Did torture work? This is the question everyone is asking after Osama bin Laden's death and the revelation that his fate was sealed by the identification of a courier whose nom de guerre emerged from the interrogation of top al Qaeda operatives who were known to have been subjected to waterboarding and similar techniques. "Did brutal interrogations produce the intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?" a May 3 New York Times story asked.
This is hardly the first time we've had this debate. In 2006, my team of interrogators in Iraq located local al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by identifying and following one of his spiritual advisors, Abu Abd al-Rahman. Eric Maddox, a U.S. Army interrogator, found Saddam Hussein by similar means, identifying his former bodyguards. It's these little pieces of information that form the mosaic that gradually leads to a breakthrough. But how best to get those little pieces?
Current and former U.S. officials and their supporters have been quick to argue that "enhanced interrogation techniques" and waterboarding led to the identification of the courier's alias, which started U.S. intelligence down the road to bin Laden. The day after the al Qaeda leader's death was announced, U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the House Homeland Security Committee chair, told Fox News's Bill O'Reilly that "For those who say that waterboarding doesn't work, who say it should be stopped and never used again, we got vital information [from waterboarding] that directly led us to bin Laden." John Yoo, the former U.S. Justice Department official who drafted the George W. Bush administration's legal rationales for officially sanctioned torture, repeated the claim and praised "Bush's interrogation and warrantless surveillance programs that produced this week's actionable intelligence." The torture bandwagon has started to kick into high gear. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
In fact, the information about the existence of a courier working for bin Laden was provided by several detainees, not just waterboarded al Qaeda operatives Kalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi -- we had one detainee in Iraq who provided information about a courier in 2006. The key pieces of information, however, were the courier's real name and location. His family name was first uncovered by CIA assets in Pakistan through other sources. The NSA subsequently figured out his full real name and location from an intercepted phone call. Waterboarding had nothing to do with it.
Moreover, common sense dictates that all high-ranking leaders have couriers -- and their nicknames do little to lead us to them. This is because many members of al Qaeda change names or take on a nom de guerre after joining for both operational security and cultural reasons. The names are often historically relevant figures in the history of Islam, like the Prophet Mohamed's first follower, Abu Bakr. Think of it as the equivalent of a boxer taking on a nickname like "The Bruiser."
Understanding these cultural nuances is just one critical skill interrogators must have to be effective. The other is an understanding of the social science behind interrogations, which tells us that torture has an extremely negative effect on memory. An interrogator needs timely and accurate intelligence information, not just made-up babble.
What torture has proven is exactly what experienced interrogators have said all along: First, when tortured, detainees will give only the minimum amount of information necessary to stop the pain. No interrogator should ever be hoping to extract the least amount of information. Second, under coercion, detainees give misleading information that wastes time and resources -- a false nickname, for example. Finally, it's impossible to know what information the detainee would have disclosed under non-coercive interrogations.