With Barack Obama releasing the OLC memos and branding them as all but criminal and leaving the door open to prosecutions connected to the interrogation of Al-Qaeda terrorists, one might expect the CIA to retreat from its earlier defense of its actions. So far, though, the agency remains tenacious in insisting that waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh, and Abu Zubaydah saved American lives. CNS News reports that the CIA stands by its 2005 memo describing how those interrogations stopped another 9/11-scale attack:
The Central Intelligence Agency told CNSNews.com today that it stands by the assertion made in a May 30, 2005 Justice Department memo that the use of “enhanced techniques” of interrogation on al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) — including the use of waterboarding — caused KSM to reveal information that allowed the U.S. government to thwart a planned attack on Los Angeles.
Before he was waterboarded, when KSM was asked about planned attacks on the United States, he ominously told his CIA interrogators, “Soon, you will know.”
According to the previously classified May 30, 2005 Justice Department memo that was released by President Barack Obama last week, the thwarted attack — which KSM called the “Second Wave”– planned “ ‘to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into’ a building in Los Angeles.”
KSM initially resisted all other interrogation procedures, right up to the waterboard. He insisted that Americans did not have the necessary resolve to get information out of him, and that we would only know about the next plot when it killed hundreds, if not thousands again. Only after the waterboard did KSM cough up the information on the “second wave” attacks, and the CIA and other national-security agencies stopped it.
Does this answer whether waterboarding is torture? Not really. Does it negate the canard that “torture never works”? Yes. Torture works in getting people to talk, and sometimes they tell the truth. The CIA got what it wanted — the information it needed to save lives — but it doesn’t prove or disprove whether a mock-execution procedure like waterboarding is torture or not.
It does, however, pose a difficult question for Americans, especially since the CIA even under Leon Panetta seems determined to get an answer to it. What price do we want to pay for a pristine conscience in combating terrorism? Do you mind if it costs thousands of American lives in plots we can’t discover because a terrorist suspect captured in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or somewhere else has lawyered up? Are there times when we can appropriately use a non-lethal technique without letting the target know that it’s non-lethal, in order to save American lives?
Both sides need to quit pretending on this issue. Mock executions fit the definition of torture, and they also saved a lot of American lives. If we can admit to reality, then we can have an honest debate about how far we should go to protect ourselves, and what price might be too high for our public image internationally.