Monday, January 10, 2005

Debunking the "Torture Narratives"

If you believe that US intelligence officers are routinely abusing and torturing prisoners in order to extract information, you can be forgiven. That's certainly the picture that the Bush administration's critics have painted. This public perception of how we treat and question those captured in the war on terror is likely to continue, particularly as Alberto Gonzales gets raked over the coals during his confirmation hearings.

But this perception is quite false.

Before Abu Ghraib became a household word (even though very few households can spell it) interrogators were already hampered in their efforts by both the jihadists' resistance to questioning, and the interrogators' own reluctance to use even the most harmless techniques already commonly used by domestic law enforcement officers.

In the forthcoming issue of the quarterly City Journal, Heather MacDonald explains how the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib -- which had nothing to do with interrogation -- has now become part of the "torture narratives" and has only further hampered our ability to get information from prisoners.

MacDonald writes that the difficulty in questioning Islamists first appeared in Afghanistan.

Some of the al-Qaida fighters had received resistance training, which taught that Americans were strictly limited in how they could question prisoners. Failure to cooperate, the al-Qaida manuals revealed, carried no penalties and certainly no risk of torture—a sign, gloated the manuals, of American weakness.

Even if a prisoner had not previously studied American detention policies before arriving at Kandahar, he soon figured them out. “It became very clear very early on to the detainees that the Americans were just going to have them sit there,” recalls interrogator Joe Martin (a pseudonym). “They realized: ‘The Americans will give us our Holy Book, they’ll draw lines on the floor showing us where to pray, we’ll get three meals a day with fresh fruit, do Jazzercise with the guards, . . . we can wait them out.’ ”

Even more challenging was that these detainees bore little resemblance to traditional prisoners of war. The army’s interrogation manual presumed adversaries who were essentially the mirror image of their captors, motivated by emotions that all soldiers share. A senior intelligence official who debriefed prisoners in the 1989 U.S. operation in Panama contrasts the battlefield then and now: “There were no martyrs down there, believe me,” he chuckles. “The Panamanian forces were more understandable people for us. Interrogation was pretty straightforward: ‘Love of Family’ [an army-manual approach, promising, say, contact with wife or children in exchange for cooperation] or, ‘Here’s how you get out of here as fast as you can.’ ”

“Love of family” often had little purchase among the terrorists, however—as did love of life. “The jihadists would tell you, ‘I’ve divorced this life, I don’t care about my family,’ ” recalls an interrogator at GuantΩnamo. “You couldn’t shame them.”

But though the president declared in 2002 that terrorists were not covered by the Geneva Convention rules on the treatment of prisoners of war, he also ordered that the prisoners be treated humanely and in accordance with the Geneva rules. The methods used could only laughably be called torture.

Around the first anniversary of 9/11, urgency to get information on al-Qaida grew. Finally, army officials at Guantanamo prepared a legal analysis of their interrogation options and requested permission from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to use various stress techniques on [Mohammed al-]Kahtani. Their memo, sent up the bureaucratic chain on October 11, 2002, triggered a fierce six-month struggle in Washington among military lawyers, administration officials, and Pentagon chiefs about interrogation in the war on terror.

To read the techniques requested is to understand how restrained the military has been in its approach to terror detainees—and how utterly false the torture narrative has been. Here’s what the interrogators assumed they could not do without clearance from the secretary of defense: yell at detainees (though never in their ears), use deception (such as posing as Saudi intelligence agents), and put detainees on MREs (meals ready to eat—vacuum-sealed food pouches eaten by millions of soldiers, as well as vacationing backpackers) instead of hot rations. The interrogators promised that this dangerous dietary measure would be used only in extremis, pending local approval and special training.

The most controversial technique approved was “mild, non-injurious physical contact such as grabbing, poking in the chest with the finger, and light pushing,” to be reserved only for a “very small percentage of the most uncooperative detainees” believed to possess critical intelligence. A detainee could be poked only after review by Gitmo’s commanding general of intelligence and the commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, and only pursuant to “careful coordination” and monitoring.

None of this remotely approaches torture or cruel or degrading treatment. Nevertheless, fanatically cautious Pentagon lawyers revolted, claiming that the methods approved for Kahtani violated international law.

If this timidity seems ridiculous in hindsight (and especially in comparison with the "humane" techniques terrorists used against their own prisoners), MacDonald writes that after Abu Ghraib, the questioning of prisoners became an outright farce.

Reeling under the PR disaster of Abu Ghraib, the Pentagon shut down every stress technique but one—isolation—and that can be used only after extensive review. An interrogator who so much as requests permission to question a detainee into the night could be putting his career in jeopardy. Even the traditional army psychological approaches have fallen under a deep cloud of suspicion: deflating a detainee’s ego, aggressive but non-physical histrionics, and good cop–bad cop have been banished along with sleep deprivation.

Timidity among officers prevents the energetic application of those techniques that remain. Interrogation plans have to be triple-checked all the way up through the Pentagon by officers who have never conducted an interrogation in their lives.

In losing these techniques, interrogators have lost the ability to create the uncertainty vital to getting terrorist information. Since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, the military has made public nearly every record of its internal interrogation debates, providing al-Qaida analysts with an encyclopedia of U.S. methods and constraints. Those constraints make perfectly clear that the interrogator is not in control. “In reassuring the world about our limits, we have destroyed our biggest asset: detainee doubt,” a senior Pentagon intelligence official laments.

Soldiers on the ground are noticing the consequences. “The Iraqis already know the game. They know how to play us,” a marine chief warrant officer told the Wall Street Journal in August. “Unless you catch the Iraqis in the act, it is very hard to pin anything on anyone . . . . We can’t even use basic police interrogation tactics.”

Go here for the full article.


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