Effectiveness Of Harsh Questioning Is Unclear

Information provided by Khalid Sheik Mohammed has been cited by defenders of harsh interrogations.
Information provided by Khalid Sheik Mohammed has been cited by defenders of harsh interrogations. (Associated Press)
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By Joby Warrick and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 26, 2009

During his first days in detention, senior al-Qaeda operative Khalid Sheik Mohammed was stripped of his clothes, beaten, given a forced enema and shackled with his arms chained above his head, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. It was then, a Red Cross report says, that his American captors told him to prepare for "a hard time."

Over the next 25 days, beginning on March 6, 2003, Mohammed was put through a routine in which he was deprived of sleep, doused with cold water and had his head repeatedly slammed into a plywood wall, according to the report. The interrogation also included days of extensive waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning.

Sometime during those early weeks, Mohammed started talking, providing information that supporters of harsh interrogations would later cite in defending the practices. Former vice president Richard B. Cheney has justified such interrogations by saying that intelligence gained from Mohammed resulted in the takedown of al-Qaeda plots.

But whether harsh tactics were decisive in Mohammed's interrogation may never be conclusively known, in large part because the CIA appears not to have tried traditional tactics for much time, if at all. According to the agency's own accounting, Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times during his first four weeks in a CIA secret prison.

The effectiveness of the Bush administration's use of harsh interrogation techniques has emerged as a key point of dispute in a burgeoning political and public debate sparked by the release this month of Justice Department memorandums authorizing the CIA to use such methods.

Six years after Mohammed was captured, the scrutiny of the agency's approach seems unfair to some intelligence veterans, who argue that the interrogation program cannot be separated from the atmosphere of the day, when further attacks seemed imminent. At the time, there was little or no dissent, including from congressional Democrats who were briefed on the program, according to former intelligence officials.

Two former high-ranking officials with access to secret information said the interrogations yielded details of al-Qaeda's operations that resulted in the identification of previously unknown suspects, preventing future attacks.

"The detainee-supplied data permitted us to round them up as they were being trained, rather than just before they came ashore," said one former intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the cases are classified. "Not headline stuff, but the bread and butter of successful counterterrorism. And something that few people understand."

Other officials, including former high-ranking members of the Bush administration, argue that judging the program by whether it yielded information misses the point.

"The systematic, calculated infliction of this scale of prolonged torment is immoral, debasing the perpetrators and the captives," said Philip D. Zelikow, a political counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who reviewed secret Bush administration reports about the program in 2005. "Second, forfeiting our high ground, the practices also alienate needed allies in the common fight, even allies within our own government. Third, the gains are dubious when the alternatives are searchingly compared. And then, after all, there is still the law."

The Obama administration's top intelligence officer, Dennis C. Blair, has said the information obtained through the interrogation program was of "high value." But he also concluded that those gains weren't worth the cost.

"There is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means," Blair said in a statement. "The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

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