The legal and moral arguments against torture are compelling enough, but what should have ended the debate long ago is a practical one: It doesn’t work.
Prisoners subjected to torture will say whatever their interrogators want them to say, whether true or not. If the interrogators want the prisoner to confess to being a terrorist mastermind, he’ll confess — even if he’s really a cab driver who simply drinks coffee sometimes with radicals. If they demand details of terrorist plots, he’ll make some up.
So it is with Abu Zubaida. Within a few weeks of his capture in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush described him as “Al-Qaida’s chief of operations.” He was described as a close associate of Osama bin Laden and one of the chief planners of the 9/11 attacks.
Guided by instructions from the White House, CIA interrogators gave Zubaida the works — waterboarding, stress positions, isolation and repeatedly slamming his head against a wall — he revealed a long list of terrorist plots. That sent federal agents scurrying around the world in pursuit of Zubaida’s leads — which turned out to be bunch of wild goose chases.
According to former senior government officials involved in the interrogations, The Washington Post reports, “Nearly all the leads attained during the harsh interrogations evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of Al-Qaida members and associates — was obtained before the waterboarding was introduced.”