Former attorney general Michael Mukasey recently claimed that “the intelligence that led to bin Laden . . . began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information — including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden.” That is false.This notion of "breaking" a man is evil and pernicious. It is a fantasy of control, an imagined route to the truth through toughness and domination. It is part of a broader spectrum of mind-control fantasies that range through the Machurian Candidate to hypnotic suggestion to the old D&D "charm person" spell. What everyone involved in intelligence or law enforcement craves is certain information, but that is in short supply; instead we always have bits of information from diverse sources -- most of whom could be lying to us -- some of which always conflicts. Certainty is a fantasy. The lack of certainty can make people crazy, especially when what they want to know is where the next bomb will go off.
I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda.
In fact, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced false and misleading information. He specifically told his interrogators that Abu Ahmed had moved to Peshawar, got married and ceased his role as an al-Qaeda facilitator — none of which was true. According to the staff of the Senate intelligence committee, the best intelligence gained from a CIA detainee — information describing Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti’s real role in al-Qaeda and his true relationship to bin Laden — was obtained through standard, noncoercive means.
There is another emotional component to these fantasies, which is that to be lied to by an enemy sends some of us in to uncontrollable rage. An enemy who is a prisoner and still dares to lie -- or not say what we think to be true -- is a perfect target for anger. He must be made to tell the truth; he must be made to submit to our power and our need to know. He must be broken.
These impulses are evil partly because they are so natural; we can all empathize a little with the interrogators to whom Khalid Sheik Mohammed told his smooth lies, and who responded by hurting him as much as they were able. He masterminded the killing of thousands of Americans and cheerfully confessed his desire to kill more. Yet even after he was waterboarded 183 times, he continued to lie.
To torture another man is to give in to the worst of all impulses: the desires to hurt and to dominate. It is also to surrender reason and abandon all long-term perspective to the anger of the moment. I think it is a form of madness to believe that torturing prisoners has not hurt America. Despite very great desire to prove they did right, the torture apologists cannot point to any clearcut success for their methods. On the contrary, as McCain explains, those we tortured the most gave us the most misleading testimony. Now American soldiers and agents around the world are constantly meeting enemies who were inspired to fight us partly by tales of torture. Our allies will not let us interrogate prisoners they have captured. Our reputation is smeared, our judicial system corrupted, our politics infected with another crazy "wedge issue" that is only a distraction from our real problems.
We have done wickedness, and we are suffering for it.