Sunday Forum: Two problems with torture
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Recently revealed White House memos have raised the ugly question yet again: Is torturing prisoners captured in the Global War on Terrorism an effective and permissible use of our nation's might?
I served 30 years in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer, which included extensive experience as an interrogator in Vietnam, in Panama and during the 1991 Gulf War. In the course of these sensitive missions, my teams and I collected mountains of excellent, verified information, despite the fact that we never laid a hostile hand on a prisoner. Had one of my interrogators done so, he would have been disciplined and most likely relieved of his duties.
Since my retirement, I have twice answered the Army's call, journeying to Guantanamo and Iraq to evaluate interrogation procedures. Subsequently, when the terrible tsunami of verified reports of detainee torture by American soldiers overwhelmed the dikes, the Army asked me to assist in training a new battalion of Iraq-bound Army interrogators in non-coercive interrogation techniques.
As regular readers of these pages may recall, I am a native Pittsburgher, the product of a superlative education at Mt. Lebanon High School and Duquesne University. I was commissioned through Army ROTC at Duquesne after completing a liberal arts curriculum. Fundamental concepts of right and wrong were basic building blocks of this education.
Forty-plus years ago, as fall winds coursed across the Bluff, ethics professor Dr. Arthur Schrynemakers, in a voice of Dutch-accented English that still rings in my memory, declared to my freshman class that ethical principles were absolute. Right was right; wrong was wrong. When he pointed his finger at those of us in the front row and thundered that it was ethically impermissible to commit an evil act and attempt to justify it because that evil act might lead to some future good, we listened -- and some of us remembered.
Coming from this background, it has been disappointing to observe the ongoing debate about torture in interrogation, usually carried out be people who have never interrogated a soul. Nor is it easy to accept that the current debate is framed pragmatically by the question, "Does torture work or not?"
In a recent interview with NPR's Terry Gross, I told her that 10 years ago the notion we would even be having such a dialogue was unthinkable. Somehow, perhaps blinded by the horrors of 9-11 and its aftermath, or by that barrage of chilling video footage of hooded executioners snuffing out the lives of journalists, civilians and soldiers, we have lost sight of other equally relevant questions: Is torture right or wrong? Is the brutalizing of helpless prisoners a practice that will advance or harm our nation's position as it wages a just war against Islamist extremists?
One can almost hear the late Dr. Schrynemakers expound on this question. Wagging his finger, he would note that government sanctioning of mistreatment of prisoners by its intelligence officers is an essentially evil act committed in the name of self-defense, which has propelled our great country down a slippery moral slope and imperiled us further.
I and other authentic practitioners of the interrogation art respect our adversaries, however wrong we may deem their cause. We know that obtaining information from a captive who is motivated by his beliefs, his country, his honor or perhaps by the very human desire to live a full life with his family, is an elusive task that requires a patient, systematic approach.
One has to "go to school" on each captive. Who is he? Can I communicate with him in his language? What are his core beliefs? His loves? Hates? Fears? Where do his loyalties lie? Does he have a family, an inflated ego, perhaps some other core vulnerability? Does he have a hobby or some passion that might get him talking? What do we know about his activities before he fell into our hands? What about his religion? Sect? Tribe? Culture? Or the history of his movement? What have other captives in our hands said about him? Did he have documents or a computer that were seized with him? What drives this unique individual?
Professional interrogation is thus a developmental process, requiring extensive preparation. It requires in-depth assessment of the prisoner, all complemented by a healthy measure of guile, wits and patience.
Seasoned interrogators know that an important first step is to disarm one's adversary by resorting to the unexpected. Treat a captured general or colonel with dignity and respect. Better yet, treat a sergeant like he is a colonel or general.
In interrogation centers I ran, we called prisoners "guests" and extended military courtesies, such as saluting captured officers. We strove to undermine a prisoner's belief system, which we knew instructed him that Americans are unschooled infidels who would bully him and resort to intimidation, threats and brutality. Patience was essential. We rejected the view that interrogators could merely "take off the gloves" and that information would somehow magically flow if we brutalized our "guests." This notion was uninformed and counterproductive, not to mention illegal, and we made sure our chain of command understood that bowing to such tempting theories would result in bad information.
Persuasive? I'd always thought so, and it certainly worked for us in contingency after contingency in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. But when I explained these immutable principles to an auditorium of young Army interrogators last year, one reaction puzzled me. "Sir," a young soldier queried, "that 'tender-loving-care approach' sounds all well and good, but it takes time. What do we do when the chain of command sends out a requirement and says they need the information by the end of the day, and that thousands of lives may depend upon it?"
The very question tells us that intelligence professionals have failed to educate their commanders that detainee interrogation is not like a water spigot. "Give the inquisitors the freedom to push the envelope of brutality and good information will follow" seems to have become the watchword since 9-11.
It also tells us that our young soldiers take away lessons from today's pop culture. Self-styled "experts" on interrogation frequently cite the "ticking bomb scenario" (featured on shows like "24") to justify the Jack Bauer-like tormenting of a prisoner. According to this construct, it is necessary and acceptable to torture in the name of saving an American city from "the next 9-11." This has a magnetic appeal to legions of Americans, among them future soldiers.
But the so-called ticking time bomb scenario is a Hollywood construct that I never encountered in my 30-year career. Even so, it has become the rallying cry of many well-intentioned but ethically challenged military and civilian personnel. And it has been hawked by a large constituency of senior government officials, from the White House to the Department of Justice to Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, and is most recently evidenced in the surfacing of a January 2005 memo, written almost a year after Abu Ghraib, that characterizes face slapping and waterboarding as acceptable conduct.
When a professional interrogator sits across from a captured Iraqi general who possesses information about the Iraqi nuclear program, or who knows why Saddam did not toss nerve gas at our massed forces, the interrogator knows he is facing a formidable adversary, an educated, trained professional strongly inclined by his Iraqi patriotism and survival instincts to deny his interrogator such information. The interrogator's challenge in such situations is to assess and manipulate the situation, somehow persuading his captive to make disclosures in spite of the prisoner's visceral fear of the consequences if he helps the enemy. The role of the interrogator is, in essence, that of a recruiter. The prisoner must be convinced that if he reveals state secrets, his captor will handle his trust with discretion and take care of him.
Generations of professional interrogators have possessed such skills, and used them to obtain information vital to our country. Those who have not mastered these techniques fall back on the ultimate admission of incompetence and resort to brutality. Once this moral frontier is crossed, captives on the receiving end of such treatment respond to their survival instincts. Spurred by cunning and fueled by the hatred stoked by their tormentor's brutality, they respond as our American aviators responded in the Hanoi Hilton, showing their contempt by lying, invention, stalling -- anything to stop the abuse -- or by accepting death before dishonor.
For 30 years, I was fortunate to work with talented professionals. We benefited from good training, including the need to adhere to the law. We never felt pressured "to take the gloves off" and mistreat our captives. On the contrary, our chain of command encouraged good treatment, and there was never a thought of traveling down the wrong road.
Regrettably, such an approach may not have satisfied a number of our senior leaders since 9/11, but it would surely have pleased Dr. Schrynemakers. It was a good approach then, and it remains so.
Question: What do these three men have in common?
• A wounded North Vietnamese Army sergeant, captured only after he exhausted his ammunition, brags that his Army is "liberating" the South and refuses to cooperate under harsh treatment by South Vietnamese interrogators. He then provides Americans with information about his unit, its missions, its infiltration route. He even assists in interrogating other prisoners. Granted amnesty, he serves in the South Vietnamese Army for the duration of the war.
• A captured Panamanian staff officer, morose and angry, initially lies and stonewalls his American interrogator but ultimately reveals his role in his leader's shadowy contacts with North Korea, Cuba, Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization. He provides information about covert arms purchases and a desperate attempt to procure SAM missiles to shoot down American helicopters in the event of an American invasion.
• An Iraqi general, captured and humiliated during Operation Desert Storm, is initially frightened and defiant but eventually cooperates, knowing that Saddam Hussein's penalty for treason was certain death. Before repatriation, the general hands his captor his prayer beads and a scrap of paper bearing an address, saying with emotion, "Our Islamic custom requires that we show gratitude to those who bestow kindness and mercy. These beads comforted me through your Air Force's fierce bombings for 39 days, but they are all I have. When Saddam is gone, please come to my home. You will be an honored guest and we will slaughter a lamb to welcome you."
Answer: All three were treated by their American captors with dignity and respect. No torture; no mistreatment.
-- Stuart Herrington
First Published October 21, 2007 12:00 am