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The crucial point, though, is that even the communists suspected that torture can't be relied on to produce more than false confessions--because people will say anything to make the pain stop. This is the history that Bush officials chose to ignore. I asked a former CIA officer privy to the decision-making that led to the waterboarding of al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah whether he thought the abusive tactics worked. His answer: to a degree. From the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, Mohammed and other al-Qaeda prisoners, the CIA learned a lot more than it knew before about the group's communications, its use of safe houses and codes, and the outlines of its worldview. Valuable stuff, but stuff that could have been extracted through patient and relentless persuasion.
In the declassified Justice Department memos, former CIA director Michael Hayden asserts that it was only after the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah that authorities learned about Ramzi Binalshibh, a midlevel al-Qaeda member who helped coordinate the Sept. 11 attacks. The memos also say it was because of the waterboarding of Mohammed that U.S. intelligence learned about a "second wave" of attacks planned for after Sept. 11. Was there truly another 9/11 in the works? Maybe. Or maybe Mohammed made it up to stop the waterboarding.
The use of torture has come at huge costs to American credibility and the morale and psychology of our intelligence agencies. If we're going to pay those costs, we ought to know what we're getting. A thorough clearing of the air will help discredit the idea that we either torture terrorists or become victims. This false choice is played out on shows like 24, leaving people with the notion that had the FBI somehow caught one of the hijackers in the hours leading up to Sept. 11, torture would have led to the arrests of the 18 others before those planes took off. The truth is less sensational and more unsettling--but ultimately one that Americans should learn to accept. There are ticking time bombs out there. But torture won't get us any closer to discovering when they're going to go off.
Baer is a former Middle East CIA field officer and TIME.com's intelligence columnist