Sunday, February 13, 2005

The War on Terror - Up Close and Personal

After 9/11, "Chris Mackey", a London-based American accountant found himself called-up to serve in Afghanistan. An Army reservist in Military Intelligence and Arabic linguist, he tells of his experiences gathering information from captives suspected of involvement with the Taliban and al-Qaida in his new book The Interrogator's War

As the Abu Ghraib scandal and the scrutiny given to new AG Alberto Gonzalez has highlighted, he and his fellow intelligence specialists found themselves rewriting the rules under immense pressure of discomfort and danger. He sums up his story in his epilogue and tries honestly to go beyond the common pieties for and against coercive interrogation.

I don't believe for a moment that our emb race of "monstering" [techniques of sleep-deprivation and other discomforts inflicted on prisoners] in any way presaged the behavior by those MPs [Military Police] at Abu Ghraib. Those soldiers truly were monsters. But the comments they claim to have heard from interrogators ring true to me and reflect a hardening of attitudes that is not difficult to trace. By the time we left Afghanistan, we had come to embrace methods we would not have countenanced at the beginning of the war. And while those who followed us at Bagram dismissed much of the so-called wisdom we sought to pass on, they took to monstering with alacrity. Indeed, as we left, it was clear they did not regard this as a method of last resort but as a primary option in the interrogation playbook. What was an ending point for us was a starting point for them. And during their stint in Afghanistan, they undoubtedly added their own plays, many of which were probably exported to Iraq. As the babble against al-Qaida shifted to a battle against Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi insurgency, pressure to adopt more aggressive methods must have only intensified, and the trend line we established was reinforced.
In all of the soul-searching over the scandal and the effort to understand what interrogators do, there has been a familiar refrain - the adage that harsh treatment of prisoners only produces bad intelligence, that a tortured prisoner will say anything to stop the pain. That line has been recited for years by schoolhouse instructors and has gained new currency among those rightly condemning the abuses at Abu Ghraib. I know many experienced and fine interrogators who believe that tenet of interrogation doctrine wholeheartedly. But I don't find it particularly persuasive. If a prisoner will say anything to stop the pain, my guess is he will start with the truth. Our experience in Afghanistan showed that the harsher the methods we used - though they never contravened the Conventions, let alone crossed over into torture - the better the information we got and the sooner we got it. Other agencies seem to have learned the same lesson. In its interrogation of high-ranking al-Qaida figures, the CIA has obtained secret legal rulings from the Justice Department to use certain coercive methods, including one called water-boarding in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and submerged in water until he is sure he will drown. If coercion doesn't work, why would the agency go to the trouble?