Our national angst over the use of harsh interrogation against captured jihadis and Ba’athists has gotten out of hand. What started as an academic nuisance is fast degenerating into a genuine strategic liability.
Just last week, we learned that CIA officers may face prosecution for interrogation methods that, although officially sanctioned at the time they were used, have since been ruled off-limits by nervous bureaucrats caving in to the post-Abu Ghraib hysteria.[i] This is even more destructive that it first appears, since risk aversion at the CIA was one of the reasons cited by the 9/11 Commission for the failures that let al Qaeda slip through. Simply put, if you create a climate in which intelligence collectors are constantly looking over their shoulders for fear of offending the political sensitivities of the ACLU and its allies in Washington, you might as well turn national security over to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and be done with it.
Much of the blame for this mess lies with three common myths that distort the way Americans think about interrogation, especially hostile interrogation. Our national interests would be well-served if we put these fables to rest, once and for all.
Myth #1: Hostile interrogation doesn’t work.
The strongest version of this myth involves, not the methods used by American forces in Afghanistan or Iraq, but genuine torture — the tear-off-an-arm kind of approach used by Saddam and al Qaeda. And the idea behind the myth is easy to understand. If a man is being tortured, he will say anything to make his tormentors stop, regardless of whether it’s true. Honesty is the last thing on his mind. Therefore, the argument concludes, we cannot rely on information extracted under extreme duress.
Unfortunately, what substance there is to this line of thought — and there is some — applies equally well to all methods of human intelligence collection. If you are running a spy whose motivation is money, for example, you’re always concerned that he will tell you whatever it takes to keep the cash flowing. Or if you have a foreign government mole who is motivated by revenge for the slights he has suffered throughout his career, you constantly suspect he’s making up stories that put his colleagues and superiors in the worst possible light. Good intelligence officers are forever questioning the veracity of the information their sources provide.
So when a captured terrorist starts talking after 72 hours without sleep, of course we must be suspicious about what he is telling us. But that’s not unique to interrogation, hostile or otherwise. It’s a feature of all HUMINT collection.
The flip side of the coercion-is-counterproductive myth is the belief that straightforward prisoner debriefings are usually good enough. But the fact is, they aren’t. The jihadis are a tougher, more determined lot than we are used to dealing with. Hostile interrogation will sometimes get them to talk, but low-stress interviews hardly ever do. Whatever else one says about coercive techniques, they aren’t being employed frivolously. Our forces are using them to address a very real problem, i.e., the impotence of conventional interrogation when used against the likes of al Qaeda or the Saddam Fedeyeen.
Myth #2: American methods amount to torture.
The ACLU has done our nation a valuable service, no doubt in spite of itself. In late December, the organization released a bundle of declassified (and highly redacted) FBI emails obtained through a lawsuit against the Federal government. The ACLU claims the emails document the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and elsewhere, which they don’t. What they do reveal, however, is no less important.
First, they give us a picture of FBI Special Agents who, more than three years into the war on terror, are still unable to look beyond the Bureau’s traditional crime-and-punishment view of the world. One FBI official on assignment in Iraq writes, “[W]e have been very careful to instruct our personnel to use only standard interview techniques which we would utilize back home in our regular [law enforcement] work.” Another complains that, in one particular instance, Defense Department interrogation tactics “destroyed any chance of prosecuting this detainee.”
Do these thoughts represent the conventional wisdom inside the FBI? Does a significant chunk of the Bureau actually believe “interview techniques” appropriate for a marijuana grower in Humboldt County are the same ones that should be used against Zarqawi’s head-choppers in Iraq? Or that a top priority at Guantánamo is to make sure captured terrorists can someday face a jury of their peers? If so, we need to rethink the FBI’s role in the war on terror, at least when it comes to international action.
Second, the emails offer a sketch of the kinds of interrogation techniques the ACLU (and, evidently, some in the FBI) regard as “torture.” Loud music. Bright lights. People yelling. Sleep deprivation. Squatting. Black hoods. Growling dogs on leashes, not physically touching the prisoner. One fellow had to sit on the floor with an Israeli flag draped around his shoulders, while heavy metal blared and strobe lights flashed. None of these sound pleasant. But torture? Come on.
Myth #3: Hostile interrogation violates the Geneva conventions.
This is not so much a myth as an irrelevancy. When thinking about the Geneva conventions, it’s crucial to keep in mind precisely that they are conventions — i.e., rules drawn-up and agreed upon by several parties for mutual benefit. They are practical understandings between nations, not abstract humanitarian principles. The conventions mandate, inter alia, that if your side captures one of my soldiers, you must treat him in certain ways. In return, I promise to treat your soldiers the same. The Geneva conventions are a pact to ensure mutual benefit, not a unilateral gift from one side to another.
From their refusal to wear uniforms, to deliberate attacks on innocent civilians, to the beheadings of prisoners, al Qaeda and company have consistently — in word and deed — repudiated the Geneva conventions and similar notions of reciprocal behavior. “Conventions” are meaningless if only one side affirms them, and there is no reason for the United States to pretend otherwise.
We Americans hold ourselves to high standards, and that’s good. Real abuses that offend our core sensibilities, like the nihilism at Abu Ghraib, should be condemned and their perpetrators punished.
But we also need to think realistically about interrogation. Stress isn’t the same as torture, and loud music isn’t the rack. We must keep these differences clear and distinct, lest we put ourselves at a needless disadvantage.
Mr. Carroll is a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA. He can be contacted through Carroll Associates at www.tpcarroll.com
[i] Douglas Jehl and David Johnston, “Within CIA, Worry of Prosecution for Conduct,” The New York Times, 27 February 2005.