THE BLOG
04/20/2009 03:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Torture Debate -- It's About Time

Several years too late, we've been dragged kicking and screaming into what a democratic republic should be engaged in: a public debate on whether such a nation is ever well-advised to engage in the torture of captives. Of course, the motives adduced are always the best--we've been attacked, the government has to protect the country--but it's not the proclaimed motives that separate the most admirable countries in the world from the most despised, but the behavior in pursuit of those motives.

Buried in the rhetoric pro and con are a couple of facts which deserve wider exposure. First, as the New York Times reported, waterboarding was performed on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in one month, and 83 times on Abu Zubaydah. Put aside the question about whether the CIA is hung up on the number 83. This technique, which the United States has prosecuted (as a war crime) both Japanese and American soldiers for using, is reputed to be so wickedly effective that only 35 seconds of it had Abu Zubaydah willing to tell interrogators everything he knew. We'll get to what he knew in a moment. But, if it's so instantly effective, why in the world would it need to be administered almost two-hundred times within a one-month period? It's either not as effective as advertised, or the practitioners had another reason for persisting.

Next under-noticed fact: the aforementioned Abu Zubaydah was not the Al Qaeda mastermind advertised by the administration. Intelligence officials who talked to both the Washington Post and the New York Times now say the man was at best a travel agent for AQ, with little operational knowledge to share. The CIA itself walked back its assessment of Abu Zubaydah's importance, after the waterboarding was long over (and the tapes of the sessions destroyed). Arguments about the wisdom of the techniques need to be informed by the fact that the United States radically overstated the importance of a man it subjected to what is widely believed to be torture almost 100 times.

If the debate on torture doesn't acknowledge the facts that interrogators vastly exceeded the limits--on total time of waterboarding to be allowed and, absurdly, the amount of water to be used--mandated by the fastidiously detailed memos issued by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, and that one of the targets of this behavior was not who the administration repeatedly claimed he was, then this debate, as overdue as it is, will have been wasted.