The Unz Review • An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 BlogviewPatrick Cockburn Archive
CIA Torture Report: It Didn't Work Then, It Doesn't Work Now
Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information


Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Thanks, LOL, or Troll with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used three times during any eight hour period.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
Search Text Case Sensitive  Exact Words  Include Comments
List of Bookmarks

The justifications for its actions given by the CIA since the publication of the Senate report on torture are similar to those given by torturers down the ages. They claim that the information obtained by inflicting intolerable pain is of the greatest value and could not have been obtained by any other means. The information is certainly there in great quantities because the victims of torture invariably confess to stop the agony and say what their tormentors most want to hear.

John O Brennan, the director of the CIA, gave the game away when he said on Thursday that it was “unknowable” whether the brutal interrogation techniques employed by the CIA had produced useful intelligence. But the point about important information is that we know if it increases our knowledge in a significant way. By claiming that there is no way to know if torture – renamed Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs) – produces such knowledge, Brennan is admitting failure. This confirms the tweet by the Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein that “there is no evidence that terror attacks were stopped, terrorists captured or lives saved through use of EITs”.

Torture always produces tainted information because it comes from somebody trying to avoid unbearable suffering. The interrogator is happy that he or she has uncovered conspiracies and plots, and happier still when these are confirmed in elaborate detail by other torture victims. Having unmasked these demonic intentions, which would not have been revealed by other means, interrogators come to discard all information not provided under extreme duress.

This distorted way of thinking became prevalent in the CIA. The Senate report has a revealing passage saying that the statement of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (“KSM”) “during his first day in CIA custody included an accurate description of a Pakistani/British operative, which was dismissed as having been provided during the initial ‘throwaway stage’ of information collection when the CIA believed detainees provided false or worthless information”. KSM was later water-boarded (simulated drowning) 183 times, leading him to make frequent confessions that later turned out to be false. Another section of the report says that “KSM fabrications led the CIA to capture and detain suspected terrorists who were later found to be innocent”.

A telling aspect of the CIA’s use of torture is how similar its experience was to those who have used it in other times. In the 1930s, Soviet security was convinced that the Soviet Union was full of traitors and spies because of thousands of confessions made under torture that corroborated each other in every detail. With each admission of guilt, new plotters were implicated and made their forced confessions in turn. In an earlier era, the identification, torture and killing of thousands of men and women accused of being witches in Europe produced many of the same arguments and some of the same methods used by the CIA. Rereading Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, I was repeatedly struck by similarities between the words and actions of the inquisitors then and now.

Torture and the belief in witchcraft were intimately linked. Trevor-Roper says that “the rise and decline of the European witch-craze corresponds generally with the rise and decline of judicial torture in Europe”. The witch-craze grew by its own momentum, and confessions appeared to support each other because those in charge of the interrogations used “identical works of reference, identical instructions to judges, identical leading questions supported by torments too terrible to bear”. England largely escaped the collective hysteria about witches that gripped the rest of Europe because it alone did not allow torture in ordinary criminal cases (treason was an exception).

The inquisitors then did not equivocate, like the CIA today, about their methods. They tortured men and women by crushing their fingers and toes in a vice, burning them with hot iron, breaking their bodies on the rack or using the leg screw that smashed the shin bone into pieces. Those who doubt that the CIA was torturing people should note that a prime method used by the CIA to extract information was sleep-deprivation. They should then read Trevor-Roper’s comment that earlier inquisitors found that “nothing was so effective as the tormentum insomniae, the torture of artificial sleeplessness” and that those who had withstood other horrors would finally yield to it “and confess themselves to be witches”.

A defender of the CIA’s actions might argue that there is a crucial difference between the torture of witches 400 years ago and that of members of al-Qaeda today. The former did not exist while those who carried out 9/11 do. But this argument raises two important points: in practice, the CIA conducted its torture programme with a sloppiness that indicates it was more interested in impressing the White House than it was in discovering real plots. How else to explain why it allowed contractors without experience of the Middle East or anything else to conduct interrogations? Given the size of the rewards – two psychologists received $81m – the interrogators had every incentive to pretend their work was valuable. In 2004 the CIA even managed to torture two of its informants, according to the report. It says that “after both detainees had spent approximately 24 hours shackled in the standing sleep deprivation position, CIA Headquarters confirmed that the detainees were former CIA sources”. Before being detained, the two CIA spies had tried to contact the agency again and again to say what they were doing and to provide intelligence.


There is another way in which the focus of the CIA on the so-called “core” al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden over the past 13 years has been damaging. The organisation conducted one devastatingly effective operation on 9/11, but in the years that followed it never had the capabilities that the US government pretended. Most of the botched operations that have been highly publicised in the media, such as the “underpants” and “shoe” bombers, were amateur efforts by rather pathetic individuals. But it was in the CIA’s interest to say it was doing sterling work in the hill villages of Yemen and Waziristan, combating such menaces.

Despite the CIA’s use of torture and the rendition of many others to torture in other countries including Syria and Libya, al-Qaeda-type movements have succeeded in creating their own state in Iraq and Syria, and today control large parts of Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia. While the CIA was forcing confessions to fabricated conspiracies, the heirs to the perpetrators of 9/11 were winning victories in the real world.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Torture 
Hide 4 CommentsLeave a Comment
Commenters to FollowEndorsed Only
Trim Comments?
  1. Sean says:

    “It Didn’t Work Then, It Doesn’t Work Now Its use is always wrong ”

    Being ‘ always wrong’ has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether it is, or sometimes might be, effective. From the point of view of those who used it, torture seems to have worked rather well in El Salvador. And torture is as much a terror tactic as a way of getting information.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  2. learned says:

    Colin Powell Got Snookered at CIA

    by Ray McGovern
    Common Dreams, May 19, 2009

    “Powell and I had a one-on-one – no one else even in the room – about his angst over what was a rather dull recounting of several old stories about Al Qa’ida-Baghdad ties [in the draft speech],” Wilkerson said. “I agreed with him that what we had was bull___t, and Powell decided to eliminate all mention of terrorist contacts between AQ and Baghdad.

    “Within an hour, [CIA Director George] Tenet and [CIA Deputy Director John] McLaughlin dropped a bombshell on the table in the director’s conference room: a high-level AQ detainee had just revealed under interrogation substantive contacts between AQ and Baghdad, including Iraqis training AQ operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

    Although Tenet and McLaughlin wouldn’t give Powell the identity of the al-Qaeda source.

    Presumably not realizing that the “new” intelligence was tainted, “Powell changed his mind and this information was included in his UNSC presentation, along with more general information from a previous draft about Baghdad’s terrorist tendencies,” Wilkerson said. …..
    Meanwhile, at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, Maj. Paul Burney, a psychiatrist sent there in summer 2002, says, “A large part of that time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, and we were not successful,” according to Burney’s recent testimony to the Senate. Burney added:

    “The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link…there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”

  3. learned says:

    On CBS’s “60 Minutes” on April 23, 2006, Drumheller disclosed that the CIA had received documentary evidence from Sabri that Iraq had no WMD.

    Drumheller added, “We continued to validate him the whole way through.”

    Then two other former CIA officers confirmed this account to author Sidney Blumenthal, adding that George Tenet briefed this information to President George W. Bush on Sept. 18, 2002, and that Bush dismissed the information as worthless.

    Wait. It gets worse. The two former CIA officers told Blumenthal that someone in the agency rewrote the report from Sabri to indicate that Saddam Hussein was “aggressively and covertly developing” nuclear weapons and already had chemical and biological weapons.

    That altered report was shown to the likes of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was “duped,” according to one of the CIA officers.

    Worse still, the former CIA officials reported that George Tenet never shared the unadulterated information from the Iraqi foreign minister with you, the Secretary of State and Naji Sabri’s counterpart. Again, whether that is true is a very large outstanding question.

    “In sum, the CIA had both the Iraqi foreign minister and the Iraqi intelligence chief “turned” and reporting to us in the months before the war (in Naji Sabri’s case) and the weeks before your U.N. speech (in the case of Tahir Jalil Habbush).

    Both were part of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle; both reported that there were no weapons of mass destruction.

    But this was not what the president wanted to hear, so Tenet put the kibosh on Habbush and put Sabri on a cutter to Qatar.”…

    “Suskind also reveals that in the fall of 2003, Habbush was asked to earn his keep by participating in a keystone-cops-type forgery aimed at “proving” that Saddam Hussein did, after all, have a direct hand in the tragedy of 9/11.

    This crude forgery was not unlike the one that originally gave us the yarn about yellowcake uranium going from Niger to Iraq.

    You will hardly be surprised to hear there is evidence, much of it circumstantial, that Vice President Dick Cheney was the intellectual author of both incredibly inept forgery operations.”

  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Exactly, Sean. This whole line of argument (that torture doesn’t work) is largely irrelevant. It’s an attempt to counter the argument that torture should be allowed because it does work, and an attempt to create a consequentialist argument against torture. But it has a major flaw: torture does sometimes work. Cockburn’s assertion is correct: the CIA’s admission that they can’t know if it worked is an admission that it did not — in these cases. That does not come even close to justifying the conclusion that it never has and never will work. But perhaps a bigger problem with this line of reasoning is that we don’t need a consequentialist argument against torture at all. We can argue that it’s wrong, period or, if that’s too strong for you, we can argue that it violates fundamental principles that we believe in.

    If those in a position to use torture knew that they would be prosecuted and punished for doing so, then they would refrain from the practice except in situations where the perceived value justified the personal cost.

Current Commenter

Leave a Reply - Comments on articles more than two weeks old will be judged much more strictly on quality and tone

 Remember My InformationWhy?
 Email Replies to my Comment
Submitted comments have been licensed to The Unz Review and may be republished elsewhere at the sole discretion of the latter
Subscribe to This Comment Thread via RSS Subscribe to All Patrick Cockburn Comments via RSS
Personal Classics
Full Story of the Taliban's Amazing Jailbreak
"They Can't Even Protect Themselves, So What Can They Do For Me?"
"All Hell is Breaking Loose with Muqtada" Warlord: the Rise of Muqtada al-Sadr