Torture doesn’t work & other lessons

There has been a really strong push on the left since Sunday to make clear that Osama bin Laden was found and killed because of traditional interrogation and intelligence methods, essentially the police work version of counter-terrorism. Marcy Wheeler has done great work clarifying this here, here, and here; in these posts, Wheeler looks at the timeline of known torture of key Al Qaeda terrorists and what information was produced. The administration, too, is making clear that torture was not instrumental in getting to Bin Laden. A National Security Council spokesman made this clear to the NY Times:

“The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council. “It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

This is right and it’s good on some level that the death of Bin Laden is proving as a nail in the coffin to the idea that torture works. Glenn Greenwald makes the point even more clearly:

But even if it were the case that valuable information were obtained during or after the use of torture, what would it prove? Nobody has ever argued that brutality will never produce truthful answers. It is sometimes the case that if you torture someone long and mercilessly enough, they will tell you something you want to know. Nobody has ever denied that. In terms of the tactical aspect of the torture debate, the point has always been — as a consensus of interrogations professionals has repeatedly said — that there are far more effective ways to extract the truth from someone than by torturing it out of them. The fact that one can point to an instance where torture produced the desired answer proves nothing about whether there were more effective ways of obtaining it.

Greenwald’s piece is worthwhile in that it brings us away from the question of how information was and was not obtained and towards the question of what actions or behaviors or policies we as a country should approve in the face of the threat of terrorism.

So while there is a robust debate taking place about torture, where is the debate on whether we were right as a country to suspend habeas corpus? Where is the debate about whether we should close Guantanamo Bay? Where is the debate about whether terrorism suspects should be brought to the United States to face trial before federal civilian judges? For all the ways in which this moment is being used to dismiss arguments for torture, we should remember that the Bush administration’s torture policies were largely wound down during the Bush administration. In essence, this is a debate that while important due to the response from Republican leaders who sought to use torture of suspects in interrogations, is somewhat less important than the debate about other policies which are actively being continued today. In the absence of strong and forceful rebuttals now from the left, I am deeply worried that the lesson political leaders, military leaders, the intelligence community and all the people who work for them that help shape the course of US policy will be that suspending habeas corpus is acceptable, that Gitmo is a good place to house terrorism suspects, and that not only do we not really need civilian trials, but military tribunals are unnecessary too.

The adjudication of who wins the War on Terrorism is going to be determined not by whether or not the US ceases to exist or becomes subsumed in an Islamic caliphate. Rather it will be determined by whether or not we fundamentally change who we are as a country in response to the threat of terrorism. We have undoubtedly changed who we are over the last ten years, surrendering some of our freedoms and some of our adherence to the rule of law in the titular name of national security. But these changes need not be permanent. Now is the time to roll back the security state, restore the rule of law, and make the Constitution paramount once again. The onus is on the President and congressional leaders to make this happen.

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