If torture is as effective as former vice president Dick Cheney and former U.S. Department of Justice official John Yoo desperately want you to believe, the U.S. would have killed or captured Osama bin Laden years ago.
The notion that "enhanced interrogation techniques" were responsible for yielding valuable intelligence pertaining to bin Laden's courier is — at best — unfounded. Even if these methods have resulted in factually verifiable intelligence, it has been argued that conventional interrogation techniques could have produced the same intelligence — perhaps in a more timely fashion — especially considering that Al-Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed admitted to giving up false information under the duress of torture as he was waterboarded 183 times in a month. The history of the past decade has been written almost entirely by an overly aggressive foreign policy on the part of the Bush administration, the prose of which has been punctuated by claims that liberals are weak on defense. The national security tactics and strategies embraced by the Obama administration — emphasizing controlled restraint while also establishing an aggressive and effective tempo against Al-Qaeda — have delivered a fatal blow to this commonly-held assertion.
Over the past few years, various sources from the intelligence community have come forward to denounce the use of torture techniques for intelligence-gathering purposes. Ali Soufan — a former FBI interrogator who questioned many suspected terrorists, including Abu Zubaydah — testified before Congress in 2009 that techniques such as waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation were "ineffective, slow and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat Al- Qaeda." Soufan also testified that Al-Qaeda operatives are "trained to resist torture" and that their training "prepares them for much worse — the torture they would expect to receive if caught by dictatorships, for example."
Indeed, Al-Qaeda co-founder and presumptive leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was imprisoned and tortured for three years by the Egyptian government for his involvement in Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, as Lawrence Wright explained in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
Proponents of these techniques — such as Cheney — have accused President Barack Obama of being soft on terrorism since he discontinued the use of torture shortly after his inauguration. As recently as last week's Republic primary debate, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain continued to label the president as weak on foreign policy and national security. And yet one has to look no further than recent headlines to see that is not the case. During the course of the Obama presidency — for better or worse — the CIA has ramped up the use of drones in Pakistan and the U.S. military, at the president's insistence, has sent an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. To think that abandoning torture and embracing proven, lawful techniques will somehow undermine the escalation of American military action in the Middle East is as factually flawed as it is tunnel-visioned.
In our entertainment-driven culture, we must remind ourselves that this debate isn't occurring inside an episode of 24. The romanticized, Hollywood-polished idea many Americans seem to have of torture for the purpose of intelligence gathering is woefully ignorant of the detrimental effects it produces. In addition to the time and resources it takes away from more effective — not to mention legal — intelligence gathering, the illegality of torture tarnishes the reputation of the U.S. in the international community and disgraces the efforts and sacrifices of our armed forces. If these methods were effective, Abu Ghraib would have been celebrated as an intelligence coup. That such inhumane treatment is even considered is an affront to the ideals many have sworn to protect.
Moral high ground is just as important as tactical and strategic high ground in a global counter-terror campaign. If we truly expect to defeat Al-Qaeda and other terrorist elements, we will have to focus as much of our efforts into winning the war of ideas as we are into winning wars in the streets of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. Claiming that high ground — by closing Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, interrogating detainees according to protocol and not a passion for revenge, and bringing timely indictments and trials to suspected terrorists — requires us to distinguish ourselves from our enemies and broaden the chasm between right and wrong.
A noble objective such as this requires real strength and courage, not the chest-thumping, sword-rattling type we saw during the Bush administration.
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