Does Torture Really Work?

It's probably not too farfetched to say that what most Americans know about torture comes from watching the TV show "24." (There is even a Web site called The Jack Bauer Torture Report.) Jack and his comrades and enemies have at various moments on the Fox television program used electrical wires, heart defibrillators, old-fashioned bone breaking and chemical injections to wrest information from their captives. In one episode, Agent Bauer forced a terrorist to watch streaming video—staged—of his child's execution. The terrorist talked.

But how does it really work? The current debate over torture, specifically President Bush's efforts to gain congressional approval for certain interrogation techniques, is a confusing morass of stonewalling, half-truths and moral posturing wrapped up in politics and legalisms. The whole truth remains concealed behind a veil of government secrecy. Nonetheless, it is possible to piece together a picture of the how torture is actually used by the United States. And it doesn't look much like the episodes on "24."

U.S. officials do not use the word torture to describe their own methods. Instead, American intelligence officials speak of "aggressive interrogation measures," sometimes euphemistically known as "torture lite." According to human-rights activists who have consulted with Senate staffers involved in the negotiations, Bush administration officials are trying to redefine the Geneva Conventions, which bans "cruel practices," to allow seven different procedures: 1) induced hypothermia, 2) long periods of forced standing, 3) sleep deprivation, 4) the "attention grab" (forcefully seizing the suspect's shirt), 5) the "attention slap," 6) the "belly slap" and 7) sound and light manipulation. As NEWSWEEK reported this week in its story The Politics of Terror , a harsh technique called "waterboarding," which induces the sensation of drowning, would be specifically banned.

These procedures, apparently including waterboarding, have been used on several so-called High Value Targets—alleged top Al Qaeda operatives in captivity. Without getting into specifics, President Bush has stated that his administration's interrogation and detention program has been necessary to foil plots and save lives.

But is that true? In recent interviews with NEWSWEEK reporters, U.S. intelligence officers say they have little—if any—evidence that useful intelligence has been obtained using techniques generally understood to be torture. It is clear, for instance, that Al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. His interrogators even threatened, à la Jack Bauer, to go after his family. (KSM reportedly shrugged off the threat to his family—he would meet them in heaven, he said.) KSM did reveal some names and plots. But they haven't panned out as all that threatening: one such plot was a plan by an Al Qaeda operative to cut down the Brooklyn Bridge—with a blow torch. Intelligence officials could never be sure if KSM was holding back on more serious threats, or just didn't know of any.

There has long been a split between the FBI, which favors (and has long experience with) slower, more benign interview techniques, like establishing long-term, personal relationships between interrogator and subject. Responsibility for KSM was given to the CIA, which had much less experience with interrogations before 9/11, but was more gung-ho. In the months and years after 9/11, the intelligence community feared a second wave of attacks and wanted quick results.



Abu Faraj al-Libbi

Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose book, "The One Percent Doctrine," stands as the most thorough examination of CIA interrogations thus far, paints a very skeptical picture in his depiction of the interrogations of top Al Qaeda officials. Meanwhile, some experts on torture say the debate over acceptable techniques helped create the 2004 scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In a manner of speaking, Abu Ghraib had nothing to do with the intelligence community's rules on interrogation. The Abu Ghraib abuses were the work of poorly trained, overwhelmed prison guards. Nonetheless, they were operating in an environment in which it was generally understood that "the gloves were off" when it came to interrogating prisoners. That is the problem with even a limited set of exceptions to an outright ban on torture or "torture lite." If even some exceptions are made, they can be seen as a license by guards and interrogators. Who is to say that interrogators will stop at a "belly slap" or an "attention grab" if they are permitted to lay hands on the prisoners in a darkened cell? Administration officials have said that "less than five" Al Qaeda officials were subjected to those authorized "aggressive" techniques. But Special Forces soldiers and CIA operatives were roughing up so many prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan that at least a score died.

The Bush administration has tried another approach to end-run critics: farming out torture. For years, American intelligence handed over prisoners to be interrogated by other security services less squeamish about squeezing information out of suspects. These so-called renditions picked up after 9/11. The very first high-ranking Al Qaeda operative captured—Abu Faraj al-Libbi-was first interrogated by the FBI. But when the FBI wanted to use its normal, go-slow methods, the prisoner was turned over to the CIA—who promptly turned him over to the Egyptians. (NEWSWEEK has reported that as al-Libbi was led to a plane routed for Egypt, a CIA operative whispered in his ear that he planned to "f--- your mother".) Under the no-doubt rough care of the Egyptians, al-Libbi talked of plots and agents. The information was used to make the case for war against Iraq. As recounted in "Hubris," a new book by NEWSWEEK's Michael Isikoff and David Corn, there was only one problem: al-Libbi later recanted, saying that he had lied to stop the torture.