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Debate swirls over whether alleged torture kept Americans safe

WASHINGTON — Dick Cheney says it did. The FBI chief says it didn't. And President Barack Obama says it doesn't matter.

Even if waterboarding and other Bush-era interrogation methods did yield valuable information from suspected terrorists, Obama said Wednesday, "part of what makes us ... still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it's hard, not just when it's easy."

Two weeks ago, the Obama administration released four secret Justice Department memos — one from August 2002, and three from 2005 — providing the legal justification for using "enhanced interrogation techniques," including head-slapping, subjecting detainees to frigid temperatures, and waterboarding, in which interrogators make the subject think he's being drowned.

When the CIA sought the first ruling in 2002, with the carnage of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks still fresh, officials say they were scrambling to wrest information from al-Qaida operatives to prevent what they feared would be more attacks. Critics have said waterboarding was used in an unsuccessful attempt to link al-Qaida and Iraq as justification for the 2003 U.S. invasion.

At the center of this increasingly partisan debate is a set of related questions: Did the harsh techniques work — did they keep Americans safe? Even if they did, could the information have been gathered using more traditional methods?

Last week Rep. John Boehner, the Republican leader of the U.S. House, asked Obama to release documents showing what information agents obtained through those methods. Former Vice President Cheney has done likewise.

"The American people deserve to make their judgments about this national security matter based on the full set of facts," Boehner said.

Here's what we know so far:

Who was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding?

Much of the current discussion swirls around three "high-value" al-Qaida operatives mentioned in the memos, in particular Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed planner of the Sept. 11 attacks.

A Senate Intelligence Committee report cites CIA records showing the men were waterboarded in 2002 and 2003. The Justice Department had issued a memo in August 2002 ruling that the treatment did not break federal law because it did not constitute severe mental or physical pain.

On his second day in office, Obama signed an executive order rescinding Bush administration approval to use the tactics.

In his news conference Wednesday, Obama said, "I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake."

Don't some experts say the tactics were effective?

Yes. Several high-ranking CIA and Bush administration officials, including George Tenet, Gen. Michael V. Hayden and Cheney, say the harsh methods expanded the government's understanding of al-Qaida, led to arrests of key terrorists and helped foil plots.

They point to the interrogation of Zubaydah, which they say led to the arrest of Jose Padilla, who was initially accused of plotting to detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States, and the identification of Mohammed. Padilla was convicted of conspiring to commit terrorism overseas, but the dirty bomb charge was never filed.

"These techniques worked," Hayden told reporters in January. "Do not allow others to say it didn't work."

This view received an early boost in late 2007 after John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer involved in the capture of Zubaydah, told ABC News that Zubaydah started talking after 30 or 35 seconds of waterboarding and that the information he provided "disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."

However, Kiriakou was not present at the secret Thai prison where Zubaydah was interrogated; he was in Washington. And one of the newly released Justice Departments memos from 2005 says Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times.

"High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al-Qaida organization that was attacking this country," Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, wrote employees the same day the White House declassified the four Justice Department memos.

Later, Blair released a statement saying, "There is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means."

Who disputes the value of the methods?

In an op-ed column published April 23 in the New York Times, Ali Soufan, a former FBI interrogator who questioned Zubaydah from March to June 2002, says Zubaydah gave up valuable information before he was waterboarded, not after. As to claims that he fingered Padilla, Padilla was arrested in May 2002 — two months before the August memo authorizing the techniques.

"There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn't, or couldn't have been, gained from regular tactics," Soufan wrote.

On April 19, the New York Times cited unnamed former intelligence officers who said interrogators in Thailand believed that Abu Zubaydah had nothing left to offer but that superiors at CIA headquarters ordered them to use waterboarding.

He revealed nothing of substance afterward, the New York Times story said. A footnote in one of the 2005 Justice Department memos seems to corroborate that, saying the harsh tactics appeared "unnecessary."

(Hayden later disputed that account, telling the newspaper that Abu Zubaydah revealed information leading to the capture of another suspected terrorist, Ramzi Binalshibh).

Late last year, FBI director Robert Mueller was asked in Vanity Fair if information gathered from the controversial interrogations had disrupted any plots against the United States.

"I don't believe that has been the case," he said.

What's next?

The Senate Intelligence Committee is studying whether the harsh methods were effective, or if the information they allegedly yielded could have been obtained through traditional methods.

The study is expected to take six to eight months. The committee has not decided whether to make it public.

Meanwhile, congressional liberals have called for a "truth commission" to investigate the decision to approve the techniques. But fervor for prosecuting high-ranking officials seems to be waning.

Both Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid oppose any such commission. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who initially backed the idea, has been beset by a Senate Intelligence Committee report showing that she was briefed about the Justice Department's memos in 2002 and didn't object.

Information from the Associated Press, New York Times and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

Debate swirls over whether alleged torture kept Americans safe 05/01/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 1, 2009 6:25am]

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