WHY DO THEY...

WHY DO THEY TORTURE? Ron Suskind, writing in last week's Time, details the path of the al-Qaeda 14, the captured terrorists whom Bush based his appeal for torture on, and provides a good look into the politics of torture within the Bush administration. As he tells it, there were two operating paradigms in the immediate aftermath of Afghanistan. The first belonged to the FBI, which had found "al-Qaeda members assumed their jailers would dismember them. When instead the interrogators presented a tough but very human face, the detainees were confused. Small amenities -- an FBI agent's knowledge of the Koran, unlimited videos and even an operation for an al-Qaeda member's child -- were the kinds of things that eventually turned them." On Bush's other shoulder, wearing horns and a cape, was the CIA, "bursting with urgency and a taste for "whatever's necessary" improvisation." That's the direction Bush took: A directive was issued ordering that top-level detainees would go to the CIA. According to Suskind, it was a mistake:

What is widely known inside the Administration is that once we caught our first decent-size fish--Abu Zubaydah, in March 2002--we used him as an experiment in righteous brutality that in the end produced very little. His interrogation, according to those overseeing it, yielded little from threats and torture. He named countless targets inside the U.S. to stop the pain, all of them immaterial. Indeed, think back to the sudden slew of alerts in the spring and summer of 2002 about attacks on apartment buildings, banks, shopping malls and, of course, nuclear plants. What little of value he did tell us came largely from a more sophisticated approach, using his religious belief in predestination to convince him he miraculously survived his arrest (he was shot three times and nursed to health by U.S. doctors) for a reason: to help the other side.

But in any case, Bush said the CIA's aggressive tactics led Zubaydah to reveal the location of Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Again, not quite:

While bits and pieces about Binalshibh and K.S.M. arrived from many sources, the key to capturing the former was information passed to the CIA by the Emir of Qatar--information taken from the files of an al-Jazeera reporter (the Emir owns the network) who secretly visited both terrorists in the Karachi apartment where Binalshibh was subsequently captured in September 2002. As for K.S.M., the key was a cooperative source who met with K.S.M., summarily called the CIA, guided agents to the terrorist's safe house, then collected his $25 million reward and is now safely relocated, with his extended family, somewhere in the U.S.

All of which brings us to the question Paul Krugman asks this morning: "why is the Bush administration so determined to torture people?" Krugman thinks it's the pursuit of executive power. I think it reflects a fundamental immaturity in their approach to the War on Terror and a deep disrespect for empirical data that conflicts with the president's instincts. But it is, in any case, a damn good question.

--Ezra Klein

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