May 9, 2011

On enhanced interrogation of al-Qa'idah detainees

There is renewed debate about the efficacy of what the intelligence community has labeled "enhanced interrogation techniques." Some critics call these techniques torture, while others believe that even though they contravene the tactics sanctioned by the interrogator's handbook, U.S. Army Field Manual 2-22.3 - Human Intelligence Collector Operations, they do not constitute torture.

Personally, I am in the latter camp. I have been waterboarded while in training to be on a U.S. Air Force intelligence collection aircrew. It was not a pleasant experience; it was instructive, but I do not think it rises to the level of torture. The Air Force is not in the habit of subjecting its personnel to torture.

Following the successful Navy SEAL elimination of al-Qa'idah chief Shaykh Usamah bin Ladin, proponents of harsh interrogations claimed, with some validity as far as I can tell, that waterboarding of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad and Abu Faraj al-Libi extracted the information that identified the courier that eventually led us to the location of Usamah bin Ladin.

As can be expected, the opponents of enhanced interrogations claim the opposite. They also add the conjecture that the information could have been obtained through normal interrogation techniques. That claim is impossible to prove, and in my opinion ludicrous.

Having done some of this for a living, I have concluded that when committed, hard-core subjects know you cannot stress them, they are almost impossible to break. I will not go into how we got around the restrictions, but suffice it to say a loaded pistol between the eyes is a powerful motivator. In theory, they know you cannot hurt them, but once you have them convinced that you are the one amirki (American) that did not get the memo, a false sense of reality sets in.

In March 2008, I was asked to debate the use of harsh interrogation techniques in New York for an organization called Intelligence Squared. Here is my initial argument at that forum. I still stand by my words.

If "enhanced interrogation techniques," or torture to some, don't work, they would not have been practiced for thousands of years.

You decide.