CAP en Español
Small CAP Banner

They Got What They Wanted

    PRINT:
  • print icon
  • SHARE:
  • Facebook icon
  • Twitter icon
  • Share on Google+
  • Email icon

"Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, concocted as a means of escaping from distress… KUBARK (a codeword for the CIA) is especially vulnerable to such tactics because the interrogation is conducted for the sake of information." – CIA Vietnam-era interrogation manual

This weekend brought reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post that provide damning evidence of the accuracy of the CIA's assessment that torture victims will say anything to stop the pain – and that the Bush administration's foray into torture produced false information that was used to make a case for war.

Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi is an al Qaeda-associated Libyan arrested in Pakistan in late 2001. He was quickly transferred to a secret interrogation center run by the CIA. His capture touched off the debate within the Bush administration that led to the CIA being granted the authority to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" – torture.

During questioning using these new "enhanced" methods, al-Libi told his interrogators that Iraq had provided chemical and biological weapons training to al Qaeda. This information became the centerpiece of the administration's claim that Saddam and bin Laden had formed a collaborative relationship in the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

In an October 7, 2002 speech in Cincinnati that laid out the rationale for invading Iraq, President Bush said, "We have learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gasses." His source: al-Libi.

Earlier that week, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq had concluded that Iraq was not likely to provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists unless attacked, but the President asserted its potential anyway, "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists." His basis for contradicting the NIE: al-Libi.

The "any given day" line became a familiar refrain of senior administration officials in the run-up to war. Information from al-Libi was also a principal aspect of Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations on February 5, 2003.

The Bush administration was able to garner support for its Iraq war based largely on the potential for Saddam to provide terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. Al-Libi's story seemed to be proof of that possibility.

There was only one problem with the administration's case; as often occurs, al-Libi was lying to his torturers. The Times and the Post reported that when presented with evidence that contradicted his earlier statements, he recanted his claim of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.

Iraq was invaded. Saddam was toppled. Yet no weapons of mass destruction have been found. And both the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have concluded that although there may have been contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda, there was no collaborative relationship.

A mountain of evidence on the effectiveness of torture indicates why this supposed evidence of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda proved inaccurate – torture victims tell interrogators what they want to hear.

This fact has been widely known for decades. The Japanese militarists during World War II were not noted for their respect for human rights, yet they still cautioned in their interrogation manual, "Care must be exercised when making use of rebukes, invectives or torture as it will result in his telling falsehoods and making a fool of you. [Torture] is only to be used when everything else has failed as it is the most clumsy [method]."

Reed College Professor Darius Rejali, author of the forthcoming book Torture and Democracy, recently explained in an article for Salon.com why torture does not elicit reliable information:

"In intelligence work, one must gather information about things that one does not know… The notion that one will stop when one hears the right information presupposes that one has gathered circumstantial information that allows one to know the truth when one hears it."

In the case of al-Libi, it is not hard to understand why his interrogators stopped when he told them of the Iraq-al Qaeda link – that is clearly what they were hoping to find.

To say, as Powell has reportedly done, that administration officials should not be faulted for using this information because they acted in "good faith" is preposterous. Systematically engaging in crimes against humanity brings new meaning to the phrase "acting in good faith."

Perhaps the administration does view the interrogation of al-Libi as successful. After all, they got what they wanted – they tortured an al Qaeda suspect into giving them information that they used to build support for their war of choice in Iraq.

Ken Gude is an analyst at the Center for American Progress.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Anne Shoup (foreign policy and national security, energy, LGBT issues, health care, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7146 or ashoup@americanprogress.org

Print: Crystal Patterson (immigration)
202.478.6350 or cpatterson@americanprogress.org

Print: Madeline Meth (women's issues, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.741.6277 or mmeth@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Lindsay Hamilton
202.483.2675 or lhamilton@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org