In his new book “Worthy Fights ,” Leon Panetta says the CIA “got important, even critical intelligence from individuals subjected to these enhanced interrogation techniques” — meaning waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other torture-like actions.
A wiley politician, the former CIA director also notes critics’ claims that “none of the harshly interrogated suspects coughed up information that led directly to the eventual elimination of, most notably, Osama bin Laden.”
In fact, Panetta — reflecting both his liberal background and appreciation of CIA fears of terrorist attacks — writes, “It is foolish to maintain that those interrogations did not achieve anything, but it is also callous to pretend that we did not sacrifice idealism in return for those leads.”
Why bring up Panetta’s take on this running dispute over harsh interrogation vs. torture when most stories have focused on his criticism of the Obama presidency?
One reason: The Senate Intelligence Committee may soon be releasing its 6,300-page report sharply criticizing the CIA’s interrogation and detention programs during the Bush administration. That’s guaranteed to restart the torture debate and raise more resentment among CIA officers fearing retribution for carrying out policies approved 11 years ago by leaders of both political parties.
Of course underlying those extreme steps was post-Sept. 11, 2001, fear — individuals worried about personal safety and everyone worried about al-Qaeda.
That kind of fear feels like it’s creeping up on us again, with Americans spooked by brutal beheadings by Islamic State jihadists. Worse, some American fighters who could return home to cause harm.
It’s a fear that requires rational answers. And that’s why Panetta’s analysis of those “enhanced interrogation techniques” is worth exploring.
He points out that “extremists on both sides of the interrogation debate avoid subtleties and prefer to shade the conversation in their favor by ignoring what they dislike to hear.” I would add that media elements — sometimes too ready to hype and exaggerate — can make matters worse.
The heart of his discussion is based on two positions.
The first, heard regularly a decade ago, was, as Panetta notes, that “harsh interrogation did cause some prisoners to yield to their captors and produced leads that helped our government understand al-Qaeda’s organization, methods and leadership.”
Did it work? “No one shouted out bin Laden’s address when strapped to a waterboard. Rather, it was the slow accumulation of leads, on building on the last, some extracted, unfortunately, after unsavory techniques were used,” Panetta writes.
It eventually worked with the three publicly recorded cases of waterboarding — Abu Zubaida, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. See the number of times they are named as sources of information in the 9/11 Commission report and the details they provided in their own Guatanamo detention assessments.
When, after his waterboarding in 2003, Khalid Sheik Mohammed apparently lied about the name of bin Laden’s courier, that itself provided a clue on the courier’s importance, Panetta said.
There’s the other side of the controversy.
Panetta points out that some CIA veterans underplay “important leads gained without resorting to harsh interrogation and pay too little heed to the damage done to American values by stooping to the practice.”
He makes his perspective clear.
“If a future president ever asked me whether we should go back to those [harsh] techniques, I would say no,” he writes.
But then he adds: “We should be clear-eyed about the fact that we gave up those practices at a cost — that there is information we might never have received had interrogators not been allowed to inflict pressure, anxiety, and even pain on subjects.”
Panetta provides one other lesson in this area.
After the Christmas Day 2009 attempted bombing on a Northwest Airlines Detroit-bound flight, the perpetrator, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was initially interrogated under national security exceptions on whether he was part of a larger plot or knew of any other operations. He was not read his constitutional rights under the Supreme Court’s Miranda rule. Abdulmutallab “talked and gave up some information, though not much,” according to Panetta.
Thereafter, when told he had the right to keep silent and have a lawyer, he stopped talking.
The Obama administration drew enormous criticism. Former vice president Dick Cheney, for example, said President Obama “seems to think if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up . . . we won’t be at war.” Some argued that people accused of terrorism should lose their rights and be held for questioning indefinitely.
Panetta was among those who argued that would be unconstitutional. He said Abdulmutallab began to talk to FBI interrogators after getting a lawyer and became the source of information about Ibrahim al-Asiri, the Yemen-based bomb maker, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born jihadi propagandist in Yemen who was later killed in a U.S. drone strike.
“Importantly,” Panetta writes, “investigators coaxed those admissions from Abdulmutallab without duress . . . proof that civil liberties and expert, aggressive investigations can and do coexist.”
The old saying is you can’t have it both ways. Panetta seems to insist on both ways — and that just may be the reality when it comes to terrorism.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.