“The history of the United States military is clear: Torture doesn’t work”– Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
“We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in.”– Vice President Dick Cheney
“This country doesn’t torture, we’re not going to torture.”–President Bush
Agents searching Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s compound discovered what one official later called a “mother lode” of valuable intelligence. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was obviously planning more attacks. It didn’t sound like he was willing to give us any information about them. “I’ll talk to you,” he said, “after I get to New York and see my lawyer.”
George Tenet asked if he had permission to use enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I thought about my meeting with Danny Pearl’s widow, who was pregnant with his son when he was murdered. I thought about the 2,973 people stolen from their families by al Qaeda on 9/11. And I thought about my duty to protect the country from another act of terror.
“Damn right,” I said.
– Decision Points, pg 170, by George W. Bush
When asked about future plots, KSM’s reply was, “Soon you will know.” Like Abu Zubaydah before him, KSM was trained to resist standard interrogation techniques. After being waterboarded by his CIA interrogators, Zubaydah thanked them and told them, “You must do this for all the brothers.”
Around my last year of college, I picked up some work as a loss prevention specialist for a major retail clothing company. Aside from acting as an in-house detective on occasion, I also worked different stores in the district, training the sales staff in areas of loss prevention.
The person I answered to was the regional loss prevention manager who hired me. She was amazing! I had the privilege of sitting in on a couple of her interviews as she interrogated employees suspected of internal theft. After the interviews, she’d walk me through and point out the employee’s body language throughout key moments in the interview; the questions she asked, why she asked them at the moment she chose to ask them; she educated me on where the employee’s missteps were and when it became obvious to her that the employee was fabricating, hiding something, etc. By the end of the interrogation, the terminated employee would walk out of the room in a daze. Throughout the process, my boss basically got the thief to confess through a kind of relationship-building. It was so intense, that even after it was over, the employee left still feeling like my boss was somehow an understanding friend.
She confided in me that there was a time in her youth that she was approached by the Secret Service and the CIA to work for them. She was THAT good, apparently. I remember asking her why she didn’t take the job offer with the Secret Service and she simply told me she didn’t want to have to take a bullet.
What she taught me from the small amount of exposure I had been given, was just how much of an art it was to interrogate people. Watching her at work, then having her interpret for me later on what I failed to see, was like watching/listening and appreciating/analyzing good poetry.
There seems to be a misunderstanding about the nature of the CIA program under the Bush Administration that involved enhanced interrogation. So much so, that even experts in the field of interrogation have been misled into false assumptions about what the CIA interrogation program was all about. One such expert is Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym) whose book, Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious al Qaeda Terrorist, I recently purchased.
Fortunately, early in 2010, an important book came out to try and set the record straight by defending those CIA interrogators who, up until then, could not openly speak out to defend themselves from all the slander, distortions, and assumptions about their work. The public should not have had knowledge of the details, let alone our enemies. But thanks to the leaks, media hysteria, hype, and distortions, partisan politics over patriotism, and finally the release of the OLC memos by the Obama administration, Marc Thiessen was able to shoot back with his book. As he puts it in his Author’s Note and has stated in interviews, “You should not be reading this book. I should not have been able to write it.”
The public discourse over the CIA program has in itself killed it. Its effectiveness was in the “not-knowing”; in the uncertainty. Waterboarding had already been discontinued (I think in 2003) long before President Obama’s first executive order, redundantly “banning” what was already banned. Revelations about its existence and details already effectively killed its value to CIA interrogators. Now, like those in our military who undergo waterboarding in SERE training, al Qaeda operatives can now add it to their list in interrogation resistance training. According to Thiessen, KSM, who is said to have received upward of 183 splashes during his waterboarding sessions, figured out just how long his interrogators could waterboard him for and would count down the seconds on one hand. Matthew Alexander and critics argue that this is proof of how ineffective waterboarding is. I’d say it bolsters the argument that the CIA method of waterboarding hardly constitutes the kind of waterboarding that does cross the line from the simulated feeling of drowning to one of actual drowning and torture.
The effectiveness of the CIA techniques was in the pretense of torture; of making the terrorist believe that things were worse than they actually were. As Marc Thiessen describes it:
The effect of the techniques is psychological, not physical. They trick the terrorists into thinking what they are enduring is worse than it really is.
It’s like the show Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed — once you know how the magician saws the woman in half, you’re not fooled. The same goes for enhanced interrogation.
In a strange twist of irony, the media falsehoods about torture at the hands of our CIA, as damaging as it’s been to our reputation in the world, may also have helped to perpetuate the “magic trick”-purpose of EITs:
The story of one senior al-Qaeda terrorist, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, illustrates the point. When Abd al-Hadi was brought to a CIA black site, agency officials told him, “We’re the CIA.” He replied, “I’ve heard of you guys. I’ll tell you anything you need to know.” And he did. Detainees like Abd al-Hadi cooperated without enhanced techniques because they feared enhanced techniques.
In wake of the “waterboarding” of Osama bin Laden’s carcass at the beginning of this month, new partisan questions have arisen regarding which administration should be credited the most with “having brought him to justice” (and his 72 urchins).
Like Ali Soufan, Matthew Alexander is an expert in his field who has served his country honorably; both have played important roles in the fight against the al Qaeda network and affiliates. Both men have also been lionized by liberals (holding credibility for their expertise in the field of interrogation) on account of their scathing criticism of the CIA enhanced interrogation program; and in calling the Bush administration out with the torture charge. I, the non-expert, however, believe they themselves have been misled, just like these WWII vets and that the proof is in Thiessen’s research. I believe Thiessen’s work trumps their own assumptions regarding the CIA program as it functioned under President Bush.
In Alexander’s book, he stresses the importance of relationship-building as it relates to interrogating suspects and captures. By emphasizing this, critics of enhanced interrogations are setting up a strawman. What they don’t seem to get or acknowledge is that the CIA absolutely believes in and acknowledges the virtues of the relationship-building approach as well.
Pg. 91 from Ronald Kessler’s The Terrorist Watch:
The CIA interrogated captured terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and at secret locations throughout the world such as Bagram Air Force Base, an American installation in Afghanistan. While the CIA used coercive methods like depriving suspects of sleep and forcing them to kneel for hours, the CIA believed that actual torture involving infliction of pain produced bad information. Simply offering terrorists tea and sympathy was often enough to get al Qaeda members to talk. Often, the Stockholm Syndrome took over. Most al Qaeda members cooperated after a day or two. If not, they might be turned over to intelligence services in Egypt, Morocco, or Jordan where rough techniques could be used.
“You start by getting him talking to you,” David Manners, the former station chief in Jordan, says. “You start with items you already know about. That shows him you know a lot. His defenses diminish. Then you ask about items you don’t know about. Beating a guy up doesn’t work. He will tell you anything to stop the pain. We never used such tactics.”
Marc Thiessen would agree, based upon his research and interviews with those CIA interrogators who themselves were directly involved in the CIA program.
In the opening prologue to Kill or Capture, Alexander talks about how legendary WWII-era interrogators stuck to American values and principles, never resorting to torture. Well, guess what? The very best American interrogators- including Alexander, Soufan, and those directly involved in the CIA enhanced interrogation program- also uphold American values and principles; and also do not believe in the effectiveness of torture.
Incidentally, according to Eisenhower and the German POWs by Stephen Ambrose and Gunter Bishhof, as many as 56,000 German POWs- about 1% of the total numbers captured by war’s end- may have died while in U.S. custody. Contrast this with the .125% in today’s GWoT: Human Rights First reported in a 2006 study that since August of 2002, 100 detainees held by the CIA and the U.S. military had died while in captivity (According to military records, 34 of these are suspected or confirmed homicides). According to Department of Defense figures, by 2006, over 80,000 have been held under U.S. custody in the War on Terror.
So where lies the historical precedence that the Bush Administration behaved worse or that those under its leadership behaved worse than Americans of previous generations and of previous administrations? It doesn’t exist, other than in the fevered imaginings of media hype, sensationalizing and distorting the record.
Only about 100 terrorists were ever held in the CIA program that saw fit to subject only 30 of those 100 to enhanced interrogations (and of these only 3 were waterboarded; how many detainees both military and CIA were ever waterboarded at Guantanamo? Answer: Zero). The techniques used arguably do not rise to the level of definition for torture and were cleared by the legal counsel of the Justice Department and CIA lawyers. The European Court for Human Rights, which has a more restrictive definition of “inhuman and degrading treatment” than Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, also determined in Ireland vs. United Kingdom that the 5 techniques (wall-standing, hooding, noise, sleep deprivation, food and drink deprivation) used by British interrogators did not amount to the level of definition for torture.
When critics say, “people will tell you whatever you want them to say to make the torture stop”, what they are saying is that they completely do not have a grasp of the CIA program or the purpose for coercive techniques. Enhanced interrogations were not used to elicit confessions but to gain cooperation, after which normal relationship-building interrogation is established (de-briefing). Those 30 detainees who became candidates for enhanced interrogations were tough. A number of them most likely received extensive training in interrogation resistance for them to have entered the program.
As Thiessen wrote recently in WaPo:
Interrogators would never have asked about the names of couriers during waterboarding. As I explain in my book, “Courting Disaster,” enhanced techniques were not used to gain intelligence; they were used to elicit cooperation. According to former CIA director Mike Hayden, as enhanced techniques were applied, CIA interrogators would ask detainees questions to which the interrogators already know the answers — allowing them to judge whether the detainees had reached a level of compliance. “They are designed to create a state of cooperation, not to get specific truthful answers to a specific question,” Hayden said.
Once interrogators determined a terrorist had become cooperative, the techniques stopped and traditional, non-coercive methods of questioning were used. Moreover, the use of enhanced techniques wasn’t needed for two-thirds of the detainees in CIA custody . Just the experience of being brought into CIA custody — the “capture shock,” arrival at a sterile location, the isolation, the fact that they did not know where they were and that no one else knew they were there — was enough to persuade most of them to cooperate.
Alexander makes the argument in his article that there are negative consequences to torturing your captured enemies aside from the unreliability of confessed information:
Those consequences include the fact that torture handed al Qaeda its No. 1 recruiting tool, a fact confirmed by the U.S. Department of Defense’s interrogators in Iraq who questioned foreign fighters about why they had come there to fight. (I have first-hand knowledge of this information because I oversaw many of these interrogations and was briefed on the aggregate results.) In addition, future detainees will be unwilling to cooperate from the onset of an interrogation because they view all Americans as torturers. I heard this repeatedly in Iraq, where some detainees accused us of being the same as the guards at Abu Ghraib.
I have no doubt that many foreign fighters and Muslims embraced the jihad just as many Americans began enlisting after 9/11. A desire to protect your tribe is a natural, noble, universal instinct; a desire to defend your own. Abu Ghraib almost single-handedly cost us Iraq and gave al Qaeda new life. But more so than the actual abuses that happened there, more than any actual instances of abuses that happened at Guantanamo, Bagram, or anywhere under CIA and U.S. military supervision, was the media hyperventilation and overexaggeration of any actual let alone alleged abuses that occurred. Media distortions and misguided human rights watch groups, absent of real facts, did just as much to recruit jihadis as anything that actually happened in earnest. Jihadi propaganda could not have crafted a more self-serving narrative than the one world opinion shaped for them.
As Thiessen writes, “It is this myth, not the CIA’s actions, that has harmed America’s reputation across the globe” (Courting Disaster, pg 172)
Americans do not condone torture. Neither President Bush, VP Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, nor Marc Thiessen endorse torture. They are not “torture apologists”, nor am I. (“Torture deniers”, maybe…might be a label I’d be willing to wear 😉 )
Yes, abuses happened. But these were the exceptions, outside the norm; never part of military or CIA policy. Those abusers were prosecuted and punished.
Honest debate can be made regarding where the line in the sand should have been drawn. But it is dishonest and wrong to compare “the belly slap”, “walling” and SERE-inspired waterboarding to actual water torture by Japanese soldiers or waterboarding during the Inquisition. It is so much hyperbolic nonsense and slander. And it fuels enemy propaganda for recruitment and support.
As Thiessen writes on pg 193 of Courting Disaster,
It speaks well of our country that many Americans are uncomfortable with enhanced interrogation. We should be uncomfortable with these techniques, just as we should be uncomfortable with the decision to go to war. Americans always go to war reluctantly, recongizing that war is a tragedy, even when it is necessary and just. The same is true for coercive interrogations. It is tragic that coercive interrogations were needed, and it speaks well of our country that we placed so many liimits on them. But the CIA’s actions were not only necessary and effective- they were also moral and just.
Our intelligence officers carried out their orders with skill and courage, and they deserve our gratitude for protecting our nation. Legal officials in my administration did their best to resolve complex issues in a time of extraordinary danger to our country. Their successors are entitled to disagree with their conclusions. But criminalizing differences of legal opinion would set a terrible precedent for our democracy.
From the beginning, I knew the public reaction to my decisions would be colored by whether there was another attack. If none happened, whatever I did would probably look like an overreaction. If we were attacked again, people would demand to know why I hadn’t done more.
That is the nature of the presidency. Perceptions are shaped by the clarity of hindsight. In the moment of decision, you don’t have that advantage. On 9/11 I vowed that I would do what it took to protect America, within the Constitution and laws of our nation. History can debate the decisions I made, the policies I chose, and the tools I left behind. But there can be no debate about one fact: After the nightmare of September 11, America went seven and a half years without another successful terrorist attack on our soil. If I had to summarize my most meaningful accomplishment as president in one sentence, that would be it.
–Decision Points, pg 180-181
Over half of what the CIA learned about al Qaeda can be traced back directly to the CIA enhanced interrogation program. Terror plots were derailed. al Qaeda operatives killed or captured. And it now appears the killing of Osama bin Laden can be traced back to information gleaned from the CIA program.
American lives have been saved thanks to the CIA interrogators, who did not compromise American principles and values in the handling of our enemies- those who wish us grave harm. Many have been treated with compassion and decency; some received tough treatment, for sure. And deservedly so where American lives are at stake.
What on earth do we have to apologize to the world for? Instead, we should be thanked, just as Abu Zubaydah thanked his CIA interrogators. The world is made safer by what we do; it is not made safer by the spin that distorts what we do.
Thank the CIA, the military, and our elected officials who have to make tough decisions everyday to keep America and the rest of the world safe.
A former fetus, the “wordsmith from nantucket” was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1968. Adopted at birth, wordsmith grew up a military brat. He achieved his B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles (graduating in the top 97% of his class), where he also competed rings for the UCLA mens gymnastics team. The events of 9/11 woke him from his political slumber and malaise. Currently a personal trainer and gymnastics coach.
The wordsmith has never been to Nantucket.