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No winning torture debate

Did coercive interrogations lead to Osama bin Laden or anything else worthwhile? The answer is unknowable - and moot.

By David H. Rittgers

The successful raid on Osama bin Laden's safe house in Pakistan has reinvigorated debate over the role "enhanced interrogation techniques" have played in fighting al-Qaeda. No one is switching sides, which has turned the argument into a theological one between two sets of true believers. Each views the other as heretics.

The whole debate is pointless posturing. There is no way to prove or disprove that America's experiment with waterboarding and other coercive techniques was worthwhile. More important, enhanced interrogation isn't coming back.

The legal framework underlying waterboarding collapsed during President George W. Bush's tenure. The White House Office of Legal Counsel withdrew the memoranda that authorized waterboarding in 2004. The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, sponsored by the former prisoner of war and torture victim Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), barred "cruel, inhuman, and degrading" treatment of any detainee in military custody. Maybe waterboarding isn't torture, but it's certainly cruel, inhuman, and degrading.

That hasn't stopped the pro-waterboarding faction from pushing for a return to techniques that were ended by Bush, not President Obama. When former Vice President Dick Cheney says we should bring back waterboarding, he's feuding mainly with decisions made by his old boss.

The Supreme Court put the nail in waterboarding's coffin with its Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision in 2006, which held that the Geneva Conventions apply to the conflict with al-Qaeda. The application of the laws of war, which allow broad power to kill your enemy but not to mistreat him, brought down the legal house of cards that authorized coercive interrogation.

Bush issued an executive order the next year that banned most enhanced interrogation techniques. Obama followed suit with his own order applying stricter military standards to the intelligence community.

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No way to know

We'll probably never know the real value of coercive techniques. Surely some accurate information came from them. But some prisoners were interrogated almost entirely with these techniques, so there's no "control" for comparison - no way to know what we would have gotten without mistreating them.

We could rationally assess the costs and benefits of enhanced interrogation techniques with a complete declassification of all the interrogation reports, including the leads that coercive questioning produced. If many of the leads were dead-ends produced by detainees' desire to temporarily end their suffering, that would paint a dim picture of the techniques. But the risks of such a declassification obviously outweigh the benefits of settling the waterboarding debate.

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Waste of time

So we return to the same talking points again and again. For example, the fact that our service members are subjected to coercive techniques in Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, or SERE, school - the military's prisoner-of-war training - continues to pop up in defense of them. That argument glosses over a key difference: consent. I volunteered for and graduated from SERE school (I was not waterboarded, but I was subjected to plenty of unpleasantness), but I wouldn't suffer the same treatment willingly if someone grabbed me off the street. I'd fight it tooth and nail.

There's also evidence emerging that waterboarding isn't the "open sesame" some would have us believe. According to Marc Thiessen, a Bush speechwriter, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed counted the seconds he was being waterboarded on his fingers, determining that his interrogators were limited to 40 seconds of controlled drowning at a time. Thiessen's point was that the limits imposed on waterboarding, which were crucial to the administration's claim that it wasn't torture, also made it ineffective.

On top of that, Mohammed's primary contribution to the intelligence that led to his boss' Pakistani safe house appears to have been his denial that the courier was important. As a justification for enhanced interrogation techniques, that's not much to hang your hat on.

Such scraps of information fuel the debate, but arguing without complete information is a waste of time. The law banning waterboarding and other coercive techniques is, for now, settled. The military and intelligence communities have adjusted to a world without them, and so should we.