Why Dick Cheney keeps torturing us

Nobody should be surprised that the former vice president keeps returning from the political wilderness to defend the brutal treatment of suspected terrorists. Without providing any specifics, Cheney continues to intone that torturing Al Qaeda suspects yielded information vital to protecting America. Countless news reports have suggested strongly that claim is false.

cheneyMake no mistake: What Cheney is doing isn’t about protecting America, it’s about protecting political power. (Anyone who needs a refresher on his views of amassing and wielding that commodity should go back and read this Pulitzer Prize-winning series from the Washington Post.) With President Obama’s courageous decision to declassify Bush administration legal memos and return the unfinished torture debate to the headlines, Cheney and those who helped do his bidding in the Bush administration’s war on terror still have a lot to lose in terms of legacy and liability.

Once again we watch Cheney double down on an ugly bet: “I haven’t announced this up until now,” he said on Fox News on Monday, “but I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country.” The U.S. government should declassify those reports, too, he said, so that Americans can see “how good the intelligence was.”

Obama is unlikely to do that, and Cheney knows it. That’s because the chances are that most if not all documentation of actual intelligence operations — as opposed to memos laying out the Bush administration’s legal justification for them — contains information too sensitive to disclose regarding sources and tactics. Obama should call Cheney’s bluff not only by noting that distinction, but also with a full-throated rejection of Cheney’s false argument: He should remind Americans that torture simply does not work.

That truth has been borne out in reams of media reporting on the war on terror, and has been reiterated time and time again by senior U.S. military and intelligence officials, several of whom I spoke with when covering the issue at length for Salon back in 2005. It was on full display again in late March, in a Washington Post report further examining the treatment of the terrorist Abu Zubaida, who was waterboarded by the CIA at least 83 times:

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads. In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

A New York Times report last weekend underscored that valuable intelligence gleaned from Zubaida did not come via torture:

His interrogation, according to multiple accounts, began in Pakistan and continued at the secret C.I.A. site in Thailand, with a traditional, rapport-building approach led by two F.B.I. agents, who even helped care for him as his gunshot wounds healed. Abu Zubaydah gave up perhaps his single most valuable piece of information early, naming Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whom he knew as Mukhtar, as the main organizer of the 9/11 plot.

Lawrence Wright’s definitive volume about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “The Looming Tower,” recounts in vivid detail another example of how the measured, savvy manipulation of a captured terrorist suspect — not the beating and simulated drowning of him — yielded critical intelligence. No doubt there are other such examples that have not been made public.

But in seven years, not a single example has emerged of specific information vital to U.S. national security that was obtained through torture — not even when protected from public view. As the Post reported late last month, “Since 2006, Senate intelligence committee members have pressed the CIA, in classified briefings, to provide examples of specific leads that were obtained from Abu Zubaida through the use of waterboarding and other methods, according to officials familiar with the requests. The agency provided none, the officials said.”

Of course, Cheney and his supporters will continue muddying the waters — including through leaks of nonspecific claims — in hopes of warding off political and legal vulnerability as the nation realizes the truth about torture.

UPDATE: More here on Dick Cheney’s defense of torture.

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6 comments so far

  1. K.M. Soehnlein on

    Grim as it is to read, I appreciate the summary of this important issue. Thanks, Mark.

  2. Briar on

    Of course I find it equally appalling that attacks on the use of torture should be utilitarian. Even if it does “work” a la “24”, it is still abominable and still the resort of sociopaths and monsters.

  3. S.Venard on

    This is my first visit to your blog, Mark. Would that these
    comments be on a Belt Line Billboard.

  4. […] courageous decision recently to declassify Justice Department memos and reignite a national debate, false dogma of Dick Cheney and all, about the policy origins of the disaster. The important development of the week, then, was […]

  5. […] be more well-known. As I wrote about here recently, paramount for Cheney is his desire to protect his political legacy — to see his national security policies vindicated. (The essence of Panetta’s point, as I […]

  6. […] is as entitled to his opinions as the next guy, one supposes, however politically motivated they may remain. But particularly since Cheney’s arguments are built ad nauseam on his views about the 9/11 […]


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