Talking Torture With Mukasey and Thiessen: Do Torture Advocates Care About U.S. Moral Standing?

This week I went over to the American Enterprise Institute to talk torture. Specifically, I was there to debate whether torture had led the United States to Osama bin Laden and if, therefore, it should once again become the policy of the United States.

Two of the other panelists -- former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former Cheney Speechwriter Mark Thiessen -- expressed support for torture. (Of course, they don't call it "torture." Torture is a federal crime. Instead, they call it "harsh questioning" and "enhanced interrogation" and "rough treatment." How could it be torture when, as one of his first official acts as Attorney General, Judge Mukasey said it was legal?) The panel was rounded out by former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo and Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution; if they have a problem with torture, they kept that to themselves. The moderator for this fair and balanced panel? John Yoo, author of the infamous Torture Memos.

Some people argue that torture opponents shouldn't sit on panels with these folks, that it only lends credibility to their indefensible positions. I disagree. I make of point of interacting with people whose views are different from mine, even in situations like this when the decked is stacked in their favor. In general, I think human rights advocates should spend less time preaching to the choir and more time trying to persuade. So that's what I tried to do.

The panel was organized around the claim that we wouldn't have gotten Osama bin Laden without torture, that torture "worked." Some opponents of torture think that its immorality renders whether it "works" irrelevant, and that merely to debate this question is to cede the argument. But if you actually want to end a policy of torture, its efficacy -- or lack thereof -- is certainly relevant (not dispositive, but relevant). In the wake of 9-11, the moral argument against torture wasn't enough to sway a populace afraid of another terrorist attack. The political debate shifted when opponents of torture, including military officers and veteran interrogators, began to make the practical case against it.

Virtually from the moment the world learned of bin Laden's death, torture proponents have been claiming vindication. I listened carefully to Mukasey and Thiessen to see if their argument was any stronger than the one than they had made in the op-ed pages. It wasn't. Their argument rests on claims that torture led two detainees, Hassan Ghul and Khalid Sheik Muhammed, to give up key information.

The claim about Ghul is blatantly bogus. According to several accounts, Ghul gave up the role of bin Laden's courier and his relationship to bin Laden, but that, said Senator McCain "was obtained through standard, non-coercive means." We tortured Ghul after he had already provided the relevant information. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has confirmed this sequence. I doubt that even Thiessen would claim torture is so effective it works before it's started.

Everyone seems to agree that KSM gave up the courier's nickname, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. But Senator McCain has said, and CIA Director Leon Panetta has confirmed, that the U.S. first learned his nickname from another source. Also, Mohammed gave up the courier's nickname's months after his torture had ceased.

So that's the entire basis for the claim that torture led the U.S. to Bin Laden: months after his torture had ceased but still years before the U.S. found Bin Laden, KSM gave up one piece of information that the CIA already had. It's no wonder that numerous interrogators have come forward to say that torture hindered the hunt for Bin Laden. A group of them have put out a statement saying that the CIA would have learned more "if, from the beginning, professional interrogators had a chance to question them using the sophisticated, yet humane, approaches approved by U.S. law."

Undeterred by facts, Thiessen and Mukasey maintain that water-boarding "broke" KSM. I'm not sure how they reconcile this claim with their attempts to portray water-boarding as benign. Mukasey has said that water-boarding "leaves no marks," and during our discussion, Thiessen claimed KSM was so unfazed by water-boarding he mocked his interrogators. Unfazed but broken? They want it both ways.

Thiessen and Mukasey sought to downplay the brutality of water-boarding, a form of torture that John McCain has likened to mock execution. When I pointed out that the United States has prosecuted enemy soldiers for water-boarding Americans, Mukasey argued that their water-boarding was more brutal than ours; they stomped on the prisoners' stomachs and used a lot more water. I couldn't help imagining what people around the world would make of this: a pundit sitting in a well-heeled DC think tank, saying "our" torture is less barbaric than "theirs." So much for our "shining city on a hill."

My fellow panelists seemed utterly unconcerned about what torture had done to our country's image and credibility. I recently met with a Polish friend who was inspired to become a lawyer by the example of the U.S. constitution. He was distraught that the United States was still having a debate about torture. "All my life I have looked to the United States as a beacon of individual liberty and human rights. What has happened to you?" People fighting against repression around the world still believe the United States stands for certain universal values. American conservatives do as well -- at least that's their reputation. Yet my fellow panel members didn't seem to care that the country's embrace of torture has weakened its claim to represent freedom, justice, and the rule of law.

Torture not only stained our reputation; it weakened American national security. It has alienated entire communities, undermining the capacity of the U.S. to fight terrorism, and given al Qaeda a public relations boon. Tom Ricks says U.S. torture was the single most effective recruiting tool for al Qaeda in Iraq. An interrogator in Afghanistan told Fortune magazine that he "cannot even count the number of times" he has spoken to detainees who told him that American torture had motivated their violence. "Torture committed by Americans in the past continues to kill Americans today," he said.

You would think such statements would concern anyone who cares about national security. But Mukasey, Thiessen and company are so invested in justifying torture that they can't see the big picture. Ultimately, the question of torture's efficacy isn't about whether at some point it might have produced a "tile" for the intelligence "mosaic," but whether it makes the country safer.

The answer has always been, and will always be, no. But as long as politicians and pundits are claiming otherwise, I'll be speaking the truth to their faces.