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Does Torture Work? Bin Laden's Killing Reopens Debate On 'Black-Site' Interrogations

U.S. President Barack Obama reversed most Bush-era interrogation policies, including the use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay (above).
U.S. President Barack Obama reversed most Bush-era interrogation policies, including the use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay (above).
The killing of Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden this week has been characterized as a victory for U.S. intelligence work.

But it has also revived an old and divisive question: Just how far should the United States be prepared to go to get the information it needs? Some now say the capture justifies the harsh interrogation techniques, now banned, that were introduced in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney says he assumes the "enhanced interrogation program" he helped put in place produced results that helped in bin Laden's capture.
Hours after U.S. Navy Special Operations Forces successfully stormed bin Laden's secret compound in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, former U.S. President Dick Cheney told the U.S. Fox News channel that the operation would not have been possible without intelligence gathered with harsh interrogation techniques advocated by the administration of George W. Bush after 9/11.

"I would assume that the enhanced interrogation program that we put in place produced some of the results that led to bin Laden's ultimate capture. But I need to know more," Cheney said, "and I'm sure we'll all learn more over the course of the next few days about exactly what happened and how it was accomplished. We need to keep in place those policies that made it possible for us to succeed in this case."

The media have struggled to establish a clear chain of cause and effect between this week's operation and the interrogations of hundreds of suspected terrorists that followed 9/11.

'Black-Site' Interrogations

U.S. officials have acknowledged that two "high-value" Al-Qaeda suspects with close ties to bin Laden -- 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi, who ran the terrorist group's operations after Mohammed's capture -- revealed information about a trusted bin Laden courier. The courier's identity was consider critical to locating bin Laden and the Abbottabad compound.

Both men were held in so-called "black sites" -- secret prisons run by the CIA that were located outside U.S. territory and where interrogators employed unusually coercive, or "enhanced," techniques that fell outside traditional interrogation guidelines. These techniques included prolonged isolation, shackling prisoners in stressful positions, and the simulated drowning process known as waterboarding.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a 2009 photo
Mohammed, who is believed to have been held at a black site in Poland following his capture in 2003, is known to have been subjected to waterboarding 183 times before being transferred to the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2006. Al-Libi, who is also believed to have been held at a European black site before being transferred to Guantanamo, may have been waterboarded as well, and most certainly was subjected to enhanced interrogation. However, it is unclear whether either suspect revealed useful information about bin Laden's courier as a direct result of abusive interrogation -- or if that the same information could not have been obtained using traditional, less abusive, forms of interrogation.

Clifford May is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank based in Washington. He says that while much about the intelligence trail remains unclear, he believes that black-site interrogations and enhanced interrogations at Guantanamo Bay during the Bush presidency may have played a critical role in securing bin Laden's capture and killing.

"Enhanced interrogation techniques may indeed have revealed intelligence that was used to develop the operation that led to the demise of Osama bin Laden. Is that absolutely certain? Probably not," May says. "But I think there's reason to think those things are true. Certainly, that if you had brought these high-value unlawful combatants to the U.S., where they would have been given U.S. constitutional rights, you would not have developed this intelligence."

Infamous 'Torture Memos'

The use of enhanced interrogation during the Bush administration sharply divided the U.S. public. Many Americans, still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, were desperate to see Al-Qaeda dismantled before it could strike again. But not everyone was convinced by the Bush administration's argument that coercive interrogation was a moral option, or even an effective one.

Seeking a legal basis for enhanced interrogations, the Bush administration turned to what came to be dubbed the "Torture Memos" -- a series of 2002 directives written by U.S. Justice Department official John Yoo justifying the use of mental and physical torment in terrorist interrogations.

The technique called waterboarding simulates drowning. (photo illustration)
Barack Obama repudiated the "Torture Memos" when he became president in 2009 and reversed most Bush-era interrogation policies, including the use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay. Yoo no longer works for the Justice Department, but in a commentary in "The Wall Street Journal," he praises the Bush administration's "intelligence architecture" for "marking a path to bin Laden's door."

Many, however, argue that the information gained from Mohammed and al-Libi was just a small piece of a larger puzzle, and that it was the years of traditional interrogations and investigative work that ultimately led to bin Laden's detection nearly a full decade after 9/11.

Andrea Prasow, the senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch, says former interrogators in terror cases have testified that abusive techniques are slower and less effective than more traditional methods.

"I don't think it would be surprising if, in fact, there was some information obtained from interrogating someone somewhere around the world that ultimately became useful," Prasow says. "But what I think is more interesting is that people are trying to use this as some sort of justification for the black sites, when in fact we might have learned bin Laden's location years ago if traditional law-enforcement interrogation methods had been used."

Souring Of International Opinion

Enhanced interrogation has also come under criticism for eliciting false confessions from suspects. Then Secretary of State Colin Powell infamously cited fraudulent testimony when making a case for invading Iraq, arguing before the United Nations in 2003 that the Iraqi leadership had links to Al-Qaeda and was harboring weapons of mass destruction. It was later revealed the false testimony had been obtained under harsh interrogation.

That incident, and continuing revelations about CIA black sites operating in Eastern Europe and other non-U.S. countries, contributed to a souring of international opinion during the 2000s. Many global observers said America had sullied its reputation as a democratic standard-bearer and dragged many other countries down with it.

Martin Scheinin says the Bush administration made it easier for other countries to openly justify torture.
Martin Scheinin, who in July ends an eight-year term as the UN special rapporteur on rights and counterterrorism, authored a critical report in 2009 pointing to the United States in masterminding a worldwide system of black sites and secret prisons, and suggested that more than 20 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia had been complicit in the plan.

The use of coercive interrogation is prohibited by international law, and torture bans are universal. But Scheinin says that the American use of enhanced interrogation and secret sites opened a Pandora's box for the rest of the world by suggesting that torture was justifiable. The UN rapporteur says he believes bin Laden's capture was based on intelligence gained strictly through legal means and that the world should now follow the U.S. example in turning its back on torture.

"The United States under the Bush administration certainly made it easier for many other countries to openly justify the opinion that torture is sometimes permissible," Scheinin says. "But I think the long-term effect is the opposite, in the sense that when the facts are gradually revealed, including in the capture of Osama bin Laden, it will turn out that actually, it was normal, professional methods of interrogation that gradually brought the information which was crucial, not the torture methods."