Did CIA 'enhanced interrogation techniques' work or not?
Forget whether or not the 'torture' tactics on Al Qaeda suspects were justifiable. Debate now rages as to whether they were effective.
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Controversy over the recently released torture memos is escalating as new information indicates that the Central Intelligence Agency may have used harsh interrogation techniques for seven years without officially evaluating their efficacy.
As early as 2003, several prominent intelligence officials expressed concern that the agency was using these methods without examining what results they yielded. That year John Helgerson, the inspector general of the CIA, issued a draft of a report calling for analysis by outside investigators to research the effectiveness of water boarding and other methods to evaluate how well they worked.
While then-CIA Director George Tenet stopped the use of waterboarding due to Mr. Helgerson's report and the CIA never used the method after 2003, a comprehensive analysis of the interrogation methods was never conducted.
Gardner Peckham and John Hamre, former security advisers, would later conduct a favorable evaluation of the methods, but the two have been criticized for having no background in interrogation, reports The Chicago Tribune.
"Nobody with expertise or experience in interrogation ever took a rigorous, systematic review of the various techniques – enhanced or otherwise – to see what resulted in the best information," a senior US intelligence official involved in overseeing the program told The Tribune. The official added that no one figured out "what you could do without the use of enhanced techniques."
The interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a senior Al Qaeda operative, has become one of the most scrutinized cases since the release of the memos. The Washington Post reports that in his first four weeks of detention he was beaten, repeatedly thrown against a plywood wall, given a forced enema, put in stress positions, deprived of sleep, and waterboarded 183 times.
While critics point out that traditional, less violent interrogation methods weren't tried before escalating to "enhanced" methods, US officials who support the harsh tactics say that Mr. Mohammed went on to provide information that helped stop potential Al Qaeda attacks.
"The detainee-supplied data permitted us to round them up as they were being trained, rather than just before they came ashore. … Not headline stuff, but the bread and butter of successful counterterrorism. And something that few people understand," a former intelligence official speaking anonymously told the Post.
Meanwhile, an article in the Los Angeles Times reports that there was a "stark contrast" between the amount of resources the CIA expended trying to determine whether the methods were effective and trying to show that the methods were legal. When it came to proving the legality of methods such as sleep deprivation, the agency sought multiple legal opinions, but showed less interest in reconsidering many of the policies made shortly after 9/11.
President Obama banned the CIA from using these methods three months ago and shut down the agency's secret prisons. He has since created a task force to study the effectiveness of different interrogation techniques. Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee has also begun their own review.
"To the best of our knowledge, such a review has not been done before," a Senate aide told The Los Angeles Times.
Although the Obama administration has said it will not prosecute CIA agents who used these methods, ABC News reports that in addition to many former CIA directors, several spies have begun speaking out.
Other former CIA officials have also spoken out against the Obama administration's decision to release the memos, saying it has put intelligence gathering operations at risk and demoralized the agency writ large.
"People in the intelligence community have the sense that they're really not being backed up, that this administration is not really giving them their cover that they feel they need," former intelligence officer Mark Lowenthal said.
As the debate continues to intensify about what actions should or shouldn't be taken against former CIA officials, The Times of London reports that the Obama administration may have unexpectedly opened a can of worms. While Obama has said he will not prosecute CIA operatives, under the US Constitution he has no power to determine who should and should not be put on trial.
Amid the list of challenges facing Obama – namely the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – The Times reports that "frustration at the White House was palpable" as the public and government officials continued to focus on the memos. "We really do want to move on and we don't want to look back. It can absorb a lot of time and attention and we have a lot to do," said a senior White House aide cited in the Times piece.
The release of the memos may affect Obama's popularity. The President currently has a 61.8 percent approval rating. [Editor's note: The original version misstated President Obama's approval rating in Congress.]
In a collection of experts' reviews of Obama's first 100 days in office, an Atlanta Journal Constitution article indicates that Obama may have mishandled the release of the memos, which could hurt him moving ahead.
Releasing the memos on torture will be a distraction to other areas; likely this information would have come out anyhow given the various lawsuits being pursued in this area, but the timing could have been delayed, perhaps a bipartisan commission utilized.