Cheney Wins Interrogation Argument

Cheney Wins Interrogation Argument

By Robert Robb - September 2, 2009

The only fair conclusion from the CIA interrogation documents released last week is that former Vice President Dick Cheney largely won his argument with President Barack Obama about enhanced techniques.

The reports indicate that most of the most valuable information came from high-value detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, including the revelation of numerous plots and terrorists whose names were not previously known to the CIA.

The reports do not clearly say that the information resulted from the enhanced interrogation techniques, but the implication is quite clear. The CIA initially sought approval for EITs because it felt that Abu Zubaydah was withholding information about terrorist networks and plots. The CIA Inspector General's report describes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the terrorist who came up with the idea for 9/11, as not forthcoming before EITs were used.

There were 10 enhanced interrogation techniques approved. Only one, waterboarding, can even remotely be described as torture. Waterboarding simulates drowning and induces an involuntary panic response.

However, another clear implication from the CIA documents is that it was waterboarding that made the difference. So, we cannot escape the moral issue presented by the use of the technique and the information it produced.

The first thing these documents should do is to substantially narrow the range of the debate. Previously, the argument was frequently made that rough interrogation techniques don't work, that detainees make stuff up to get the physical and psychological discomfort to go away.

With respect to these particular interrogation techniques, that argument is impossible to sustain in the light of the CIA documents. Important, accurate information was revealed that allowed terrorist plots to be thwarted and terrorists to be captured.

President Obama was careful not to make that argument. Instead, his argument has been that simply because EITs produced information doesn't mean that the same information couldn't have been produced without EITs.

That's true, and will always be so. You can't prove that something that wasn't done wouldn't have worked.

But the documents cast doubt on the claim that the same information could have been elicited without EITs, particularly waterboarding. The record is unclear about how long standard techniques were used on the three detainees eventually waterboarded. Given the lawyering that went on before EITs were approved for use on Zubaydah, standard techniques were presumably being tried for a reasonable period. The CIA appears to have been pretty quick in moving to EITs with Mohammed, however.

The best evidence, although inconclusive, is that EITs, particularly waterboarding, produced information that standard interrogation techniques didn't.

I can understand the Obama administration taking the position that waterboarding is torture and won't be used even if the record indicates that it worked. What I can't understand is it changing responsibility for interrogating terrorist detainees and prosecuting CIA operatives who conducted these interrogations.

The CIA produced results, operating within the rules it was given. Nevertheless, the Obama administration has transferred interrogation responsibility from it to the FBI, whose post-9/11 record is far more spotty, with direct oversight by the White House.

The CIA did occasionally color outside the lines in its interrogations. A mock execution was staged. A gun and power drill brandished. Mohammed was told his children would be killed if there was another attack in the United States.

This was outside the lines. But none of it is close to putting people on the rack, or merits the prosecution of CIA interrogators taking risks to protect us.

We have a CIA, in part, because there is some nasty stuff in the world that needs to be dealt with. Spooks and cops playing rough to get important information from bad guys is a staple of our fiction.

In real life, however, we don't like to think about it.

Robert Robb is a columnist for the Arizona Republic and a RealClearPolitics contributor. Reach him at

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