roponents of torture or “enhanced interrogation” often argue that such techniques can yield critical information of the kind that could have prevented the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Critics, on the other hand, argue that information derived from torture is unreliable, and that it is impossible to know with any certainty whether the person being tortured actually possesses any useful information in the first place. In my view, this debate can be conclusively settled by examining the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi.
After 9/11, in an effort to gather information about Iraq’s possible links with terrorism, the U.S. questioned al-Qaeda captives using “enhanced interrogation techniques” and transferred captives to foreign governments with known histories of torture. Al-Libi, an al-Qaeda operative, was interrogated by both the United States and Egypt, andas was publicly reportedtortured by Egyptian authorities. During these sessions, he claimed that Iraq had trained members of al-Qaeda to use chemical and biological weapons.
Al-Libi’s testimony was used by the Bush administration to substantiate its allegations that Iraq was prepared to provide al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction. Coupled with the claim that Iraq was on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, the administration stated that when Iraq possessed nuclear capabilities, al-Qaeda would as well. Of all of the pieces of intelligence assembled in the lead-up to war, this one was the most chilling: the prospect of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, under Osama bin Laden’s control. And so we went to war to prevent this nightmare from occurring. What better proof that torture works?
But in January 2004, al-Libi recanted his confession. He said that he had invented the information because he was afraid of being further abused by his interrogators. The CIA withdrew the intelligence. It has since emerged that some U.S. intelligence agencies doubted al-Libi’s claims from the very beginning.
The administration’s best case for the value of enhanced interrogation techniques, then, turned out to have been fundamentally flawed. If the consequences of torture are as catastrophic as embarking upon the Iraq War on the basis of fabricated information, it emasculates the claims by torture’s defenders that the practice saves lives.