aggregate results.) In addition, future detainees will be unwilling to cooperate from the onset of an interrogation because they view all Americans as torturers. I heard this repeatedly in Iraq, where some detainees accused us of being the same as the guards at Abu Ghraib.

The more you think about, the less sense torture makes. U.S. allies will become unwilling to conduct joint operations if they are concerned about how detainees will be treated in U.S. custody (an argument made by the 9/11 Commission, among others). And future enemies will use our actions as justification to torture American captives. Torture also lowers our ethical standards to those of our enemies, an ugly shift that spreads like a virus throughout the Armed Services; witness the abuses of Abu Ghraib or the recent murders of civilians in Afghanistan.

Most importantly, we should be talking about the morality of torture, not its efficacy. When the U.S. infantry becomes bogged down in a tough battle, they don’t turn to chemical weapons even though they are extremely effective. The reason they don’t is because such weapons are illegal and immoral.

During the Revolutionary War, one top general made the point that torture was inconsistent with the fundamental beliefs of our founding fathers. “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to insure any [prisoner] … I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require,” he wrote to his troops in the Northern Expeditionary Force in the first year of the war. The general in question was George Washington. There’s a reason we pledge to believe in “liberty and justice for all” and not “liberty and security for all”: It’s because we place our values and principles higher than we place our security. When we cease to do so, we forfeit our right to be called Americans.

We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him. American interrogators safely guided us through World War II without the use of torture, fighting an enemy and interrogating prisoners every bit as brutal and dedicated as the members of al Qaeda. Our interrogators continue to prove time and time again that they are smart enough to outwit al Qaeda’s best and brightest. No one should ever doubt that we have the mental and ethical fortitude to win this war — and to do it without lowering ourselves to the level of our foes.

By: Matthew Alexander, Foreign Policy, May 4, 2011

May 6, 2011 Posted by | 911, Democracy, Foreign Policy, GITMO, Government, Ground Zero, Homeland Security, Ideology, Middle East, Military Intervention, National Security, Neo-Cons, Pentagon, Politics, President Obama, Right Wing, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Killing Of Osama bin Laden: Both Well Executed And Lawful

Some are questioning the legality of the raid in Pakistan that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Was it lawful for a team of Navy SEALs to launch a mission in Abbottabad without permission from Pakistani leaders? Did they comply with international strictures when they killed the al-Qaeda leader rather than capturing him and bringing him before a court of law?

In a word: yes.

The analysis must begin with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when about 3,000 innocents were murdered by Osama bin Laden and his forces. There was no guesswork involved in pinpointing the culprits: He took credit for the bloodshed and reiterated his call for attacks against the United States and its allies. In passing the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) just one week later, Congress explicitly empowered the president to take all appropriate and necessary action against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and all those who helped or harbored them. It was, in short, a declaration of war, and Osama bin Laden was rightly targeted for his central role in the atrocities.

Absent a surrender, there is no question that U.S. forces would have been entitled to shoot him on sight had they encountered him on an Afghan battlefield. But that is not where the terrorist leader spent his time. After lengthy and intricate intelligence-gathering, the Obama administration tracked him to a heavily secured mansion in a city outside Islamabad populated by military officers and the country’s elite military academy. With suspicions high that Osama bin Laden enjoyed some semblance of official protection, the Obama administration rightly decided to proceed without notifying Pakistan.

International law recognizes a country’s inherent right to act in self-defense, and it makes no distinction between vindicating these rights through a drone strike or through a boots-on-the-ground operation. Administration officials have described the raid as a “kill or capture” mission and asserted that the SEALs would have taken Osama bin Laden alive had he surrendered and presented no threat to U.S. personnel or the others in the compound that night. This, according to official accounts, did not happen.

Much has been made of the disclosure that Osama bin Laden was unarmed, but this, too, is irrelevant in determining whether the operation was lawful. The SEALs entered the compound on a war footing, in the middle of the night, prepared to encounter hostile fire in what they believed to be the enemy leader’s hideout. They reported that they became embroiled in a firefight once inside; they had no way of knowing whether Osama bin Laden himself was armed. Even if he had signaled surrender, there is no reason to believe that danger had evaporated. As Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said during a congressional hearing on Wednesday: “From a Navy SEAL perspective, you had to believe that this guy was a walking IED,” prepared to blow up himself and those around him or possibly to detonate an explosive that would have engulfed the entire house.

It is easy in the light of day to second-guess decisions made in the heat of war. It is particularly easy for those who refuse to acknowledge that war in the first place. Based on information released by the administration, the covert military operation that brought down the most wanted terrorist in the world appears to have been gutsy and well executed. It was also lawful.

By: Editorial Board Opinion, The Washington Post, May 4, 2011

May 6, 2011 Posted by | 911, Congress, Democracy, Ground Zero, Homeland Security, Journalists, Middle East, National Security, President Obama, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who’s Soft On Terror Now?

By the time U.S. Navy SEALs shot Osama bin Laden dead in his Pakistan hideaway, he was already becoming a historical anachronism. During his 10 years of running and hiding, events had passed him by. In the end, he appeared more David Koresh than Hitler or Napoleon — a religious zealot imprisoned by his own homicidal delusions, and little more.

“I am confident that Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America,” bin Laden once said. Like most fanatics, however, he failed to grasp the resilience of our democracy. America had largely recovered from the terrible strategic blunders that fear and outrage over the 9/11 atrocity had driven it to.

Al-Qaida’s hope was to lure the United States into Afghanistan, where they imagined it would destroy itself like the Soviet Union. That the neoconservative cabal inside the Bush administration would use the attack to justify invading Iraq provided an unanticipated propaganda boost.

The U.S., bin Laden told a CNN interviewer in 1997, “wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents on us to rule us and then wants us to agree to this … If we refuse to do so, it says we are terrorists.”

But images of Abu Ghraib faded as Iraq’s fratricidal strife yielded to steadfast military and diplomatic effort; America’s intention to leave Iraq became clear. Recent political tumult across the Arab world has owed nothing to bin Laden’s fever dream of a restored Islamic empire.

Writing from Benghazi, Libya, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen celebrated the liberation of “the captive Arab mind.”

“Bin Laden’s rose-tinged caliphate was the solace of the disenfranchised, the disempowered and the desperate,” Cohen added. “A young guy with a job, a vote and prospects does not need virgins in paradise.”

None of which should diminish our satisfaction at bin Laden’s death. I happened to be watching the Phillies-Mets game Sunday night when spontaneous cheers of “USA, USA!” broke out as fans got the news on their cellphones. For once, ESPN delivered a non-sports headline at the bottom of the screen.

My brother the Mets fan called the next day to express his feelings. Thirteen people from our New Jersey hometown, he reminded me, died on 9/11. I didn’t know any of them personally, but he knew several victims. Nothing can bring the victims back or erase their loved ones’ pain. Avenging those deaths, however, brought exactly what President Obama said it did: justice.

Bin Laden could have surrendered. Instead, he took the easy way out. Good riddance to him.

Everybody’s got their own way of remembering. Me, I get out my “Concert for New York” DVD and watch the Who turn Madison Square Garden upside down with a thunderous rendition of “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” — maybe the most powerful rock anthem ever written — for an audience of uniformed New York cops, firefighters and EMTs.

Announcing themselves honored to be invited, the English band played in front of a huge projection of the U.S. flag, the Union Jack and the World Trade Center. I can’t watch it dry-eyed. Everybody in the crowd looks like my cousin or somebody I grew up with.

No doubt you’ve got your own 9/11 memories. The question is: What to do with those thoughts and emotions now? Will the feelings of unity — those cheering fans in Philadelphia were Democrats and Republicans alike — bring about a lessening of partisan political anger?

President George W. Bush was quick to offer congratulations. Even Dick Cheney was gracious for once. It was Cheney’s classless accusation that President Obama was risking national security by dropping the “Global War on Terror” trope that set the tone for strident rejection of his legitimacy.

Soft on terror? Obama not only accomplished what the previous administration hadn’t done in eight years of trying, he’d put his presidency on the line. Had the SEALs’ mission in Pakistan failed like President Carter’s 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran, the recriminations would never have ended. Instead, it revealed Obama as one tough, shrewd cookie.

“For most Americans,” writes the New Yorker’s George Packer, “the killing of Osama bin Laden is the equivalent of a long-form birth certificate in establishing Barack Obama’s bona fides as commander-in-chief.”

Realistically, however, not much has changed except American self-confidence. The truth is that the nation panicked somewhat after 9/11. Anxious to find an opponent worthy of their own revolutionary romanticism, Bush administration neoconservatives turned Osama bin Laden into a virtual Hitler to suit their own Churchillian fantasies.

“Islamofascism” they called it. Enraged and distraught, many Americans bought it. Except that bin Laden’s deluded followers posed no military threat to the integrity of the United States or any Western nation. At worst they were capable of theatrical acts of mass murder like the 9/11 attacks.

And that was sufficient evil indeed.

By: Gene Lyons, Salon War Room, May 4, 2011

May 5, 2011 Posted by | 911, Democracy, Foreign Policy, Ground Zero, Homeland Security, Muslims, National Security, Neo-Cons, Politics, President Obama, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No Swagger: Osama bin Laden’s Killing Vindicates Obama’s Approach

It was a very different Barack Obama who stood in the White House  late Sunday to deliver the astounding and satisfying news that Osama bin Laden  was dead. Or was it?

Obama was derided  during the 2008 presidential campaign for saying he would be willing to go into  Pakistan unilaterally to nab the hateful and hated leader of al Qaeda. The idea  was naïve at best, diplomatically disastrous at worst, his opponents said.  Obama’s calm tones, lack of swagger, and professed desire to repair  relationships with the rest of the world—the Muslim world, in particular—were used as a weapon to portray him as weak, someone who would not possess the  cool-headedness to destroy the most cold hearted of mass murderers. And yet,  Obama, with the able help of U.S. intelligence and military minds and bodies,  pulled it off brilliantly, and in a manner entirely keeping with the personage  he offered during the campaign.

For most of us,  the mere fact of bin Laden’s death would be enough. But the way the operation  unfolded was virtually perfect: bin Laden was hunted down by U.S. forces and shot  in the head—not killed in an air strike or explosion, but in a manner in  which we can presume that bin Laden, in his final moments, knew that it was  American troops who would personally take his life. No U.S. troops were killed,  and civilian casualties (except, possibly, for the unidentified woman bin Laden  used as a human shield) avoided. His body was identified by DNA, preemptively  silencing any “deathers” who would circulate rumors that it was all just a  public relations stunt and a lie. Bin Laden’s body was disposed of at sea—to avert the need to find a country willing to bury him, and to avoid having  his grave site used as a rallying spot for al Qaeda operatives and  sympathizers. He was buried quickly, in Muslim tradition, averting criticism  that the United States was being insensitive to the religion. Pakistan, which  Obama said cooperated in the mission, but which apparently did not know the details  of it until it was done, has not accused the United States of any invasion of  sovereignty.

In his White  House address, the serious-faced president avoided showing any glee over bin  Laden’s death, although he surely was as happy about it as the rest of America.  Nor did he take a cheap political victory lap, declaring “mission  accomplished” against terrorism; in fact, the president rightly warned, the  nation needs to be on alert for any retaliatory attacks. He reiterated that the  United States is not at war with Islam, but with terrorism. There was no comment, implicit  or otherwise, that he had managed to achieve what former President Bush had  failed to do—to get bin Laden. Obama had the good manners to call Bush  personally to tell him of the feat, and Bush responded in his statement with  grace.

Obama lacks  Bush’s aggressive style and provocative rhetoric. That does not mean he is weak  or was less determined to get bin Laden. And while the president had not  mentioned bin Laden much in public recently, that does not mean the  administration wasn’t working on it. Similarly, while the Bush administration  did not manage to kill or capture bin Laden, we have no way of knowing how many  major attacks the previous administration defused.

Obama on Sunday  night might have shown some of his critics a side they didn’t think existed,  that of a determined commander in chief. But that was exactly the approach  Obama presented during the campaign. It was just that his opponents didn’t  think he could pull it off. He did—and the fact that Obama is not hanging a  “Mission Accomplished” banner across the East Room makes the feat even more  impressive.

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, May 2, 2011

May 2, 2011 Posted by | 911, Foreign Policy, Ground Zero, Homeland Security, Islam, Justice, Muslims, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, Right Wing, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Silent Rebuke Of “The War On Terrorism”

In a  measured East Room address late yesterday, President Obama announced the death  of Osama bin Laden and took a somber look back at Sept. 11, 2001, a  tragically beautiful day on the East Coast. A “cloudless sky”  set the scene for nearly three thousand deaths and two fallen towers by the  time it was done.

Listening  for what the president didn’t say in speaking to the nation, I came away  impressed with his choice of words. He deftly left out three of them:  “war on terror.” Cutting that phrase out of the political  lexicon is a graceful, silent rebuke to its authors. Never has that been  seen in a clearer light as last night. It’s far from just semantic.

Even  in his winning mode, Obama disowned that particular dog of war—and did not  let “terror” bark. Good for him, good for the nation, good for the  world. President George W. Bush and his dark side, Dick Cheney, used this  vague construct constantly and carelessly from day one, while the ruins of  September 11 were still smoking.

Waging  a “war on terror” made the American people estranged from  each other and made the whole world seem like a more dangerous place. Our  initial unity after the September 11 attacks dissolved in a sea of stress and  anxiety. The “war on terror” ran counter to our can-do  spirit because, we heard, there was nothing we could do to fight terrorism, but  go shopping. So much for sacrifices. Lots of dark acts were  committed in the name of the “war on terror,” often literally in the  dark and far from where we live.

As  citizens, we have no full reckoning of what the “war on terror”  was used to justify, no receipt for its cost in lives, U.S. treasury dollars,  and our fallen place in the world community. Sunday’s late-night speech  indicated Obama has given this matter serious thought and its fair due.  He’s sending out signals to friends and foes alike that the Wild West  doesn’t live at the White House anymore, not even on a day when he achieved  Bush’s fondest dream as president. In more specific language, he simply  spoke of our “war against al-Qaeda.” How sweet it was to watch and to hear his well-chosen words that steered clear of “with us or against  us,” “dead or alive,” or bragging about being the  greatest nation. Gloating does not become a president.

Speaking  of Bush, his official statement indicated he knew “war on terror” is no longer acceptable in policy parleys, so he changed it to  “fight against terrorism.” Do they have enough crow down there  in Texas for him?

Save  some for the prince of darkness, too.

By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, May 2, 2011

May 2, 2011 Posted by | 911, Foreign Policy, Ground Zero, Homeland Security, Islam, Justice, Military Intervention, Politics, President Obama, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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