Tortured Logic

The United States didn't need to waterboard anyone to get Osama bin Laden.

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. 

But to understand the question "Does torture work?" one must also define "work." If we include all the long-term negative consequences of torture, that answer becomes very clear. Those consequences include the fact that torture handed al Qaeda its No. 1 recruiting tool, a fact confirmed by the U.S. Department of Defense's interrogators in Iraq who questioned foreign fighters about why they had come there to fight. (I have first-hand knowledge of this information because I oversaw many of these interrogations and was briefed on the aggregate results.) In addition, future detainees will be unwilling to cooperate from the onset of an interrogation because they view all Americans as torturers. I heard this repeatedly in Iraq, where some detainees accused us of being the same as the guards at Abu Ghraib.

The more you think about, the less sense torture makes. U.S. allies will become unwilling to conduct joint operations if they are concerned about how detainees will be treated in U.S. custody (an argument made by the 9/11 Commission, among others). And future enemies will use our actions as justification to torture American captives. Torture also lowers our ethical standards to those of our enemies, an ugly shift that spreads like a virus throughout the Armed Services; witness the abuses of Abu Ghraib or the recent murders of civilians in Afghanistan.

Most importantly, we should be talking about the morality of torture, not its efficacy. When the U.S. infantry becomes bogged down in a tough battle, they don't turn to chemical weapons even though they are extremely effective. The reason they don't is because such weapons are illegal and immoral.

During the Revolutionary War, one top general made the point that torture was inconsistent with the fundamental beliefs of our founding fathers. "Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to insure any [prisoner] ... I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require," he wrote to his troops in the Northern Expeditionary Force in the first year of the war. The general in question was George Washington. There's a reason we pledge to believe in "liberty and justice for all" and not "liberty and security for all": It's because we place our values and principles higher than we place our security. When we cease to do so, we forfeit our right to be called Americans.

We cannot become our enemy in trying to defeat him. American interrogators safely guided us through World War II without the use of torture, fighting an enemy and interrogating prisoners every bit as brutal and dedicated as the members of al Qaeda. Our interrogators continue to prove time and time again that they are smart enough to outwit al Qaeda's best and brightest. No one should ever doubt that we have the mental and ethical fortitude to win this war -- and to do it without lowering ourselves to the level of our foes.

U.S. Navy/Getty Images


Circus of the Dancing Bears

The Hamas-Fatah unity agreement is a dangerous game -- and a gift to Israel's right wing.

The late Yitzhak Rabin used to say that the only problem with dancing with a bear is that once you start, you can never let go.

Watching the current Hamas-Fatah unity circus, I can't help but think of Rabin's comment. For the former Israeli prime minister, Yasir Arafat was the bear and the Oslo process was their choreographed dance. Rabin was no sentimentalist and he recognized Arafat's many weaknesses as a partner, but he continued to engage with him because he believed his counterpart had taken tough positions. Oslo was a good faith effort to achieve a goal.

The Hamas-Fatah unity gambit signed on Wednesday in Cairo isn't about good faith, consequential agreements, nor is it about peacemaking. The forging of Palestinian unity is a product of narrower calculations of two key parties -- Fatah and Hamas -- who are looking for a way to improve their respective positions during a very turbulent and uncertain period. This is an instance of two bears dancing with one another. Israel is right to be wary.

There's a certain logic to this diplomacy. But the problem of course is what the CIA calls blowback -- unintended consequences that return with unpredictable and usually negative results. The Fatah-Hamas accord is unlikely to produce either unity or improve prospects for peacemaking; indeed, along the way it could actually make serious negotiations and a settlement harder to achieve.

Hamas's calculations in seeking unity are perhaps the easier to read than those of Fatah. They're driven by a mix of motives: In Gaza, despite improved order and security, Hamas hasn't delivered economically. Gaza remains for a million and half Palestinians a variation of what it's been for some time now -- a small and confining prison where economic, political, and movement horizons are constrained by Israeli border closures and poor Palestinian governance.

As for Hamas, a nominally revolutionary organization, its message has grown old and tired. Against the backdrop of a largely young and secular Arab Spring, its Islamist trope isn't all that compelling any more. Nor was armed struggle ever a terribly resonant tactic if the goal was to improve the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. In fact, quite the opposite -- it had a Kevorkian death-wish quality to it, as revealed by Hamas's willingness to risk Israel's invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009. Hamas's leaders could have taken advantage of tensions with Israel along the border last month to go back to the battlefield. They wisely chose not to -- they know better now. You can't eat or pay for food with myths and symbols of struggle. Hamas's leaders are now worried, looking in the rearview mirror, and wondering how long it may take the Arab Spring to come to their portion of Palestine.

And then there's the Syrian angle. One of Hamas's two major patrons is now confronted with potentially regime-changing turmoil. Not only are there now reports that Hamas's external leadership is looking for a new home outside of Damascus, but their association with two regimes (Syria and Iran) that are gunning down their own citizens in the streets isn't an endearing image for the Palestinian public. Unity with Fatah and making nice with Egypt (which brokered the agreement) is a strategic move for the short term -- at least until it is clear where the dust is settling in Syria.

The calculations of Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah are somewhat harder to read, but still transparent. According to those close to him, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president was surprised by Hamas's decision to go for unity -- and he made sure the deal was done on his terms. (Abbas remains as president of the PA and head of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization.) But Abbas also had a stake in keeping the new Egyptian government and perhaps also the Saudis -- long fans of unity -- happy too.

More to the point, Abbas has concluded that no negotiations with Israel are likely now, and that U.S. President Barack Obama isn't going to do much to support him. So he's broken out on his own with a U.N. statehood gambit geared for September. But it's hard to go the international community and claim virtual statehood over the West Bank and Gaza when a rival Palestinian faction is controlling the latter half and using the territory to shoot rockets at Israelis.

Whether Abbas thinks Hamas would actually support such an initiative is dubious, but for now it buys him some domestic political space and temporary acquiescence from Hamas. The peace process and the U.N. statehood gambit weren't part of the intra-Palestinian negotiations. Abbas is still in charge of both portfolios and can do what he wants -- if only because neither side truly believes they'll amount to much.

All of this seems so logical -- and yet the traps are as compelling as the seeming advantages. First, it's not clear how any real power sharing can work. These political rivals, with their bloody history, are now somehow supposed to establish a technocratic government, prepare for national elections, and assume joint responsibility for security -- even though they don't share any real trust or ideology. This isn't just a matter of competition over seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas and Fatah have different visions for what and where Palestine should be.

Second, Abbas is also sacrificing his longstanding goal of winning the hearts and minds of the international community. Shackling himself to Hamas and its extremist, anti-Semitic statements undermines his international credibility. Abbas will try to resist this association -- Hamas's Prime Minister Ismail Haniya praised Osama bin Laden this week as a martyr, while Abbas took the opposite tack -- but that equivocation won't be sustainable when the two are actually governing together.

The same problem will occur with regard to armed struggle. Hamas will have to abandon its violent political platform or risk putting Abbas into the position of having to condemn his governing partner. The moment of truth is likely to come soon. It's almost inconceivable the Israel-Gaza border will be free of violence over the next six months, given the track record.

Third, there's the pesky problem of the international assistance. Even if, on the American side, the legal hurdles of assisting the PA (with Hamas supporting the government) can be finessed, it's unlikely the politics will be manageable. The Obama administration will be in a position -- like Abbas -- of having to explain away every Hamas statement and action. That's just not tenable.

Finally, there are the Israelis. This unity deal is not just a birthday present to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those to his right, but a gift that will keep on giving. How can anyone say to Israelis that they have to negotiate with -- much less make concessions to -- a Palestinian government, half of which won't recognize Israel or lay down its arms? Yes, it's fair to point out that the current peace process wasn't going anywhere anyway; but what Abbas is doing now is helping the Israeli delegitimize Palestinians as putative partners. Guilt by association is still a very effective conceit in Middle Eastern politics.

For now, Palestinian unity seems like the right play for the parties involved; but it has a sense about it of being too clever by half. We'll see as the anomalies and contradictions of this latest marriage of convenience play out. One thing is clear: Anyone who wants to even touch the peace process during this period better be prepared for a dangerous dance. It's going to require some very fancy footwork to avoid some serious stumbles with the new Palestinian dancing partner.