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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This next report challenges the strongest argument for torture. The argument is the ticking time bomb scenario. Suppose a bomb was about to go off and you had a suspect who refused to help you find it. You need information fast. So wouldn't you torture?

Now let's go from the scenario to reality. Details are emerging now about the CIA's extreme interrogation program. And it's not clear that interrogators got accurate information, let alone got it fast. Here's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: An early version of the ticking time bomb conceit appeared in a 1960 French novel called "Les Centurions." It was published during France's occupation of Algeria. The book's hero beats up a female Arab dissident to get her to divulge the whereabouts of bombs planted all over Algiers. Then he must race against the clock to find the explosives.

These days people may be more familiar with this voice and this scenario.

(Soundbite of TV show, "24")

Mr. KEIFER SUTHERLAND (Actor): (As Jack Bauer) Abraham Hadad(ph) had targeted a bus carrying 45 people, 10 of which were children. The truth, Senator, is I stopped that attack from happening.

Unidentified Man: By torturing Mr. Hadad.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) By doing what I deemed necessary to protect innocent lives.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Jack Bauer, the tormented hero of the television program "24." The question is: Do these ticking time bomb scenarios ever really happen?

Mr. BRUCE HOFFMAN (Terrorism Expert): I've personally been told that they happen, but I have to admit that in the years - and this is now almost a decade since I was told about it - I've become increasingly skeptical.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman. He's been writing about terrorism for 30 years.

Mr. HOFFMAN: It becomes a default assumption, which in turn I think then becomes a legitimization or justification for torture. And in actual fact, even though people have told me about it, I've yet to see an actual documented case independently of what I was told.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Former CIA agent Michael Scheuer is convinced that there are times when torture is required. He recently spoke to NPR's Michel Martin.

Mr. MICHAEL SCHEUER (Former CIA agent): I happen to know, at least through 2004, that these activities were very productive, broke up plots aimed at our allies, and aimed against the domestic United States.

MICHEL MARTIN: How do you know this?

Mr. SCHEUER: I was there.

MARTIN: Meaning you were there for the interrogation? You participated?

Mr. SCHEUER: Meaning I was there at least to be privy to the interrogations and to see the information and how it was used.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Details on what interrogators actually got from techniques like waterboarding are sketchy. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden has said that the first man the U.S. waterboarded, an al-Qaida operative named Abu Zubaydah, was unhelpful until the rough stuff began.

The FBI remembers it differently. The bureau says it took just two weeks for Zubaydah to provide information on 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, without the use of aggressive tactics.

Rohan Guaratna agrees. He's an al-Qaida expert who's worked with both the CIA and the FBI and is very familiar with Zubaydah's case.

Mr. ROHAN GUARATNA (Al-Qaida Expert): Abu Zubaydah told the name of KSM before those enhanced techniques were used.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The CIA took over Zubaydah's interrogation a short time later. And while he provided some more intelligence after he was waterboarded, it is impossible to know if he might have done so anyway.

Consider another case, the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He was waterboarded six times a day for a month. He provided information, but he certainly didn't do so quickly.

Mr. MATTHEW ALEXANDER (Military Interrogator): What I get most out of the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is any approach, I don't care what it is, if you have to do it 183 times, it's not working.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Matthew Alexander is a military interrogator. He was in charge of another important case. His team helped find al-Qaida's number one man in Iraq without resorting to torture.

Mr. ALEXANDER: When they did use the waterboard on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, what they were getting each time was the absolute minimum that he could get away with. And that's what you get when you use torture. You get the absolute minimum amount of information.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Hoffman underscores the point. Despite waterboarding, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed didn't give up key information that he must have known at the time. Experts say he likely knew about the planning of the 2005 train bombing in Madrid, but he didn't talk. He had to be aware of al-Qaida sleeper cells in Britain and Europe, and he didn't reveal anything about those either.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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