There is much excited speculation about the interrogation of the two Al Qaeda suspects arrested in Pakistan on March 1: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, more or less the chief operating officer of Osama bin Laden's conglomerate of terror, and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who was Al Qaeda's equivalent of a chief financial officer. Between them, the two men must know virtually everything important about what is left of Al Qaeda.
Among the things we want to know are: Who are Al Qaeda's chief Saudi and Gulf benefactors, whose complicity in the past ensures their present vulnerability to blackmail?
Even more important, in the short run, is the identity of Al Qaeda's remaining operational agents and some of its post-Sept. 11 volunteers around the world.
If rigorously followed, the standard security procedures recommended in Al Qaeda's training manual would of course prevent any one operating cell from knowing about another. That is why the many arrests around the world of individuals connected with Al Qaeda have not led to the arrest of many others. But all cells must report upward, and there can be no real security barrier between a man in Mohammed's position and those he must reach to launch operations.
Finally, both men must have known where Osama bin Laden was hiding on the day the arrests were announced, which raises the interesting question of why the arrests were announced at all, although the answer is probably unexciting: Neither the Pakistanis nor the FBI and CIA are known for their reticence when there are anti-terrorist successes to be announced.
These two men, who know enormously valuable things but who are unlikely to be very forthcoming, are now in the hands of FBI and CIA interrogators. Naturally there is intense curiosity about what might be going on in the "undisclosed location" where they are being held. Are truth drugs being used? Of course, no drug really works: People babble, but fantasies and irrelevant memories almost always crowd out useful intelligence.
What about torture? As soon as the subject was raised, there was an immediate official denial: The interrogators are subject to U.S. law, which prohibits the use of violence to extract information, ruling out beatings, let alone refinements of cruelty such as electrical shock. In this case official denials can be believed, assuming that the interrogators are at all experienced, not only because civil servants are cautious about personally exposing themselves to prosecution at a later date but also because torture very rarely works.
When a person under interrogation tells the truth, that is perfect, of course. When he lies to mislead his interrogators, saying for example that Mr. X is at Y when in fact he is at Z, that is also of some use because if the lie can be uncovered, one can often guess the truth. In other words, deception often contains some buried truth. Torture, on the other hand, does not elicit either truth or deception but merely what the victim thinks that his torturers want to hear.
The prevalence of torture in dictatorships and at the hands of lawless police everywhere does not reflect its usefulness, but rather the fact that if it is allowed, the torture chambers will attract sadists, in some cases full-time professionals who do nothing else. Usually their intelligence product is inferior to that of interrogators who merely threaten, push around a bit and offer the occasional cigarette. But dictatorships are not interested in such comparisons because rumors of horrendous torture are so effective in suppressing dissent.
So why will Mohammed and Hawsawi give away Al Qaeda's secrets, as they almost certainly will? At first, they might be so defiant that they have to be forcibly restrained. In the process, they would themselves create a gray area where sleep deprivation is inherent rather than the deliberate torture that would violate the law. But if they resemble 99.9% of their fellow men, once Mohammed and Hawsawi fully absorb their new reality, they will start to talk in small ways to obtain small favors, including the company of the interrogators. They will trot out their prepared deceptions, but with time they will begin with the truths they consider obsolete and therefore harmless to the cause. Then other truths will come out, in exchange for favors that matter.
And so it will go on, and that is the problem: The information is needed far more quickly than it will be supplied. So perhaps more important than Hawsawi or even Mohammed are the computers, cell phones and documents found with them. The information that these items convey might be limited, but it is not wrapped in deception and, above all, it is immediate. The FBI reportedly has launched investigations of at least 12 suspected terrorists in the U.S. whose names were found in the two men's possession.
Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.