New York Times Attempts to Stifle Torture Debate It Helped Spark in the Wake of Osama bin Laden’s Death


On Thursday, the New York Times, having played a major part in creating a buzz in the United States about the role that torture and the existence of Guantánamo played in locating Osama bin Laden, with an article on Tuesday entitled, “Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture,” resolutely stepped back from the result of suggesting that there were even grounds for a “debate” — given that the use of torture is illegal (as well as morally corrosive and unreliable) — by publishing an excellent editorial decisively condemning the “immoral and illegal behavior” of torture apologists after 9/11, including Berkeley law professor John Yoo, who, as a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 2002, “twisted the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions into an unrecognizable mess to excuse torture” in what will forever be known as the “torture memos.”

The Times also recognized torture as “immoral and illegal and counterproductive,” and stated that, although torture may produce some useful information — amongst all the lies that, for example, plague the military assessments of Guantánamo prisoners that were recently released by WikiLeaks — “most experienced interrogators think that the same information, or better, can be obtained through legal and humane means.”

I would prefer that the last line had read “experienced interrogators have absolutely no doubt that the same information, or better, can be obtained through legal and humane means,” and I would also have preferred the Times‘ editors not to have claimed that the use of torture has led to America’s “inability to hold credible trials for very bad men” — presumably a reference to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators in the preparation and execution of the 9/11 attacks — when the truth is that Attorney General Eric Holder was convinced that a federal court trial could proceed, but was prevented from doing so for nakedly political reasons.

Neverthless, the editorial as a whole expresses the opinion that should have been taken by the Times from the beginning, instead of seeking scandal — and sales — through the article mentioned above — “Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture” — which, for the most, did not even live up to its shocking promise.

Although it featured the Times‘ usual aversion to mentioning the word “torture,” with its discussion of “brutal interrogations” and “‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ like waterboarding,” the article also featured a sober and powerful asessment by Glenn L. Carle, a retired CIA officer who “oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee in 2002” and who told the Times that “coercive techniques ‘didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information,'” adding that, “while some of his colleagues defended the measures,” as the Times put it, “everyone was deeply concerned and most felt it was un-American and did not work.”

Also of great importance was the opinion of Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, who told the Times, “The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003.” He added, “It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

The key passage of which the Times should be ashamed, however, and which its editorial on Thursday only addressed belatedly, after the damage had been done, was the following:

The discussion of what led to Bin Laden’s demise has revived a national debate about torture that raged during the Bush years. The former president and many conservatives argued for years that force was necessary to persuade Qaeda operatives to talk. Human rights advocates, and Mr. Obama as he campaigned for office, said the tactics were torture, betraying American principles for little or nothing of value.

Simply put, there is absolutely no excuse for describing an illegal program that was conceived in secret by a small number of Bush administration insiders as something that sparked “a national debate,” just as there is no excuse for stating that human rights advocates, and Barack Obama on the campaign trail, were somehow expressing an optional position when they “said the tactics were torture.” The tactics were torture, plain and simple, and torture is as illegal when discussed in news reports as it is on the editorial pages — and all the more so when the Times prides itself on the fabled “objectivity” of its reporting.

Here, then, is a cross-post of the editorial that should have been the Times‘ immediate response to the lies peddled by John Yoo, Rep. Peter King, Liz Cheney, Bill Kristol and others, following the news of Osama bin Laden’s death:

The Torture Apologists: Efforts to justify torture after the Bin Laden killing are cynical and destructive
New York Times editorial, May 5, 2011

The killing of Osama bin Laden provoked a host of reactions from Americans: celebration, triumph, relief, closure and renewed grief. One reaction, however, was both cynical and disturbing: crowing by the apologists and practitioners of torture that Bin Laden’s death vindicated their immoral and illegal behavior after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Jose Rodriguez Jr. was the leader of counterterrorism for the C.I.A. from 2002-2005 when Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other Al Qaeda leaders were captured. He told Time magazine that the recent events show that President Obama should not have banned so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. (Mr. Rodriguez, you may remember, ordered the destruction of interrogation videos.)

John Yoo, the former Bush Justice Department lawyer who twisted the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions into an unrecognizable mess to excuse torture, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the killing of Bin Laden proved that waterboarding and other abuses were proper. Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, said at first that no coerced evidence played a role in tracking down Bin Laden, but by Tuesday he was reciting the talking points about the virtues of prisoner abuse.

There is no final answer to whether any of the prisoners tortured in President George W. Bush’s illegal camps gave up information that eventually proved useful in finding Bin Laden. A detailed account in the Times on Wednesday by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage concluded that torture “played a small role at most” in the years and years of painstaking intelligence and detective work that led a Navy Seals team to Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.

That squares with the frequent testimony over the past decade from many other interrogators and officials. They have said repeatedly, and said again this week, that the best information came from prisoners who were not tortured. The Times article said Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, fed false information to his captors during torture.

Even if it were true that some tidbit was blurted out by a prisoner while being tormented by C.I.A. interrogators, that does not remotely justify Mr. Bush’s decision to violate the law and any acceptable moral standard.

This was not the “ticking time bomb” scenario that Bush-era officials often invoked to rationalize abusive interrogations. If, as Representative Peter King, the Long Island Republican, said, information from abused prisoners “directly led” to the redoubt, why didn’t the Bush administration follow that trail years ago?

There are many arguments against torture. It is immoral and illegal and counterproductive. The Bush administration’s abuses — and ends justify the means arguments — did huge damage to this country’s standing and gave its enemies succor and comfort. If that isn’t enough, there is also the pragmatic argument that most experienced interrogators think that the same information, or better, can be obtained through legal and humane means.

No matter what Mr. Yoo and friends may claim, the real lesson of the Bin Laden operation is that it demonstrated what can be done with focused intelligence work and persistence.

The battered intelligence community should now be basking in the glory of a successful operation. It should not be dragged back into the muck and murk by political figures whose sole agenda seems to be to rationalize actions that cost this country dearly — in our inability to hold credible trials for very bad men and in the continued damage to our reputation.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

28 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, James Michael Russell wrote:


  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Rula Borelli wrote:


  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Rob Weaver wrote:

    You are buying into this obvious lie about killing a man who has been dead 10 years? You are part of the problem.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Sean Michael Hartnett wrote:

    what amazes is less the endless circus but more that people are still enthralled by this tired production of a worn script in a soon to be condemned theater…

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    There is a Canadian held by the Taliban in Afghanistan. I have to wonder if the torture apologists would support his abuse if the Taliban thought he were a spy withholding information?
    Taliban releases video of captured Toronto man

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Rob Weaver wrote:

    Well the constant torture of Muslims to elicit false confessions in violation of international and domestic law would seem to encourage like treatment don’t you think? But to date there is no evidence to suggest that they have reciprocated by stooping to this most horrible of war crimes being perpetrated by the USA coalition aggressive war criminals.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:


  8. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Your wish for a stronger phrase than the word ‘think’ is justified. Use of that word can cause some readers to wonder whether such thinkers are wrong. This can help fuel the ‘debate.’

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George, and thanks to everyone else who has dugg or shared or tweeted this story. I’ll try and move on now from the specific bin Laden/torture question, but I’m making no promises, as it’s extremely important that those who want to use the killing as the start of some violent new agenda rather than an end to the brutal misery of the last decade be resisted every time they open their poisonous mouths, or spew their racist bile in print or online.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Asif Kashmiri wrote:

    In the era of injustice the voices of sanity still make their way to us. Thanks Andy Worthington.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Tom Krohmer wrote:

    The agent that created America’s “extraordinary rendition” and torture program was interviewed and came out against it in “Outsourcing Torture,” an article in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer in 2005:

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, re-posted, thanks. At least we understand that sales are more important to the New York Times than responsible, well informed debate. We should look back through the statements of John Yoo, Bill Kristol, Liz Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld et al and see whether they ever denied that what they advocated was torture. They are on the record now and they brazenly declare that it was torture.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Jacquelyne Taylor wrote:

    As far as I am concerned…There is no value in ‘torture’! The use of torture devalues those who authorise it, those who do it, those who seek to justify it and indeed those who pretend it doesn’t happen at all..Obama’s administration as with previous ones & just about every elected government and dictatorship round the world unfortunately, are guilty of at least one of those charges….Our mainstream media in almost every place attempt to sell us conscience salves for gaping sores that seep with an inherent sadism from those we democratically elect though…..It is increasingly apparent thanks to you and Wikileaks etc that we (collectively) in the so called civilised West have never actually evolved from the earliest examples of using it as a security measure pretext, to promote what is fundamentally barbarism by any other name… Now it seems we have again merely refined our excuses for allowing the U.S & others to do it while condemning selective dictators who do it elswhere..Rumsfeld Bush and Obama & co should be in the same dock as Mubarak, Al Khalifha, Gaddafhi & Assad..

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Jacquelyne Taylor wrote:

    Thanks for your inspiring work by the way I always read even when cannot always reply.. I hope you are recuperating well from recent health issues Andy..

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thomas T. Panto wrote:

    ‎10 year old talk has little to do with today.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Tom Krohmer wrote:

    Andy, just saw a newscast on CBS and they actually gave the torture issue a fair debate with intel guys from the trenches that had used torture saying “it never worked”. rumsfeld and cheney trrying to defend torture. CBS actually gave the debate a fair shake. And 60 Minutes is going to have a special about some of this tonight. You might want to check it out. I am hoping that 60 Minutes will “do the right thing”

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Tom Krohmer wrote:

    Regret posting it, now. Just finished watching most of it. It was more about killing Osama bin Laden and justifying it. They are posting comments at their story page, where there are links to the video and transcript:
    I did not catch anything much about torture, except an earlier piece that said Obama stopped the torture:
    I’ll need to re-watch it. Anyway, I find it hard to believe that Obama stopped the torturing when even Congressman Kucinich can not get to see Manning. Besides the lies of bush and cheney, Obama stopped an investigation by Spain and had also put “The Cover Up Guru” in charge of the bp oil disaster in the Gulf.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Gabriele Müller wrote:


  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Karen Todd wrote:

    yep- you had to know that they were going to go there though- what a load!….anyone stupid enough to stoop to using torture isn’t going to miss an opportunity to try and validate those sick actions – amazing sad and sorry world we live in- there is never an excuse for torture- violence or war- but that has never stopped America-

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, my friends — and, in particular, Willy, Jacquelyne, Tom and Karen. Thanks also to those who keep sharing it. Very important with Cheney once more doing the rounds.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Karen Todd wrote:

    Love your work Andy- too bad there is the need for you to do it- but am glad that you are a voice for truth and reason

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Jacquelyne Taylor wrote:

    Cheney’s latest:
    Why is this horrendous man still tolerated and free? Just because you choose to put your own cannon fodder seals though techniques like this, does not make it legal to do it to anyone from anywhere in this world whatever the hell you choose to call it.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Karen, for the supportive words, and Jacquelyne, thanks for highlighting the absurd situation whereby Dick Cheney is positively feted whenever there is an opportunity for him to spread his poisonous and self-serving views about how torture worked — when what it actually achieved was false confessions, including one in particular, made by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, while being tortured in Egypt, where he had been sent by the CIA, which was used to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Edwards wrote:

    Thx. Shared

  25. This Whole Debate Is Torture says...

    […] “New York Times Attempts to Stifle Torture Debate It Helped Spark in the Wake of Osama bin Lad… ( […]

  26. Reggie Greene / The Logistician says...

    Although I neither have first-hand experience nor research to support this notion, I strongly suspect that since time immemorial, certain forces of EVERY state have used tactics which clearly constituted torture (no matter how defined) and shocked the conscience, although many (for various reasons) have chosen not to do so openly.

    However, that we live in a society capable of public introspection may be just good enough, for now, especially with other issues on our plate.
    It’s what helps form the “collective conscience” that all societies need, but do not have.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Reggie. Good to hear from you.

  28. This Is Hell! says...

    […] Andy Worthington, “New York Times Attempts to Stifle Torture Debate It Helped Spark in the Wake of Osama bin Laden’s …” […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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