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.