Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tortured Credibility

Back in 2003, when U.S. forces first took custody of the notorious al-Qaida mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, there was much speculation about what his capture might signify. Some thought he might possess information about other planned operations, some predicted his loss would fatally damage al-Qaida, some guessed his arrest would lead to additional arrests. Others used his capture to float theories about when and how torture might legitimately be used.

Here is one thing nobody predicted back in 2003: that when the notorious Mohammed eventually stood before a Guantanamo Bay military tribunal and took responsibility not only for the Sept. 11 attacks -- the deadliest crime ever carried out on American soil -- but also for the horrific death of journalist Daniel Pearl and some two dozen other operations, the world would greet the confessions with skepticism and indifference.

The Daily Telegraph, normally the most pro-U.S. newspaper in Britain, wrote that it hardly mattered whether Mohammed was guilty, since whatever conclusion is drawn by the military tribunal, "the world will condemn the procedures by which the verdicts were reached." Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung concluded: "The Bush administration has nobody but itself to blame for the fact that the actions and motives of the perpetrator are now playing second fiddle to the practices used by the Americans in fighting terrorism." In many places, the confessions, which took place nearly a week ago, still have hardly attracted attention.

A small part of this international indifference perhaps derives from the transcript of the confessions, which seem boastful and exaggerated. Most of it, though, surely comes from the widespread, indeed practically universal, assumption that Mohammed was tortured, not in theory but in practice.

Certainly during his hearing at Guantanamo, there are references to "certain treatment [he] claimed to have received," though the relevant parts of the official transcript remain classified. But the assumption that Mohammed was tortured comes from the fact that, as we all now know, the White House, the Pentagon and the U.S. Justice Department were also debating the merits of torture at about the time of Mohammed's capture. Alberto Gonzales, then-White House counsel, had advised U.S. President George W. Bush as early as 2002 that torture might be permissible under certain circumstances. And all of us have seen the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

It is true that the administration has now stated clearly that torture, at least by the administration's definition, was not used in Mohammed's interrogation. ("We don't do torture," is how one White House press secretary cavalierly put it.) But even if we were to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, which hardly anyone will, the circumstances of Mohammed's detention have been unacceptable by U.S. standards. Even if he was not tortured, he was held in secret, extralegal and completely unregulated conditions, possibly in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, certainly under nothing resembling what we in the United States normally consider the rule of law, either international or domestic. The mystery surrounding his interrogation -- when it was carried out, how and by whom -- renders any confession he could make completely null, either in a court of law or in the court of international public opinion.

This is concrete proof, as if more were needed, that it is not merely immoral to operate outside the rule of law; it is also ineffective and in fact profoundly counterproductive. There is no proof that it produces better information but plenty of evidence that it has discredited the United States. Indeed, there could be no more eloquent condemnation of the Bush administration's torture and detention policies than the deafening silence that followed Mohammed's confession: Who could have imagined, in September 2001, that one of the deadliest terrorists in history would admit to the destruction of the World Trade Center -- and that the world would shrug its shoulders?

Anne Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this comment appeared.