An old joke: "Why do elephants paint their toenails red?" I don't know. "So they can hide in the tomato patch." There are no elephants in the tomato patch. "See? It works."
That's the sort of logic deployed by defenders of the Bush administration's torture program. After being waterboarded, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed admitted knowing someone later found to be Osama bin Laden's courier. The CIA eventually located the man and followed him to the house where bin Laden was killed. Voila! The information from Mohammed vindicates these methods.
But it turns out that Mohammed also lied about the courier, saying he was a retired nobody. From this, CIA officials now claim, they knew the guy had to be a big deal. It was a crucial clue.
That's right: When tortured detainees provide truthful information, they prove torture works, and when they lie, they prove it works. If Mohammed had broken into a chorus of "Y.M.C.A.," that would have proved the same.
This bizarre reasoning is one of the many oddities about the defense of torture. Another is that the advocates never, ever refer to it as torture.
Mark Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote a column for The Washington Post defending what he called "enhanced interrogation techniques." Former Justice Department official John Yoo referred to them as "tough interrogations."
Let's be more specific. Mohammed underwent simulated drowning 183 times. Methods used on him and others, reports The New York Times, include "slamming prisoners into walls, shackling them in stress positions and keeping them awake as long as 180 hours." The CIA admitted making detainees stand for up to 40 hours and dousing naked captives with cold water in chilled cells.
If treatment like this were inflicted on captured American soldiers, no American would dispute that it was torture. But when we resort to it, the likes of Thiessen and Yoo can't bring themselves to use the honest term. Calling it "enhanced interrogation" is like calling the Alabama tornadoes "enhanced weather."
The evidence that vicious methods work is modest. Matthew Alexander, who wrote about his experience as a military interrogator in Iraq in his book "Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious al Qaeda Terrorist," says that far from being helpful, brutality usually makes it harder to get information from a prisoner.
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