By Lindsay Beyerstein
Washington Post reporters Peter Finn, Joby Warrick, and Julie Tate lend credence Dick Cheney's fallacious argument that because Khalid Sheik Mohammed began cooperating with U.S. authorities after he was tortured, torture made him cooperate.
The story is based the reminiscences of unnamed intelligence officers who observed Mohammed in 2005 and 2006. They say that he'd evolved from defiance to enthusiastic cooperation. But it's not clear whether any of these anonymous officials watched the metamorphosis from the beginning. The story seems to imply that they showed up 2 or 3 years after he started cooperating. In which case, why should we trust their hunches about what turned the prisoner?
And if they were around for the torture, how much stock should we put in anonymous anecdotes from people who might be facing criminal charges? Of course they're going to say that the program was dazzlingly effective. At this point, good PR is their best chance of staying free and employed.
The WaPo's sources claim to have observed Mohammed directly. Surely, only a handful of people would have been allowed access to the U.S.'s top terror detainee. Chances are, anyone who got that close has a vested interest in presenting the program in the most flattering light. For all we know, the WaPo interviewed Khalid Sheik Mohammed's torturers. If the reporters grappled with this potential conflict of interest, they don't let on.
Cheney and his allies stress that KSM only started talking after he was waterboarded. The thing is, the CIA waterboarded him as soon as they got their hands on him--183 times during his first month of captivity. We're supposed to believe that the hundred-and-eighty-third time was the charm? Good thing there was no ticking bomb.
With no control group, we have no way of knowing whether KSM broke any faster than he would have with traditional rapport-based interrogation tactics. For all we know, torture actually prolonged the process. Torture can harden the victim's resolve to resist the torturer.
Note that torture defenders aren't even trying to argue that KSM gave up valuable information while he was actually being tortured. (He falsely confessed to all kinds of crazy stuff including the murder of Daniel Pearl.) You might think this is evidence against the efficacy of torture. But here's where the Cheney faction does a bit of logical jujitsu: They point to the fact that KSM started talking after he was waterboarded. So, the waterboarding must have softened him up. The more parsimonious hypothesis is that once U.S. stopped torturing the prisoner, the real work of interrogation could begin.
"When I was in Iraq, the few times I saw people use harsh methods [in Iraq in 2006], it was always counterproductive,” explained veteran interrogator Matthew Alexander, author of 'How To Break a Terrorist,' “the person just hunkered down, they were expecting us to do that, and they just shut up. And then I’d have to send somebody in, build back up rapport, reverse that process, and it would take us longer to get information.”
Interestingly, the anecdotes from the anonymous officials who observed KSM suggest that his captors got their best information by exploiting the his intellectual vanity, not by beating confessions out of him.
We learn that KSM's captors shrewdly gave him a blackboard and let him "lecture" CIA agents about terrorism while they took notes. A lot of crazy claims have been made about the efficacy of torture, but no one's going to claim that waterboarding put KSM in the mood to deliver his "Advanced Topics in al Qaeda" talk. That gambit was the result of an astute interrogator who got to know the prisoner well enough to exploit his weaknesses.
[x-post at Majikthise]