Finally an Intellectually Honest Critic of EITs

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In 2007, WaPo ended an article quoting a CIA officer as saying in 2005, “The larger problem here, I think is that this kind of stuff just makes people feel better, even if it doesn't work.” in regards to the question of whether torture works or not. Now we have Gregg Bloche, a physician and a professor of law at Georgetown University, writing for WaPo, saying the reverse: That those who say “torture doesn't work” are saying it to make themselves feel better. Finally, we have a critic of the CIA enhanced interrogation program who isn't launching into hyperbole and distorted assumptions, but is taking an honest look at it, while remaining a critic:

The idea that waterboarding and other abuses may have been effective in getting information from detainees is repellant to many, including me. It’s contrary to the meme many have embraced: that torture doesn’t work because people being abused to the breaking point will say anything to get the brutality to stop — anything they think their accusers want to hear.

One of the memes from critics is that torture doesn't work because the person being tortured will tell you anything you want to hear to make the pain stop, including false confessions and false information.

Two things:

1)Torture doesn't work

John McCain claims as much; and yet, as one commenter on a WaPo article pointed out, torture did work on McCain:

McCain in his 1999 autobiography, “Faith of My Fathers,” McCain describes

“Eventually, I gave them my ship’s name and squadron number, and confirmed that my target had been the power plant.”

McCain said: “I regret very much having done so. The information was of no real use to the Vietnamese, but the Code of Conduct for American Prisoners of War orders us to refrain from providing any information beyond our names, rank and serial number.”

“I had learned what we all learned over there,” McCain said. “Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.”

But let's agree for now that in general, whether torture works or not, torture is morally repugnant to us and against our values. Which is why Bush, Cheney, and the CIA would all disagree with the claims that the CIA interrogation program = torture. Those who created and endorsed the program went through great lengths to make sure that they did not cross a line. If anything, the OLC memos released by the Obama Administration weren't “torture” memos, but “How not to torture” memos. We can have an honest discussion about where that line in the sand should have been drawn; but to lay claim that Bush and company are no different than al Qaeda using power drills on its victims or that waterboarding was conducted no differently than the water torture employed by the Spanish Inquisition is to launch into exaggeration and dishonesty.

2) Those who are tortured will confess to anything and give false information to make the pain stop

This is a misunderstanding of the purpose of EITs (enhanced interrogation techniques). The 30 HVTs (high value terrorists) who were subjected to EITs under the CIA program were put through it with the goal in mind of obtaining cooperation, not information. Bloche elaborates upon the reasoning behind the use of EITs further:

But this position is at odds with some behavioral science, I’ve learned. The architects of enhanced interrogation are doctors who built on a still-classified, research-based model that suggests how abuse can indeed work.

I’ve examined the science, studied the available paper trail and interviewed key actors, including several who helped develop the enhanced interrogation program and who haven’t spoken publicly before. This inquiry has made it possible to piece together the model that undergirds enhanced interrogation.

This model holds that harsh methods can’t, by themselves, force terrorists to tell the truth. Brute force, it suggests, stiffens resistance. Rather, the role of abuse is to induce hopelessness and despair. That’s what sleep deprivation, stress positions and prolonged isolation were designed to do. Small gestures of contempt — facial slaps and frequent insults — drive home the message of futility. Even the rough stuff, such as “walling” and waterboarding, is meant to dispirit, not to coerce.

Once a sense of hopelessness is instilled, the model holds, interrogators can shape behavior through small rewards. Bathroom breaks, reprieves from foul-tasting food and even the occasional kind word can coax broken men to comply with their abusers’ expectations.


It’s been widely reported that the program was conceived by a former Air Force psychologist, James Mitchell, who had helped oversee the Pentagon’s program for training soldiers and airmen to resist torture if captured. That Mitchell became the CIA’s maestro of enhanced interrogation and personally waterboarded several prisoners was confirmed in 2009 through the release of previously classified documents. But how Mitchell got involved and why the agency embraced his methods remained a mystery.

The key player was a clinical psychologist turned CIA official, Kirk Hubbard, I learned through interviews with him and others. On the day 19 hijackers bent on mass murder made their place in history, Hubbard’s responsibilities at the agency included tracking developments in the behavioral sciences with an eye toward their tactical use. He and Mitchell knew each other through the network of psychologists who do national security work. Just retired from the Air Force, Mitchell figured he could translate what he knew about teaching resistance into a methodology for breaking it. He convinced Hubbard, who introduced him to CIA leaders and coached him through the agency’s bureaucratic rivalries.

Journalistic accounts have cast Mitchell as a rogue who won a CIA contract by dint of charisma. What’s gone unappreciated is his reliance on a research base. He had studied the medical and psychological literature on how Chinese interrogators extracted false confessions. And he was an admirer of Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who had developed the concept of “learned helplessness” and invoked it to explain depression.

Mitchell, it appears, saw connections and seized upon them. The despair that Chinese interrogators tried to instill was akin to learned helplessness. Seligman’s induction of learned helplessness in laboratory animals, therefore, could point the way to prison regimens capable of inducing it in people. And — this was Mitchell’s biggest conceptual jump — the Chinese way of shaping behavior in prisoners who were reduced to learned helplessness held a broader lesson.

To motivate a captive to comply, a Chinese interrogator established an aura of omnipotence. For weeks or months, the interrogator was his prisoner’s sole human connection, with monopoly power to praise, punish and reward. Rapport with the interrogator offered the only escape from despair. This opened possibilities for the sculpting of behavior and belief. For propaganda purposes, the Chinese sought sham confessions. But Mitchell saw that behavioral shaping could be used to pursue other goals, including the extraction of truth.

Did the methods Mitchell devised help end the hunt for bin Laden? Have they prevented terrorist attacks? We’ll never know.

Yet we do know. Enhanced interrogations worked on the likes of Abu Zubaydah and KSM, leading to revelations of operatives and more information, which in turn led to other terrorists killed and captured along with more intell information and subsequently more plots foiled. These might not have directly involved EITs and are 7 degrees of separation; but they originally stemmed from the information gleaned from HVTs who were subjected to the CIA program. Again, EITs only were necessarily applied to the very few hardened terrorists who were resistant (and trained) to standard interrogation practices. Before this, little was known about how al Qaeda operated. By 2006, over half of what was learned came out of the CIA interrogation program.

As Michael Hayden puts it in today's WSJ:

The recent dispute over what strains of intelligence led to the killing of Osama bin Laden highlights the phenomenon. It must appear to outside observers like a theological debate over how many angels can reside on the head of a pin. So we see carefully tailored arguments designed to discount the value of enhanced interrogations: the first mention of the courier's name came from a detainee not in CIA custody; CIA detainees gave false and misleading information about the courier; there is no way to confirm that information obtained through enhanced interrogation was the decisive intelligence that led us directly to bin Laden.

All fair enough as far as they go. But let the record show that when I was first briefed in 2007 about the brightening prospect of pursuing bin Laden through his courier network, a crucial component of the briefing was information provided by three CIA detainees, all of whom had been subjected to some form of enhanced interrogation. One of the most alerting pieces of evidence was that two of the detainees who had routinely been cooperative and truthful (after they had undergone enhanced techniques) were atypically denying apparent factual data—a maneuver taken as a good sign that the CIA was on to something important.

So that there is no ambiguity, let me be doubly clear: It is nearly impossible for me to imagine any operation like the May 2 assault on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that would not have made substantial use of the trove of information derived from CIA detainees, including those on whom enhanced techniques had been used.

It is easy to imagine the concerns at the political level as the CIA built its case that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound, and it became obvious that detainee data was an important thread of intelligence. To his credit, and obviously reflecting this reality, White House spokesman Jay Carney has not denied that fact but correctly pointed out that there were multiple co-dependent threads that led to this success.

In response to a direct question on the CBS Evening News about enhanced interrogation and the bin Laden success, CIA Director Leon Panetta confirmed on May 3 that, “Obviously there was some valuable information that was derived through those kind of interrogations.” He also added that it was an “open question” whether the information could have been elicited through other means, implicitly contradicting those who claim that other means would have produced the same information.

Let me add that this is not a discussion about the merits or the appropriateness of any interrogation technique. Indeed, I personally took more than half of the techniques (including waterboarding) off the table in 2007 because American law had changed, our understanding of the threat had deepened, and we were now blessed with additional sources of information. We can debate what was appropriate then, or now, but this is a discussion about a particular historical fact: Information derived from enhanced interrogation techniques helped lead us to bin Laden.

And so those who are prone to condemn the actions of those who have gone before (while harvesting the fruits of their efforts) might take pause. I've been personally asked about the appropriateness of waterboarding and—recognizing the immense challenge of balancing harsh treatment with saving innocent lives—usually respond: “I thank God that I did not have to make that decision.” At the same time, I thank those who preceded me, made such decisions and thereby spared me the worst of the dilemma. Those who deny the usefulness of enhanced interrogation techniques might consider similar caution.

But if they cannot or will not, shouldn't they be true to their faith? If they truly believe that these interrogations did not and could not yield useful intelligence, they should demand that the CIA identify all the information derived directly or indirectly from enhanced interrogation. And then they should insist the agency destroy it. They should also insist that significant portions of the 9/11 Commission Report be rescinded, as it too was based on this data. This would be perfectly consistent with the interrogation deniers' transcendental faith that nothing of use could have come from enhanced interrogations after 9/11.

It must be remembered that Hayden came aboard as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2006, non-partisan to the debate. As Marc Thiessen writes in Courting Disaster, pg 116-117,

Another person who conducted an independent review of the classified evidence is Mike Hayden. When Hayden became CIA Director in 2006, he did not have a dog in the fight over the CIA program. He was not with the agency when it authorized the interrogations, and the program had been suspended before he arrived at Langley. He could easily have recommended to the president that they just leave the program dormant and move on.

Instead, he spent the summer studying the effectiveness of the interrogations. He approached it with an outsider's objectivity. He asked agency officials for details of the intelligence the program produced, and their assessments of how valuable the intelligence had been. Hayden explains: “I said, 'OK what have we got?' And they showed me, and I said, 'Whoa, that's really a lot.'” After examining the facts, Hayden says, “I was convinced enough that I believed that we needed to keep this tool available to us.” He says his view at the time was, “I really wish this decision wasn't mine, but given what I now know, I cannot in conscience say, 'We can do without this.'”

Returning back to Bloche's WaPo article, in conclusion:

So we’re left with the unsavory possibility that torture-lite works — and that it may have helped find bin Laden. It does no good to point out, as some human rights advocates have, that the detainees who yielded information about his courier did so after the abuse stopped. The model on which enhanced interrogation is based can account for this. The detainees’ cooperation could have ensued from hopelessness and despair, followed by interrogators’ adroit use of their power to punish and reward.

This possibility poses the question of torture in a more unsettling fashion, by denying us the easy out that torture is both ineffective and wrong. We must choose between its repugnance to our values and its potential efficacy. To me, the choice is almost always obvious: Contempt for the law of nations would put us on a path toward a more brutish world. Conservatives are fond of saying, on behalf of martial sacrifice, that freedom isn’t free. Neither is basic decency.


9 Responses to “Finally an Intellectually Honest Critic of EITs”

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    Excellent work Word, I like how you offered both pieces. One is the nuts and bolts of the program, the other is the results of it.

    As for “basic decency,” I am not up for the loss of anyone I love, neighbor with, casually know, etc. to be murdered in mass numbers for the sake of a terrorist killer’s comfort. So, I guess I would be one that would be considered by the anti-EIT crowd as not decent.

    I see no reason why these animals should be allowed to sit in their cells with knowledge of death to innocents plots swirling around in their heads, praying that their devastating plots succeed and we are helpless to do anything about it. Knock off the elitist snobbery and use the tools when necessary!

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    To me, actually causing physical damage to someone is torture. While water boarding and other psychological techniques are much more than unplesant, they do not cause physical damage to one. If psychological techniques are torture, please arrest my exwife! Good post Word!

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    As for “basic decency,” I am not up for the loss of anyone I love, neighbor with, casually know, etc. to be murdered in mass numbers for the sake of a terrorist killer’s comfort. So, I guess I would be one that would be considered by the anti-EIT crowd as not decent.

    Many of those same critics who would morally berate you for betraying values and principles, when personalizing the situation (a loved one or child being the potential victim of “taking the moral high road”) would probably “betray” their principles, too…as if allowing the deaths of innocent lives over the torture of a known terrorist is the morally superior choice. I had an interesting exercise a while back for readers and “EIT denier” critics who think we’ve all been watching too much “24”.

    I consider myself a “torture denier” and not a “torture apologist” (i.e., that what Bush and the CIA condoned did not rise to the definition of “torture” as opposed to acceptance of the use of torture as a necessary means to an end). However, I also agree with the author of Black Hawk Down who wrote a couple of pieces in 2007, when less was still known about the details we know now,

    The goal of an intelligence operation in wartime, on the other hand, is to elicit accurate, timely information to thwart attacks. In this setting, interrogation is a process, one in which a prisoner is rewarded for the truth, and punished for lying. It is designed to save lives and ensure the success of a military operation. Coercive methods are rarely necessary. Most often, prisoners can be induced to cooperate by being nice to them. There are many other interrogation methods proven to be useful that do not require so much as raising one’s voice. But there will always be hard cases like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, another mastermind of Sept. 11. With prisoners like these, defiant and dangerous, the only right question to ask is, What works?

    > What does work? Opponents of torture argue that it never works, that it always produces false information. If that were so, then this would be a simple issue, and the whole logic of incentive
    disincentive is false, which defies common sense. In one of the cases I have cited previously, a German police captain was able to crack the defiance of a kidnapper who had buried a child alive simply by threatening torture (the police chief was fired, a price any moral individual would gladly pay). The chief acted on the only moral justification for starting down this road, which is to prevent something worse from happening. If published reports can be believed, this is precisely what happened with Zubaydah.

    > People can be coerced into revealing important, truthful information. The German kidnapper did, Zubaydah did, and prisoners have throughout recorded time. What works varies for every individual, but in most cases, what works is fear, fear of imprisonment, fear of discomfort, fear of pain, fear of bad things happening to you, fear of bad things happening to those close to you. Some years ago in Israel, in the course of investigating this subject exhaustively, I interviewed Michael Koubi, a master interrogator who has questioned literally thousands of prisoners in a long career with Shin Bet. He said that the prisoner who resisted noncoercive methods was rare, but in those hard cases, fear usually produced results. Fear works better than pain.

    > It is an ugly business, and it is rightly banned. The interrogators who waterboarded Zubaydah were breaking the law. They knew they were risking their careers and freedom.

    I disagree with Bowden here; but then, this was written in 2007 and I don’t think at the time we knew how extensively the Justice Department and CIA lawyers researched the matter on where the line in the sand should be drawn. The CIA were very wary of crossing a line and were on the conservative side if it meant risking future prosecution. They went to great length to make sure they were legally protected before proceeding.

    But if the result of the act itself was a healthy terrorist with a bad memory vs. a terror attack that might kill hundreds or even thousands of people, it is a good outcome. The decision to punish those responsible for producing it is an executive one. Prosecutors and judges are permitted to weigh the circumstances and consider intent.

    > Which is why I say that waterboarding Zubaydah may have been illegal, but it wasn’t wrong.

    What Bowden is saying, and he clarifies it in a succeeding article after his first one generated flak, is that torture should remain illegal, but under extraordinary circumstances is justifiable morally:

    This correspondent argued that we ought to accept impending tragedy in the name of honoring a high-minded policy.

    > In my column, I raised the example of the German police chief who threatened a captured kidnapper with torture because he refused to reveal where he had buried alive his 12-year-old victim. The kidnapper promptly gave the location. The German police chief lost his job for making the threat.

    > It may well have been more noble on some level for him not to have made the threat, but I prefer a less rigid concept of morality. I would not have fired the police chief, or prosecuted him. I agree completely with his actions, even though torture is repulsive. The boy’s life matters more than my rectitude or peace of mind.

    @Randy: Admiral Mike McConnell was another one, like Hayden, who was brought on board late in the game and had no inherent vested interest in defending CIA-style waterboarding. After a thorough review of the program’s techniques and effectiveness, he concluded that “I played grade school and high school football, and playing high school football subjects you to more danger than these techniques.”

    In reviewing military interrogation practices and answering requests by SOUTHCOM combatant commander, Army General James T. Hill to allow additional methods that went beyond the Army Field Manual but which were also still legal and humane, Rumsfeld is famous for having quipped in the margin of one Category II technique (“standing”), “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?” Whether he was being “funny” or not about it, it made for good fodder for the critics of Guantanamo and detainee abuse. But seriously….making someone (anyone, let alone a terrorist) stand for 4 hours rises to the definition of “abuse” and “torture”? In Rumsfeld’s memoir, Known and Unknown, he writes on pg 578,

    One technique included changing the detainee’s regular hot meals to standard MREs (meals ready to eat). I found it strange that serving detainees the same meals our soldiers ate could be called an enhanced interrogation procedure.

    When Rumsfeld was reviewing interrogation methods in 2002 and 2003 for military detainees, several military senior officials were telling Rumsfeld he was being too restrictive (no one was ever waterboarded at Guantanamo, and the DoD detention operations were separate from that of the CIA).
    Came across this while researching for a different comment:

    *Al Qaida personnel had been trained to resist standard questioning techniques, and some of these detainees were believed to have important intelligence. The Southern Command therefore requested permission to try some techniques that went beyond the Army Field Manual but were still within the bounds of U.S. and international law- for example, requiring detainees to stand for up to four hours at a time while being questioned. When some military department lawyers questioned the legality of those additional techniques, Rumsfeld revoked his approval and asked for a Department-wide legal review. The review produced a report in April 2003 that unanimously endorsed some of the techniques and reported disagreement on others. Rumsfeld authorized the unanimously endorsed techniques and rejected all of the legally contested ones.
    – War and Decision, Pg 165

    I do, however, agree, that subjecting detainees to Christina Aguilera music for even 1 minute, goes too far, as “cruel and unusual”.

    We’re better than that, people….

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    Count me with @Randy here. My notion of torture extends to maiming, crippling, removal of limbs etal… not psychological. Guess that makes me with you, Word da man… a “torture denier”.

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    I remember the yellow pack meals we were distributing to the displaced Iraqis. MREs were a banquet compared to them, yet they ate them. MATA, glad to have you on board. I also believe if I were in the position that LTC Allen West was in , I would do something similar. Does scaring the contents of someones bowels out of his body and into his pants equal torture? Word, very thoughtful and complete.

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    In one of the Matt Helm books, Helm quotes something his boss once said on the matter of getting information; don’t have the book handy, but went something like
    “Take a man, set him down at a table, treat him like an officer and gentleman and then stick splinters under his fingernails and set them on fire, and most of the time he’ll spit in your face while his fingertips burn. But rough him up a bit, show him his dignity means nothing, make him uncomfortable long enough and you’ll get him to talk.”
    Sounds like the author may have read of something like this before writing that.

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    @Firehand: One of the western writers (May be Louis Lamour, Skook) mentioned that when you had a fight with someone and you had them down, always give him the boots. That way you will never have to watch your back. If I recall, Matt Helm was a very ruthless man who knew how to get the job done! We need some people like that.

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    Always liked the Helm novels, and that was a big reason why: get the job done, with whatever level of nastiness needed.