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Did Torture Help Target Osama?

May 4, 2011

If Enhanced Interrogation Aided in the Search
for Osama Bin Laden, Does That Make it OK?

It’s distressing that public discussion following the initial euphoria over the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden has so quickly devolved into speculation about whether some clues to his whereabouts may have been obtained through “enhanced interrogation.” Even more troubling are the terms of the debate. It seems to be assumed that if the answer is “yes,” that will justify our now hopefully discredited program of torture. It’s also implied that opponents of enhanced interrogation claim that it never results in “good intelligence.” In fact: 

  • The core argument against torture is not and never has been that it never works. It is that torture is immoral, illegal, and fatally destructive of democratic and humanitarian values. 
  • Informed opponents recognize that torturing detainees will sometimes yield accurate information; they argue – as the FBI has consistently done in opposition to its CIA and military counterparts – that you can get more reliable information, and faster, through non-abusive interrogation methods.

One of the first books I read when I was developing The Refuge Media Project was Alfred M. McCoy’s groundbreaking and influential A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror. And one of the arguments that struck me most forcefully was his discussion of French use of torture during the Algerian War of Independence. (See the classic film ""The Battle of Algiers for a stunning and disturbing portrayal of this conflict.) Does this paragraph from the French government’s Wuillaume Report sound familiar? 

“The water and electricity methods, provided they are carefully used, are said to produce a shock which is more psychological than physical and therefore do not constitute excessive cruelty…According to certain medical opinion, the water-pipe method involves no risk to the health of the victim.” 

McCoy argues that the colonial power’s widespread use of torture did, in fact, yield militarily valuable information – information that enabled the French to defeat the insurgency in Algiers in the short run:

“In 1957, the French Army destroyed the urban underground in Algiers with the systematic abuse of thousands of revolutionary suspects. During the yearlong battle, French soldiers arrested 30 to 40 percent of all males in the city’s Casbah, and subjected most of them to brutality, using, in the words of one senior officer, ‘beatings, electric shocks, and, in particular, water torture, which was always the most dangerous technique for the prisoner.’ Although many resisted to the point of death, mass torture gained sufficient intelligence to break the rebel underground.”

“The French Army won the battle of Algiers but soon lost the war forAlgeria, in large part because its systematic torture delegitimated the wider war effort in the eyes of most Algerians and many French. ‘You might say that the battle of Algiers was won through the use of torture,’ observed the British historian Sir Alistair Home, ‘but that the war, the Algerian war, was lost.’”

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