Avoid­ing the tor­ture trap

Faulty in­for­ma­tion ob­tained by tor­ture can have deadly con­se­quences.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By David Abramowitz David Abramowitz served as chief Demo­cratic coun­sel to the House Com­mit­tee on For­eign Af­fairs from 1999 to 2009 and is vice pres­i­dent for pol­icy and gov­ern­ment re­la­tions at Hu­man­ity United.

The Se­nate will soon con­sider an amend­ment by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Fe­in­stein (DCalif.) that would pre­vent tor­ture from be­ing used dur­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tion by any U.S. per­son­nel. This amend­ment stems in part from the re­lease in De­cem­ber of the Se­nate’s re­port on CIA tor­ture, which stirred an in­tense de­bate about the ef­fi­cacy of this method — par­tic­u­larly whether in­for­ma­tion sought from sus­pected ter­ror­ists could be gleaned us­ing other sources or tech­niques.

Less at­ten­tion has been paid to the risks posed by fab­ri­cated in­for­ma­tion ob­tained via tor­ture. The Se­nate’s re­port de­tailed two cases in which sus­pects tor­tured by the CIA sent agents down false trails.

And I have per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with this prob­lem. I re­main haunted by one in­stance when fab­ri­cated in­for­ma­tion helped lead to the deaths of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans.

Although the in­for­ma­tion came from a ren­di­tion case in which the United States trans­ferred a de­tainee to a for­eign coun­try (re­port­edly Egypt), the episode is a cau­tion­ary tale for why U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers should never al­low tor­ture nor rely on in­for­ma­tion ac­quired from it.

In 2002, I was the chief coun­sel for the Demo­cratic mem­bers of the House Com­mit­tee on For­eign Af­fairs. At the time, the com­mit­tee was con­sid­er­ing leg­is­la­tion au­tho­riz­ing the use of force against Iraq. The cen­tral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion raised by the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion re­volved around Iraq’s sus­pected and con­tin­ued pos­ses­sion of weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

In the fall of 2002, the com­mit­tee re­ceived a brief­ing on Iraq from the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity. I re­mem­ber think­ing that al­most all of the de­tails pre­sented to us by the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion were old and familiar. It was con­cern­ing but not alarm­ing. In fact, I felt a grow­ing sense that there was no new in­for­ma­tion to sug­gest that Iraq was a real threat, and cer­tainly not one that could jus­tify U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion.

Then the CIA briefer dropped a bomb­shell. With the great con­fi­dence that was this briefer’s hall­mark, he stated that Iraq had pro­vided chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons train­ing to Al Qaeda mem­bers.

I re­mem­ber the jar­ring im­pact of this rev­e­la­tion. I thought to my­self that if we knew that, per­haps there was even more in­for­ma­tion we didn’t know, in­clud­ing a pos­si­ble trans­fer of such weapons to Al Qaeda. I looked over to one of the se­nior staffers who shared my re­ac­tion: This was se­ri­ous.

I had at­tended hun­dreds of brief­ings in my 10 years of work­ing on Capitol Hill, but very few re­sulted in such an im­me­di­ate change in my think­ing or had such an emo­tional im­pact. Un­til that day, I had been du­bi­ous that the regime of Sad­dam Hus­sein would co­op­er­ate in any mean­ing­ful way with ji­hadists. Af­ter­ward, when law­mak­ers or staffers asked me about my own view, I would point to this in­tel­li­gence as an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion. And I be­lieve that law­mak­ers very much took the CIA briefer’s dra­matic rev­e­la­tion into ac­count when de­cid­ing whether to vote to use mil­i­tary force against Iraq.

We now know that this in­for­ma­tion was ob­tained from a sin­gle source. Ac­cord­ing to the New York Times, the in­di­vid­ual, Ibn alShaykh al-Libi, was cap­tured in Pak­istan, trans­ferred to a mil­i­tary base in Afghanistan and then ren­dered to au­thor­i­ties in Egypt, where he claims he was tor­tured. In­deed, even at the time, his state­ments on Iraq were dis­puted within the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, and the Se­nate re­port on pre­war in­tel- ligence in­di­cates that no cor­rob­o­rat­ing ev­i­dence was ever found. Once back in U.S. cus­tody, Libi re­canted his state­ments, and the CIA with­drew in­tel­li­gence based on th­ese re­marks.

I am not writ­ing to re-lit­i­gate the rea­sons we went to war with Iraq. And I rec­og­nize that this in­for­ma­tion was co­erced by a for­eign in­tel­li­gence ser­vice, not by the CIA.

But we need to re­mem­ber that nearly 4,500 U.S. ser­vice mem­bers lost their lives in a con­flict that was jus­ti­fied, in part, us­ing un­re­li­able in­for­ma­tion ob­tained via tor­ture. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Iraqis also lost their lives. And we are still deal­ing with the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of our in­ter­ven­tion there.

Peo­ple will con­tinue to de­bate the value of the in­for­ma­tion gained via tor­ture dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. What I know for sure, how­ever, is that in­for­ma­tion co­erced by us­ing tor­ture can lead to not only wasted re­sources and bad for­eign pol­icy de­ci­sions but also to tragic con­se­quences, in­clud­ing the loss of life among men and women serv­ing in uni­form. We can­not al­low that to hap­pen again.

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