CIA agent's torture success story was bogus

Former CIA agent John Kiriakou thrilled the right with tales of waterboarding victories, but he was wrong

By Gabriel Winant
Published January 27, 2010 4:06PM (EST)

In December 2007, a former CIA operative named John Kiriakou told the public that torture worked, and he could prove it. In an interview with ABC News, Kiriakou said that detainee Abu Zubaydah had cracked after just one session of waterboarding. 30 or 35 seconds of the technique, he claimed, and Zubaydah revealed life-saving secrets, which were crucial enough to justify any moral qualms about the procedure.

Said Kiriakou, "From that day on, he answered every question. The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks." There was a cascade of acclaim on the right. A gleeful Rush Limbaugh thought the argument was over. "It works, is the bottom line. 30 to 35 seconds, and it works."

Anyway, a little time passed, and -- funny thing -- as it turns out, Kiriakou wasn’t there, and had no idea what he was talking about. In a new book, on the penultimate page, the ex-spook offhandedly says, "What I told Brian Ross in late 2007 was wrong on a couple counts. I suggested that Abu Zubaydah had lasted only thirty or thirty-five seconds during his waterboarding before he begged his interrogators to stop; after that, I said he opened up and gave the agency actionable intelligence." Apparently, he relied on what the gossip was around the agency hallways.

As we now know, Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times. Kiriakou now claims he was the victim of a disinformation campaign by the CIA, and the CIA shoots back that he is, in essence, an idiot. Says a spokesman, "While I haven't read John's book, the line about deception doesn't make any sense. He apparently didn't know as much as he thought he did. That's a very different matter."

It shouldn’t really be that surprising. The argument for waterboarding as a magical solution -- "35 seconds, and it works" -- has always been based somewhat in a Jack Bauer type fantasy anyhow. The claims about the intelligence value extracted from Zubaydah are likewise quite overstated, much like the argument for waterboarding in general. Ticking time-bomb scenarios, long the main backdrop of pro-torture claims, seem to be entirely fictitious, although convenient.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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