In recent days, former Bush administration officials have said that information gleaned from the use of enhanced interrogation techniques helped intelligence officers begin the lengthy and intricate work of tracking down Osama bin Laden.
They may well be right. We have never been among those claiming that torture never works. But they are wrong on their larger point. Even if waterboarding or extreme sleep deprivation produced some pieces of the bin Laden intelligence puzzle, the program wasn’t justified — and it still did America far more harm than good.
Most interrogation experts say that the only way to extract reliable information is through noncoercive means, including building rapport with suspects over time. Torture may sometimes elicit true statements, but it often elicits falsehoods. Moreover, it is quite possible, though not certain, that reliance on more traditional methods would have produced the same results had interrogators stuck to them.
What is clear is that the country paid dearly for employing methods that are not only wrongheaded but wrong. Its reputation was scarred and its moral authority diminished around the world.
So President Obama was right to dismantle the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. But a rejection of torture should not mean a reluctance to capture and interrogate terrorism suspects.
The president should work with Congress to erect a detention framework that is overseen by the federal courts, provides legal protections to detainees and lets the United States lawfully and humanely gather information that could help thwart the next attack.