Five Reasons Why Torture Did Not Help U.S. Forces Find Bin Laden

Update: Fact Sheet: Officials Say Torture Did Not Reveal Bin Laden’s Whereabouts


The AP reported: “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.”

Since Bin Laden’s death, Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former Vice President, and other proponents of “enhanced” interrogation techniques have taken to the air waves to trumpet this bit of news, but there is every reason to believe that torture actually hindered, rather than helped, U.S. efforts to find Bin Laden. Here are five of them.

1) It’s not so simple

Khalid Sheik Muhammed (KSM) did not talk, according to the AP, when he was tortured, but rather months later when he was questioned using humane interrogation techniques.

When asked on “Morning Joe” if KSM had provided information on the courier due to torture, John Brennan, the President’s Counter Terrorism advisor said, “not to my knowledge.” Brennan was later asked on FOX News if KSM and al-Libi had provided the initial information about the courier. “If only it were that simple,” he said.

2) KSM did not tell us everything he knew

KSM and al-Libi almost certainly concealed a great deal of information about the courier who ultimately led US forces to Bin Laden. Indeed, Bin Laden was killed in the town where Al Libi used to live. Al Libi’s role was to prepare safe houses for Al Qaeda leaders like Bin Laden, and the courier has been described repeatedly as “a confidant of Khalid Sheik Muhammed.” Yet all CIA interrogators were able to learn was a nickname for him. As compared to what they could have learned, this is not very impressive.

A senior US official told reporters that it was only four years later that US forces learned the courier’s real name and location.

3) Interrogators say that using torture does not make a detainee reveal the whole truth later

Some will argue that it was only thanks to the waterboarding that KSM and al-Libi were willing to talk at all. This notion is rejected by the more than 75 interrogators, questioners and debriefers with the military, the FBI and the CIA who I have spoken to in depth about this subject since the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib. I have yet to speak to a professional interrogator who believes that torture is an effective means of questioning suspected terrorists.

Jack Cloonan who served on the FBI’s Osama Bin Laden unit for 6 years told me that during an interrogation (or what the FBI calls an interview) the goal was to, “work towards the objective of getting this person to cross the threshold and become, in effect, a traitor to their own cause.”

According to Cloonan, “the Al Qaeda people that I dealt with were all very sophisticated in terms of their language skills and understanding of what was at stake.” Cloonan said that it essentially became a question of whether he could offer the detainee enough of what he wanted (protection for his family, more lenient sentencing/incarceration etc.) to convince him to talk. “They struggled,” he said, “with whether or not I was being truthful and I was going to honor everything I said.”

If you gave the detainee any reason not to trust you, there is no negotiation, Cloonan explained. The detainee won’t be willing to bargain with giving up his knowledge in exchange for something the interrogator can provide. He simply won’t trust you. Torture, Cloonan says, shatters any possibility for trust. “It changes the dynamic,” Cloonan said. “And once you have gone down that path, in my experience there is no going back.”

4) We simply do not know how much more helpful KSM and Al Libi might have been if they had been interrogated solely using humane methods that have been proven to be effective

In the war on terror, the most wanted men to date have been captured thanks to intelligence developed by interrogators who do not use abuse.

I once showed Joe Navarro, a former FBI special agent who used to teach questioning techniques, a TV clip of the FOX show “24” featuring Jack Bauer torturing someone while yelling “where is the bomb?” and asked him why that sort of tactic would not work on high value detainees. “That’s ridiculous,” said Navarro. “I want to know everything that a detainee knows. I don’t simply want to know where the bomb is! I want to know who funds him and how? Where are their safehouses? Who else does he know? What does he know that I don’t even know to ask about?” The dynamics of a torture session make for good TV because the detainee delivers the info in a short sound bite. But in the real world, interrogators who use abuse put themselves in a position where detainees will, at best, provide them with only limited information.

Consider other high profile captures and kills in the war on terrorism. The former insurgent who fingered Saddam Hussein voluntarily drew his U.S. interrogator a map showing exactly what spider hole the former dictator was hiding in. And the Al Qaeda operative who pointed US forces to Al Zarqawi, the former head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, told his interrogators the name of Zarqawi’s spiritual advisor and what kind of car he drove. (Ultimately coalition forces followed the advisor’s car to Zarqawi.)

This level of cooperation is unthinkable if torture is used. And it leaves one wondering if we might have found Osama Bin Laden earlier if KSM and al-Libi had been interrogated by the FBI’s subject matter expert or another interrogator committed to using humane techniques from the start.

5) The optics of the US using torture do not help in the larger struggle

Consider the case of Nasir Abbas, a former high-level terrorist who worked with Jemaah Islamiya (JI), the Indonesian terrorist group responsible for the Bali bombings.

Abbas was captured by Detachment 88, an Indonesian police task force so committed to using humane techniques that its interrogators often begin interrogation sessions by praying together with detainees as “fellow muslims.” Abbas, as he explains, in a best selling book recently released in Indonesia decided, in part thanks to his treatment by police authorities, that the way that JI engaged in killing innocent civilians was wrong. He provided the Indonesian police with dozens of leads and it is thanks to his – and other former JI operatives’ conversion – that officials say they have been able to substantially reduce the threat from JI.

How many chances has the U.S. had to convert someone like Nasir Abbas to our side?

How potent a weapon might it be to have a former Al Qaeda operative announce publically that he thinks that what Al Qaeda does is wrong and that he was wrong about his captors? (And for that matter how helpful might it be to have found a well-placed Pakistani in the town where Bin Laden was holed up who was willing to rat him out simply because it was the right thing to do.)

I am sure that the Liz Cheney’s of the world would say that this outlook is naive and that these trained killers would never turn on their comrades. To them, I can only say that I am sure that the directors of Detachment 88, in Indonesia, and the interrogators who led us to Saddam Hussein and Al Zarqawi faced the same criticism.

David Danzig was a senior advisor to Human Rights First.


Published on May 3, 2011


Related Posts

Seeking asylum?

If you do not already have legal representation, cannot afford an attorney, and need help with a claim for asylum or other protection-based form of immigration status, we can help.