The politics of torture

President Obama says the government will not prosecute CIA interrogators who used harsh interrogation techniques amounting to torture but left the door open to prosecuting the top Bush administration legal officials who authorized them.

Obama should drop the talk of prosecutions. If bad legal advice were a crime, the prisons would be packed. And the hubris and disdain for the American tradition and international law of those officials is disheartening, but nothing has shown any other motive than a desire to protect their country and incarcerate those who attacked it.

But there is still an unresolved issue in this controversy. Nowhere, it seems, has it been determined whether torture — enhanced interrogation techniques, if you will — works. There is evidence that suggests it does not.

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have reported that by the time CIA higher ups ordered Abu Zubaydah brutalized, the field level interrogators, using traditional techniques, were satisfied he had told them all he knew.

Zubaydah got the full treatment, including water boarding, authorized in the torture memos. And he talked — and he talked, said the Post, sending "hundreds of CIA agents and investigators in pursuit of phantoms." One former intelligence official told the paper, "We spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms."

"In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaydah’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations," the Post concluded.

Zubaydah was not al-Qaeda’s chief of operations, as the Bush White House claimed. Instead, he was a sort of freelance fixer and facilitator for radical Islamic groups and he did know names, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, which he seems to have given up quite early in his captivity.

Former Vice President Cheney insists the brutal interrogation techniques did work and that they "stopped a great many terrorist attacks" on the order of 9/11. Cheney has made sweeping claims before that have not been borne out by events. He says these successes are recorded in still classified memos. By all means let’s see them. It would be reassuring to know that we didn’t shelve our reputation for justice and humanity for nothing.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is holding a closed-door review of the effectiveness of these techniques. Surely its members are entitled to see these memos even if the rest of us are not.