Thanks to reader Ancon for digging up what should have been in a box on the front page of every newspaper the day Bush proposed rewriting the Geneva Conventions:
I would simply like to quote the Army Field Manual here, which I think summarizes how this works in reality quite well:
"The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind is prohibited by law and is neither authorized nor condoned by the US Government. Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear."
This last warning was borne out when the CIA and the Egyptians tortured an Al Qaeda detainee named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. Al-Libi, who ran some of those terrorist training camps you see in stock footage of Al Qada thugs, was the subject of a battle royale between the FBI, which wanted to subject him to standard, lawful interrogation techniques, and the CIA which wanted to render him to Cairo for torture. Tragically, the CIA won that fight after a personal intervention by George Tenet.
What happened next? Al Libi was subjected to the torture techniques George Bush wants Congress to authorize. He ultimately broke down and started making shit up, telling his interrogators what they wanted to hear. Most perniciously, he invented a tale of collaboration between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein out of whole cloth. In this tale, discredited once again in the latest Senate intelligence report, Saddam's regime was providing WMD training to Al Qaeda operatives.
This allegation would go on to become one of the central justifications for the invasion of Iraq, cited repeatedly by Bush and also by Colin Powell in his speech to the U.N.
Torture has not only lowered America's standing in the world, it has yielded false intelligence that helped railroad the U.S. into a tragic and misguided war of choice. Clearly we shouldn't mollycoddle our mortal Al Qaeda foes. But the case of al-Libi clearly shows that bad intelligence extracted through torture can be worse than no intelligence at all.
(For more about the horrific intersection of the torture and intelligence scandals, click on this timeline I co-authored for Mother Jones and search for "al-Libi")