Washington Post (Incorrectly) Asserts that Torture Worked

01 Sep

Trying to provide a justification for the effectiveness of torture, the Washington Post published an article, on August 29, called “How a Detainee Became An Asset: Sept. 11 Plotter Cooperated After Waterboarding”. The article’s main argument can summed up in these paragraphs:

“After enduring the CIA’s harshest interrogation methods and spending more than a year in the agency’s secret prisons, Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called ‘terrorist tutorials.’…

These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its ‘preeminent source’ on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques….

[F]or for defenders of waterboarding, the evidence is clear: Mohammed cooperated, and to an extraordinary extent, only when his spirit was broken in the month after his capture March 1, 2003, as the inspector general’s report and other documents released this week indicate.”

As evidence, the article relies primarily on several unnamed sources. Phrases such as “Two sources who described the sessions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because much information about detainee confinement remains classified”, “one former senior intelligence official said this week after being asked about the effect of waterboarding”, “one former U.S. official with detailed knowledge of how the interrogations were carried out said”, and “One former agency official” are littered throughout the piece like sprinkles on a torture-loving cake. Such liberal use of anonymous sources is a useful technique for presenting baseless arguments as facts.

The article also uses the recently-released 2004 Inspector General Report to assert that waterboarding and other torture techniques worked on high-value detainees, such as Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. However, if one actually reads the report, they will notice that this is not the case. Regarding the effectiveness of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), the Report states measuring their effectiveness is “a more subjective process and not without some concern” (211). It also states that

“there is limited data on which to assess their individual effectiveness. This Review identified concerns about the use of the waterboard, specifically whether the risks of its use were justified by the results, and whether the fact that it is being applied in a manner different from its use in SERE training brings into question the continued applicability of the DoJ opinion to its use. Although the waterboard is the most intrusive of the EITs, the fact that precautions have been taken to provide on-site medical oversight in the use of all EITs is evidence that their use poses risks (220).”

As one can see, the IG Report clearly does not assert that torture worked in extracting information from high-value detainees. However, it does assert that “unauthorized, improvised, inhumane, and undocumented detention and interrogation techniques were used” (258). The Report meticulously documents the harsh treatment detainees were subjected to, such as threats of executions, threats to kill children and rape mothers, waterboarding, and numerous deaths and other abuses. No wonder the Report characterized these techniques as “inhumane”. Glenn Greenwald does a great job of summarizing the important details of the 2004 IG Report in a blog he wrote last Monday called “What every American should be made to learn about the IG Torture Report”.

Here are some articles that do a good job of countering a lot of the misinformation that’s disseminated in the Washington Post’s pro-torture propaganda piece.

“The Press and Torture” by Ray McGovern (, August 31, 2009). As a former Army officer and CIA analyst for 30 years, Ray McGovern provides an interesting (and critical) perspective on issues such as torture, American foreign policy and national security. McGovern points out that the Washington Post mischaracterized Khaled Sheikh Mohammed’s motives to attack the United States. He quotes the 9/11 Commission Report, which states,

“By his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experience there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.”

However, the Washington Post offered a different view. McGovern poignantly states:

“Yesterday’s Washington Post article offers a revisionist view. It seems Mohammed’s initial response was found to be politically incorrect by implicating “U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.” Perhaps after a few more sessions of waterboarding or a few more days of sleep deprivation he came up with a more acceptable explanation of his motivation. Or perhaps the Post has been selective in picking and choosing among the various things came out of reports from his interrogation.

In any event, without so much as a word as to why his story has changed, the Post now would have us believe that the following is the real reason: ‘KSM’s limited and negative experience in the United States – which included a brief jail stay because of unpaid bills – almost certainly helped propel him on his path to becoming a terrorist,’ according to the [CIA] intelligence summary. ‘He stated that his contact with Americans, while minimal, confirmed his view that the United States was a debauched and racist country.’

“A telling revision, indeed.

“But let’s also look for a moment at ‘debauched and racist’ on its own merits. Could the hated Khalid Sheik Mohammed be speaking some truth here? If he and other Middle Eastern Muslims looked and dressed more like us, would it be so easy to demonize them – and to torture them?

Would the Washington Post’s editors be so supportive if representatives of a more favored ethnic or religious group were stripped naked before members of the opposite sex, put in diapers, immobilized with shackles in stress positions for long periods, denied sleep and made to soil themselves?

In my view, racism is very much at play here.

And ‘debauched?’ Just read the CIA Inspector General report and decide for yourself.

And please: don’t stop with a ‘Tsk, tsk; those interrogators were certainly debauched.’ We – all of us – let it happen. We – all of us – need to ensure that our country does not descend again into such depravity. The only way to do that is to hold ALL the rotten apples accountable, from the top to the bottom of the proverbial barrel.

The last paragraph is especially important.

“The Washington Post’s Cheney-ite defense of torture” by Glenn Greenwald (, August 29, 2009). Glenn Greenwald beautifully dismantled the many assertions made in the Washington Post’s article in this piece. He points out that the Washington Post article is an example of “stenographer journalism”, in which journalists are nothing but “mindless amplifiers for those in power”, rather than exercising a minimal amount of critical thinking or skepticism. He also points out Jane Mayer’s comments on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann”, which I found to be really key:

“Well, the documents that I’ve seen, and maybe I’m missing something, but so far, I am amazed at how little support there is for the things that Vice President Cheney has been saying. There is nothing but a mass of claims that they got information from this individual and that individual, many from KSM, who apparently has been the greatest fount of information for them, but there’s absolutely nothing saying that they had to beat them to get this information. In fact, as anybody knows who knows anything about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he was dying to tell the world, when he was interviewed by Al Jazeera before he was in US custody, about everything he knew and everything he did. He was proud of his role as the mastermind of 9/11. He loves to talk about it. So there’s no evidence that I see in this that these things were necessary. I spoke to someone at the CIA who was an adviser to them who conceded to me that ‘We could have gotten the same information from tea and crumpets.'”

The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan also slammed the Washington Post in his blog entitled “The Washington’s Post’s Support For Torture”. He also unleashed some vitriol against Chris Wallace for his interview with Dick Cheney. He said that Chris Wallace sounded like “a teenage girl interviewing the Jonas Brothers” in his interview with the former Vice President. He concluded by saying, “When future historians ask how the United States came not only to practice torture but to celebrate it and treat torturers as heroes, a special place in hell among the journalists who embraced and justified it should be reserved for Chris Wallace.”

A few months ago (April 25, 2009), Steve Weissman wrote a piece in entitled “How Torture Worked to Sell the Iraq War” that is worth looking at in light of the Washington Post propaganda piece. The last three paragraphs are, perhaps, the most key:

“In part to get that smoking gun, the CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times and Abu Zubaydah 83 times. But neither man told the interrogators what Bush and Cheney wanted to hear about Iraq and al-Qaeda. That came from Ibn al Sheikh al Libi, whom the Bush administration sent to Egypt for what CIA Director George Tenet called ‘further debriefing.’ As PBS Frontline reported back in November 2007, al Libi ‘confessed’ – after being beaten repeatedly and locked in a small box for some 17 hours – that Saddam Hussein had trained al-Qaeda in chemical weapons. Al Libi later retracted his statement and the CIA later rejected it as reliable intelligence. But the torture of al Libi worked to sell the war in Iraq, providing the ‘evidence’ that Secretary of State Colin Powell used when he spoke before the United Nations Security Council in February 2003.

‘I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these [chemical and biological] weapons to al-Qaeda,’ Powell asserted. ‘Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story.’

Torture might not work as well as conventional interrogation to provide sound intelligence, but it certainly worked for Bush and Cheney in exactly the way they most wanted.”

The United States government was so hell-bent on waging war against Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein that it was willing to torture a human being so severely to the point that they got the confession they wanted to justify their imperial plans. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the deaths of millions.


With the publication of the Washington Post article, the mainstream media will inevitably focus on the effectiveness of torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques” as it’s euphemistically referred to in mainstream political discourse). The announcement of Eric Holder’s torture has given many figures in our current political establishment the chills, especially the ones who had a role in authorizing and carrying out the policy because they know they’re vulnerable to prosecutions. This is why Dick Cheney has been going on several news programs justifying the torture regime and saying that it worked – to salvage his, and the entire Bush administration’s, damaged political legacy and save them from prosecution.

But amidst mainstream discussions about torture, the primary focus is on whether or not it was effective in extracting information from supposed “terrorists” rather than the legal aspect. Torture is a clear violation of international and U.S. domestic law. The United Nations Convention Against Torture, a treaty the U.S. signed in 1988 and ratified in 1994, defines “torture” as:

“any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.” (Art. 1.1)

Even more importantly, Article 2, Section 2 of the UN Convention Against Torture states:

“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

As a signatory of this treaty, the United States is bound by its own Constitution to abide by this treaty (Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land”.)

Torture is also listed as a “crime against humanity” in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), along with acts such as rape, sexual slavery, enslavement, murder, extermination, enforced disappearance, persecution and apartheid. While the U.S. is not a member of the ICC, torture is widely understood to be a violation of customary international law, a principle of international law that is derived through custom and for which no violation is permitted.

It would be very difficult to find this information mentioned in mainstream discussions about torture. This is because our mainstream media is controlled by corporations that put profit, gossip, and sensationalism above fact-finding and truth-telling. It is nothing more than a corporate propaganda machine that is incredibly obedient to the government.

Torture is a felony, a violation of international law and a crime against humanity. Portrayals of torture as, somehow, an effective, or possibly effective, interrogation technique is devoid of any ounce of truth or morality. The fact that our mainstream political discourse would portray it as such is a sign of the moral bankruptcy of our mainstream political discourse and the barbarity of American foreign policy.

However, we do not have to put up with this. We can fight against this. While Eric Holder’s investigation is far from enough, it is a small step in the right direction. It opens up new grounds for the citizenry to hold their leaders accountable for authorizing such barbaric behavior.

At my school, Stanford University, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State for the Bush Administration, Condoleezza Rice has returned to campus. The group I co-founded, Stanford Says No to War, has initiated a campaign to hold accountable for authorizing the use of torture and manipulating American public opinion to justify the immoral and illegal invasion of Iraq. We have circulated a petition stating:

“We the undersigned students, faculty, staff, alumni, and other concerned members of the Stanford community, believe that high officials of the U.S. Government, including our former Provost, current Political Science Professor, and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow, Condoleezza Rice, should be held accountable for any serious violations of the Law (including ratified treaties, statutes, and/or the U.S. Constitution) through investigation and, if the facts warrant, prosecution, by appropriate legal authorities.”

As of this writing, over 1,200 students, alumni, faculty and community members have signed the petition. Stanford Says No to War also wrote a letter about Rice’s return and detailing the crimes she committed.

The people cannot sit back and rely on the Obama administration to uphold justice and prosecute war criminals such as Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Yoo and Donald Rumsfeld. It is up to us to stand up and fight for justice. The prosecution of today’s torturers is key to ensuring that torture does not occur in the future. Let’s not sit by complacently and let Obama solve the world’s problems. If we want to make the world a better place, we’ll have to do it ourselves and prosecuting war criminals is key to fulfilling that mission.


UPDATE (Sept. 1, 2009): If you want more proof that torture is an ineffective interrogation technique, listen to this Congressional testimony by Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who interrogated Abu Zubaydah. According to Soufan, Zubaydah broke down and gave up crucial intelligence before he was tortured. It’s unfortunate that the obedient stenographer journalists at the Washington Post did not mention this crucial piece of information.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: