Reports Don't Show Waterboarding Actually Worked

Internal CIA reports released by the Obama administration on Monday suggest that former vice president Dick Cheney was right about one thing: the CIA's interrogations of suspected terrorists provided U.S. authorities with precious inside information about Al Qaeda's leadership, structure, personnel, and operations. In fact, the newly released evidence—some of which Cheney had pushed to make public—suggests that detainees provided so much detailed information, CIA personnel conducting the interrogations were under pressure to squeeze prisoners even harder in hopes of getting more.

What the newly declassified material does not convincingly demonstrate, however, is that Cheney is right when he insists that it was the agency's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques"—including sleep deprivation, stress positions, violent physical contact, and waterboarding—that produced this useful information. In fact, though two of the newly released CIA reports offer examples of the kind of details that detainees surrendered, the reports do not say what information came as a result of harsh interrogation methods and what came from conventional questioning.

Another key document released Monday was a long-suppressed CIA inspector-general report on possible detainee abuse. It claims, with only vague details, that in the cases of three of the earliest "high value" Qaeda suspects subjected to CIA questioning, the use of "enhanced" methods got results. For example, the document says that the number of intelligence reports generated from the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, an early CIA captive, "increased" after the detainee was waterboarded 83 times. But the report doesn't say precisely what information he gave up before or after being harshly interrogated. So, based on this evidence, it is impossible to tell whether waterboarding and other brutal methods really were more effective than nonviolent techniques in extracting credible, useful information from Abu Zubaydah or other detainees.

Likewise, supporters of the harsh techniques have repeatedly pointed to the interrogation of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as an example of the effectiveness of harsh methods. The inspector general's report says that Mohammed "provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard," and much of it was outdated or wrong. Bush administration officials have claimed that after Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, he started to talk and gave interrogators a wealth of credible information that helped thwart other attacks. In July 2004 the agency's analytical branch issued a secret report titled "Khalid Shaykh Muhammad: Preeminent Source on Al-Qaeda." It names alleged Qaeda operatives, inside the U.S. and overseas, whom KSM identified to U.S. authorities, and enumerates specific plots that KSM told interrogators he was planning. But the paper, which was one of the documents released this week, offers no breakdown of which pieces of this information KSM provided before or after being subjected to waterboarding and other rough treatment.

The documents also don't address the question of whether, under the stress and pain of intense interrogation, detainees gave false information that they thought their questioners wanted to hear. The CIA documents offer no evidence that the agency made any effort to assess whether the "enhanced" interrogations may have, in fact, produced more bad information than good. Nor do the documents address the question, recently raised by the CIA's current director, Leon Panetta, of whether the same information could have been obtained through nonviolent interrogation tactics.

A former intelligence official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, noted that in selling the notion of "enhanced" interrogation techniques to congressional leaders, the Bush administration regularly argued that the main purpose of the techniques was to extract information that could be used to foil imminent terror plots. But the inspector general said his investigation failed to "uncover any evidence that these plots were imminent."

The CIA documents show how dependent on detainee interrogations the agency became for inside information on Al Qaeda. The July 2004 paper that anointed KSM a "pre-eminent source" states that "information from KSM has not only dramatically expanded our universe of knowledge on Al-Qaeda plots but has provided leads that assisted directly in the capture of other terrorists." The inspector general's report indicates that some agency officials became convinced that "enhanced" interrogations helped loosen recalcitrant tongues: "When a detainee did not respond to a question posed to him, the assumption at headquarters was that the detainee was holding back and knew more; consequently, headquarters recommended resumption of [enhanced techniques]." Agency officials, acting with the blessing of the White House and the Justice Department, may have believed that the brutal interrogations were legal. But it has taken years for the government to take a hard look at the evidence and ask: did it work?