Did torture provide a basis for the war in Iraq?

The detainee behind claims of a link between Iraq and al-Qaida says he made them up to get better treatment from his captors.

Published December 9, 2005 1:50PM (EST)

There are moral and legal arguments against torture, and then there's the practical one: It doesn't work. As John McCain wrote in a Newsweek essay last month, the abuse of prisoners "often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear -- whether it is true or false -- if he believes it will relieve his suffering."

This morning's New York Times provides what appears to be a devastating, real-world example.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, George W. Bush, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney all argued that there was a link between Iraq and al-Qaida, and they each relied on the words of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi to prove it. Bush was referring to Libi when he said, in a speech in Cincinnati in October 2002, that the United States had "learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases." Powell was referring to Libi when, during his presentation to the United Nations in February 2003, he told "the the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al Qaida." And Cheney was still referring to Libi when he said, during an appearance on "Meet the Press" in September 2003, that Iraq had been "providing bomb-making expertise and advice to the al-Qaeda organization."

We learned last month that the Bush administration had been warned off Libi's claims, that a Defense Intelligence Agency report issued in February 2002 had alerted the administration to the fear that Libi was "intentionally misleading the debriefers" with his claims that Iraq was helping al-Qaida with chemical weapons. In the Times today, Doug Jehl tells the rest of the story: The concern about the credibility of Libi's statements was based, in large part, on worries that he had not made his most specific claims about links between Iraq and al-Qaida until after the United States turned him over to Egypt, where he claims to have been mistreated. As Jehl writes, "The new disclosure provides the first public evidence that bad intelligence on Iraq may have resulted partly from the administration's heavy reliance on third countries to carry out interrogations of Qaida members and others detained as part of American counterterrorism efforts."

Beginning in 2004, Libi retracted what he had said about an Iraq-al-Qaida link, saying he had made the claims in an effort to get better treatment from his Egyptian captors. The CIA ultimately withdrew its intelligence on Libi in March 2004, just 12 months and more than 500 dead U.S. soldiers too late.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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