Politicians and intelligence experts argue over whether interrogation programme amounts to torture, and even if it does, whether really useful information is gained from it and if the US loses the moral high ground by using it.
US debates rights and wrongs of 'enhanced interrogation' in fight against terror
WASHINGTON // As the dust settles after the killing of Osama bin Laden, questions are being raised about the United States' counterterrorism efforts.
While details of the intelligence-gathering efforts that led to the operation in Abbottabad are far from clear, aspects of that effort, particularly the use of so called "enhanced interrogation methods" (EIMs), have sparked a debate that transcends security and reaches the bedrock of American ideals.
The EIM programme was developed after the September 11 attacks on the United States and it encompasses a wide range of techniques. It includes everything from waterboarding (a method of simulated drowning now banned under the administration of President Barack Obama) to regulating a prisoner's diet, personal humiliation, sleep deprivation, and the "tummy slap", a hard open-handed slap to the stomach.
The programme was deeply controversial from the outset. One of its opponents was John McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war turned senator, who still bears the scars of torture by North Vietnamese forces.
Speaking on Fox News Sunday on May 29, Mr McCain, who is also the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lashed out at Rick Santorum, a former US senator who had attacked his stance on EIMs.
Mr McCain questioned the reliabilty of EIM, claiming that it produces good and bad information.
But it is the effectiveness of EIM that proponents cite in its defence.
Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for George W Bush, the former US president, argued that the programme was responsible for "more than 50 per cent of the information we had about al Qa'eda after 2006".
Some interrogators dispute this. Matthew Alexander, a former military interrogator who oversaw more than 1,300 interrogations in Iraq and has written two books on interrogation, was unequivocal in his condemnation of the EIM program.
Mr Alexander said that he never saw EIMs work in Iraq. "By using them, we are admitting that our enemies are smarter than us in the interrogation room. They have no place in US operations," he said.
Mr Alexander added that EIMs actually impeded US efforts to pursue bin Laden.
A letter from Leon Panetta, the CIA director, to Mr McCain, published in part by the Washington Post, seems to raise questions about the intelligence secured in the hunt for bin Laden: "…[S]ome detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques attempted to provide false or misleading information about the facilitator/courier [Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti]. These attempts to falsify the facilitator/courier's role were alerting," Mr Panetta wrote.
In addition, the EIM programme may have ultimately undermined the US on another, perhaps more fragile front: its image and its claim to the moral high ground.
"In the long-term war", Mr Alexander said, "we must deny al Qa'eda the ability to recruit new fighters in order to be able to end this conflict.
He said that EIMs "have only made it exponentially easier for violent extremists to find new recruits."
Mr Thiessen, however, argues that any such blights to the image of the US are the consequence of lies perpetuated about the brutality of these methods, and that the EIM program ultimately did not amount to torture of any sort.
Such an assertion is contradicted by civil-rights lawyers, such as Amrit Singh, a legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, who argue that "enhanced interrogation methods" are a euphemism for torture.
Ms Singh says the EIM programme is a "stain" on the reputation of the US both domestically and abroad that will "cost the United States dearly in terms of its prior reputation as the upholder of human rights worldwide".
Mr Alexander is quick to point out that even if the EIM programme were effective, that would not be justification for its use, just as the effectiveness of chemical weapons would not legitimise their use.
Moreover, the historical record suggests it is counterproductive to allow security to override values and principles, he said.
David Rittgers, a legal policy analyst at the Cato institute, a Washington think tank, said: "If you look at the Battle of Algiers, the French ruthlessly used what is unquestionably torture to dismantle the Algerian movement that they faced. They may have won the Battle of Algiers, but they lost Algeria because of the way that they fought that war."