A Victory For Torture? Obama Officials Attempt To Justify Torture in Claiming False Credit For Bin Laden Killing

Current members of the Obama Administration (as well as former Bush officials) are claiming that all that torture under President Bush finally paid off in supplying the leads to eventually finding Osama bin Laden’s hideout. What is striking is not only the lack of any support for the claims, but the immediate effort of Obama officials to justify torture. No doubt these are the same officials supporting Obama’s decision to bar prosecution of individuals who carried out the torture — and later barring the investigation of those who ordered the torture.

Obama officials were claiming the positive proceeds from torture within hours of the killing. The officials are crediting the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohammed’s successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi.

However, as pointed out by sites like Wired, the claim does not jive with the facts. At most, the officials are claiming that Mohammed and al-Libi revealed the courier’s nom de guerre, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. However, a senior administration official admitted that “for years, we were unable to identify his true name or his location” and that his real name was revealed four years ago. That was in 2007 after the end of the torture program. Indeed, the critical act appeared to be a phone call made by the courier to someone under American surveillance.

Of course, none of this should matter. Just as the Bush officials continually responded to war crime allegations by claiming that the torture produced good intelligence, international law does not have an exception for beneficial acts of torture. It is a prohibited act and a war crime. Yet, Obama officials are not only justifying torture but suggesting that the use of torture is somehow legitimated if anything usable is derived from it.

Notably, when asked in Congress, Attorney General Eric Holder said that he was unsure of the contribution of evidence from torture –stating that the operation was the result of a “mosiac” of sources. What is disturbing, however, is that once again Holder does not point out that gaining usable evidence from torture is no justification for the war crime under international law or basic principles of morality. Panetta also equivocated on whether torture helped without making the slightest acknowledgment that it is a prohibited war crime regardless of its value or success.

It is equally interesting to see CIA officials stoking such stories and (rightfully) questioning the culpability of Pakistani intelligence. However, what does Bin Laden living for years in a huge compound say for our current intelligence capabilities? We heard continual CIA reports of Bin Laden being in caves and other locations. If the story is true that he was in area for years, shouldn’t there also be some question of our own capabilities since we have long said that we could not trust Pakistani security officials? There is no question that the CIA and military performed brilliantly once they identified the site. However, there is little discussion about the failure on our part (putting aside Pakistan) to locate the site — particularly with claims of prior intelligence from foreign agents in Pakistan and India.

In the end, it is distressing to see Obama officials so quickly seek to legitimate torture. The President has admitted that waterboarding is torture. Torture is a war crime. Yet, here officials are seeking to immediately shape the story in terms of the value of torture.

Jonathan Turley

70 thoughts on “A Victory For Torture? Obama Officials Attempt To Justify Torture in Claiming False Credit For Bin Laden Killing

  1. I missed this WH statement. However, MSNBC spent most of last night refuting any claims that waterboarding lead in any way to the successful location of OBL. They even got hold of a day old quote from Donald Rumsfeld to the effect that “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not lead to discovering OBL’s whereabouts. Maybe we will never know.

  2. http://www.balloon-juice.com/2011/05/04/arguing-against-torture/

    (credit goes to Frank for posting this to another thread)

    excerpt:

    Arguing Against Torture

    by mistermix

    While I agree that torture almost never yields valuable information,… I’m willing to entertain the possibility that torturing someone will gather useful intelligence. The reason I’m willing to do so is because I’m not interested in arguing whether there might be a case somewhere in history where torture led to important intelligence. The argument I want to have is whether a policy of torture is one we ought to adopt, and that’s a far broader question than whether it might work on rare occasion.

    Let’s start with principle, then. Why don’t we torture? Because torture is diminishes our humanity—because in any and all instances we have a basic duty to ourselves, our allies and our enemies to treat all human beings in our custody with dignity. Not torturing, specifically the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment”, is as key a part of the Bill of Rights as freedom of speech. It’s codified in laws governing conduct of our citizens, and in military regulations governing our treatment of non-citizens. Not torturing is both a founding principle and the law of the land, and Guantanamo and Bagram and all other places where we tortured people exist because some actors in the Bush administration knew damn well that they needed to hide their horrible deeds from the law.

    After this first principle, and the laws that come from it, the next practical argument against torture is that it diminishes our standing in the world, which I don’t think requires a lot of argument, considering that we’re constantly inveighing against regimes that torture and have signed treaties prohibiting it.
    These first two arguments are absolute, and there’s no “ticking time bomb” scenario that can be used to argue against them. Our deeply held principles are true no matter what Jack Bauer did in some episode of his show, and our national standing is hurt by us torturing regardless of whether we gleaned some nugget from waterboarding KSM.

    The reason that we’re always hearing arguments about efficacy instead of principle or national standing is because that weak argument is the only place that torture proponents can put a stake in the ground. Once in a while, though rarely, and almost cetainly not in the case of Osama bin Laden’s killing, torture may work. So, they argue, we should make it our policy.

    The simple answer to that is that even if it works in some rare scenario, it’s not worth sacrificing a 250-year-old principle and our national standing for the tiny, fleeting benefit that may come from it. We’re America, and we’re better than that.

  3. I’m no apologist for this administration but I’m wary of stories claiming statements from some vague “officials,” seeing as even some former Bush staffers are saying the opposite. That said, this administration’s failure to condemn/prosecute torture is an astounding human rights travesty.

  4. One problem is the vague definition of “torture”. For some people, simply disrespecting a prisoner, keeping him away from his fellow prisoners, not honoring his religion, and more is all “torture”.

    For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means 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.

    Severe pain or suffering? Anything could be construed as causing severe pain or suffering. Simply being held captive is severe suffering for many.

    When we speak out against torture, I think most of us picture the Spanish Inquisition or 24 type of torture. Those are definitely wrong. Waterboarding probably falls within that category although personally I’d rather be waterboarded than held captive for a long-period.

    As wrong as they are that doesn’t mean anything that causes suffering is torture.

    tl;dr torture IS wrong, however we need a more precise definition of “torture”.

  5. Current members of the Obama Administration (as well as former Bush officials) are claiming that all that torture under President Bush finally paid off in supplying the leads to eventually finding Osama bin Laden’s hideout.
    -Professor Turley

    And, when the truth comes to light, I suppose that this is how they will try justify what is currently taking place domestically. I wish them luck with that.

  6. Professor Turley,

    “Obama officials were claiming the positive proceeds from torture within hours of the killing. The officials are crediting the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohammed’s successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi.”

    Here’s an excerpt from that AP article:

    “WASHINGTON — Officials say CIA interrogators in secret overseas prisons developed the first strands of information that ultimately led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

    “Current and former U.S. officials say that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, provided the nom de guerre of one of bin Laden’s most trusted aides. The CIA got similar information from Mohammed’s successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Both were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics inside CIA prisons in Poland and Romania.”

    **********

    I think one can interpret the above in more than one way. It’s not made clear if the information was extracted from the two individuals because of torture. Another thing: Was it the author of the AP article who was noting that both people had been tortured? Or was it government officials who implied the information was gotten via torture?

    **********

    Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed Denis McDonough on The Last Word last night. McDonough, who is the Deputy National Security Asdvisor, provided a different perspective.

    Lawrence O’Donnell The Last Word
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/42888784#42888784

  7. Lawrence O’Donnell discussed torture with a former GITMO interrogator last night:

    Think I’ll believe the people who actually do the interrogating …

  8. Stamford Liberal,

    From Democracy Now’s program earlier today:

    Former Military Interrogator Matthew Alexander: Despite GOP Claims, “Immoral” Torture “Slowed Down” Effort to Find Osama bin Laden

    Summary: The death of Osama bin Laden has sparked a debate over whether torture of suspects held at places such as the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay helped track down and kill the Al Qaeda leader. Some claim the mission vindicated controversial Bush policies on harsh interrogation techniques. We speak with Matthew Alexander, a former senior military interrogator in Iraq. “I believe wholeheartedly [Bush-era] techniques slowed us down on the road toward Osama bin Laden and numerous other members of Al Qaeda,” Alexander says. “I am convinced we would have found him a lot earlier had we not resorted to torture and abuse.”

    http://www.democracynow.org/2011/5/4/former_military_interrogator_matthew_alexander_despite

  9. Alexander says. “I am convinced we would have found him a lot earlier had we not resorted to torture and abuse.” —from Elaine’s posting

    Thanks for posting the link and Alexander’s comment, Elaine M.

  10. [quote]We speak with Matthew Alexander, a former senior military interrogator in Iraq. “I believe wholeheartedly [Bush-era] techniques slowed us down on the road toward Osama bin Laden and numerous other members of Al Qaeda,” Alexander says. “I am convinced we would have found him a lot earlier had we not resorted to torture and abuse.”[/quote]

    yeah. That holds as much weight as another party saying torture led to Osama’s capture. There is no way to prove it slowed down the capture. Gut feeling would say that while torture may or may not have helped, it certainly did not prolong killing Osama. It is silly and political to claim otherwise.

    That isn’t saying the torture was justified. In fact if it took 10 years of torture to get the information, I would say it wasn’t justified even if we assume that is where part of the info came from.

    Trying to claim that torture can never be effective or is actually counter-effective is a bit of a cop-out. It is too often something said by those who are anti-torture but can’t stand up to questions asking if it can ever be justified or not. If you claim it isn’t effective than you don’t have to face such questions.

  11. If you believe the truth to be the truth and someone proves that it is not their truth…..whose truth is the truth….

    Not a fan of Waterboarding….or Bushes or some of the programs of Obama….

  12. 2manyusernames,

    Alexander did 300 interrogations in Iraq and oversaw another 1,000. I think he is more qualified to state his opinion on the matter of torture than you or I. Alexander didn’t say that torture is never effective. He said that there are better and more efficacious ways to elicit information from detainees.

    Did you watch Alexander’s interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now? Have you heard him speak before? He has also said he is against the use of torture on moral and Constitutional grounds.

    Torturing people is immoral. There is no justification for torturing human beings as far as I’m concerned.

  13. Just the fact that torture requires some balancing rational of benefit achieved from it indicates that it is clearly understood to be an unethical and wrong thing to do in the first place.

    There is an exciting, vengeful, cruel streak that runs through the American psyche and the use of torture as a plausible government action is a direct product of that cruelty. It’s clearly visible in lynch mobs and calls for the ridiculously harsh sentences meted out even to children found guilty of heinous crimes.

    Torture is the opposite of civilized behavior and the product of fearful, frustrated and undisciplined reasoning.

  14. When logic and proportion. Have fallen sloppy dead. And the White Knight is talking backwards. And the Red Queen’s ‘off with her head!’ (White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane)

  15. Okay. That’s just about enough. I’m taking a news break before I burst into flames.

  16. 2manyusernames sez:
    “Trying to claim that torture can never be effective or is actually counter-effective is a bit of a cop-out. It is too often something said by those who are anti-torture but can’t stand up to questions asking if it can ever be justified or not. If you claim it isn’t effective than you don’t have to face such questions.”

    ***********************************

    This is unadulterated nonsense. Horse apples. See my comment up-thread. Torture, or as the Bush/Cheney/Yoo/Rumsfeld cabal calls it, “enhanced interrogation.” That procedure bears about as much resemblance to a competent interrogation as burning at the the stake resembles a girl scout marshmallow roast.

    Watch my lips: No credible information will ever be gained from torture, no matter how much makeup you put on it. I know more about extracting confessions from people than most who comment on this blog, and I am telling you I will have nothing to to with mistreating a prisoner. In fact, if I knew a prisoner had been subjected to any kind of third degree before I did any questioning, I would refuse to take the case.

    There is a problem, not only with fruit of the poison tree, but there is something called ‘contamination’ as well as ecological validity problems. So, no sir, we are not going there. Not only due to the risk of being involved in a war crime, but the very high chance of both Type I and Type II errors. Type I & II errors can make you look like an idiot when the truth comes out.

  17. “Senator says Feinstein torture did not play a role.”

    I always suspected that Feinstein ran her own torture program. In fact, she tortures me every time I read, see, or hear her.

    Oh wait! Was Feinstein herself tortured and she did not spill the beans about her involvement in backroom deals with big corporation spenders?

    (JK, SM)

  18. Elaine,

    “Former Military Interrogator Matthew Alexander: Despite GOP Claims, “Immoral” Torture “Slowed Down” Effort to Find Osama bin Laden”

    Excellent clip – thanks

  19. DOJ Report: Torture Memo Author John Yoo Said Bush Could Order “Massacre” of Whole Villages
    Despite this latest disturbing revelation, Yoo’s culpability in Bush administration abuses has been deemed “poor judgment,” not a violation of “professional standards.”
    By Jason Leopold
    2/22/1010
    http://www.alternet.org/rights/145760/doj_report%3A_torture_memo_author_john_yoo_said_bush_could_order_%22massacre%22_of_whole_villages/

    Excerpt:
    Former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo argued that President George W. Bush’s commander-in-chief powers were so sweeping that he could willfully order the massacre of civilians, yet Yoo’s culpability in Bush administration abuses was deemed “poor judgment,” not a violation of “professional standards.”

    That downgrading of criticism by the Justice Department — regarding the legal advice from Yoo and his boss at the Office of Legal Counsel, Jay Bybee, to Bush’s White House and the CIA — means that the department will not refer them to state bar associations for possible disbarment as lawyers.

    But an earlier version of the report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that the legal advice warranted the sterner conclusion and thus possible disbarment.

    The judgment was softened by career prosecutor David Margolis, who was put in charge of the final recommendations and who said he was “unpersuaded” by OPR’s “misconduct” conclusion, which faulted Yoo and Bybee for their approval of torture techniques that were used against terrorism suspects after the 9/11 attacks.

  20. http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/story/index.html?story=/opinion/greenwald/2011/05/04/torture

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 07:30 ET

    The illogic of the torture debate

    By Glenn Greenwald

    excerpt:

    Exactly the same is true for the torture techniques used by the Bush administration and once again being heralded by its followers (and implicitly glorified by media stars who keep suggesting that they enabled bin Laden’s detection).

    It makes no difference whether it extracted usable intelligence. Criminal, morally depraved acts don’t become retroactively justified by pointing to the bounty they produced.

  21. “DOJ Report: Torture Memo Author John Yoo Said Bush Could Order “Massacre” of Whole Villages
    Despite this latest disturbing revelation, Yoo’s culpability in Bush administration abuses has been deemed “poor judgment,” not a violation of “professional standards.””

    Why Yoo hasn’t been disbarred is beyond me … and he’s now teaching … law …

  22. Ms. EM,

    I especially liked when former Air Force Officer Alexander spoke about his oath.

    Anon Nurse,

    Mr. Greenwald is always a must-read columnist.

  23. Elaine M,

    Oh, my! How could I have missed such an outstanding “jurist” … thanks for the reprimand and the clip :)

  24. culheath,

    “I say we torture everyone for a day and then take a poll on how people feel about it.”

    Agreed – but only if we start with those in the Bush Admuddlestration ….

  25. Elaine,
    great videos. I have to agree that the evidence is overwhelming that torture did not provide any substantial information that led to the killing of OBL. Holder’s response is just another example of the Obama Administration walking on egg shells so as not to upset the Bush torture crowd.

  26. Does this mean we have to go back and vacate (sorry, is that the right term?) all those war crime sentences for torture we applied to Japanese soldiers after WWII?

  27. Swarthmore,

    I just read an article on salon.com regarding the Quitter-In-Chief … she really is such a petty and unintelligent sub-human.

  28. Sl She likes guns, puts targets on people, and now she wants to look at violent pictures. Still wonder if she is running.

  29. SM,

    “Sl She likes guns, puts targets on people, and now she wants to look at violent pictures.”

    I know this is gross but I just can’t help myself … she’s probably into snuff films as well.

  30. The head of the CIA admitted yesterday that there was no live video footage of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound as further doubts emerged about the US version of events.

    Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, revealed there was a 25 minute blackout during which the live feed from cameras mounted on the helmets of the US special forces was cut off.

    A photograph released by the White House appeared to show the President and his aides in the situation room watching the action as it unfolded. In fact they had little knowledge of what was happening in the compound.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8493391/Osama-bin-Laden-dead-Blackout-during-raid-on-bin-Laden-compound.html

  31. Bdaman, interesting article though I did find the use of language odd in this sentence; they misplaced “rather than”:

    “Mr Panetta also revealed that the US Navy Seals made the final decision to kill bin Laden rather than the president.”

    I’m glad the SEAL’s they decided not to kill the President :-)


    There doesn’t seem to be any information regarding Bin Laden’s compound being shielded so I’m wondering how the photo gear the SEAL’s used could be less efficient and reliable than a cellphone, laptop etc. The raid was live-blogged from a house or apartment down the road was it not? I’m not buying the “no video feed” story.

  32. lottakatz, I would be surprised to find the house was NOT shielded. They had all the money they needed to make it secure and it would only make sense that the house would be a virtual Faraday Cage. When I am at the jail or in some parts of the hospital, my cell phone will not work due to the steel in the walls.

    Heavy shielding would be a normal precaution against wall penetrating technology which all the highly developed nations have in their intelligence arsenal. A satellite phone feed would not work in a shielded environment.

    By heavy shielding, I do not necessarily mean massive steel plates or anything like that. Copper mesh would serve the purpose quite well, as would a larger than usual amount of rebar in the concrete walls.

  33. lottakatz I’m not buying alot either. It all seems very very fishy to me. But hey I’m a conspiracy kinda a guy :)

  34. OS, I looked for a story I read shortly after the announcement that discussed the fact that no cell phones or Internet access were allowed in the compound but that ,a phone was activated at some point by someone and that allowed ‘us’ to get a fix on a Bin Laden aide within the compound. I can’t find it. I’ve just seen too many articles.

    You are right that a Faraday cage would be easy to install but if this was true why would there be any prohibition on the use of a cell phone or a computer with Internet access/wifi?

    Who knows what went on? We probably will never know and that’s not different from any raid like this one. They went to kill a very bad man and probably got the job done in good order. If he wasn’t killed he’s somewhere that probably only 6 people in the world know about, being mined for info. In any event he’s gone, totally gone, and that’s that. The virtue of the rash of new conspiracy theories is lost on me but arguing over the details is interesting :-)

    Personally, I think he’s dead, executed as planned and that it was watched real-time by the President and his close aides. I can’t imagine a picture of Hilary Clinton with ‘that’ expression, like the one released by the WH, without her watching people die.

  35. LK, I have watched people die, and I have seen more than my share of dead bodies. There is nothing “fun” or “nice” about it. I am old now, and I am still not indifferent to death. Having said that, I would have lost no sleep had I been the one who came face to face with one of the most dangerous men on the planet. In the words of a Marine sniper I know, “You do what you have to do.”

    As for that fateful phone call, from what I could find in the various news reports, it was the courier making a phone call that was the tipping point. He could have called from anywhere, even if he just went outside in the compound. There is cell phone service outdoors in urban areas. We know he had been tracked for months. If there was a blackout, it was probably because the team was inside a Faraday Cage in all or part of the building. I am sure they were recording the whole time, so if the President and his staff watched it, it could have even been a replay from the helicopter as they were egressing the scene.

  36. OS, the hand over mouth gesture she was using was entirely consistent with shock and/or self suppression; she was watching something deeply disturbing. I hope by your reply to me (“There is nothing “fun” or “nice” about it.”) that I did not give the impression that I thought she was enjoying what she was seeing/hearing. I am familiar with only one photo released by the WH but there may have been more that I have not seen.

    http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/05/flickr-situation-room/

  37. LK, not at all. It was a dead serious picture, consistent with my own experience. One never gets used to it, at least if you have a soul. I do not see any grins or jubilation in that photo at all. Notice the look on the President’s face as well as his posture. That speaks volumes.

    That is the only photo I have seen as well.

  38. Lottakatz, sorry I had to go to bed after my comment. My mother has been keeping me awake at night and is killing me :)

    I took the quote, “Mr Panetta also revealed that the US Navy Seals made the final decision to kill bin Laden rather than the president.” and put it into google. It’s everywhere.

    http://www.google.com/search?q=Mr+Panetta+also+revealed+that+the+US+Navy+Seals+made+the+final+decision+to+kill+bin+Laden+rather+than+the+president.%E2%80%9D&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a

    I guess Panetta said it. One has to wonder what was on his mind :)
    Proof it is the fog of war? :)

  39. The other strange story is this one.

    Shot dead ‘with money sewn into his clothes': Bin Laden was captured alive and then executed, ‘claims daughter, 12′

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1383106/Osama-Bin-Laden-dead-Wife-watched-die-White-House-reveals-WASNT-armed.html#ixzz1LTYJwyVw

    ‘Not a single bullet was fired from the compound.

    How is it that the noise from the helicopters didn’t alarm those in the compound along with the fog of war that not a single shot was fired at the raiders of the lost bin laden?

  40. Bdaman:

    Obama gave the order. He is a superior commander in chief. How dare you suggest otherwise.

  41. Roco who ever you are, knowing that your not me, it is because

    I’m a racist homophobe thats a bigot birther that just happens to be good to his mother :)

    Thats how.

  42. Bdaman, you neglected to mention that among your major accomplishments, you also have been identified as the cause of cancer and that you did indeed kill Cock Robin. :-D

  43. Mid-East expert, Professor Juan Cole, notes that an intercepted telephone call — and not torture — likely lead to the whereabouts of Bin Laden:

    “The second thing to say is that an Arabic source suggests that interrogations may not have been decisive in cracking the case. Al-Sharq al-Awsat, interviews Nu’man Bin Uthman, a former fighter with a Libyan terrorist group, who is reformed and now based in London, but still has good contacts among radicals.

    Bin Uthman says that his sources tell him that Bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, made a key mistake when, in 2010, he used a Thurayya satellite phone to call an important al-Qaeda leader based in Iraq.”

    You can read the perspective of Professor Cole here:

    http://www.juancole.com/

  44. OS and Elaine,
    Don’t you know that Cock Robin is not dead? He is living in Pakistan on the second floor of the military academy! Not even Bdaman can find him there! :)

  45. There is nothing “fun” or “nice” about it. I am old now, and I am still not indifferent to death. Having said that, I would have lost no sleep had I been the one who came face to face with one of the most dangerous men on the planet.

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