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Torture Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:45 PM ET, 04/28/2009

Brian Stelter writes in the New York Times: "In late 2007, there was the first crack of daylight into the government's use of waterboarding during interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees. On Dec. 10, John Kiriakou, a former C.I.A. officer who had participated in the capture of the suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in 2002, appeared on ABC News to say that while he considered waterboarding a form of torture, the technique worked and yielded results very quickly.

"Mr. Zubaydah started to cooperate after being waterboarded for 'probably 30, 35 seconds,' Mr. Kiriakou told the ABC reporter Brian Ross. 'From that day on he answered every question.'

"His claims — unverified at the time, but repeated by dozens of broadcasts, blogs and newspapers — have been sharply contradicted by a newly declassified Justice Department memo that said waterboarding had been used on Mr. Zubaydah 'at least 83 times.'"

I wrote about Kiriakou in my December 11, 2007, column. While I focused on his willingness to call waterboarding what it is -- torture -- I also noted that he was making "the unsubstantiated claim that torture worked. Kiriakou told Ross...that, as a result of waterboarding, suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah coughed up information that 'disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.'"

I contrasted that with Ron Suskind's reporting that Zubaydah was a mentally ill minor functionary and that most if not all of the information he provided to the CIA under duress was either old news -- or entirely made up.

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald today documents: "(a) just how pervasive that 'Zubayduh-confessed-after-30-seconds' myth became and -- more importantly -- (b) how obvious it was to real journalists that Kiriakou's claim required serious skepticism and doubt."

Kevin Drum blogs for Mother Jones: "Kiriakou's testimony was immensely influential at the time, but it's pretty clear now that he was wrong: unless the CIA continued waterboarding him just for sport, Zubaydah didn't break after a single session. Or ten sessions. Or fifty. And if Kiriakou was wrong about that, what are the odds that he was also wrong about the 'dozens of attacks'? Or about the fact that waterboarding was responsible for any actionable information at all?

"Ron Suskind, on the other hand, hasn't been contradicted at all. As near as I can tell, his reporting has stood up almost perfectly in the face of subsequent evidence. If you want to know what really happened to Zubaydah, his book remains the gold standard for now."

Meanwhile, former war crimes prosecutor Mark J. McKeon writes in a Washington Post op-ed that "we cannot expect to regain our position of leadership in the world unless we hold ourselves to the same standards that we expect of others. That means punishing the most senior government officials responsible for these crimes. We have demanded this from other countries that have returned from walking on the dark side; we should expect no less from ourselves...

"[T]orture and cruel treatment are as much violations of international humanitarian law as are murder and genocide. They demand a judicial response. We cannot expect the rest of humanity to live in a world that we ourselves are not willing to inhabit."

Washington Post opinion columnist Richard Cohen calls for repudiation of torture "because it degrades us and runs counter to our national values." He even likens the Bush-era torture memos to the work of Nazis.

But he insists that "it is important to understand that abolishing torture will not make us safer. Terrorists do not give a damn about our morality, our moral authority or what one columnist [Paul Krugman] called 'our moral compass.'"

After citing his vivid memories of 9/11, he repeats: "I know that nothing Obama did this month about torture made America safer."

But Cohen doesn't address the evidence that our torture policies served as a hugely effective recruitment tool for our enemies. In congressional testimony last year, for instance, Former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora listed three ways torture had made America -- and specifically its troops -- less safe. Most significantly, he said "there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."

There's also some new poll data out on torture. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Marjorie Connelly write in the New York Times that the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll "found broad support for Mr. Obama's approach on a variety of issues, including one of the most contentious: whether Congress should investigate the harsh interrogation tactics authorized by George W. Bush. Sixty-two percent of Americans share Mr. Obama's view that hearings are unnecessary."

But consider that the poll only asked about a congressional investigation -- while advocates of further investigation are much more focused on either setting up an independent commission or appointing a special prosecutor.

Among the other findings, 46 percent said waterboarding "and other aggressive interrogation tactics" are never justified, compared to 37 percent who said they are sometimes justified. And 71 percent said they consider waterboarding to be torture.

And a new Gallup Poll "finds 51% of Americans in favor and 42% opposed to an investigation into the use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects during the Bush administration."

Asked if there were to be an investigation, who they would want to conduct it, only 8 percent said Congress; 25 percent said a bipartisan commission; 22 percent said the Justice Department; and 43 percent expressed no preference.

Another finding, however, is disturbing -- and can't be written off to bad wording. I guess journalists aren't doing a sufficient job of explaining what really happened.

Asked "Based on what you know or have read, do you think the use of harsh interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects was justified or not justified?", 55 percent said they found them justified.

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