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News Opinion Editorial

Tortured arguments, revisited

What a sorry spectacle to see the usual suspects — a veritable coalition of the willing-to-torture crowd from the Bush era — seizing on the death of Osama bin Laden as evidence that enhanced interrogation techniques work. It is a leap of logic on par with justifying the U.S. invasion into Iraq on false pretenses of hidden weapons of mass destruction and then claiming vindication because terrorist groups subsequently became involved in the conflict and, well, weren't we in the business of fighting them?

If water-boarding was such an effective technique, then why did it work so poorly on the most prized prisoner of all, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who underwent the procedure some 183 times and frequently misled his interrogators? If torture works so well, shouldn't Osama bin Laden have been captured or killed shortly after the U.S. Justice Department's John Yoo wrote his infamous memo justifying such brutal treatment? If "shortly" sounds too ambitious, how about within a half-decade?

Instead, Mr. Yoo is left to writing in the National Review that the operation against bin Laden was made possible by then-President George W. Bush's willingness to employ torture against detainees. After all, one of those tortured apparently identified bin Laden's courier and, according to a New York Times account, another detainee treated similarly provided a "crucial" description of him. (Although whether either revealed this information because of torture or simply at some point after it was administered is not clear).

But here's the problem with the pro-torture argument: It still doesn't prove that the exact same information might not have been obtained by more traditional — and proven reliable — methods. And while the tip provided by the suspects may have been helpful, it was no smoking gun that led straight to bin Laden's door. The real work of tracking al-Qaida's leader required years of painstaking intelligence gathering, eavesdropping, standard questioning of prisoners and analysis by hundreds if not thousands of individuals, not to mention the heroics of a Navy SEAL team.

Yet there was Republican Rep. Peter T. King of New York telling reporters in Washington that water-boarding was how the U.S. got its man, at best a huge overstatement of the facts. Former Vice President Dick Cheney could barely contain his inner medievalist, darkly warning that the U.S. must give its intelligence professionals "all the tools" necessary to do their job — apparently that's a table, a towel, some rope and a bucket of water.

Sorry, but it just doesn't wash. Those who made their pact with the devil and justified the use of such repugnant and ineffective interrogation techniques will just have to go on living without any vindication to assuage the latent feelings of guilt we hope they have (but suspect they don't).

What has been proven, not simply by an ill-considered instant analysis of Osama bin Laden's death but by decades, if not centuries, of experience, is that torture is frequently counterproductive. Information obtained by inflicting pain is chronically unreliable. In many instances, it merely causes false confessions as people say anything a torturer wants to hear to get the cruelty to stop. Whether it's the truth is inconsequential.

It is also morally wrong and sends an unhelpful message to the world that the U.S. may talk a good game on human rights, but when push comes to shove (when national security is at stake, for instance), those beliefs are tossed down the drain. And we would point to no less an authority on the subject than Sen. John McCain, who believes water-boarding violates international law and that the Obama administration was right to reject its use entirely.

The indefensible cannot be defended. The U.S. lost too much stature in the world by its willingness to water-board suspects to have the practice glorified now. The larger struggle — the fight against extremists — won't attract a lot of allies if the lasting mental image is not of Osama bin Laden dead but of a country that justifies military intervention on moral authority crowing over the benefits, real or imagined, of torture.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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