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November 04, 2010

Not A Choice
Posted by James Lamond

As everyone knows, the roll out of the George W. Bush memoir, Decisions Points, has begun. The Post reports this morning on one part of the book:

Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding [Khalid Sheik] Mohammed, who Bush said was suspected of knowing about still-pending terrorist plots against the United States. Bush writes that his reply was “Damn right” and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives, according to a someone close to Bush who has read the book.

What caught my eye on this the most was that Bush – as many others – still think that it is ok to torture in the "ticking time bomb scenario" because they are working under the premise that torture is more effective than traditional methods performed by a skilled interrogator.  But thats not the case, as Ali Soufan, the legendary FBI interrogator who speaks fluent Arabic and who successfully conducted the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah discovering that Khalid Sheik Mohammed was the 9/11 mastermind, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year: 

From my experience – and I speak as someone who has personally interrogated many terrorists and elicited important actionable intelligence– I strongly believe that it is a mistake to use what has become known as the "enhanced interrogation techniques," a position shared by many professional operatives, including the CIA officers who were present at the initial phases of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation.

These techniques, from an operational perspective, are ineffective, slow and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda. (This is aside from the important additional considerations that they are un-American and harmful to our reputation and cause.) 

Soufan outlined how a skilled interrogation that uses wits is actually more effective:

The Informed Interrogation Approach is based on leveraging our knowledge of the detainee's culture and mindset, together with using information we already know about him.

The interrogator knows that there are three primary points of influence on the detainee:

First, there is the fear that the detainee feels as a result of his capture and isolation from his support base. People crave human contact, and this is especially true in some cultures more than others. The interrogator turns this knowledge into an advantage by becoming the one person the detainee can talk to and who listens to what he has to say, and uses this to encourage the detainee to open up.

In addition, acting in a non-threatening way isn't how the detainee is trained to expect a U.S. interrogator to act. This adds to the detainee's confusion and makes him more likely to cooperate.

Second, and connected, there is the need the detainee feels to sustain a position of respect and value to interrogator. As the interrogator is the one person speaking to and listening to the detainee, a relationship is built – and the detainee doesn't want to jeopardize it. The interrogator capitalizes on this and compels the detainee to give up more information.

And third, there is the impression the detainee has of the evidence against him. The interrogator has to do his or her homework and become an expert in every detail known to the intelligence community about the detainee. The interrogator then uses that knowledge to impress upon the detainee that everything about him is known and that any lie will be easily caught.

For example, in my first interrogation of the terrorist Abu Zubaydah, who had strong links to al Qaeda's leaders and who knew the details of the 9/11 plot before it happened, I asked him his name. He replied with his alias. I then asked him, "how about if I call you Hani?" That was the name his mother nicknamed him as a child. He looked at me in shock, said "ok," and we started talking.

The Army Field Manual is not about being nice or soft. It is a knowledge-based approach. It is about outwitting the detainee by using a combination of interpersonal, cognitive, and emotional strategies to get the information needed. If done correctly it's an approach that works quickly and effectively because it outwits the detainee using a method that he is not trained, or able, to resist.

Soufan also outlined the failings of the “advanced interrogation techniques”:

This Informed Interrogation Approach is in sharp contrast with the harsh interrogation approach introduced by outside contractors and forced upon CIA officials to use.

The harsh technique method doesn't use the knowledge we have of the detainee's history, mindset, vulnerabilities, or culture, and instead tries to subjugate the detainee into submission through humiliation and cruelty. The approach applies a force continuum, each time using harsher and harsher techniques until the detainee submits.

The idea behind the technique is to force the detainee to see the interrogator as the master who controls his pain. It is an exercise in trying to gain compliance rather than eliciting cooperation. A theoretical application of this technique is a situation where the detainee is stripped naked and told: "Tell us what you know."

If the detainee doesn't immediately respond by giving information, for example he asks: "what do you want to know?" the interviewer will reply: "you know," and walk out of the interrogation room. Then the next step on the force continuum is introduced, for example sleep deprivation, and the process will continue until the detainee's will is broken and he automatically gives up all information he is presumed to know.
There are many problems with this technique.

A major problem is that it is ineffective. Al Qaeda terrorists are trained to resist torture. As shocking as these techniques are to us, the al Qaeda training prepares them for much worse – the torture they would expect to receive if caught by dictatorships for example.

Soufan even cited his interrogation with Abu Zubaydah as a pretty clear case study to prove his point:

The case of the terrorist Abu Zubaydah is a good example of where the success of the Informed Interrogation Approach can be contrasted with the failure of the harsh technique approach…Immediately after Abu Zubaydah was captured, a fellow FBI agent and I were flown to meet him at an undisclosed location…We started interrogating him, supported by CIA officials who were stationed at the location, and within the first hour of the interrogation, using the Informed Interrogation Approach, we gained important actionable intelligence…A few days after we started questioning Abu Zubaydah, the CTC interrogation team finally arrived from DC with a contractor who was instructing them on how they should conduct the interrogations, and we were removed. Immediately, on the instructions of the contractor, harsh techniques were introduced, starting with nudity…The new techniques did not produce results as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking…We then returned to using the Informed Interrogation Approach. Within a few hours, Abu Zubaydah again started talking and gave us important actionable intelligence.

Other expert interrogators such as Mathew Alexander, who led the interrogation team that located and hunted the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, have made similar arguments.  He recently wrote in the National Interest that, "Law-enforcement techniques were also used by me and my fellow interrogators when we successfully hunted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. A member of Zarqawi's inner circle sold his leader out after his cooperation was secured by talking, not torturing."

My biggest problem with the way that President Bush presented the choice between ineffective interrogation and effective torture was that it was a choice.  While torture may sound tougher, actual experts insist that - even just from an efficiency standpoint - it simply doesn’t work very well.  If we continue to set up the false framework that torture is a useful tool to be used in emergencies, then it becomes a tool to be used in emergencies.  This is not only wrong and counterproductive to America's broader national security efforts, but also, as outlined above, ineffective in that snapshot instance when officials are in fact trying to gather the most useful intelligence. 

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