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Monday, August 31, 2009

Connecting the Dots on Intelligence and Waterboarding

There are several questions that continue to surround the latest revelations in the CIA's EIT program. First, are waterboarding and other EIT techniques in fact torture? Whether these techniques worked or not, was it worth it? Could we have gotten any information from some detainees without using them? Finally, did we get valuable intelligence following the use of these techniques? Most of these questions are tangential. In that, there is no objective way to look at it and so your answer likely depends on your political ideology. Most will continue to be debated long after the release of the lateste memos.

Here's what's no longer debateable. Both Khalid Sheikh Muhammand and Abu Zubaydah account for an enormous amount of what we know about Al Qaeda in general. We know that both were in the top three in the leadership of Al Qaeda. We know that both were eventually waterboarded. We also know that both were initially not very cooperative but only became cooperative after the waterboarding.

That certainly doesn't answer the question about whether or not water boarding is torture. It doesn't answer the question about whether or not it's worth it. As Juan Williams points out, in a Democracy "we don't torture, period", and we don't say "it's all right to torture because it lead to a lot of information". It's hard however to argue the last two points any more. Because of the sensitivity of the matter, most of the details of the interrogations were redacted. What wasn't redacted was 1) both KSM and Zubaydah were initially not very talkative and 2)both were subjected to EIT's. Now, it's not very hard to connect the dots here. We tried standard interrogation methods and they didn't work. We tried some alternatives. Some of these were very tought and they did work.

There is a popular argument, made especially by John McCain, that if you torture someone they will tell you anything and most won't be true. That is certainly true, but the results speak for themselves. The memos make clear that both KSM and Zubaydah were a "rolo dex of information on Al Qaeda." That is how the interrogators analyzed the information that these two gave to interrogators. Both were initially not cooperative. Both were eventually waterboarded. Both eventually began singing like canaries. Is someone going to really say that waterboarding didn't work on these two? Are they really going to say that we could have gotten information from them in another way?

It's very hard to make the moral argument that even if waterboarding saves lives it's not worth it. That is taking a theoretical argument to an extreme that very few will agree with. If Americans have a decision between waterboarding a terrorist and losing American lives, most will choose waterboarding a terrorist. As such, most of those that make that argument will also claim that it doens't work. That's a much stronger argument. Not only is it immoral, but it doesn't work. It's a difficult argument to disprove. Yet, we now have overwhelming evidence that this is simply not so. If someone wants to claim that waterboarding is wrong no matter what the ends, that's one thing. If they want to claim that it doesn't work, that's now no longer an argument someone can make.

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