Call it torture
May marks a year since Seal Team Six dropped out of the night sky on a darkened compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Two bullets ended Osama bin Laden's life, but not the discussion about how he was found.
Was the mystery of his whereabouts cracked by the tedious sleuthing of a George Smiley or the finger-breaking and waterboarding of a Jack Bauer?
The key figure was a courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was bin Laden's link to the outside world, and it was a telephone tap and sophisticated surveillance that provided the trail links.
It has been claimed by torture advocates that "enhanced interrogation" of Abu al-Libi and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed produced the al-Kuwaiti linkage. Ali Soufan, one of the FBI's most experienced interrogators, has debunked that, noting that both men denied knowing al-Kuwaiti, even though torture was supposed to elicit truthful answers.
The anniversary will again spark a flurry of claims that thousands of us owe our very lives to "enhanced interrogation" and the Jack Bauer formulae for breaking terrorists in time for the next commercial.
Then-CIA Director Leon Panetta has denied that torture provided key intelligence in the SEAL raid: "No detainee in CIA custody revealed the courier's full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means."
Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan was specifically asked whether waterboarding provided the details to get to bin Laden: "Not to my knowledge â¦ there was no one bit of critical information provided by either a detainee or somebody else â¦ there was a mosaic appearing over time, and by diligent work â¦ we pieced it together."
Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA director who preceded Panetta (and who is an advocate for "enhanced interrogation"): "I'm willing to concede the point that no one gave us valuable or actionable intelligence while they were, for example, being waterboarded."
The few specific claims of torture successes have been rebutted in every instance by interrogators or others who were on the ground.
The FBI's Soufan doesn't hesitate to say that he is refuting "lies." In 2009, he was called to testify in the Senate Judiciary Committee's inquiry into abusive interrogation.
Tellingly, none of the people who had authorized "enhanced interrogation techniques" consented to appear in rebuttal. Writes Soufan, "They probably didn't want to commit perjury."
And that is really the hinge of the missing discussion. We are long past the time for torture apologists to put up or shut up. The claimed torture successes all lead back to "That's classified information, and we can't tell you what we know."
There are only two legitimate (and one illegitimate) rationales for classifying intelligence successes. The first is to protect the safety and positioning of intelligence sources and the case officers who run them. The second is to protect methods of collection that might otherwise be compromised.
At this point, neither of those exists: The sources are (or were) in custody at Guantanamo or elsewhere; as sources, they are ice-cold. The techniques of torture used against them are methods of collection now known worldwide. The truth of the supposed efficacy of torture could be known simply by declassifying everything.
But there's the rub, and the illegitimacy inherent in the shroud of continued secrecy: Torture is a criminal violation of federal law; it's a war crime under international law to which the U.S. is formally bound. We dare not call waterboarding "torture" because there is no head-of-state immunity for war crimes, and command responsibility cannot be out-sourced to flunkies.
To maintain a polite fiction, and to protect ourselves from the sadism we do not wish to see, and the screams we do not wish to hear, and the innocents who have been victimized in all our names (it was never limited to the "worst of the worst") we fudge the language.
Charles Fried, President Ronald Reagan's solicitor general, denounced torture in his book Because It Is Wrong. Fried was blunt in an interview with Reuters: "I think that [the Bush administration] broke the law, and what they did was disgusting and terrible and degrading."
In a later interview with an Australian paper, Fried said: "[T]he illegality of waterboarding isn't a close call, even though we have come to call it 'simulated drowning' or 'enhanced interrogation.' It has been a crime for decades.
"In the past, we have prosecuted American soldiers who engaged in the equivalent of waterboarding. We have also prosecuted German and Japanese commandants who ordered it. Some were even executed."
This war on terror has somehow become a war upon our own values. It's time to reclaim them.
David R. Irvine is a Salt Lake City attorney. He was commissioned as a strategic intelligence officer in the Army Reserve and retired as a brigadier general. He taught prisoner of war interrogation and military law for 18 years for the Sixth U.S. Army Intelligence School.