February 20, 2008

Ban tough interrogations? The stakes are too high

The debate over the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of “aggressive” or “enhanced” interrogation techniques – specifically waterboarding – often fails to address the key issue: the risk to American lives if we were not able to extract potential threat information from terrorists. How far should an intelligence officer be allowed to go when interrogating a terrorist believed to have information about future attacks that could place thousands of American lives at risk?

We would all prefer to live in a society where this debate is not necessary. No professional intelligence or military officer relishes the idea of using aggressive, stressful interrogation techniques. Unfortunately, that is often what it takes to extract vital intelligence information from an uncooperative detainee.

The words aggressive, stressful, tough or enhanced are normally used to describe techniques that exceed the restrictions placed on interrogators in the recently revised U.S. Army field manual (Human Intelligence Collector Operations). Whether or not these techniques amount to torture is another debate.

According to the Army field manual, accepted interrogation “approaches” are all psychological, aimed at developing rapport and convincing a detainee to willingly cooperate with the interrogator. The manual applies to all detainees, be they enemy prisoners of war (EPW) or unlawful combatants. Captured Taliban and al-Qaeda members are for the most part considered “illegal enemy combatants” and are not entitled to protections afforded EPWs under the Geneva Convention.

The manual is very specific about what an interrogator cannot do and details all the applicable regulations regarding humane treatment of detainees. For example, proscribed practices include: forcing a detainee to be naked, perform sexual acts or be forced to pose in a sexual manner; placing hoods or sacks over the head of a detainee; using duct tape over the eyes; beatings, electric shock, burns, or other forms of physical pain; “waterboarding”; using military working dogs; inducing hypothermia or heat injury; mock executions; and depriving the detainee of necessary food, water, or medical care.

Interestingly, the use of isolation is permitted, but only by exception and with the permission of a general officer in each and every instance. If done properly, isolation can be an effective technique – humans are social creatures and generally need human contact. I have observed one Middle Eastern intelligence service use this technique almost exclusively, with excellent results.

From the list of proscribed actions in the manual, it is easy to draw the conclusion that it is a direct response to the abuses conducted by a handful of undisciplined soldiers at Abu Ghraib and their unauthorized use of dogs, forcing prisoners to engage in sexual acts, using hoods and beating prisoners. We may have gone too far in trying to prevent another abuse scandal – now the interrogators are more limited than ever in the techniques they can employ. Soldiers preparing to become interrogators at the Army intelligence school at Fort Huachuca are trained that even verbal threats to a detainee are now out of bounds.

The Army rules now apply to all members of the Department of Defense – military and civilians from all service branches and agencies. There is an effort in Congress to extend the restrictions imposed by the field manual to all government personnel and organizations, including the CIA.

There are reasons why the CIA is exempt from these rules: committed terrorists with knowledge of the inner workings of al-Qaeda, identities of the group’s operatives, venues of training camps, even planned – possibly imminent – operations, are unlikely to provide that information when subjected to the psychological techniques authorized by in the Army manual.

The Army’s techniques often work well against captured military personnel, many of whom have had no interrogation resistance training. During Desert Storm we learned that this was the case with Iraqi prisoners of war – most were willing to cooperate with little psychological manipulation. Frequently my direct questioning met with little hesitation and yielded surprisingly direct answers. In most cases, the humane treatment we afforded them was the key to success. Those who did resist, mostly mid-grade and senior officers, eventually responded to our interrogation methods as well.

In very few instances, mostly in a tactical setting, was violence ever threatened. In one reported incident, the Army allowed a lieutenant colonel to retire in lieu of a court martial for threatening to shoot an Iraqi prisoner in the head if he did not provide information the officer deemed necessary to protect his troops. This type of threat, though not to the point of actually firing a weapon, happened more than has been reported.

Interrogating prisoners of war and interrogating terrorists are two very different things. Military interrogators in Afghanistan learned that inducing stress through isolation and sleep deprivation did achieve some results from lower level detainees. Most of the detainees were committed religious fanatics, true believers in their cause. Although many thought they were willing to die for that cause – it was not until some thought they might actually get that opportunity that they broke and cooperated with their interrogators.

As far as we know, only three individuals have been subjected to the “enhanced interrogation” technique known as waterboarding. The timing of these interrogations was critical. In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, there was real concern in the intelligence and law enforcement communities that we did not have sufficient intelligence to prevent another attack.

Once the United States had access to captured senior al-Qaeda planners Khalid Sheik Mohammed (known as KSM) and Abu Zubaydah, the quandary then became: how far do we go to extract information that might prevent another 9/11? At the time, it was decided to subject them to more aggressive forms of interrogation, including waterboarding. This was done over the objections of those who claim that such methods are not effective.

Presidential candidate Senator John McCain, himself tortured by the North Vietnamese, is in this camp. The argument is that a subject will tell you whatever he thinks will stop the interrogation, telling the interrogator what he wants to hear rather than reliable information. In the North Vietnamese context, this was true enough. They were adept at causing pain, but ineffective in obtaining accurate information.

When done by professionals, these techniques can be effective. According to senior CIA officials, including former CIA Director George Tenet and CIA’s Usama bin Laden unit chief Mike Scheuer, waterboarding was effective in gaining valuable intelligence from the pair, especially KSM. Scheuer goes so far as to claim the intelligence obtained from the aggressive interrogations saved American lives.

It is imperative that we remember who the enemy is and adapt our interrogation protocols accordingly. While the Army’s rules might be sufficient in an armed conflict with a conventional military enemy, the genesis of organized, capable terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda requires a reassessment of that policy. It should be flexible enough to deal with the situation and also be clear enough to convey to the rest of the world that future detainees have reason to be intimidated by American interrogators, rather than being able to rely on the jihadi equivalent of “lawyering up.” Once they know we can’t do anything to them, they won’t cooperate. Fear of mistreatment is often more effective in obtaining cooperation than the mistreatment itself.

Knowing your adversary is key: while in our society restraint is regarded as a strength, in terrorist circles it is viewed as a weakness. Detainees at Guantanamo have laughed at their military interrogators, knowing the Americans’ ability to be tough on them is limited by legal constraints.

Then there is the argument that the permitted use of aggressive techniques by CIA interrogators will lead to mistreatment of Americans – military or civilian – detained by other countries or groups. That argument does not stand up to scrutiny. American prisoners of war have never been treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions – the only countries that adhere to the protocols seem to be the United States and its allies. In virtually every conflict, our captured personnel have been brutally treated and abused – just ask Senator McCain.

The senator has been very clear on his stance on waterboarding. He believes it is torture and should not be used. At the same time, he says that as President he will not restrict CIA interrogators to the approaches in the U.S. Army field manual. While that might appear to be a mixed message, it’s the right one.

The people calling the loudest for the prohibition of aggressive interrogations are not the ones who will be held responsible for keeping the country safe. It is easy to stand in the wells of Congress and call for the administration to treat everyone like a prisoner of war, extend Geneva Convention protections to all, and even allow the detainees at Guantanamo to have access to the U.S. civilian justice system. It’s different when the safety of the American people rests with you.

Outlawing or prohibiting the use of these tough interrogation methods will be a major mistake. The Army manual is too restrictive – CIA interrogators must be able to get tough and aggressive when American lives are at stake. The American people should tolerate no less.