Why the new torture debate still does not make sense

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World War II Marine Corps interrogator Maj. Sherwood F. Moran.  Moran’s counterpart at the German Luftwaffe, Hans Sharff.

These are two names you probably won’t hear from the Liz Cheneys of the world who have seized on the death of Osama bin Laden as vindication of Bush-era torture. The argument goes that torture produced scrap of intelligence that ultimately led to Osama bin Laden, so the means are justified.

Moran-trained interrogators broke the entire Japanese order of battle within two days of landing on Saipan by interviewing war-hardened Japanese POWs. (Like al-Qaida, the Japanese also resorted to suicide bombing.) Sharff, who has been called the “Master Interrogator,” was known for his miraculous success in getting downed American pilots to turn over vital information to the Germans during World War II.

Both men practiced the bedrock principles of modern effective interrogation techniques, based mostly on knowing the language and customs of the enemy. They knew that scraps of information delivered willfully from a detainee are highly likely to be accurate and can be woven into a broader intelligence dossier. They also knew that torture produces a flood of true and false information that is difficult or impossible to sort out.

After 9-11, the Bush White House shunned the military interrogators trained at Fort Huachuca in Arizona and from the FBI because those professionals were unwilling to engage in torture. Those interrogators did not refuse to torture simply because it is illegal, but also because it is relatively ineffective compared to Moran-like techniques used by the professionals.

So the Bush White House turned to the CIA. But immediately after 9-11, the CIA was short on linguists and had zero trained interrogators. But the agency did have contractors — who had no interrogation training — but were willing to engage in torture. Now that torture may have produced some intelligence, the torture cheerleaders argue it worked.

Call any interrogator. They will tell you that torture does “work” – people will say anything to get the pain to stop. But it is considered the tool of the pseudo-tough and the ignorant.