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The CIA Weighs In: Torture Did Not Help Find Bin Laden

There has been much debate over whether the torture of detainees in U.S. custody helped American intelligence find the terror leader.
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May 18, 2011

Since the killing of Osama bin Laden, there has been much debate over whether the torture of detainees in U.S. custody helped American intelligence find the terror leader. It would be hard to find a better authority on where the truth lies than CIA Director Leon Panetta. Now the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent has released part of a letter from Panetta to torture opponent Sen. John McCain — and the contents leave little doubt that torture played no role in locating the courier who eventually led to bin Laden. Panetta wrote:

In the end, no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.

The most high-profile back-and-forth over the issue has been between Sen. McCain and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who has been doing some backpedalling on his initial claim that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed put U.S. intelligence on the courier’s trail after being waterboarded. Sen. McCain wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week about how torture does not work because it only gets victims to say something — not necessarily the truth.

That point is backed up by former military interrogators such as Matthew Alexander, who helped track down al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Alexander told the Huffington Post last week:

I think that without a doubt, torture and enhanced interrogation techniques slowed down the hunt for bin Laden… they gave us the bare minimum amount of information they could get away with to get the pain to stop, or to mislead us.

Torture supporters like former senator and current presidential candidate Rick Santorum (who made some ludicrous statements Tuesday about Sen. McCain’s torture argument) have argued that lies from detainees helped in the bin Laden hunt because it showed that they were protecting important information. But of course, the same holds true whether the prisoners were tortured or not.

It’s not surprising that the proponents of torture would try to use the killing of bin Laden to support these illegal methods — unfortunately for them, their argument that torture works is false. But even if some shred of evidence were gained through torture, it would prove nothing, because the same or better information could have been obtained humanely. What we can do now is hold those responsible for this country’s use of torture accountable.

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