Vice presidential chief of staff David Addington and former Justice department lawyer John Yoo, waiting to testify on Capitol Hill in June. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.
This article originally appeared on niemanwatchdog.org.
Q. Why was such an effort invested in formulating legal justifications (and protections) for the use of coercive interrogations in the absence of objective evidence that such measures were operationally effective?
The Administration’s policies governing the treatment of detainees and the conduct of interrogations were the work of executive branch legal advisors who conducted an extensive and far-reaching effort to reinterpret longstanding domestic and international law.
The manner in which existing law was reinterpreted arguably reflected an overriding intention to facilitate harsher interrogation methods than previously allowed. This is illustrated by questionable conclusions regarding the definition of torture. The infamous Bybee Memo, for instance, expressed the view that physical torture "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" – a conclusion that reached not into case law for its foundation, but rather into statutes defining an emergency medical condition for the purpose of providing health benefits. (See page 5 of the memo.)
Setting aside the moral arguments against torture, the considerable time and energy spent in establishing a legal justification for harsher methods, such as the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques," would have seemed a more reasonable course of action if substantial evidence existed that these methods were objectively of superior operational effectiveness than more traditional approaches and/or had proven necessary in the context of a new dimension of conflict.
The CIA, the agency exclusively authorized to operate under this separate set of standards, did not — and could not — offer objective arguments that would justify such a conclusion. Prior to 9/11, the CIA had no interrogation capability of its own nor had it conducted research into effective means of conducting interrogations since its ill-fated venture into the application of drugs and psychological stress in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, they were new to the game. And there was no scientific underpinning for the agency’s decision to embrace tactics that would ultimately coalesce into a checklist-driven process supervised by behavioral scientists. Even the anecdotal evidence offered as proof of the efficacy of enhanced interrogation techniques was never subjected to independent, objective assessment. In sum, it was effective only because they said it was effective.
In contrast, considerable evidence — along with the many years of operational experience by the nation’s most accomplished interrogators — strongly suggested that coercive methods not only failed to consistently obtain reliable intelligence, but that such tactics are largely counterproductive in that they stiffen the resolve of detainees under questioning and undermine the stature of the U.S. on the world stage. (See, for example, the Intelligence Science Board’s study on Educing Information, December 2006.)
Q. How have revelations of detainee abuse, torture, and extraordinary renditions impacted the strategic information campaign that is waged in parallel with the war on terror fought on the ground?
Q. How might we weigh the value of any information obtained through "enhanced interrogation techniques" against the geo-strategic costs of the U.S. policy to employ them? What was the value of that information? Were any terrorist attacks actually averted? Was the information worth the increased threats against U.S. national interests from those who seek revenge, the diminished quality of U.S. relations with longstanding allies, the effective use of images from Abu Ghraib in Jihadist recruitment efforts, etc.?
Strategy dating back over 2,500 years exhorts heads of state and military commanders to seek first to win the war of minds before engaging the enemy on the battlefield. This principle is especially true in today’s conflicts — the Global War on Terror and the counterinsurgency in Iraq — that are characterized as fourth generation warfare. In this form of conflict, ideas and perceptions have greater influence than weapons and occupying troops. In essence, potential energy in the form of thoughts and opinions will more directly affect the outcome of conflict than kinetic energy expressed as bombs and bullets.
Given such a scenario, the manner in which information is collected from human sources is just as important as the nature of the information collected. How valuable, for example, would the information obtained from 9/11 planner Kahlid Sheik Mohammed have to be in terms of protecting U.S. national security interests for it to offset the damage to those interests resulting from revelations that America used methods that many around the world would describe as torture (e.g., the waterboard)?
By contrast, consider how traditional interrogation works. It may surprise some to learn that running human intelligence operations has much in common with sales. One objective in every contact a salesman makes with a potential client is to obtain a lead on another prospect. Similarly, an objective of every contact an intelligence officer makes with a source of intelligence is to solicit a lead on another potential source of intelligence. It doesn’t require operational experience to recognize the probability of gathering information on other sources of intelligence is far greater when sought in an atmosphere of trust, humanity, and professionalism.
I feel strongly that in the vast majority of the interrogations I’ve conducted, I was able to consistently realize two important and synergistic outcomes. First, not only was I able to elicit reliable information that responded to the established intelligence needs of policy-makers and military commanders, but also, through a strategic, relationship-building approach, the prisoner-of-war or detainee frequently offered information that pertained to areas of his knowledgeability that I couldn’t have anticipated going into the interrogation. In a very real sense, intelligence information was delivered to me not because the prisoner had to, but rather because he wanted to!
Second, upon their release, detainees who were treated with respect or, at the minimum, in a manner consistent with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, were far more likely to carry positive messages about Americans and America that could only promote our national interests abroad. Humane treatment at the hands of American officials provides a stark and memorable contrast to what many individuals around the world have experienced while detained by members of a hardline internal security apparatus. Scenarios such as this, when repeated with sufficient consistency and frequency, enable us to achieve Sun Tzu’s highest standard in the art of war: to win without fighting.
Q. While interrogation has played a surprisingly critical role in support of the war on terror and the insurgency in Iraq, why is it that the first gathering of experienced interrogators to capture a collective view on what strategies are effective (and what are not) did not take place until June 2008? And why was this forum convened not by the U.S. Intelligence Community but by a private human rights organization?
In June 2008, Human Rights First brought together approximately 15 experienced human intelligence and law enforcement professionals possessing 350 years of collective operational experience. We had interrogated, debriefed, and interviewed criminals, terrorists, prisoners-of-war, defectors, foreign intelligence operatives, and refugees. While our paths were exceptionally diverse — counted among us were CIA case officers, FBI special agents, and military intelligence officers — a single, common goal informed our individual pursuits: Discover and employ the most effective strategies and tactics to obtain accurate, reliable, timely, and comprehensive information from these sources.
I cannot describe the personal and professional satisfaction I derived from learning that the approach ultimately adopted without exception by each of these incredibly accomplished operators – the approach found to be the most effective means of eliciting critical information from sources that ranged from responsive to resistant — proved to be relationship-building. This paradigm requires extraordinary patience, intense study, interpersonal intelligence, a mastery of strategic and critical thinking, and an ego-less commitment to remaining outcome-oriented regardless of the individual sitting before us.
The wealth of knowledge and experience available in that room was unprecedented. And it would seem logical that such a gathering would have been facilitated — even directed — by senior officials in the intelligence, military, and/or law enforcement communities, in an effort to resolve the many pressing challenges involving interrogation in support of the Global War on Terror. Instead, however, our thanks must be directed exclusively to the cadre of thoughtful and visionary people at Human Rights First.
Is it possible that the failure by any agency of the U.S. Government to produce an event such as this, and to systematically mine the extraordinarily valuable experiences and insights of these participants, might be traced to the issue raised in my first question? I cannot be sure. I can, however, be certain of this: Had we gathered the expertise and extensive operational experience presented by the panel of experts in June 2002 rather than June 2008, and done so under the auspices of the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and/or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the legal contortions that led to justifying — and even protecting — the type of harsh interrogation methods that unfolded at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere would have been particularly difficult to defend or implement.
Steven Kleinman is a military intelligence officer with twenty-five years of operational and leadership experience in human intelligence and special operations. He served as an interrogator in three major military campaigns in addition to teaching advanced interrogation and resistance to interrogation courses.