It must infuriate the right wing that it was President Barack Obama who successfully dispatched America's Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden. This is the president who, as one of his first orders of business, signed an executive order banning the brutal interrogation of detainees that had been a hallmark of the Bush administration's war on terror — and a program perversely relished by the political right. Obama may not have turned out to be as great a civil-liberties-minded president as I'd hoped, but he did turn the United States away from the dark side in which we had been wallowing under President George W. Bush.
Now, to save face, some of the key figures from Bush's administration are claiming that part of this victory is theirs too, since they were bold enough to inflict waterboarding and other harsh methods on helpless prisoners.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, America's own Torquemada, told ABC News that "it wouldn't be surprising" if the enhanced interrogation program put in place during "our first term" produced results that contributed to success. Karl Rove, one of Bush's closest political advisers, joined the fray too, telling Fox News that it's "clear" that enhanced interrogation helped "create an environment that gave rise to this information." And the administration's favorite legal handmaiden, John Yoo, who wrote Justice Department memos excusing torture and pretty much anything else his overseers wanted to do, said in the National Review that Obama's operation that killed bin Laden "is also a vindication" of the Bush administration's terrorism policies.
What these men conveniently don't mention is they were also part of an administration that let bin Laden slip out of the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan and eventually find refuge in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Finding bin Laden was just another Bush mess that Obama was left to clean up, along with Bush's war of adventurism in Iraq, America's devastated economy and our international standing.
As to this renewed debate over torture, its disgraceful we're even having it.
Apparently the key to locating bin Laden was to find his trusted courier, a man with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. The New York Times reports that "two prisoners who underwent some of the harshest treatment — including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times — repeatedly misled their interrogators about the courier's identity." Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee, told the New York Times that coercive techniques "didn't provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information" and most of his colleagues felt it was "un-American and did not work."
But let's say that brutalizing prisoners did result in information that, with the addition of eight years of intensive field work, resulted in finding bin Laden. So what?
That same information very likely could have been obtained in a way that didn't stain our national character. It should be remembered that the FBI refused to participate in the abusive prisoner interrogations employed by the CIA, contract interrogators and the military. The agency stuck to its own standards of human decency and professionalism. It knew that the application of torture doesn't work to elicit actionable intelligence nearly as well as trust-building techniques. What people say under coercion is both unreliable and grudgingly given. When agents are able to build a rapport with a prisoner, the resulting cooperation tends to be much more truthful and fruitful.
And torture is never okay.
When the U.S. State Department annually evaluates human rights records in countries around the world, it doesn't balance the use of torture against the intelligence gains made. There is no section of the report titled "Justified Infliction of Agony on Prisoners Who Might Know Something Important," which gives a pass to Syria or the Sudan for wringing valuable security information out of a potential bad guy.
Cheney, Rove, Yoo and the rest of Bush's crew want vindication for the mud they dragged us through. But Obama did their unfinished work without adopting their methods. That's something that will stick in their craw, no matter how much ersatz credit they take for bin Laden's demise.