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 ends up having to beat up a female Arab dissident to get her to divulge the whereabouts of bombs planted all over Algiers. Then, of course, in the rest of the book, he races around trying to find all the explosives before they go off.
These days, people may be more familiar with Jack Bauer scenarios: The hero of the television program 24 invariably swoops in just before scores of innocent people are killed. He finds the villain. He tortures him. He gets the information. But the nagging question is: Do those ticking time bomb scenarios ever really happen?
The experts are dubious.
"I've personally been told that they happen but I have to admit that in the years, in now the decade I have been told about it, I have become increasingly skeptical," says terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman.
Hoffman has been writing about terrorism for 30 years and tells one story of sitting down with a battle-hardened Sri Lankan army officer. The officer had been leading the charge against the Tamil Tigers at a time when they had been on a particularly deadly bombing spree, targeting civilians.
The army officer's unit had captured three terrorists who allegedly had recently planted a bomb in the city. And, apparently, it was ticking. The officer asked the men where the bomb was. The terrorists remained silent. The officer told them that if they didn't tell him where they had planted the bomb, he would kill them. Still, not a word. So, he told Hoffman, he took the pistol from his gun belt, pointed it at the forehead of one of them, and pulled the trigger. The other two, he claimed, began talking immediately.
Hoffman isn't sure whether the story was true. "A ticking bomb becomes a default assumption which in turn becomes a legitimization or justification for torture," Hoffman says today, nearly 10 years after he heard the story. "And in actual fact, even though people have told me about it, I have yet to see an actual documented case independently of what I was told."
Former CIA agent Michael Scheuer is convinced that there are times when torture is required. He recently spoke to NPR's Michel Martin and said that he happened "to know that at least until 2004 these activities were very productive, broke up plots aimed at our allies, and aimed against the domestic United States."
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 Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, without the use of aggressive tactics. Rohan Guaratna agrees. He's an al-Qaida expert who has worked with both the CIA and the FBI and is very familiar with Zubaydah's case.
"Abu Zabaydah told the name of KSM before the enhanced techniques were used," says Guaratna.
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 Shaikh Mohammed. He was waterboarded six times a day for a month. He provided information, but he certainly didn't do so quickly.
"What I get most out of the waterboarding of Khalid Shaikh Mohamed is that any approach — I don't care what it is — if you have to do it 183 times, it is not working," says Matthew Alexander. He was the military interrogator in charge of the team that ended up finding al-Qaida's No. 1 man in Iraq, without resorting to torture.
"When they did use the waterboard on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, what they were getting each time was the absolute minimum he could get away with," he says. "And that's what you get when you use torture — you get the absolute minimum amount of information."
Hoffman underscores the point: Despite waterboarding, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed didn't give up key information that he must have known at the time of his questioning. Experts say he most 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.