Torture and the Known Unknowns

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, one insistent strain of commentary focused on the way in which Western societies had created, by their technological innovations and their open, democratic procedures, the ideal conditions for highly motivated individuals intent on destroying them. It was an old Marxist idea—that any political-economic system will necessarily sow the seeds of its demise. The terrorists used the fantastic technologies developed in the West, the satellite and cell phones, the internet, and finally the airplanes, and turned them against their inventors. “It was the system itself,” wrote Baudrillard, “which created the objective conditions for this brutal retaliation.” More ominously—because no one was about to start rolling back cell phone and internet and airplane use in the West—it was said that they took advantage of our open borders, our freedom of movement, of how nice we were. “They relied upon everything from the vastness of the internet to the openness of our society,” FBI director Robert Mueller told Congress. They plotted for years and we knew nothing about it.

It was a compelling irony, and partly true. But what also began to emerge, as the newspapers and commissioners launched their analyses of the failure of the CIA and FBI and NSA to share information properly—and what has emerged more recently in book upon book upon book—was just how stupendously well the surveillance and information-gathering technologies of our system had in fact worked. We knew a huge amount; it seemed all we did was know. Over the years, the NSA had intercepted thousands of relevant emails and phone conversations; in Yemen, the FBI had fruitfully interrogated several key figures in the bombing of the USS Cole; in Kuala Lumpur, in January 2000, the CIA had asked local intelligence agents to monitor a major al Qaeda “summit”—and within days received photos, reports, and even digital traces from the computers the summiteers used at internet cafés in the city. In the first days after the attacks, there seemed to be some question, in the media, as to who was responsible. In fact, as soon as the CIA saw the flight manifests, at around 11 am on September 11, they recognized two al Qaeda operatives, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi: they had even known that these two were in the country. That this incredible amount of precise information was not properly shared, that it was not acted on in a timely fashion, that it was misinterpreted along the way: all this is true. But the amount of it, much of it collected with the technology that was supposedly our undoing, was—as Richard Clarke said upon seeing the first images sent back from Afghanistan by an unmanned Predator drone back in September 2000—truly astonishing.

There was a gap, but it was not technological. The problem was “humint,” in intelligence-community parlance—human intelligence. The CIA had no “assets” in the al Qaeda camps (no humint on the ground); when a Western intelligence agency did manage to infiltrate al Qaeda, they did not know what to do with the information (no humint at home base). And finally, this most of all, we couldn’t quite understand, on a human level, why someone would want to blow us up (no emotional humint, so to speak). The failures compounded one another. It’s been speculated, for example, that the reason the CIA failed to alert the FBI to the fact that two known al Qaeda operatives had entered the country was that they were hoping to “turn” them; so the initial failure to infiltrate al Qaeda led to the catastrophic failure to keep an eye on al-Midhar and al-Hazmi. The intelligence community would not begin grasping the truth about al Qaeda—it would not make the leap, as FBI agent Dan Coleman put it, “from information to knowledge”—until it had camps of its own, not for training but for torture, and until it began interrogating people, and one person in particular, in brightly illuminated rooms.


That person, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, grew up in a prosperous middle-class family in Kuwait, then attended college in the US, at North Carolina A&T State, where he received a degree in engineering. He spent his time there with other Muslim students; they mostly gathered in one another’s rooms and discussed the problems of the Arab world. Otherwise KSM (as he is known in the literature) was quiet and unremarkable. When it emerged, not long after September 11, that he was the mastermind and organizer of the entire plot, his old physics professor expressed to the Associated Press the befuddlement of physics professors everywhere when their students begin to blow things up.

Other facts were known about KSM before he was arrested. He was not a devout Muslim, for example. When he lived in Manila while hatching an earlier plot, he was a frequent client of the strip clubs and even courted a pretty dentist that he’d met. He was vain and vainglorious: his initial plan for the 9/11 hijackings was to capture ten planes and crash nine of them into strategic targets. The tenth would be hijacked by KSM himself, who would land it, “release the women and children,” and then make a televised statement to the world. We knew also that while equally senior al Qaeda members had gone into hiding—and only bin Laden himself had more cause to go into hiding than KSM—KSM had remained in the big Pakistani cities, had remained operational. He knew that if he didn’t move around much or use the phone, he’d be safe. But he moved around and used the phone. He even invited an Al Jazeera reporter to his house in Karachi. The reporter later indicated its location to his bosses in the government of Qatar, who promptly told the CIA.

Perhaps KSM wanted to be caught. Perhaps for a man who’s spent time in the States, the mere admiration of the Muslim world is not enough. In this he was different from his boss, bin Laden. The offense given bin Laden was feudal and local in nature: the Saudi government and its friends in the West would not bend to his princely will. The offense against KSM was modern, globalized: like Dostoevsky’s young men in big cities, he had been ignored.1 The one direct statement of KSM’s that has reached the outside world in the past three years was introduced as part of exhibit 941 in the trial of Zacharias Moussaoui. In it, KSM, at pains to distinguish his modus operandi from that of his enemy, brags that al Qaeda had performed its operations with a minimum of paperwork—something, KSM claims, “the Western mind cannot understand.”

But we can keep things off the books, his interrogators might have replied. This interrogation, for example: Which books, in your opinion, is it on?


The arrest of KSM in Karachi was officially announced in March 2003. It took place in the middle of the night, producing a now-iconic photograph of a portly, unshaven man in a shirt that lay off the neck in all directions, revealing a very hairy chest and back and shoulders, his chin thrust out and scowling at the camera. The FBI had taken to calling him the “Forrest Gump of international terrorism,” for his habit of showing up at some point in every major operation they encountered. But this was not a sweet lucky half-wit staring from the photo. This was Bluto Blutarsky.

KSM was interrogated by the CIA for three long years. Very few people knew where, exactly. It was speculated that KSM was in one of the secret CIA prisons in Jordan, or Romania, or Thailand. Others said he was on an American warship, far out at sea, a ship so secure that any vessel that got within five miles of it would be obliterated, no questions asked. Still others said he was simply in a holding cell on one of the enormous bases our military constructs in sympathetic countries like Germany, Japan, and Afghanistan. When trying to get access to KSM for the purposes of their investigation, the two former Congressmen who headed up the 9/11 Commission were told that President Bush himself did not know where KSM was.

In the meantime, his name would pop up in reports from the front lines. He was invoked whenever the Bush White House sought to justify its position on the Geneva Conventions, KSM being, in the words of journalist Ron Suskind, “the theoretical justification for all the administration’s legal maneuvering on the question of torture.” In late 2001, when the first detainees began coming in from the invasion/dragnet of Afghanistan, a CIA agent told the Wall Street Journal that the time had come to play a little “smacky-face” with the other side. No one doubted that KSM would get the smacky-face treatment. A list of interrogation techniques approved by the government began to be spoken of; it was later confirmed by ABC News. Compared to the interminable lists of discrete torture practices documented by the various commissions investigating Abu Ghraib, this one turned out to be touchingly brief:

1. Attention grab
2. Attention slap (to the face)
3. Belly slap
4. Long-time standing (sleep deprivation)
5. Cold cell
6. Waterboarding

In 2004, the New York Times matter-of-factly stated that KSM was being deprived of sleep, subjected to cold temperatures, and waterboarded—as per the list.

It could have been worse. KSM could have been handed over to the Egyptians (for the past ten years, our largest prisoner-trading partner), where he would have received electrical shocks to the genitals; they’d have hung him from his limbs and kept him in a cell with filthy water up to his knees. Had we given KSM to the Moroccans, as we gave Binyam Mohammed to the Moroccans, they might have covered his entire body, including his penis, in tiny little cuts from a razor—cuts that were very painful but shallow, leaving no scars. Uzbekistan, an emerging player in the international torture-exchange circuit, is said to be partial to the partial boiling of a hand or an arm. This is not even to mention the regimes of the past, with their own idiosyncratic interests and proclivities, to which we might have sent KSM in a time machine. The Iraqis, under the Baath, enjoyed seeing what kind of changes they could wreak on a body before it died—so, for example, they cut off ears. The Germans during the Second World War were also famously experimental in their tortures, though primarily they hung people by their arms, until their arms popped out of their sockets—this is what they did to the philosopher Jean Amery.

But KSM had not been sent to any of these places. He was in American custody, though not exactly in America, and our torture was mild and pleasant by comparison (except when it wasn’t). In a long Atlantic essay on the “dark art of interrogation,” from late 2003, the investigative/imaginative journalist Mark Bowden described the look on KSM’s face in the photograph taken on the night of his arrest: “He had woken up into a nightmare.” The very no-placeness of KSM’s imprisonment soon emerged as a key component of this nightmare. Egypt, Morocco, Uzbekistan—these were actual places, with foods and cultures and a climate. But KSM wasn’t there. “In this place,” Orwell wrote of the interrogation center in 1984, “you could not feel anything, except pain and the foreknowledge of pain.” That’s where KSM was.

His value as an interrogatee has been hotly debated. The Bush Administration claimed he was talking, but Bush has repeatedly and cynically lied about the value of intelligence extracted from captives. Others nonetheless confirmed it. “He’s singing like a bird,” a European intelligence official boasted to the Times in early 2004. In the 9/11 Report, issued in mid-2004, KSM talks and talks; in fact, despite the inability of the Report’s authors ever to meet, hear, or even read a transcript of KSM’s interrogations (they received interrogation summaries), they felt comfortable enough with his testimony that in the main text and especially in the footnotes they humanized him to a considerable degree with the use of semi-emotive verbs of attribution. “KSM notes,” we are told, “KSM claims,” “KSM adds,” “KSM also contends,” “KSM maintains.” On the other hand, Ron Suskind reported that KSM received the harshest treatment possible in his first sessions with CIA interrogators but refused to give up anything. (The interrogators became so desperate that they threatened to harm KSM’s little children, who were also in custody; KSM did not care. “They will be with Allah in a better place,” he said.) According to this account, KSM’s subsequent disclosures about the “planes operation” were proffered in a spirit of collegiality, one spymaster to another.

Finally, with the increased public scrutiny and with any further intelligence value exhausted, KSM was transferred to Guantánamo Bay in September 2006. The next month, Time magazine reported what FBI forensics experts had been asserting since shortly after KSM’s arrest: that he was the man who had severed from its body the head of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, then held it up, by its hair, before the camera.


So we knew everything about KSM, and also we knew nothing. We knew him as a social type, and we knew him as a psychological type, and we could identify his hand on three seconds of video posted on the internet. But we didn’t know what it was like to be him, to face down the West with the lone purpose of wreaking havoc on it. (Bin Laden might be said to have an ideology; KSM has only his professionalism.) Yet by the time we sent him to Camp Delta, the successor to Camp X-Ray, an accidental Defense Department name that accidentally suggested that it was created to look inside the brains of individuals, KSM’s brain had already yielded all that it was going to yield.

We had run into a classic epistemological problem. At the beginning of the war on terror, some intellectuals argued that the events should become a catalyst for a national ideological mobilization—“the fight is for democracy.” Instead the war, which began with a failure of intelligence, immediately turned into an enormous mission for the gathering of knowledge. Book after book has promised to help Americans “know the enemy,” the better presumably to spot him in our midst. Academics produce monographs about Islam, or Iraq, and these are then literally issued to the occupying army. (They sit and read them in their armored Stryker vehicles.) How it must have pained Edward Said, originator of the idea that Western study of Eastern cultures is a form of domination, to see, toward the end of his life, that his long-time nemesis Bernard Lewis was turning into a national celebrity. Or perhaps it gave him a dark pleasure, to have his theories so neatly confirmed. Professor Lewis of Princeton was not being invited to the White House, after all, because the people there entertained a speculative curiosity about the East.

We were going to know the enemy. And then? Well, and then—we were going to kill him. The trouble for the producers of this knowledge is that narrative demands sympathy and identification. The 9/11 Report made KSM sound like a lovable eccentric—not least of all by giving him a cute triple initial, as this essay has also done. (It also created a dramatic story, almost despite itself, from the relationship between United Flight 93 pilot-hijacker Ziad Jarrah and his long-time girlfriend, Aysel Senguen.) Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which is devastating on the Bush Administration and takes a strong anti-CIA position on the question of torture, nonetheless evinces a great affection for CIA director George Tenet. Lawrence Wright, whose The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 is the best journalistic account of the rise of al Qaeda and the American intelligence officers who tried to stop it, really likes the FBI’s John O’Neill, the Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, and, eventually, bin Laden himself. Only Peter Bergen, the dean of bin Laden studies in the anglophone world, manages to avoid the pitfall of narrative, and this in an oral history. Throughout his fascinating The Osama bin Laden I Know, Bergen expresses frustration with the clumsiness of American attempts to physically capture bin Laden: the failure to keep watch over Al Jazeera headquarters was foolish, while the refusal to hunt down bin Laden at Tora Bora was downright suspicious. In the afterword to the paperback edition, Bergen goes further, speculating as to bin Laden’s hideout (in the so-called tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, near Kashmir, but also near enough to modern facilities that he can make his propaganda videos) and even proffering a guess as to where bin Laden’s wives may be hiding. “And then, of course,” Bergen continues,

bin Laden may make a mistake that reveals his location. In that case American Predator drones, which are armed with Hellfire missiles and can provide real-time video of their targets, have proved successful in killing several al Qaeda leaders both in Pakistan and Yemen.

This is taking the knowledge mobilization to its logical endpoint, and with the perfect weapon, at that: initially a magic surveillance device, the Predator was armed with its now famous Hellfire missiles after September 11.

And yet even this—a scholar advocating the assassination of the subject of his research—cannot be said to implicate the knowledge-mobilization in a murderous orientalism. (Hannah Arendt, too, for all her mockery of the Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann, endorsed his execution.) Because one thing we’ve learned from this presidential administration is that power will use knowledge just as it pleases; this has been the peculiar theoretical contribution of the twin epistemologists of the Bush White House, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Cheney is the key. Suskind’s One Percent Doctrine is named for a concept articulated by Cheney very soon after September 11: “If there is a one percent chance that [something might happen],” he told a meeting of the national security apparatus, “we need to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” Taken literally—and how else were his employees to take it?—Cheney’s doctrine is bold and startling. He sees that, despite its vast electronic surveillance machinery, the US has no human means to turn the information reliably into knowledge; in fact there is no means at all with which to create the knowledge that we seek. So Cheney obliterates the difference. Under the one percent doctrine, all information is already knowledge—even bad information. And let God sort them out.

Cheney’s counterpart was Rumsfeld; really they were like a comedy duo. Where Cheney had his one percent doctrine of ironclad epistemological certainty, Rumsfeld had a kind of politics of epistemological despair. “There are the known knowns,” he famously said, “and the known unknowns. But there are also the unknown unknowns.” Later on, in a private memo: “We lack metrics to know whether we’re winning the war on terror.” This last has been roundly mocked—“An exponential increase in the number of terrorist attacks seems to be one relevant metric,” writes Bergen—and yet on the face of it it’s perfectly reasonable. We might not lack metrics in general, but the old metrics (Rumsfeld had a restless old man’s hatred of old things) were out of date. The comment was disturbing, however, as an expression of what might be called Rumsfeld’s 99 percent doctrine. Cheney would immediately act on antiterrorist intelligence that had a one percent chance of being true; Rumsfeld would fail to act on information that seemed about 99 percent true. These remain the essential doctrines of the Bush Administration even post-Rumsfeld, because they’ve been proved so wonderfully effective in an age of a prostrate media. Cheney told us that we were in grave danger (true enough) and the danger was being interdicted at every turn (impossible), while Rumsfeld kept telling us we were winning the war. It worked so long as people kept believing them. Then, just before the Congressional elections, it stopped working; Rumsfeld was fired. By that point, the damage was done. We were catastrophically stranded in Iraq. And then, as if to mock all the people who claimed that Rumsfeld’s greatest crime was not sending in enough troops, George Bush announced that what America really needed was a larger military.


Traditionally, countries faced with a knowledge crisis (brought about by rapid social or ideological dislocations) have turned to their novelists. Our own writers have tried to be helpful, too. John Updike wrote a book called Terrorist, about a Muslim boy in New Jersey who joins a terrorist group and sets out to perform a suicide operation; Martin Amis, faced with the first footnote of the 9/11 Report, which admitted that it could discover no reason why Mohamed Atta drove up to Maine from Boston on the eve of the attacks only to fly back to Boston the next morning, wrote a story to explain it.

Yet, for better and worse, the authors were so interested in their perennial concerns that they hardly noticed the terrorists. Amis’s Atta is constipated, a kind of below-the-belt objective correlative for his psychic condition—just as Amis’s Stalin is a mental case and Amis’s working-class characters all have sexual issues (indeed, that may be why they’re working-class). Meanwhile Updike’s teenage terrorist, Ahmad, turns out to be a remarkable observer—a savant, really—of small visual, tactile, and even olfactory details. He is supposed to blow up a truck, and himself, during the rush hour commute from New Jersey into Manhattan, but “the pattern of the wall tiles and of the exhaust-darkened tiles of the ceiling—countless receding repetitions of squares like giant graph paper rolled into a third dimension—explodes outward in Ahmad’s mind’s eye in the gigantic fiat of Creation”—and that’s just the Holland Tunnel! He refuses to blow himself up. How can he, when the world—the world of Updike, anyway—is so filled with imagery and language and the names of things? Updike’s terrorist never had a chance.

In a similar way, the American writer doesn’t stand a chance. The deeply offensive conspiracy theories about the September 11 planes—that they were shot down by missiles, that they were missiles, that Jews were emailed about the missiles in advance—emerge in large part from a kind of vanity: I will tell you what really happened. But they must also be related, and the vanity itself related, to the awesome apparatus of knowledge formation that immediately kicked into gear after the attacks and has not ceased churning for a moment since. It is a classic divergence between people’s political power (which has remained constant or decreased) and their social power, expressed in this case in their immediate, unfettered access (through the near perfection of online search and retrieval technologies) to information in quantities previously imagined only by science fiction. Philip Roth once said the American writer’s imagination was embarrassed by the mad fertile inventiveness of American reality. The more accurate statement for our own time is that the American writer is embarrassed by the myriad ways in which knowledge can be harvested.

So far, the most shocking, moving, and in their way literary texts that have emerged from the enormous post-9/11 knowledge project—Bergen’s remarkable interviews with people who fought alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan; the ideologically confused and yet compelling jihadi pronouncements; the bizarre and revealing statements of American military men—have been closer in their formal characteristics to modernist literature than the novels of our contemporaries, which have mostly lost interest in modernism. Jason Burke, for example, in his very good early journalistic-academic book, Al Qaeda, transcribed an interview with a young jihadi in Iraqi Kurdistan who had been sent by his masters to blow up the local office run by the leftist PUK:

I went to Abu Bakr al-Tauhidi and spent three days with him. He spoke to me about ishtishad and faith and jihad and my duty. On the third day after morning prayer I went into a car to Said Sadiq again and went to the same house and I slept until lunchtime and ate and then waited until Ushr prayer and then put on my [explosives] jacket and went with my host to the bus stop. It was just after five pm but I had no watch. I was calm and not at all nervous. I was thinking about paradise. He paid one dinar to the driver and I got on the bus that went through the bazaar and I got down just before the PUK office and walked up to it with the switch in my pocket and my hand on it. I walked up to the peshmerga at the door and gave him the name of a man who I thought would be inside and said I had come to see him and he said what is that underneath your shirt and he spoke with the accent of my home town and I said nothing and he asked again and I said ‘It’s TNT,’ and then they arrested me.

This is incredible. Burke had spent considerable time in Kurdistan, so it’s possible he was not using an interpreter; still, the decision to make the failed suicide bomber sound like Quentin Compson was his. Thus the stylistic innovations of modernism, which tried to record in print the way the mind processed language, survive in a secondary art, journalism, just as they still survive in movies.

The most terrible text of all to emerge from September 11—the transcript of the cockpit recorder from United Flight 93—did not pass through any hands, but was captured by a little box that survived a crash into a Pennsylvania field at a speed of almost 600 miles an hour. For several years, the FBI refused to release the transcript: it was horrible, they said, and there was no need for it to be in the public domain. The 9/11 Report summarized the recording briefly, but the full transcript was not made available until April 2006, during the Moussaoui trial. At that point it was published in the New York Times.

The transcript does not tell the full story of the flight, but it does capture three crucial moments: the pilot-hijacker Ziad Jarrah’s initial announcement to the passengers that the plane has been hijacked; the final moments of the flight, as the passengers attempt to break down the cockpit door and the hijackers decide to crash the plane; and the murder of a flight attendant, Deborah Welsh.

There is almost nothing, reading it, that is not shocking, but one of the strangest aspects of the published transcript is its resemblance, on the page, to a work of modernist theater. Until the last century, theater had been based on the convention that, though mimetic in the sense that it looked like real life, it would allow people to speak their minds in a way they could never do in real life, in dramatic situations such as rarely actually happened. A certain kind of modernist playwright (Beckett, O’Neill, Pinter) stripped theater of this convention of fine speech in order to depict the latent violence of human interactions without it. This is the shock of the transcript: the sudden pressure put on words in a situation of life and death.

The transcript begins with a misunderstanding: Jarrah tries to tell the passengers that the flight has been hijacked (in an ordinary way, with a bomb), but accidentally tells this instead to ground control in Cleveland.

09:31:57 Ladies and Gentlemen: Here the captain, please sit down keep remaining seating. We have a bomb on board. So sit.

09:32:09 Er, uh . . . Calling Cleveland Center . . . You’re unreadable. Say again slowly.

Jarrah never attempts to communicate with Cleveland—he has no reason to, as he intends to crash into the Capitol building. At this point the hijackers—Saeed al-Ghamdi, Ahmad al-Haznawi, Ahmed al-Nami, and Jarrah—have locked themselves into the cockpit. They have stabbed the pilots with knives and box-cutters. Deborah Welsh is trapped inside with them, and now she is heard on the recorder pleading for her life as one of the so-called “muscle hijackers,” either al-Ghamdi, al-Haznawi, or al-Nami, none of whom knew English at all well, all of whom were from poor areas of Saudi Arabia, tries to tell her to sit down.

09:34:27 Please, please, please . . .
09:34:28 Down.
09:34:29 Please, please, don’t hurt me . . .
09:34:30 Down. No more.
09:34:31 Oh God.
09:34:32 Down, down, down.
09:34:33 Sit down.
09:34:34 Shut up.
09:34:42 No more.

As the tape continues, several conversations are happening at once. One of the hijackers is threatening Welsh; Jarrah is consulting with one of the others about the controls (in Arabic, marked by italics); and occasionally Cleveland still pipes in. Finally, the hijacker negotiating with the flight attendant slits her throat and announces to the others that he’s done so.

09:35:15 Sit down, sit down, sit down.
09:35:17 Down.
09:35:18 What’s this?
09:35:19 Sit down. Sit down. You know, sit down.
09:35:24 No, no, no.
09:35:30 Down, down, down, down.
09:35:32 Are you talking to me?
09:35:33 No, no, no. [Unintelligible.]
09:35:35 Down in the airport.
09:35:39 Down, down.
09:3 5:40 I don’t want to die.
09:35:41 No, no. Down, down.
09:35:42 I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.
09:35:44 No, no. Down, down, down, down, down, down.
09:35:47 No, no, please.
09:35:57 No.
09:37:06 That’s it. Go back.
09:37:06 That’s it. Sit down.
09:37:36 Everything is fine. I finished.
09:38:36 Yes.

Jarrah, the commotion behind him stilled, gets back on the plane’s public address system and speaks again to the passengers.

09:39:11 Ah. Here’s the captain; I would like to tell you all to remain seated. We have a bomb aboard, and we are going back to the airport, and we have our demands. So, please remain quiet.

If you had read the 9/11 Report before the transcript, you’d have thought of Jarrah as the most complex and recalcitrant of the hijackers because of his relationship with Aysel Senguen, who became his girlfriend while both were students in Germany. Their romance became more rather than less intimate as the operation approached; the Report speaks of the “hundreds of emails” they exchanged during his year in the States, and it even comes to seem—when Senguen visits Jarrah in Florida and even attends a class at flight school—like he might just call the whole thing off, for love. The recent film, United 93, takes a similar view of Jarrah.

The transcript here reveals something different about Ziad Jarrah. After Welsh is murdered not five feet from where he sits at the controls, his English improves.


The history of September 11 is a history of technology. The telephone was central: In the years before September 11, one of the most valuable sources of information available to the American intelligence services was the phone number of Abu al-Zubaydah, a key al Qaeda operations manager. The trail of his phone calls, which the counterterrorism unit displayed on a map of the globe, created a diagram of the al Qaeda network, at least geographically. Bin Laden himself stayed off the phone, sensing (especially after the Russian and Israeli militaries began using cell phones to kill people) that the West had scored a dialectical reversal in the technology wars, turning the terrorists’ increasing reliance on advanced technology against them. He now communicates exclusively through human messengers.

The history of the history of 9/11, the historiography, is also a history of technology: of what it can and cannot do. Much of the reconstruction of what occurred on September 11 was a reconstruction of phone calls—by the passengers on the flights, by the people trapped on the upper floors of the World Trade towers, or by those on the phone when the planes hit. In the 9/11 Report, we learn that the standard time given for the crash of Flight 93 is not uncontroversial; but the report confirms it with authority. “The 10:03:11 impact time,” it writes,

is supported by previous National Transportation Safety Board analysis and by evidence from the Commission staff’s analysis of radar, the flight data recorder, infrared satellite data, and air traffic control transmission.

These technologies can fix the precise time of the crash to the second; they are awesome. But—and this is the point—they are not enough. They will never be enough. Because the Global War on Terror is a war of total information mobilization. When you go through security now at an airport, you watch as the guards gaze at your things through the X-ray machine with a kind of lazy curiosity. They cannot help you, and involuntarily you start monitoring your own fellow passengers. You profile them by race first; but also by the looks on their faces (the shoe bomber Richard Reid was said to have been extremely agitated at his flight gate). Really the only way to know for sure is to keep an eye on your suspects once the flight begins; the trouble is that anyone seeking to storm the cockpit will buy his ticket for first class.

So really the only way to know for sure is to get it out of them, one way or the other. Students of torture have sometimes distinguished between two types: “informational” torture, which resorts to violence because it is seeking actual operational intelligence, and “terroristic” torture, which seeks only to demonstrate its total physical and moral domination of the victim. The literary theorist Elaine Scarry, among others, has argued that torture is always and only terroristic, that information gathered under torture has long been acknowledged to be useless. She even cites an interesting study that found that countries engaged in torture routinely overburden their intelligence services to the point of paralysis because of all the false confessions and leads generated by torture. Something very much like this happened when an early high-level al Qaeda captive, Ibn Shaikh al-Libi, was handed over to the Egyptians for interrogation and quickly fabricated information about an al Qaeda–Saddam Hussein connection.

In the current situation, informational and terroristic torture have simply fused. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed cut off the head of Daniel Pearl, a very good journalist for the very good news section of a newspaper whose editorials are written by global-warming deniers and hard-power imperialists, because—as I learned from Mary Habeck’s Knowing Thy Enemy and Shmuel Bar’s Warrant for TERROR—the Koran can be read as suggesting that the enemy be killed in as gruesome a manner as possible, specifically by beheading. Thus KSM not only beheaded Daniel Pearl, but made an extremely well-produced video—not for nothing was he made chief of al Qaeda’s media operations in 2000—of the killing, and circulated it on the internet. Then we Americans got to KSM, and started finding things out. Our ability to do so was both useful—we learned how 9/11 was planned, start to finish—and also a demonstration of our ability to do so. The distinction between terroristic and information-gathering torture collapses, in other words: We torture people to get information out of them, and then we furnish this information as proof of our power.

And if you look at the gruesome evidence about the war on terror that occasionally bubbles up into the light of day, you see how our government has fought it as a war of information asymmetry; as a war in which to terrorize someone is exactly to deprive him of information. As I finish writing, in early December 2006, the New York Times has just published photos of the confinement of José Padilla, an American citizen who traveled to the camps in Afghanistan in the late ’90s and met with KSM about a plot, according to KSM, to set off a nuclear device in an American city. KSM suggested a more modest plan, to rent an apartment, fill it up with gas, and light a fuse. Padilla agreed but was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in mid-2002. Though an American citizen, he was immediately declared an “enemy combatant” and stripped of all rights. He was placed in the brig of a South Carolina naval base and his interrogation began. “Our interest is not in trying him and punishing him,” said Donald Rumsfeld at the time. “Our interest is in finding out what he knows.”

The photos that surfaced last week are awful. They show Padilla being removed from his cell so that he can visit the dentist. In the first photo, we see Padilla’s legs appear through a slit, whereupon they are manacled; light floods out of the cell into the hallway. In the next photo his hands appear; manacles are placed upon them as well. Two photos follow in which the three guards, wearing full riot gear, including helmets with visors, so that Padilla cannot even see their faces, open the door to let Padilla out. In the next photo the prisoner’s face is finally visible—and Padilla, it turns out, is not bloodied, his eyes have not been gouged out, his fingernails have not been pulled from his fingers. But this man—likely deranged to begin with, who once wanted to set off a nuclear device in a large American city—has been subjected to a regime of total sensory deprivation. As his interrogators demand to know everything about him, he knows nothing, sees nothing, hears nothing of them. In the photo, he leans slightly forward, humbly offering his head; the guard facing Padilla holds some contraption in his hands, to which he is going to subject Padilla. In the last photo, we learn that it is simply a pair of earmuffs. They have also placed blacked-out goggles over his eyes.

In the article accompanying the photos, a psychiatrist who examined Padilla at the request of his attorneys explained that after three years of sensory deprivation, of a total information deficit, Padilla has lost his mind.

  1. In a similar vein, statements of al Qaeda fighters who survived the devastating aerial bombardment of their positions by US forces in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 have repeatedly expressed outrage at the refusal of American troops to face them. 

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