Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Cheney Torture Memos

My colleague Spencer Ackerman at the Washington Independent got his hands on those memos that Dick Cheney claims will vindicate the use of torture. Turns out….not so much.

Strikingly, they provide little evidence for Cheney’s claims that the “enhanced interrogation” program run by the CIA provided valuable information. In fact, throughout both documents, many passages — though several are incomplete and circumstantial, actually suggest the opposite of Cheney’s contention: that non-abusive techniques actually helped elicit some of the most important information the documents cite in defending the value of the CIA’s interrogations.


You can see the full documents here. Spencer provides some details on how inconclusive these memos are:

The first document, issued by the CIA in July 2004 is about the interrogation of 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003 and whom, the newly released CIA Inspector General report on torture details, had his children’s lives threatened by an interrogator. None of that abuse is referred to in the publicly released version of the July 2004 document. Instead, we learn from the July 2004 document that not only did the man known as “KSM” largely provide intelligence about “historical plots” pulled off from al-Qaeda, a fair amount of the knowledge he imparted to his interrogators came from his “rolodex” — that is, what intelligence experts call “pocket litter,” or the telling documentation found on someone’s person when captured. As well, traditional intelligence work appears to have done wonders — including a fair amount of blundering on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s part:

In response to questions about [al-Qaeda’s] efforts to acquire [weapons of mass destruction], [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] revealed that he had met three individuals involved in [al-Qaeda’s] program to produce anthrax. He appears to have calculated, incorrectly, that we had this information already, given that one of the three — Yazid Sufaat — had been in foreign custody for several months.

This is a far cry from torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed into revealing such information. It would be tendentious to believe that the torture didn’t have any impact on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — he himself said that he lied to interrogators in order to get the torture to stop — but the document itself doesn’t attempt to present a case that the “enhanced interrogation” program was a factor, let alone the determinant factor, in the intelligence bounty the document says he provided.

He also argues separately that the confusion between interrogators and debriefers makes it even more difficult to separate out what information was obtained through normal interrogation techniques and what information was obtained through torture and abuse.

We already know from the testimony of FBI interrogator Ali Soufan that Abu Zubaydah gave actionable information using standard techniques but gave bad information by the ton once they started torturing him. And it seems rather obvious to me that if waterboarding actually did work, it would not be necessary to subject someone to it 183 times. The fact that they had to do it that many times is evidence that it didn’t do a damn bit of good.