The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, April 22:

President Barack Obama made a tough call — and the right one — last week by releasing secret Justice Department documents detailing interrogation methods for extracting information from terror suspects. He also was right to balance that release by assuring CIA operatives who did the questioning they wouldn’t be prosecuted for following rules that had been set by Justice lawyers.
So we now know, in stomach-churning detail, exactly how many times interrogators used the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding on a small number of high-profile terrorists (183 times in one month). We know about how long they could deprive suspects of sleep (up to eight days) or how they would be allowed to prey on one suspect’s fear of insects by stuffing him in a box with a caterpillar (although that didn’t happen). We know the prisoners could be stripped of their clothes, fed nothing but liquid and thrown against a wall 30 consecutive times.
Obama was clearly hoping the whole did-we-or-didn’t-we-torture debate would flare and fizzle after the release of the memos. He initially said he wanted to “move forward.” But he may already be backtracking, saying Tuesday he wouldn’t rule out taking action against the lawyers who set the legal guidelines for the interrogations. Obama was right the first time. This needs to be put in the rearview mirror, and soon.
Before Americans can do that, however, they need a more complete picture of what was done in the name of protecting the nation against another attack after Sept. 11, 2001. The memos released so far detail only half of the ledger. We know the costs, paid in policies that may or may not have crossed the line into the torture of suspects.
What we haven’t seen are the alleged benefits. What kind of intelligence did those interrogations yield and what plots, if any, were disrupted because of it? Some of that information is becoming public: In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece recently, former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey described how one terrorist was coerced into disclosing information that enabled the capture of Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the planners of the Sept. 11 attacks, and other senior terrorists.
Effectiveness is not the only criterion by which we judge questioning techniques: If it was, then cruel and brutal treatment would be routine for American interrogators, because it often yields valuable intelligence. But that is not the case. For all the furor, these techniques were used “against only a small number of hard-core prisoners who successfully resisted other forms of interrogation …” Mukasey and Hayden wrote.
Obama administration officials have disavowed some tactics, such as waterboarding, as torture, and have promised that U.S. interrogators won’t use them anymore.
Knowing those limits may help terrorists train to withstand interrogations. But this debate about how much torture information to release isn’t about what America’s enemies will anticipate if they’re captured.
This debate is about the limits a democratic society sets so it does not sink to the level of those who seek to destroy it.


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