New York Times Attempts To Stifle Torture Debate – OpEd


On Thursday, the New York Times, having played a major part in creating a buzz in the United States about the role that torture and the existence of Guantánamo played in locating Osama bin Laden, with an article on Tuesday entitled, “Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture,” resolutely stepped back from the result of suggesting that there were even grounds for a “debate” — given that the use of torture is illegal (as well as morally corrosive and unreliable) — by publishing an excellent editorial decisively condemning the “immoral and illegal behavior” of torture apologists after 9/11, including Berkeley law professor John Yoo, who, as a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 2002, “twisted the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions into an unrecognizable mess to excuse torture” in what will forever be known as the “torture memos.”

The Times also recognized torture as “immoral and illegal and counterproductive,” and stated that, although torture may produce some useful information — amongst all the lies that, for example, plague the military assessments of Guantánamo prisoners that were recently released by WikiLeaks — “most experienced interrogators think that the same information, or better, can be obtained through legal and humane means.”

I would prefer that the last line had read “experienced interrogators have absolutely no doubt that the same information, or better, can be obtained through legal and humane means,” and I would also have preferred the Times‘ editors not to have claimed that the use of torture has led to America’s “inability to hold credible trials for very bad men” — presumably a reference to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators in the preparation and execution of the 9/11 attacks — when the truth is that Attorney General Eric Holder was convinced that a federal court trial could proceed, but was prevented from doing so for nakedly political reasons.

Neverthless, the editorial as a whole expresses the opinion that should have been taken by the Times from the beginning, instead of seeking scandal — and sales — through the article mentioned above — “Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture” — which, for the most, did not even live up to its shocking promise.

Although it featured the Times‘ usual aversion to mentioning the word “torture,” with its discussion of “brutal interrogations” and “‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ like waterboarding,” the article also featured a sober and powerful asessment by Glenn L. Carle, a retired CIA officer who “oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee in 2002″ and who told the Times that “coercive techniques ‘didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information,’” adding that, “while some of his colleagues defended the measures,” as the Times put it, “everyone was deeply concerned and most felt it was un-American and did not work.”

Also of great importance was the opinion of Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, who told the Times, “The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003.” He added, “It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

The key passage of which the Times should be ashamed, however, and which its editorial on Thursday only addressed belatedly, ater the damage had been done, was the following:

The discussion of what led to Bin Laden’s demise has revived a national debate about torture that raged during the Bush years. The former president and many conservatives argued for years that force was necessary to persuade Qaeda operatives to talk. Human rights advocates, and Mr. Obama as he campaigned for office, said the tactics were torture, betraying American principles for little or nothing of value.

Simply put, there is absolutely no excuse for describing an illegal program that was conceived in secret by a small number of Bush administration insiders as something that sparked “a national debate,” just as there is no excuse for stating that human rights advocates, and Barack Obama on the campaign trail, were somehow expressing an optional position when they “said the tactics were torture.” The tactics were torture, plain and simple, and torture is as illegal when discussed in news reports as it is on the editorial pages — and all the more so when the Times prides itself on the fabled “objectivity” of its reporting.

Here, then, is a cross-post of the editorial that should have been the Times‘ immediate response to the lies peddled by John Yoo, Rep. Peter King, Liz Cheney, Bill Kristol and others, following the news of Osama bin Laden’s death:

The Torture Apologists: Efforts to justify torture after the Bin Laden killing are cynical and destructive
New York Times editorial, May 5, 2011

The killing of Osama bin Laden provoked a host of reactions from Americans: celebration, triumph, relief, closure and renewed grief. One reaction, however, was both cynical and disturbing: crowing by the apologists and practitioners of torture that Bin Laden’s death vindicated their immoral and illegal behavior after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Jose Rodriguez Jr. was the leader of counterterrorism for the C.I.A. from 2002-2005 when Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other Al Qaeda leaders were captured. He told Time magazine that the recent events show that President Obama should not have banned so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. (Mr. Rodriguez, you may remember, ordered the destruction of interrogation videos.)

John Yoo, the former Bush Justice Department lawyer who twisted the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions into an unrecognizable mess to excuse torture, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the killing of Bin Laden proved that waterboarding and other abuses were proper. Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, said at first that no coerced evidence played a role in tracking down Bin Laden, but by Tuesday he was reciting the talking points about the virtues of prisoner abuse.

There is no final answer to whether any of the prisoners tortured in President George W. Bush’s illegal camps gave up information that eventually proved useful in finding Bin Laden. A detailed account in the Times on Wednesday by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage concluded that torture “played a small role at most” in the years and years of painstaking intelligence and detective work that led a Navy Seals team to Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.

That squares with the frequent testimony over the past decade from many other interrogators and officials. They have said repeatedly, and said again this week, that the best information came from prisoners who were not tortured. The Times article said Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, fed false information to his captors during torture.

Even if it were true that some tidbit was blurted out by a prisoner while being tormented by C.I.A. interrogators, that does not remotely justify Mr. Bush’s decision to violate the law and any acceptable moral standard.

This was not the “ticking time bomb” scenario that Bush-era officials often invoked to rationalize abusive interrogations. If, as Representative Peter King, the Long Island Republican, said, information from abused prisoners “directly led” to the redoubt, why didn’t the Bush administration follow that trail years ago?

There are many arguments against torture. It is immoral and illegal and counterproductive. The Bush administration’s abuses — and ends justify the means arguments — did huge damage to this country’s standing and gave its enemies succor and comfort. If that isn’t enough, there is also the pragmatic argument that most experienced interrogators think that the same information, or better, can be obtained through legal and humane means.

No matter what Mr. Yoo and friends may claim, the real lesson of the Bin Laden operation is that it demonstrated what can be done with focused intelligence work and persistence.

The battered intelligence community should now be basking in the glory of a successful operation. It should not be dragged back into the muck and murk by political figures whose sole agenda seems to be to rationalize actions that cost this country dearly — in our inability to hold credible trials for very bad men and in the continued damage to our reputation.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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