The death of Osama bin Laden, at the hands of U.S. special operations forces in Pakistan, has reignited the debate about torture. Those who support the use of torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”), claim that vital evidence which led U.S. special forces to successfully finding and killing bin Laden was produced through torture. The key piece of evidence that led to bin Laden’s death was the nom de guerre of his courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. If the Bush administration did not implement its torture program, they argue, Osama bin Laden would still be alive and inspiring al-Qaeda to commit acts of terrorism. This argument is wrong on multiple levels.
The pseudonym of bin Laden’s courier was floated around by prisoners held in U.S. custody. Two top-level detainees — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, and Abu Faraj al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s top operational chief — were tortured in order to extract more information about the courier. Many detainees held in U.S. custody (most of whom were innocent) in overseas prisons, such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or CIA black sites (secret prisons run by the CIA in different countries), including Mohammed and al-Libi, were subjected to torture. Some of these practices, as the New York Times points out, included waterboarding (simulated drowning), “slamming prisoners into walls, shackling them in stress positions”, and sleep deprivation for as long as 180 hours. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alone, was waterboarded 183 times. The torture was so harsh that some prisoners died in U.S. custody. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), these acts constitute torture.
However, the evidence produced through torture was largely unreliable. When interrogators tortured Mohammed and al-Libi, the two claimed they never heard of al-Kuwaiti. In fact, as former military interrogator Matthew Alexander points out, torture actually hindered U.S. efforts to find bin Laden. When al-Libi was tortured, he gave U.S. officials the wrong name of bin Laden’s trusted courier. After the CIA tracked down this information, they realized that al-Libi had lied. But, as the AP states, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was subjected to standard interrogation (no torture involved), he revealed the name of bin Laden’s courier. This is not an aberration but rather common. Torture largely produces unreliable results, since the person being tortured will say anything to stop the torture, even if that information is not true. There may be rare instances in which torture yields a desirable result. Yet, that does not prove torture is necessary in yielding that result. There may be other means for yielding that desirable result. Standard interrogation is another, and more effective, means.
It is also worthwhile to point out that the U.S. government’s practice of torture, particularly of Muslim detainees, is a powerful recruiting tool for groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Matthew Alexander also mentions this. So does journalist David Rohde. So even if torture worked in an isolated incident (though unlikely), it has long-term negative impacts. This makes it an even more ineffective counterterrorism strategy.
However, there are other reasons to oppose torture aside from its ineffectiveness. Even if torture worked perfectly, that would not override the legal and moral implications of its usage. Torture is a violation of U.S. domestic law, international law and human rights. There are several treaties and laws that outlaw torture, most notably the four Geneva Conventions (specifically Common Article 3, which is in all four of the conventions) and the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. signed and ratified, thereby becoming U.S. law. Article 2(2) is quite clear in stating that torture should never be used:
“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
Thus, the use of torture is illegal and never justified, no matter how exceptional the circumstances. Torturing another person is cruel and inhumane, which is why it is outlawed. Every country is bound to uphold this basic principle. Therefore, those who claim that Osama bin Laden’s death vindicates the use of torture are flat-out wrong.