Did Coercive Interrogation Produce Actionable Intelligence?

National intelligence director Dennis Blair maintains that the coercive interrogation techniques approved by the controversial OLC "torture memos" generated valuable, [actionable] intelligence, but this fact was initially omitted from the material released to the media in conjunction with the most recent "torture memo" disclosures. As the NYT reports:

"High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa'ida organization that was attacking this country," Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday. . . .

Admiral Blair's assessment that the interrogation methods did produce important information was deleted from a condensed version of his memo released to the media last Thursday. Also deleted was a line in which he empathized with his predecessors who originally approved some of the harsh tactics after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past," he wrote, "but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given."

A spokeswoman for Admiral Blair said the lines were cut in the normal editing process of shortening an internal memo into a media statement emphasizing his concern that the public understand the context of the decisions made in the past and the fact that they followed legal orders.

"The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means," Admiral Blair said in a written statement issued last night. "The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

As Blair notes, the fact that the relevant techniques produced actionable intelligence does not demonstrate the wisdom, morality, or necessity of resorting to such techniques. The same intelligence may have been obtainable through other means, and some interrogation techniques should be out of bounds irrespective of their utilitarian value.

Adm. Blair said he will "absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given." This qualification is important as there is reason to believe that the CIA exceeded the scope of what OLC had approved in its actual interrogations. In other words, at least some CIA operatives appear not to have acted in good faith reliance on the OLC memos. A new report further concludes that military and intelligence officials decided to rely upon coercive interrogation methods before any high-value detainees had been captured or anything had been approved by OLC.

Meanwhile, David Ignatius has a column explaining how the "torture memo" disclosures have influenced morale at the CIA. This column goes a long way toward explaining why high-ranking intelligence officials — both those who served under Bush and those currently serving under Obama — opposed the memos' release.

UPDATE: As some commenters have noted, there is some ambiguity in Adm. Blair's statement about whether the intelligence obtained through coercive interrogation techniques was "actionable" or merely "valuable." Any intel obtained through these methods could have been the latter without necessarily being the former.