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Did Torture Work?

One of the important concepts that I have tried to impress upon my students over the course of over twenty years of teaching history at the college level is the idea of cause and effect.  History is a line of successive events, each one caused by preceding events, and the cause of those that follow.  In my classes, I stress the importance of scrupulously evaluating all the evidence to fully understand the line of causation leading to important historical events.

A lot of times, however, things are not so simple.  History does not always follow a simple linear path, and the standard rules of evidence are not always sufficient to explain events.

The case of the tracking down of Osama bin Laden illustrates how complex historical causation can really be.  For some people, it is clear that the U.S. used torture in an attempt to gain information on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, and that subsequently, Osama bin Laden was located and killed:  a simple case of cause and effect (post hoc, ergo propter hoc).  The conclusion that some people have reached is that torture is effective and justified.

A closer inspection, however, leads to a more complex conclusion.

Very early in 2002 and 2003, U.S. interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detention center learned that Osama bin Laden had a courier, who used the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, and who apparently was Osama bin Laden’s principle contact with the outside world.  When CIA agents subsequently captured and waterboarded Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the principal planner of the 9/11 attacks, Mohammad claimed al-Kuwaiti was an insignificant player in Al Qaeda.  Mohammad understood the courier’s importance, and hoped the CIA would not pursue further information about him.  Mohammad clearly would have offered this piece of misinformation with or without having been tortured.

When the third in command of Al Qaeda, Abu Faraj al-Libi, was captured and interrogated at a CIA “black site,” he similarly denied that al-Kuwaiti was an important figure, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.  These two denials had the unintended result of raising U.S. investigators’ interest in the mysterious courier. 

It is interesting to note that in the search for Osama bin Laden, the best evidence was often the lack of evidence.  The disappearance of the “unimportant” courier further raised his prominence in the eyes of investigators who surmised that he was in hiding with Osama bin Laden.  The absence of telephone and internet connection at bin Laden’s compound was further “proof.”   It was a classic case of many “dogs that didn’t bark,” as Sherlock Holmes would have said.

To draw a lesson about the use of torture in the post-9/11 world, we should probably look back earlier to the year 2001, when the U.S. captured Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the leader of a military training camp in Afghanistan.  After extensive torture, al-Libi confessed to being involved in numerous plots against the U.S., and testified that Iraq had trained members of al Qaeda in the use of chemical weapons.  This information was one of the reasons that George W. Bush used to justify the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.  In both cases in 2003 and in 2011, the lesson should be clear.  The information gained from torture can be dangerously misleading.