Philip Zelikow warns the CIA's harsh methods were counterproductive

Historians in the News

The C.I.A. program did generate a huge volume of intelligence material. Many of these interrogation reports did contain valuable information. After all, the C.I.A. had exclusive custody of many of the most important Qaeda captives for years. Any of the flow from that river would be theirs. Agency officials thus wrote memos recounting plots prevented and people captured.

Yet the C.I.A.’s claims that its methods produced actionable information can also be misleading. Former Vice President Dick Cheney says he would like all of the agency’s defenses of its interrogation program declassified. But that would declassify only one side of the intelligence argument. Each of these accounts of disrupted plots and captured terrorists has a back story, full of lore and arguments about who developed which lead and whose sources proved out.

A professional evaluation of the C.I.A.’s claims would have to examine these cases to sift and weigh the contributions. The Senate Intelligence Committee is embarking on an important effort to sort out the claims and counterclaims.

What the committee may well find, after all the sifting, is that the reports were a critical part of the intelligence flow, but rarely — if ever — affected a “ticking bomb” situation. Yet the main rationale for using extreme methods is to save time. To the extent that the methods are more than just a way of debasing an enemy, their added value is in breaking people quickly, with the downsides including unreliability.

That is one reason the methods of torment do not stack up well against proved alternatives that rely on patience and skill. In setting up this program, officials do not seem to have thoughtfully considered those alternatives. The Intelligence Science Board, a federal advisory group, published a report in 2006 illustrating how those in charge of interrogations could have more thoroughly looked at options. The Israelis and British also have a huge amount of painfully acquired experience in using those alternatives, including in some cases where they really did have ticking bombs, either Palestinian or Irish. Neither of those countries can lawfully adopt the C.I.A. program revealed in the Justice Department memos; the Israeli Supreme Court has spoken to these issues in exceptionally eloquent opinions.

Related Links

  • Historian Philip Zelikow claims Bush White House destroyed his anti-torture memo
  • Read entire article at Op ed in the NYT by Philip Zelikow, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, was the counselor of the State Department from 2005 to 2006 and the executive director of the 9/11 commission.

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